Democratic primary voters oust some of General Assembly’s most outspoken delegates

By: - June 9, 2021 12:51 am

The Capitol at dusk. Lawmakers have sent legislation to Gov. Glenn Youngkin giving localities new powers to go after substandard housing. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Primary voters in Virginia delivered a rebuke to the left wing of the Democratic party on Tuesday, sweeping three outspoken incumbents from office and rejecting progressive challengers in all but one race.

By the end of the night, voters had booted Dels. Lee Carter, D-Prince William, the General Assembly’s only socialist; Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, a progressive activist who protested Trump during an official visit; and Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, one of the chamber’s most forceful proponents of gun control.

“We just need to be on the same team as much as possible,” said Lisa Giovanini, a stay-at-home mom in Fairfax who said she had supported Samirah in years prior but said she disliked his confrontational style and unwillingness to cooperate with party leadership.

Meanwhile, well-funded attempts to unseat more moderate candidates, including Del. Candi King, D-Prince William, fell flat.

One exception to the trend came in Portsmouth, where political newcomer Nadarius Clark defeated Del. Steve Heretick, one of the most moderate members of the House Democratic Caucus, who had opposed gun control measures and the removal of Confederate monuments.

The local returns came as Democratic primary voters nominated candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general who were overwhelmingly backed by the establishment wing of the state party.

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In all, four of 14 Democratic incumbents lost to challengers. On the other side of the aisle, three GOP delegates faced primaries and one, Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin, lost amid criticism he had not sufficiently embraced Trump’s claims of election fraud.

Carter and Levine had both attempted to hold onto their seats while simultaneously running for statewide office. Carter had sought the governorship, coming in last place with just under 3 percent of the vote. Levine did slightly better in the lieutenant governor’s race, coming in third in a six-person field.

But both fared poorly in their delegates races, winning just 40 percent of the vote.

While Levine has not issued a statement, Carter said he was ready to step back from state politics.

“This job has made me miserable for the last 4 years,” Carter tweeted Tuesday evening. “I made a lot of people’s lives objectively better, but the constant assassination threats and harassment were terrible for my family and my health. I’m relieved to say that I’ve done my part, and now it’s someone else’s turn.

Carter had primarily emphasized labor issues during his four years in the General Assembly. He also authored legislation capping copays on insulin at $50 a month. He lost Tuesday to Michelle Maldonado, a former lawyer who now works as a leadership consultant. Levine, who served for six years and made gun control measures a focus of his campaign, lost to Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, who currently serves as the vice mayor of Alexandria. Both Maldonado and Bennett-Parker said during the campaign they would focus on education and the economy.

In Fairfax, both Samirah and his opponent, Irene Shin, ran as progressives. But Shin was also backed by more than $100,000 in contributions from a PAC with ties to a group dedicated to electing centrist candidates.

Shin said she shared many of Samirah’s policy goals, but would work more cooperatively with fellow Democrats. A frequent point of criticism on the campaign trail — and an issue referenced by voters as they left the polls — were Samirah’s votes against legislation that was supported by most Democrats, including budget language that funded an investigation into racism at Virginia Military Institute.

Samirah had said he supported the investigation but that VMI already got plenty of money from the state and should have to pay for it itself.

Talking to a voter outside a polling place, Shin said she would be more open to compromise to achieve goals. “You don’t get to stomp your feet and say, ‘I’m not going to vote on this,” she said. “That is the difference between an activist and an elected official.”

Samirah’s supporters countered that they liked having a delegate who was willing to buck party leadership. And they said they weren’t concerned that Shin had won endorsements from local leaders and state senators, interpreting it as a sign that he was more focused on everyday people.

“They say it like it’s a bad thing,” said Selina Al-Shiahbi, who was volunteering for Samirah’s campaign.

Two other closely watched races had morphed into a proxy-war of sorts, with establishment Democrats and Dominion Energy on one side and progressives and anti-Dominion Clean Virginia on the other. Dominion is the state’s largest corporate donor and Michael Bills, a hedge fund manager who founded Clean Virginia, is the state’s largest individual donor, according to campaign finance records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

The anti-Dominion side proved victorious in Portsmouth, where Clark, a 26-year-old political organizer funded almost entirely by Clean Virginia and an associated PAC, beat Heretick, who had been in the House since 2016 and counted Dominion as his biggest donor.

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“I’m so happy that I was able to do this — to show Virginia that we needed new representation — that the time is now to make a change,” Clark told WAVY-TV on Tuesday evening. “People like me don’t normally get this opportunity to represent their community.”

Heretick was sharply critical of the advocacy group’s efforts to unseat him. “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,” he said last week.

Clean Virginia’s efforts were less successful in Prince William, where challenger Pamela Montgomery outraised Del. Candi King six to one but still lost by a wide margin.

At the polls, many of King’s supporters said they were aware King had opted to accept campaign contributions from Dominion, which is in the process of cleaning up leaky coal ash ponds in the district. And while they said they didn’t necessarily agree with King’s stance on the issue, they didn’t hold it against her, either.

“I was like, ‘Oh, why would she take that money,’” said Kayla Mitchell, who attends college at Christopher Newport University. “But how could I sit here and berate her when I’ve made plenty of mistakes of my own in my 23 years on this earth. I just think it shows that not everyone we vote for is perfect.”

Mitchell and others said they supported King because they knew her well and considered her a stronger presence in the community.

“I’m just more familiar with her,” said Jack Bryan, an Army veteran, who said he largely brushed off the piles of attack ads the race generated.

On the GOP side, three incumbents faced challenges, but only one was remotely competitive. Wren Williams, who served as deputy legal counsel for Donald Trump’s campaign in the Wisconsin recount, ousted Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin, who had held the seat for 14 years.

Williams made Poindexter’s failure to embrace Trump’s election fraud claims a centerpiece of his campaign. “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 last week. “Nothing about the election, nothing about Donald Trump, nothing about election integrity.”

The message apparently resonated with GOP voters; Williams won with more than 60 percent of the vote.

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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.