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Activist Launches Challenge to Favola, Arguing Senator Has Been ‘Just Another Democratic Vote’

Nicole Merlene, an active young member of many of Arlington’s civic institutions, is launching a primary challenge against state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st District).

Merlene announced her campaign today (Thursday), arguing that Favola lacks bold leadership to address the pressing problems confronting the district, which runs from Arlington through Fairfax County and into Loudoun.

The move kicks off the first Democratic challenge to one of the county’s sitting state lawmakers, as all 140 delegates and senators in the General Assembly prepare to face voters once more this fall. Favola, a former County Board member herself, hasn’t faced a primary since winning a nominating contest for the chance to succeed Mary Margaret Whipple back in 2011.

Merlene works as a policy director for a D.C.-based trade association, but has become well-known among Arlington officials for her time in leadership roles on everything from the Arlington County Civic Federation to the Arlington Young Democrats to the county’s Economic Development Commission. She argues that she has enough experience to mount her first bid for elected office, without any of the baggage that comes with an entrenched politician like Favola.

“If we want to keep electing people to make easy Democratic decisions, that’s fine, we can elect anyone to do that,” Merlene told ARLnow. “But if we continue to wait until the same cohort of people retires to take action, it will be too late.”

Merlene says she’s launching the intraparty challenge to take “bold action” on Northern Virginia’s transportation challenges, housing affordability woes and environmental issues, in particular. But Favola believes she stands on a “strong record of accomplishment” in asking voters for a third term in Richmond.

Favola said she has yet to officially launch her re-election bid, but has begun telling supporters that she’ll be seeking another four years as senator. She pointed to the more than 40 bills she’s managed to pass with Republican support as evidence that she’s been an effective advocate in her time in office.

“Passing legislation in Richmond requires building strong relationships and bringing a respected base of knowledge to the issues,” Favola wrote in an email. “My service on the Arlington County Board for 14 years prior to serving as a senator has been an invaluable asset in guiding policy discussions in Richmond… I am proud to say that I have earned a voice at the table and look forward to continuing to serve the constituents of the 31st Senate district.”

The flip side of that experience, Merlene argues, is that Favola has been bogged down by a business-as-usual attitude that marks many longtime elected officials. Merlene hopes to run as someone “unencumbered by special interests,” and hopes to push for contribution limits for state lawmakers and a ban on contributions from state-regulated utility companies like Dominion Energy.

Merlene says she won’t accept contributions from Dominion over the course of her campaign, joining a growing chorus among Virginia Democrats that candidates should refuse cash from utility companies. Favola, by contrast, has accepted $9,500 from Dominion over the last eight years.

But Merlene is more perturbed by state laws allowing elected officials to serve as lobbyists, another change she’d like to make in Richmond. In her time in Arlington civic life, she can recall several occasions where her organizations were lobbied by their very own state lawmakers, which she finds frustrating — Favola runs a lobbying and consulting firm representing influential local institutions like Virginia Hospital Center and Marymount University.

“Conflicts of interest are something that encumber your general decision-making process in being able to be an effective leader,” Merlene said.

Like Favola, Merlene favors “committing new funds [for Metro], not just shifting them around,” in a shot at the structure of the deal to provide dedicated funding for the transit system passed last year. Gov. Ralph Northam and his fellow Democrats favored using tax increases to fund Metro, rather than pulling away other transportation dollars, but Republicans scuttled that proposal.

Merlene is also urging a renewed focus on housing issues, like finding more state funding for affordable developments and strengthening renters’ rights. Additionally, she supports the decriminalization of marijuana and a reform of some of the state’s liquor laws.

She’ll have an uphill battle in unseating an incumbent with deep roots in the community like Favola, but Merlene points to her own long history growing up in Arlington as evidence that she can succeed in this bid.

“I bleed this region’s happiness, its pride and its difficulties,” Merlene said. “And I don’t want to just be another Democratic vote, but someone who’s truly in tune with their community.”

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