See below for video of VA Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw’s retirement speech earlier today – as well as tributes from his colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who just turned 83 years old, has served in the General Assembly for a whopping 48 years – first elected to the House of Delegates in 1975, where he served until being elected to the State Senate in 1979. Almost two decades later, in 1998, Sen. Saslaw was elected Senate Minority Leader, then becoming Majority Leader ten years after that (in 2008), then Minority Leader again in 2012, then Majority Leader yet again in 2020 when Democrats gained a governing “trifecta.” So clearly it’s been a VERY long and eventful time in office for Dick Saslaw, even if it doesn’t go back to the Founding Fathers or whatever, as Saslaw likes to joke about.
Anyway, if you watch the tributes to Saslaw from his colleagues, it’s clear that he was widely liked – even loved – by members on both sides of the aisle. And there’s no question about it, Saslaw was able get along with people from both sides of the aisle, both personally and politically. Of course, ideologically speaking, for much of Saslaw’s time in the General Assembly, there was minimal if any chance of serious progressive legislation passing, given that the House of Delegates was controlled by Republicans from 2000 through 2020; the State Senate was controlled mostly by pro-corporate/”Virginia Way” (revolving door, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours, the “Wild West” in terms of ethics and campaign finance laws, etc.) Republicans and conservative Democrats; and there was almost never a progress-minded Democrat in the governor’s mansion at the same time that progress-minded Democrats also controlled both the State Senate and House of Delegates.
The big change – and the big test for Dick Saslaw – really only came in 2020-2021, when Democrats gained control of the House of Delegates, State Senate and governorship, and there was actually a real chance of passing major progressive and environmental legislation. The question was, would Saslaw continue his more pro-corporate, Dominion-Energy-friendly (or even in Dominion’s pockets) conservative Democratic ways of the rest of his career, or would he somehow manage to rise to the occasion, hold his narrow majority together and meet what the moment – and voters – were calling for?
To his credit, Saslaw somehow managed to do that for the most part, and he really does deserve kudos and admiration for that, because the very-narrow-Democratic-majority Senate (with several conservative Democrats as part of that majority) easily could have been a killing field for hundreds of pieces of progressive legislation coming over from the younger, more diverse and more progressive House of Delegates.
Now, clearly, the Saslaw-led Senate did make some bad mistakes (e.g., the terribly flawed redistricting amendment, which Saslaw should have killed) in 2020-2021, and the narrow Democratic Senate majority sometimes watered things down or stumbled badly, such as with gun violence prevention legislation or repealing “right to work” laws or whatever. But most of that wasn’t really Saslaw’s fault, as he arguably got about as much out of his caucus as was realistically possible.
So no question, Saslaw has been a consequential leader, even if the vast majority of consequential legislation passed in just four years – 2017 through 2021 (and mostly the final two years of that period, with the major exception of Medicaid expansion in 2018). Clearly, much of that progress was the result not of any specific individual, but because of the massive anti-Trump “blue tsunami” sweeping Democrats – including many younger, more diverse and more progressive Democrats – to power across the country, including in the Virginia General Assembly. Prior to that, in contrast, Saslaw was pretty much relentlessly pro-Dominion-Energy, pro-fossil-fuels/anti-clean-energy, anti-ethics-reform, anti-campaign-finance-reform legislation, pro-predatory-lending, anti-criminal-justice-reform, anti-repeal-of-“Right to Work” (the Orwellian phrase for union-busting/anti-labor laws), etc., etc.
In sum, Saslaw clearly did NOT have a progressive record for the vast majority of his time in office. For a few examples of the “most-definitely-NOT-progressive-or-environmentalist-Saslaw,” see Video: In Crude Language, Sen. Dick Saslaw Argues that Ethics Laws are Irrelevant, Unnecessary; AP Scoop Epitomizes “Dominion Dick” $a$law’s ‘Pay-to-Play’ Corruption”; Video: “Dominion Dick” Saslaw Asked at Falls Church Town Hall Yesterday About Banning Dominion Energy Contributions; Gives Predictable, Misleading, Unacceptable Answer; Audio: “Democrat” Dick Saslaw Goes on Far-Right Trumpster Radio to Defend Dominion, Bash Clean VA & Blue Virginia, Imply That Boysko Win Shows 82% of Dems Support Pipelines, etc.; Sen. Saslaw Continues to Oppose Strengthened Ethics Laws; Says “Everyone Knows” Sierra Club “Crazy”; etc.
We could go on and on with this – there are dozens of articles on “Bad Saslaw,” who we even took to calling “Dominion Dick” for many years. So given all that material, it’s no wonder that Saslaw almost lost a primary to progressive challenger Yasmine Taeb in June 2019. In fact, Saslaw almost certainly WOULD have lost that race if there had been Ranked Choice Voting and/or if a second, progressive challenger (Karen Torrent) hadn’t split off just enough votes (5.6%) from Taeb to allow Saslaw to barely squeak by with less than 50% of the vote.
Also, it’s important to note that over the many years of Saslaw’s tenure in Richmond, his district back in Fairfax was changing, becoming a LOT more diverse, younger, and looking a LOT more like Taeb than like Saslaw. To illustrate that, a year ago I compared General Assembly members’ voting records to their district’s progressive “leans,” and found that Saslaw was the LEAST-progressive Senator relative to what his district’s “blue” lean would have implied, similar to other conservative Democrats like Joe Morrissey and Chap Petersen.
So yes, Saslaw won the 2019 primary race against Yasmine Taeb – on paper, at least, a far better fit for the district – but he only got 48.6% of the vote (by FAR his closest brush with being ousted in a primary in his entire career!), despite outspending Taeb by something like 7:1. With all that in mind, it seems highly fitting that Saslaw will be leaving office at the end of the year, and at a time when Virginia – and his district – look VERY different than when he first ran in the mid 1970s. Now, we’ll see who takes Saslaw’s place as Senate Democratic Leader, and what it might mean for the caucus…and for Virginia going forward.