With 17 Va. House incumbents being challenged, Tuesday could be a wild primary night

By: and - June 4, 2021 12:03 am

The floor of the Virginia House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, pitches himself as one of the most progressive members of the House of Delegates, but in this year’s primary, he’s fending off a challenge from a fellow progressive who says the district could do better.

“He has seemed to be an incompetent and ineffective legislator, and I think that is not a unique vantage point that I have,” says Irene Shin, who directs a Democratic civic organization and is making her first run for public office.

The rhetoric is unsurprising in the context of a political campaign. Less common is the number of Democratic lawmakers who appear to share Shin’s perspective and are backing her campaign to unseat one of their colleagues. Three members of the Senate and one member of the House have endorsed Shin, including Sen. Jennifer Boysko, who held the seat before Samirah.

Samirah is one of 17 House incumbents facing a challenger in next week’s primary, the most in recent memory. There’s no overarching progressive vs. moderate trend, and many of the contests have their own unique subplots. Though partisans often try to spin primaries as a sign of positive energy, the contests next Tuesday have potential to be much messier than party leaders would like.

Samirah is one of just a handful of Democrats whose opponents are picking up significant financial support and endorsements from their fellow members of the General Assembly.

Samirah counters that while Shin has received endorsements from sitting lawmakers, he has more. And in response to the charge he hasn’t been particularly effective, he said he’s proud of his record pushing progressive priorities like increasing the housing supply by removing zoning barriers and taking steps toward creating a public option health plan in Virginia.

“I understand that these are long-term goals. I’m not going to be able to pass these bills overnight,” he said. But he said his constituents appreciate his willingness to “speak truth to power.”

An activist-turned-lawmaker, Samirah drew national attention shortly after his election in 2019 when he interrupted a speech by then-President Donald Trump, holding up a sign that read “Deport hate” and yelling “Mr. President, you can’t send us back; Virginia is our home.”

On the House floor, he has not refrained from criticizing his colleagues for shying away from progressive priorities.

His outspoken approach, however, has alienated more centrist Democrats. And his strategy has sometimes angered would-be allies. Samirah faced sharp criticism after he voted against legislation that would have made it easier to sue police officers for misconduct by ending qualified immunity. He called it a strategic decision, saying he wanted to preserve his ability to ask for a second vote. But it turned out to be a miscalculation because the measure would have passed the House if he had simply voted yes. He later supported the bill, which died in the Senate.

“These issues/lives are not for games, likes retweets or any foolish clown show,” tweeted the bill’s sponsor, Del. Jeff Bourne, at the time.

Shin emphasized the vote in an interview with the Mercury and in attack mailers, deriding him as a “fake parliamentarian.”

“There was a lot of outrage last year over the qualified immunity vote,” Shin said. “It certainly wasn’t just me who was outraged by it.”

In addition to Boysko, Shin has been endorsed by two other Democratic senators from Fairfax, Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell and Sen. Barbara Favola. Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, has also endorsed her campaign. All of the lawmakers emphasized in statements that they believed Shin would be effective, collaborative and approachable.

“In addition to having a strong position on progressive policies, it’s essential to be approachable, collaborative and willing to listen to people,” Boysko said in a statement announcing her endorsement.

Samirah accused Boysko of just wanting to prevent him from running in a future Senate race and said he doubted Shin’s progressive credentials, noting that much of the money she has raised came from a shadowy PAC with ties to a national group dedicated to supporting centrist candidates. Shin’s campaign and the PAC have both refused to comment.

“Obviously, the definition of effective is different for her,” he said. “Her definition of effective is cowing to corporate interests. That’s what she’s receiving money for. She’s being supported by a shadowy PAC for a good reason – because she won’t stand in the way of the corporate interests.”

Longtime Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth said it likely isn’t a coincidence that some of the most progressive members of the House are facing some of the most serious challenges.

 “Some of these folks are frustrated by what they see as the friendly-fire left,” he said. “You know, ‘We didn’t go far enough.’ That’s not how a lot of those folks in the legislature see it. They think they’ve really made generational change in Virginia.”

