Arlington, VA

(Updated on 04/25/19) Arlington’s representatives in the Virginia House of Delegates have made good on promises to eschew Dominion Energy money, according to recent campaign finance reports.

Arlington’s six candidates for the House of Delegates shared financial reports indicating their campaigns took in no money from the utility company this year. However, most candidates are still relying on contributions from advocacy and labor groups, political action committees, and businesses, as opposed to running campaigns based only around individual contributions.

Copies of the campaign finance reports filed in April and shared by the Virginia Public Access Project indicate longtime donors, like the Virginia Trials Lawyers Political Action Committee (PAC), continue to chip in big chunks of cash to campaigns. The PAC contributed a combined $3,500 to the four incumbent delegates between January and March this year.

So far Democrats in the House of Delegates have out-raised their Republican colleagues, as all 100 seats are up for grabs this election and the possibility of a Democratic majority in the legislature remains on the horizon.

The two candidates currently challenging Arlington’s Delegates reported fewer funds raised than the incumbents. Candidate J.D. Spain, Sr., who is challenging Alfonso Lopez, raised the most of all newcomers on the block with $18,556, largely from his own coffers.

All candidates are scheduled to file another round of finance reports on June 3, days before the June 11 primary election.

The primary will decide which of each party’s candidates for office progresses to the general election on November 5. Virginia residents must register to vote at least 30 days before the primary to be eligible to cast their vote, and can check the location of their polls here.

Below are more details from each Delegates’ April campaign finance filings.

Del. Alfonso Lopez (D)

Lopez has raised by far the most money and also holds the largest war chest of any Delegate candidate in the running. He is currently being challenged by Democratic candidate J.D. Spain, Sr.

Lopez raised $50,924 between January 1 and March 31, according to reports, and spent $12,037. This leaves his campaign with $102,280 on hand after starting with $63,394 back in January.

Lopez’s biggest donor this cycle was Charlottesville investor Michael D. Bills who pledged to counter Dominion Energy with his campaign contributions this year and gave $10,000 to the sitting Delegate’s campaign.

“I believe that swearing off Dominion donations over a year ago just helped cement to my supporters that no money will ever influence me on a single piece of legislation, vote, decision, or opinion,” said Lopez today (Monday). “I have consistently voted against every Dominion Energy bill, and plan to do so as long as they continue to refuse to make renewable energy a major focus for Virginia.”

He added that he believed he had raised the most because he had “delivered real progressive results and the people of northern Virginia.”

Other notable investments to Lopez’s campaign came from the Virginia House Democrats Caucus ($5,000), and the Clean Virginia Fund ($5,000).

Lopez also accepted money from three alcohol groups: Virginia Wine Wholesalers PAC ($3,000), Virginia Beverage Association PAC ($2,000), and the Virginia Imports Ltd. ($500).

The delegate’s campaign for re-election has been endorsed by several unions, the Virginia Education Association Fund for Children and Public Education, and the Arlington Professional Firefighters & Paramedics Association — the latter of which donated $1,000 to his campaign.

Candidate J.D. Spain, Sr. (D)

Lopez’s Democratic challenger in the primary elections is J.D. Spain, Sr., a former Marine and head of the local NAACP chapter who faced him in debate last Wednesday night.

In last week’s filings, Spain reported contributing tens of thousands of his own money into the campaign: $8,200 in loans, $12,259 in cash, and $4,134 in “in-kind” contributions, which usually refers to value of things like equipment and services donated to a campaign.

“I understand that monetary support is really important for a campaign,” Spain told ARLnow. “But being a first-time candidate it’s really tough to raise money. It’s especially hard for a military veteran because we don’t have large networks with donors.”

He added that he loaned himself money to pay staff, and is “proud” of the small donations he received from individuals. His biggest was $500 from James Younger, his neighbor and Arlington’s former Deputy Police Chief.

In total, Spain reported fundraising $18,556 since January when he kicked off his campaign with zero dollars. After spending $12,192, the candidate for Delegate reportedly has $6,364 left on hand.

Spain’s campaign does not yet have any endorsements.

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Disagreements over campaign contributions and criminal justice reform during a debate last night revealed fault lines between some of the Democrats running for the party’s nomination.

Six candidates running for Commonwealth’s Attorney, state Senator and Delegate who sparred during the Wednesday night debate agreed on green energy and defeating Republicans. But their disagreements on other topics showed that even in an all-Democratic playing field there are shades of blue.

One area of disagreement was campaign contributions.

