Two senior Democratic senators might be retiring. Their districts are being redrawn accordingly.

‘Those are the two that are not running for re-election’

By: - September 29, 2021 5:19 pm

State Sens. Janet Howell and Dick Saslaw, both Democrats from Fairfax, sit together during a committee meeting. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw and Sen. Janet Howell, who chairs the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, haven’t said for sure they won’t run again in 2023. But the Virginia Redistricting Commission is drawing lines like they aren’t.

The two influential Northern Virginia Democrats didn’t respond to requests from the Mercury this week asking for confirmation they won’t seek another four-year term. Meanwhile, one of their colleagues is treating it as known fact.

“Those are the two that are not running for re-election,” Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, a member of the Redistricting Commission, said earlier this month while explaining his own proposal for how Fairfax County should be divided up in the new map.

Barker’s remarks appear to be having an impact.

At a meeting this week, one of the commission’s consultants said proposed Northern Virginia Senate districts had been tweaked to avoid pairing incumbents who intend to run again in 2023. 

According to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project, the draft Senate map now only pairs Howell with Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Loudoun, and Saslaw with Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax.

The significance of those comments didn’t go unnoticed by some statehouse watchers.

Certainly not a secret in RVA but it seems like the Redistricting Commission just broke some news about some very senior D Senators retiring,” tweeted former Republican delegate Greg Habeeb, now a lobbyist with Gentry Locke.

A spokeswoman for the Senate Democratic Caucus also did not provide a comment when asked for clarity on the situation.

Saslaw has served in the Senate for more than 40 years after being first elected to the House of Delegates in 1976. At 81, he’s known for cracking jokes on the Senate floor about his longevity. With a reputation as a business-friendly centrist, some progressives are eager to see him go. In 2019, he survived a primary challenge from human-rights attorney Yasmine Taeb, who fell just 436 votes short in a three-way race.

Howell, 77, the first woman to ever serve on the Senate Finance Committee, has been in the Senate since 1992.

Both their seats are heavily Democratic, but two openings in one cycle would provide an opportunity for other Democrats from the state’s most populous county to move up the political ranks.

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, has also indicated he may not run again. He too is paired with a fellow incumbent, Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, in the draft Senate map. Newman previously served on the Redistricting Commission but stepped down this month, citing work commitments and time conflicts.

The bipartisan Redistricting Commission, made of eight Democrats and eight Republicans with the 16 seats split between citizens and legislators, is still working on its draft General Assembly maps before arriving at a nearly finished product for public review and feedback. The commission, which is holding multiple meetings per week, continues to wrestle with complicated questions like how much deference to give to incumbents, how to ensure partisan fairness in a state where Democrats have won every statewide election for the last decade but just recently won control of the legislature and how best to ensure political opportunities for racial minorities.

The commission will meet again Friday ahead of a full slate of public hearings next week.

Its deadline to complete General Assembly maps is Oct. 10. If the commission can agree on compromise maps, they will go to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. If the process fails, the Supreme Court of Virginia will draw the new districts.

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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.