Blue Virginia Interview: Shelly Simonds, Candidate for Virginia State Senate (Special Election)

Blue Virginia Interview: Shelly Simonds, Candidate for Virginia State Senate (Special Election)


You may recall that on April 4, Virginia State Senator John Miller (D-Newport News) died suddenly and unexpectedly. Ten days later, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced a special election for Miller’s seat, to be held on Election Day this November. Before that, though, Democrats will need to settle on their nominee, and there are two candidates running for the June 14 primary: Del. Monty Mason and Newport News School Board member Shelly Simonds. I had the chance to chat with Simonds this afternoon, and would be happy to talk to Mason as well. Below is my writeup of what Simonds and I talked about. Before I get to that, though, a few key facts on the 1st State Senate district include:

  • Newport News City makes up 68.3% of the district, with James City making up 9.7%, Williamsburg City 8.25%, Hampton City 7%, York County 4.7% and Suffolk City 2.1%.
  • The 1st district is solidly “blue,” Mark Herring defeating Mark Obenshain there in 2013 by 14 points (57%-43%). Also, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in this district by 20 points (59%-39%).
  • Shelly Simonds’ base is in the southern part of the district — Newport News, while Monty Mason’s base is in the northern part of the district (Williamsburg). Although Mason’s House of Delegates district went for Mark Herring by 10 points in 2013, I’ve been told by various sources that there’s concern about how, if Mason were to win the State Senate seat, his House seat would be seriously vulnerable in a special election (whether to Republican Lara Overy or someone else). That’s certainly something for Democrats to consider in this State Senate primary, IMHO, as we certainly don’t want to lose the House seat.

With that, here’s my interview with Shelly Simonds.

Briefly, what’s your background and why are you running for State Senate at this time?
She says she moved to Newport News in 2000 with her husband, who’s a NASA engineer. Since then, she’s worked as a teacher, managed her family’s rental properties and was elected to School Board in 2012. She says she’s loved being on the School Board, feels like she’s been able to make a difference on issues like “zero tolerance” policies for instance. She noted that “in Newport News, we have significantly decreased the number of out-of-school suspensions.” But, she added, “there’s only so much that can be done at the School Board level, so that’s one reason I really want to get to the Senate; there are things going on right now going on in education policy that I want to work on; one is fixing this problem that we have with mandatory reporting, the student discipline code needs to be reformed.” She also wants to work on the “redesign of high school” effort that Sen. Miller had been involved in.

Simonds says she feels like she could get a lot done for education in the State Senate. More broadly, she believes that “we need leaders in the Senate and the General Assembly who are educators, who understand education — it’s a huge part of what we do as a state…School Boards get whipped around a lot…unfunded mandates…SOL reform…I want to get in the game, be up there in Richmond…and fight for education policy, make that my priority.” She concluded that “we don’t have a deep bench of women leaders in our state” and she wants to help build that.

How would you describe yourself ideologically – “progressive,” “moderate,” “liberal,” or something else? 
“I am definitely a progressive person…I am very much on the side of working families, wanting to make sure that we increase the minimum wage, provide more sick leave for workers and maternity leave…let teachers get a year maternity leave when they have a child and get their job back…I am pretty progressive on environmental issues, and I am pretty fearless, willing to stand up and say what I think.” Also, “Sen. Scott Surovell and I agree on a lot of the media issues; as a former journalist, I’m all about sunlight and making sure that things are publicly accessible; transparency is really important to me.” Finally, she pointed out that “Senate District 1 is a big urban district, so whoever represents [this district] should be concerned with big, urban problems that we have.”

What three issues are you most passionate about and why? 
Other than education, which we’d already discussed at length, Simonds said that civil rights is a top issue for her, specifically the need to reform the criminal justice system, not lock up people who are mentally ill. The “third big issue” she noted was women’s economic issues – sick leave, minimum wage, caregivers, the need to deal with the “Silver Tsunami” of people retiring — “we need to figure this stuff out.” “I feel urgency…and solving some of these problems that we have.” As a fourth issue, Simonds noted her involvement with the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), including specifically issues like trains carrying toxic oil through cities, uranium mining (she said she lobbied Sen. Miller on this issue and helped convince him to vote against it) and of course climate change, given that the Hampton Roads region is one of the most vulnerable in the country to sea level rise, storms, etc. Overall, Simonds said that her focus will be different than Del. Mason’s, that his priority “will be more focused on advocacy for the business community,” whereas she will be more focused on “fighting for working families.”

Yes or no answers. Do you support: a) a strongly progressive tax system, including a reasonable estate tax on the wealthy; b) a “Dream Act” for Virginia; c) full LGBT equality, including access to restrooms for transgender people; d) closing the “gun show loophole” and taking other commonsense gun safety measures; e) offshore drilling; f) expansion of roads or more focus on rail/transit and smart growth; g) nonpartisan redistricting; h) ethics reform in Richmond.
a) yes; b) yes, “the reason why is I…was a Rotary fellow in Santiago, Chile so I speak Spanish; I have studied Latin American studies, so the issues of immigrants are really important to me, and I’ll be one of the few Spanish speakers up in the General Assembly if I can get up there;” c) “I support LGBT rights fully,” “if we are concerned about making sure everybody feels safe and accepted and are against bullying, I don’t understand how people can be so hateful about this issue [of trangender kids using the bathroom], it really surprises me;” d) “100% supporting…my NRA rating would be an F;” e) “very much against offshore drilling” and “favor offshore wind development;” f) “definitely in favor of smart growth and investing more in our infrastructure…bike paths, basic sidewalks…very supportive of rail and transit;” g) “I’m 100% for nonpartisan redistricting; h) “yes…I’m especially concerned about transparency…the voters have a right to know where you went, how much money was spent on you at that conference, how long you were there…our state [ethics and campaign finance] laws are so weak…unrecorded votes in subcommittees need to stop, that’s a huge problem and we need people who will stand up and be vocal about that, it’s just wrong.”

Why are you the best choice for Democratic voters in the primary compared to your opponent? Would you be more progressive? More effective? Having more women in the State Senate?
“All of that is true…we have an opportunity to increase the diversity in the Senate by adding another woman, and as a woman I’m going to focus on different issues that matter to working families and that matter to caregivers.” “I have a lot of energy that I can add to the leadership of the state. I want to get up there and solve real problems that people have…so that I can make a difference” on education and other issues. “We need somebody up there right now…to make sure the high school redesign is done properly, that we close this problem with the schools-to-prison pipeline, and somebody who is really going to represent the urban issues of this district.”  Del. Mason is from the “affluent town of Williamsburg,” while Newport News is “very multicultural.”

On the politics of this primary, Simonds argued that she can win because she had a “really good ground game for my Delegate race…tons of High School kids from just about every high school in the city of Newport News…over 300 volunteers…6,000 people voted for me in last November’s election…I’m on the ballot May 3 for my School Board seat…I’m out in the community, going to dance recitals, sporting events…meeting with the NAACP…I know how to work hard, I knocked on a ton of doors for my delegate race and I’m going to work hard again….It’s going to be a huge boon to whoever the Democratic presidential candidate is to have me on the ticket, because I’ve got the volunteers sewn up in Newport News.”

This will be a fascinating race to watch, and I don’t know who is going to win it, but there’s no doubt in mind that Shelly Simonds would make a great addition to the Virginia State Senate.