Sen. Barbara Favola was asked by a moderator why she continued to accept contributions from the controversial Advanced Towing company in light of complaints about employees allegedly towing a vehicle with the owner’s pet still inside.

The state senator called the story “extraordinary unfortunate” but said that the solution was for people “to go back to the landowner and complain about the contract” they have with a company.

Her challenger, Nicole Merlene hit back by referring to the 2017 NBC 4 report that Advanced Towing gave Favola $1,500 in campaign contributions after she voted to loosen towing regulations and allegedly convinced then-Governor Terry McAuliffe to do the same.

Favola said she voted “with the county” and that “what Governor McAuliffe had decided to do is Governor McAuliffe’s prerogative.”

Both candidates spoke in strong support of increasing affordable housing and paying interns.

A flash point Wednesday night was the issue of criminal justice reform.

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Arlington’s representatives in the Virginia House of Delegates say they tackled a host of important issues, from criminal justice reform to LGBT parental rights to public health, during this year’s legislative session.

The county is represented in the state House by four elected officials — Democrats Mark Levine, Patrick Hope, Richard “Rip” Sullivan, and Alfonso H. Lopez — all of whom are up for re-election this year.

This year’s session began on January 9 and ended February 23. Here are what the delegates told ARLnow were their biggest legislative accomplishments in that time.

Del. Patrick Hope

Hope has represented Arlington in the House since 2010 and currently faces no Democratic challengers in his campaign for reelection. He says he introduced 12 bills during this year’s session, nine of which passed.

He told ARLnow that it’s difficult to choose his favorite because “I treat all my bills like my children,” but narrowed down his three biggest accomplishments in an email:

1) HB 2384 — making all Virginia schools 100 percent tobacco/nicotine free. This is significant because Big Tobacco has opposed such efforts in the past. It also is a sign that the tide is turning to recognize the dangers of cigarettes and vaping on children.

2) HB 1642 — requiring the Dept. of Corrections (DOC) to collect/report data on inmates in solitary confinement. I’ve been working with DOC for years to get the number of inmates in solitary down. We’ve decreased the number by more than 70 percent. This data collection effort will help us figure out who remains, why they are there, and if we can provide additional mental health resources to get them out.

3) HB 1933 — allow jails to treat people with serious mental illness who are unable to give consent. Current law requires that these individuals be sent to an inpatient hospital setting (mental health institution). This is part of a series of laws I’ve passed to allow treatment to occur in an outpatient or other appropriate setting in order to free up more inpatient psychiatric beds.

Del. Alfonso Lopez

Lopez is Democratic co-whip in the House of Delegates. He has served as a delegate since 2012, but now faces a challenger in J.D. Spain for his campaign for re-election this year.

Spain is a Marine Corps veteran who leads the local NAACP chapter and has said he wanted to “sharply draw a contrast” between his and Lopez’s stances on housing affordability and the achievement gap.

Lopez told ARLnow about his biggest wins this year in Richmond in an email:

  1. Successfully Increased Funding for Affordable Housing. In 2013, my legislation created the Virginia Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Over the years the Trust Fund has become one of the major vehicles for addressing housing instability and homelessness prevention in the Commonwealth […] This year, working with the Governor’s office, we were able to secure an additional $7 million in total revenue for the Trust Fund — increasing the biennial budget amount to $18 million (far above typical appropriations)! This is a great step forward in our efforts to help Virginia families. That being said, I believe that we must do a great deal more to address affordable housing in every corner of the Commonwealth […]
  2. Driver’s License Suspensions. After working on this issue for several years, I was very proud that the General Assembly finally ended drivers license suspensions for individuals who have served their time, but are unable to pay court fines and/or fees (over 600,000 Virginians are hurt by this outdated policy). […] When a person’s driver’s license is suspended, they may face a difficult dilemma: obey the suspension and potentially lose their ability to provide for their families, or drive anyway and face further punishment — or even imprisonment — for driving under a suspended license. I am very happy that this misguided policy has finally been overturned with bipartisan support. This ends what I’ve often referred to as a modern day debtor’s prison […]
  3. Military ID & Passport Security. Before this session, there was no provision in state law that mandated immediate notification to people whose passport or military ID numbers were stolen in an online security breach. This left the information of many Virginians (especially in our area) at significant risk. I’m proud to have introduced and passed a bill, HB 2396, that fixes this glaring hole in the law. Virginia will now require that Passport and military ID information have the same protections as bank information and social security numbers.

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One of the country’s leading progressive activists and researchers is launching a new fundraising push for primary challengers to two Arlington lawmakers.