But he said it’s hard to draw any blanket statements about the slate of primaries and that the surge in candidates is also likely a product of increased interest in politics during Trump’s presidency. “You’ve had all the conversation on social media and nationally — if you want to do something, run for office. So lots of people are running for office.”

A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Sept. 11, 2018)

LG hopefuls try to keep their seats

In two other races where sitting lawmakers are endorsing their colleagues’ primary challenges, the decision appears to have less to do with individual politics and more to do with the incumbents’ decision to run for two offices at once. 

That unique dynamic is largely being driven by this year’s delayed redistricting process, which normally would have meant House primaries taking place months after the primaries for statewide offices, giving candidates more options if their statewide bids fail. But with census data not arriving until late summer or early fall, all primaries are happening on the same day, forcing tough choices on incumbents looking to move up the ranks without risking their current seat.

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, is trying to do both. He’s competing in the six-person primary for lieutenant governor while trying to fend off a challenge for his House seat from Alexandria City Councilwoman Elizabeth Bennet-Parker.

But trying to split time and resources between two simultaneous races raises the possibility of losing twice on the same day. That’s a prospect Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, wanted to avoid.

Guzman initially said she would run for lieutenant governor instead of seeking a third term representing the House district she flipped in 2017. Then she decided to run for both. Then she dropped her statewide bid to focus only on winning her House race.

The initially open seat seemed to invigorate the campaign of Rod Hall, a transportation policy adviser who has built an impressive endorsement list that includes Rep. Bobby Scott, state Sens. Scott Surovell, Jeremy McPike and Louise Lucas, Dels. Luke Torian and Hala Ayala and several other members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

The two other candidates in the primary are Kara Pitek, an activist and project manager for a federal contracting firm, and Idris O’Connor, an advocate for the homeless and member of the Prince William County Social Services Board.

In an interview, Hall said local Democratic leaders encouraged him to run for what was expected to be an open seat, and he chose to stay in when that changed. Drawing a contrast with Guzman, he said he’s been consistent and has “only asked voters to vote for me once.”

“What’s more wrong than making your constituents a political backup plan?” Hall said.

Guzman called that take “disingenuous,” saying her decision was affected more by the redistricting snafus than political expediency. Unlike others who “quit their jobs” to run statewide, Guzman said, she felt the General Assembly needed the voice of a Latina immigrant and social worker who believes in empowering organized labor.

“I take public service seriously,” she said.

Guzman said she’s not particularly concerned with Hall’s endorsements, many of which she said are coming from people who don’t live in the district. She said she hasn’t seen her primary opponents “hustling” to knock doors as much as she has.

“These races are not won over social media,” Guzman said. “They require a lot of work.”

As the grandson of sharecroppers who grew up in Texas who had to fight to participate in democracy, Hall said he sees his place on the ballot as an “honor and a tribute” to their struggle. The endorsements he’s earned, he said, are the result of relationships he’s built while serving on several boards and commissions, including a post as chairman of the Virginia Aviation Board.

“Folks know me,” he said. “They understand my work ethic.”

Two other top contenders in the lieutenant governor primary aren’t facing drama in their House districts. Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, will be on the ballot twice, but isn’t facing a House challenger. Ayala, D-Prince William, chose not to seek re-election in her House district.

Clean Virginia and its allies target Dominion-supported delegates

Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, who’s been in the House since 2016, has a theory about why he’s found himself in a competitive primary against 26-year-old political organizer Nadarius Clark.

“I think it’s the fact that I, like a few remaining House members, refuse to drink the Michael Bills Kool-Aid,” Heretick said, referring to the wealthy Charlottesville investor and backer of anti-Dominion Energy group Clean Virginia.

Of the $500,628 Clark reported raising in the most recent campaign finance period, more than $465,000 came from Clean Virginia, its affiliated Commonwealth Forward PAC and Sonjia Smith, Bills’ wife.

“Any time you see one contributor donating basically over 90 percent of your opponent’s campaign budget, which appears to be unlimited, that’s a little daunting,” said Heretick, who has accepted donations from Dominion. “I’ve never had to raise this much money in a race before.”

