by David T.S. Jonas
To understand why a primary against Senator Dick Saslaw is inevitable here in Virginia’s 35th district—despite the success of the party as a whole in recent years—it’s worth going over the many disappointments, disqualifying stances, and ignored concerns his constituents have for him at home that have led to this moment.
As the record will show, not only is Saslaw a major impediment to basic Democratic goals on ending corruption, protecting the environment/consumers, criminal justice reform, and other core issues, but he’s also a liability when it comes to maximizing our chances for progressive change when we take the majority back in 2019.
For some, the idea of a highly visible and expensive primary against the Democratic leader of the Virginia Senate sounds like lunacy. I’m sure if I were unfamiliar with the facts, I might think so, too. But given the reality of Saslaw’s tenure and his likely future as outlined below, any fair observer will question whether a guy with such a mixed record who has represented Northern Virginia for more than 40 years really deserves to keep his seat any longer.
- Saslaw Stood with Pro-Lifers Early in His Legislative Career. Saslaw took some very bad votes against abortion rights when he was in the House of Delegates early in his career. Saslaw voted against state funding for abortions for women too poor to afford them, and he voted in favor of so-called “informed consent” laws. Obviously, this was a long time ago (and I wish we had better access to voting records from back then for a more complete picture), and he’s been relatively pro-choice since then, but I do worry that a Blue Dog Democrat like Saslaw won’t push forward on abortion rights to the utter maximum when Democrats have the majority.
- Saslaw Opposed Measures to Significantly Regulate Gun Ownership. Far less charity can be given the to Senator’s votes against regulating guns and reducing gun violence. Well into the 2000’s, Saslaw voted against mandatory liability insurance for handguns, voted against protective orders, voted against criminal record checks, and voted against those who are forbidden by state and federal law from owning a gun from being allowed to get a concealed and carry permit. More recently, he voted for an NRA-approved measured, quipping, “Better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6.” His conversion to someone more comfortable with regulating guns is admirable, but again, one should be skeptical about the Senator’s ability to push for anything more than a few band-aids on Virginia’s long-running epidemic of gun violence. We can do better.
- Saslaw Opposed Renaming Jeb Stuart High School Despite Its Segregationist Roots. Saslaw loudly opposed the renaming of Jeb Stuart High School in Falls Church (so named in 1959 by government officials in support of segregation) and openly fretted in Democratic meetings that this was a sign of political correctness running out of control throughout country. Saslaw argued that renaming the high school would lead to a slippery slope, forcing us to rename anything with segregationist or Confederate roots such as Lee Highway. Thankfully, the rest of his district disagreed with the Senator and the high school has since been renamed Justice High. Saslaw’s lack of comfort with a diverse, more open Virginia has been a hallmark of his comments in local Democratic meetings for years.
- Saslaw Openly Believes That Corporate Money Does Not Influence Him. Just like someone who has had five beers and says he’s perfectly capable of driving, Saslaw doesn’t think big donations sway his votes. Not only does this show a terrible understanding of behavioral economics (we are hardwired to reciprocate gifts, which is exactly why lobbyists and big businesses engage so freely in the practice), but it’s even worse if you take him at his word. If you believe Saslaw is actually not influenced by the money, then it means that he honestly believes in taking Dominon’s money, introducing their handwritten bills, and then presenting them as his own beliefs. That’s arguably even worse than just doing it for the money.
- Saslaw is Arguably the Most Conservative Democrat in One of the Most Liberal Seats. Ralph Northam took 75% of the vote in our district–that’s second highest in the Commonwealth–and it’s just a waste of a seat to have someone with significant conservative leanings dragging the rest of the caucus to the right. We’re leaving big, progressive accomplishments on the table by keeping Saslaw in this seat.
- Saslaw Was a Willing and Active Accomplice in Gerrymandering Virginia’s Legislative Districts to Favor Republicans. For a guy who is supposedly a master of power politics, Saslaw failed on both accounts when it came to the most recent round of gerrymandering in 2011. He handed Republicans a huge boundary advantage in the House while getting essentially nothing in the Senate for Democrats. Saslaw gives us the worst of both worlds on gerrymandering in 2021—he opposes independent, non-partisan districting, but is also clearly willing to carve up districts to help shore up Republican incumbents. It’s gross, it hurts Democrats, and it needs to stop.