Sean McElwee, a co-founder of Data for Progress, announced yesterday (Wednesday) that his organization would be launching “The Progressive Virginia Project,” an effort to raise cash for four candidates in Virginia’s statehouse races this fall. Among the group set to benefit from the fundraising is Nicole Merlene, who is challenging state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st District) and J.D. Spain, who is looking to unseat Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District).

In a tweet describing the new program, McElwee wrote that his group is seeking to elect “progressives who are fighting for a Virginia where Dominion Energy doesn’t set the agenda.”

The utility company’s influence in Richmond has become an increasingly controversial issue for the state’s Democrats in recent years, with many (Lopez included) swearing off contributions from Dominion. The General Assembly helps regulate the company, convincing many lawmakers and activists that it’s inappropriate to then rely on Dominion’s largesse when election season rolls around.

https://twitter.com/SeanMcElwee/status/1103313125246414848

Any money taken in by the program will be divvied up among Merlene, Spain and two other candidates: Del. Lee Carter (D-50th District), the legislature’s lone Democratic socialist and a fierce Amazon opponent, and Yasmine Taeb, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-35th District).

McElwee was previously a leading voice in supporting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s insurgent progressive candidacy in New York, and launched a similar initiative during the 2018 midterms to elect several other candidates in statehouse races across the country. In all, his group was able to raise more than $448,000 to support races in eight states.

Data for Progress wrote on the new fundraising page that it picked the four candidates not only for their opposition to Dominion, but their support for a “Green New Deal, universal healthcare and racial justice” in Virginia.

https://twitter.com/SeanMcElwee/status/1103315361582276608

Merlene, who up until recently held leadership positions with the Arlington County Civic Federation and the county’s Economic Development Commission, has framed her run against Favola as a chance for a new generation to take the reins in Richmond.

In addition to criticizing Favola’s acceptance of Dominion cash — she’s taken $9,500 from Dominion over the last eight years — Merlene has blasted her work as a lobbyist while also serving as a senator. Favola runs a lobbying and consulting firm representing influential local institutions like Virginia Hospital Center and Marymount University.

Spain has also sworn off corporate cash in his challenge to Lopez, but that doesn’t provide quite the same contrast between the candidates. Lopez has refused money from both Dominion and Amazon (though he has taken Dominion money in past years), and draws most of his campaign cash from progressive groups.

Spain, currently the president of Arlington’s NAACP, has focused his campaign thus far on providing fresh representation in Richmond, and beefing up support for affordable housing and schools in the South Arlington district. He has not, however, attacked Lopez over his much-discussed consulting work for an ICE contractor, which McElwee highlighted in his support for Spain. The activist has made calls to “Abolish ICE” a central part of his work, prompting a broader debate within the Democratic party about the agency’s role.

It remains to be seen, however, just how much traction either candidate has gained in their primary challenges thus far — statehouse candidates won’t report how much cash they’ve raised again until April 15. A June 11 primary will decide the intraparty contests.

Photo of Merlene, left, via Facebook

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A pair of state lawmakers are pushing to revive a proposal to raise some Northern Virginia tax rates to fund Metro, a key priority of Arlington and other localities around the region feeling a budget squeeze.

A bill now backed by Del. Vivian Watts (D-39th District) and Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) would bump up taxes slightly on real estate transactions and hotel stays in the jurisdictions that benefit from Metro service. The legislation is broadly similar to Gov. Ralph Northam’s push to raise those rates last year, as lawmakers squabbled over the best way to find a dedicated funding stream for the troubled transit service.

That effort failed, even as state lawmakers did agree on a bill to send $154 million to WMATA annually, as part of a first-of-its-kind, three-way deal with Maryland and D.C. to send dedicated money to Metro each year. Republicans, led by Del. Tim Hugo (R-40th District), insisted on pulling cash away from other sources instead of raising taxes to pay for the deal.

Primarily, that change redirected funds from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, a regional body that hands out sales tax money to help localities fund major transportation projects. Arlington officials, in particular, were irked to see the group lose cash, as many were counting on the NVTA to help the county fund major transportation projects while Arlington’s own budget picture grew a bit grimmer.

One of the main projects the county was hoping to fund with NVTA money — a second entrance at the Crystal City Metro station — is now set to receive millions in state funds, thanks largely to its inclusion in the deal to bring Amazon to the area.

But Arlington officials have also had to push out plans to build new entrances at the Ballston and East Falls Church Metro stations, in part due to the NVTA’s money problems. The County Board included a request for just this change as part of its legislative wish list for the new General Assembly session, and local Democrats have broadly been receptive to renewing this fight in the months since Northam’s effort failed.