Heretick’s contest and the Prince William-area primary matchup between Clean Virginia-backed challenger Pam Montgomery and incumbent Del. Candi King may be the clearest tests yet of how much the Charlottesville couple’s money can accomplish. Similarly large sums have flowed to Montgomery as she tries to unseat King, a short-time incumbent who just won her seat in January. In a statement, Montgomery said she decided “voters deserved better” after seeing King take money from Dominion, which Montgomery called “the largest polluter in our district.”

With money behind progressive challengers, 2021 could be test case

In an interview, Clark said he’s also getting support from small donors, but the “big-dollar donations are big dollars.” He noted Clean Virginia and its allies have backed Democrats all over the state.

“If he’s attacking them it almost sounds like he’s attacking the party,” said Clark, who argued the state legislature needs more young members to be fully representative of Virginia. “Because ultimately the majority of the donations that come from Clean Virginia go to Democratic candidates.”

That tension broke into the open last week when the House Democratic Caucus approved a mailer on King’s behalf responding to attack ads from Montgomery that accused King of being in thrall to Dominion for accepting donations from the utility. Despite many House Democrats having accepted donations from Clean Virginia, Bills or Smith, the caucus-funded mailers labeled the donors “dark money billionaires.”

“It’s unfortunate that privileged billionaires think they can come in and divide the people in our community with their money and hand-picked candidates, but it’s not working,” King said in a statement from her campaign.

Heretick has taken a similar tone, telling his constituents that his primary will show whether “dark money really can buy an election.”

“As we both know, dark money doesn’t exist in Virginia,” Clark said. “Everything is transparent. You can see who is donating and how that money is spent.”

Clark also faulted Heretick’s record, saying the incumbent sided with Republicans to vote against bills to ban assault weapons, end qualified immunity for police and empower localities to remove Confederate statues.

“We need a delegate who understands social justice and criminal justice reform here in Virginia,” Clark said. “And sadly that’s not Delegate Heretick.”

Though the assault weapon and qualified-immunity proposals failed, the statue bill passed, freeing localities to remove Confederate monuments they now view as divisive and demeaning to Black residents.

Heretick said he doesn’t regret his vote on the bill, which he felt was overbroad because it eliminated legal protections for statues to veterans of any war, not just the Civil War.

After accepting donations from Dominion, Heretick said he feels like he’s running against Bills instead of being in a “fair fight among local candidates.”

“I’m no apologist for Dominion,” Heretick said. “But I can tell you they’re not the evil empire that Michael Bills and all of his money want them to sound like.”

About 100 Trump supporters rallied outside the Virginia Department of Elections in November for a “Stop the Steal” event. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A Trump-campaign lawyer focused on election fraud hopes to take down a 14-year incumbent

Three Republicans are facing primaries, too. The most successful fundraiser has been Wren Williams, a lawyer who represented the Trump-campaign during the Wisconsin recount and has set his sights on a seat held by Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin.

Williams, a Patrick County native who owns a local law firm, said he was inspired to challenge Poindexter after the delegate declined to weigh in on Trump’s election fraud claims, which have become one of the top issues for Republican voters.

“I guess the final straw for me is November came and went, then December, then January, and we didn’t hear a peep out of my delegate,” Williams said. “Nothing about the election, nothing about Donald Trump, nothing about election integrity.”

Williams served as Trump’s deputy legal counsel during the recount in Wisconsin, which cost the Trump campaign more than $3 million and ended up boosting President Joe Biden’s lead by 84 votes.

The state’s Supreme Court ultimately refused to hear the campaign’s lawsuit contesting the result, ruling Trump’s campaign shouldn’t have waited until after the election to raise its complaints about voting procedures put in place amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Poindexter has served in the House for 14 years. He did not respond to a request for comment. In an interview with the Patrick County Enterprise, Poindexter emphasized his support for policies like voter ID laws. But he also told the paper that he hadn’t “seen any evidence of what you may call fraud or something like that” — a comment Williams’ campaign has seized on.

“You have to recognize there’s a problem to fix it,” Williams said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.

Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.