- Saslaw Routinely Sides with Republicans in Opposing Criminal Justice Reforms and Has Been Tepid On Racial Justice Issues. Saslaw opposed reforms to civil asset forfeiture, and he’s a big fan of the predatory lending industry, which specially targets low-income communities of color. Saslaw strongly favors the death penalty, saying of people who commit capital crimes, “You’re not a human being, I’m sorry. You kill 7 people, you’ve given up the title of human being and you deserve whatever you get. Let me repeat that: you deserve whatever you get.” He also worked to shield manufacturers of lethal injection drugs. Most striking, Saslaw did not vocally support Governor Terry McAuliffe’s efforts to blanket restore the rights of ex-felons and was not in attendance during the Governor’s historic signing ceremony. If you care about civil rights and racial justice in Virginia, Saslaw is sadly an unreliable ally.
- Saslaw is Dominion’s Greatest Champion in the Virginia Senate. This is the most infamous of Saslaw’s faults, and it’s one Saslaw readily admits to—he does everything they ask, introduces their bills, and lies about his role in pressuring the rest of the caucus to follow Dominion’s leadwhen he’s called out about it. Oh, and he’s taken over $350,000 from them, including $77,500 this cycle. Enough said.
- 48 Years is a Long, Long Time for Anyone to Hold Office. If Saslaw isn’t challenged, he will almost certainly serve nearly 50 years in the General Assembly (from 1976 to 2024). Maybe if he were a progressive champion, maybe if his credentials were impeccable, maybe if he were a kind and honest individual, then maybe, maybe he’d have a case to maintain his seat. But he’s a drag on the rest of the caucus, not representative of his district’s demands of government, and keeps us from stocking the bench with new talent. No one is entitled to 48 years in public office. That is a great privilege reserved for the most honorable legislators imaginable. And Dick Saslaw is nowhere near that quality of legislator.
For those of you unconvinced by the above analysis, consider this: if Dick Saslaw had never held public office before and ran today in an open primary in a deep blue district, would he even get 10% of the vote?
Based on his centrist, Blue Dog leanings, I highly doubt it. He would be torn apart for his pro-Dominion, anti-consumer, anti-political correctness platform. No one would knock doors for him. It would be an embarrassment.
The only reason he’s still around is to serve as piggy bank, and for some bizarre reason, his constituents aren’t exactly thrilled to see their Senator sell their progressive ambitions for cash—cash that just happens to be distributed by the Senator himself. That money comes with a price: constituents like me get subpar representation on the issues we care most about. Maybe that’s a good deal for the rest of the Commonwealth’s Democrats, but it’s a bum rap for us back home.
I will be the first to admit Saslaw has been better of late, trying harder to at least sound like a progressive Democrat. He’s at every meeting, has toned down the gruffness, and has shown every intention of running again. And he certainly deserves credit for helping get Medicaid Expansion done after all these years (although one can question if it wasn’t his fault we lost Phil Puckett in 2014, forcing us to wait this long).
But let’s be clear: this is bare minimum stuff. And it didn’t come without tons and tons of pressure from activists back home making sure Saslaw did the right thing. It’s EXHAUSTING being represented by Dick Saslaw, because he is liable to sell your vote to the highest bidder on any given bill or to curry favor with Republicans.
And if you think it’s exhausting now, imagine having to keep this many tabs on him as the Majority Leader of the Virginia Senate.
Dick Saslaw is getting primaried, and it’s no one’s fault but his own. You have to work hard to engender this kind of bad will among reliable Northern Virginia Democrats who tend to be pretty pragmatic and who care far more about beating Republicans than ideological purity tests.
Let’s not put the entire Commonwealth through the same pain we deal with here in the 35th district. The case against Dick Saslaw is strong. It is a great privilege to represent Northern Virginia, not an entitlement. And that’s why a primary is needed, justified, and absolutely inevitable.
Senator Saslaw has had a remarkable run of more than four decades in Richmond, leaving his thumbprint on the history books of Virginia politics. He has a lot to be proud of.
But it’s time for him to go.
We deserve a new voice in Northern Virginia.