The governor himself previously told ARLnow that he’d seek to bring back the tax increases to restore money for the NVTA — his spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this piece of legislation.

Should it pass, the bill would send about $30 million back into the NVTA’s coffers each year, according to documents prepared for the Commonwealth Transportation Board. However, the NVTA has estimated its annual funding losses due to the Metro deal as closer to $100 million each year.

“We appreciate Del. Watts’ efforts to restore funding to the NVTA,” Executive Director Monica Backmon told ARLnow via email. “We have not conducted a detailed analysis of the bill at this time. However, we anticipate discussing this bill and others at the Feb.14 authority meeting.”

A NVTA spokeswoman added that Watts’ bill is the only one introduced this session to restore the group’s funding via the tax increases.

But with Republicans still holding narrow majorities in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, the bill could well face an uphill battle.

Notably, House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-66th District) assigned the legislation to the House’s Rules Committee, a group of powerful lawmakers. While other committees are balanced to reflect the partisan makeup of the House, the Rules Committee is dominated by Republicans on an 11-6 margin, leading many Democrats to accuse Cox of sending bills to the committee to expedite their failures.

The group is also unique among House committees in that it can send bills directly to the floor for a vote, rather than casting a ballot on whether or not to advance the legislation. That allows Cox to force a vote from the full House on a bill, should he choose to do so.

The committee has yet to schedule a hearing on the bill, however.

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(Updated at 3 p.m.) With Amazon gearing up to move into his neck of the woods, Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) is angling to substantially beef up state spending on affordable housing development.

Lopez, who represents a variety of South Arlington neighborhoods surrounding the tech company’s planned headquarters in Crystal City and Pentagon City, is eyeing a two-pronged approach to the issue in this year’s General Assembly session.

Both of his legislative efforts involve the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, a pot of money Lopez helped create back in 2016 to offer low-interest loans for developers hoping to build reasonably priced housing. Though state lawmakers have only allocated a few million dollars to the fund for the last few years, Lopez hopes to simultaneously ramp up appropriations for the program and find a more stable source of funding for it going forward.

Leaders in Arlington and Alexandria have both committed to send more resources to local programs targeting housing affordability in the wake of Amazon’s big announcement, but those efforts will only be designed to target the communities surrounding the tech giant’s new office space. And with most prognosticators predicting that the 25,000 Amazon employees set to descend on the area will choose to live all over the Northern Virginia region, Lopez sees a clear need for a state-level solution.

“This is a statewide problem,” Lopez told ARLnow. “And I believe affordable housing is a quality of life issue in Virginia, and it’s something we should be funding in the same breath as transit, transportation, environmental protection and education.”

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has already proposed sending $19 million to the housing fund over the next two years as part of his latest budget proposal. That change would make $20 million available for the current fiscal year, and another $10 million available the year after that.

But Lopez is envisioning an even larger amount heading to the fund, and he’s planning on proposing a one-time, $50-million influx to make a difference right away.

The amount might seem small compared to the state’s mammoth budget, but Lopez expects it could make a big difference — he points out that the fund has already helped kick start two projects along Columbia Pike in just the last few years alone.

Michelle Winters, the executive director of the Arlington-based Alliance for Housing Solutions, notes that the trust is “currently a small source of funding that is spread fairly thin across the state.” That means even Northam’s proposal, to say nothing of Lopez’s more ambitious ask, would be a “quantum leap” forward for the state, according to Michelle Krocker, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance.

Federal housing dollars are really diminishing, so it’s increasingly up to state and local governments to fund this stuff,” Krocker said. “Arlington has been a leader on this…but the state of Virginia is being fairly negligent, to put it mildly, in providing resources through the trust fund.”

Accordingly, Winters expects even a modest increase would prove to be meaningful, in Arlington and elsewhere.

“Even though it is small, any source of funding to help fill the gap in an affordable housing project’s budget is very valuable and can help make some more projects feasible,” Winters wrote in an email.

Yet Lopez also sees a clear need to make affordable housing funding a bit more predictable going forward.

Currently, Lopez laments that he has to go “hat in hand” to appropriators on General Assembly committees, urging them each year to set aside money for the trust fund. He’d much rather see lawmakers set up a dedicated funding stream to ensure regular, stable contributions to the loan program each year.

Accordingly, Lopez is backing a bill to establish such a funding mechanism — in essence, the legislation would pull away an annual percentage of surplus revenue from state “recordation” taxes, or levies on home transactions.

He’s proposed such legislation in the past, and acknowledge that it could face an uphill battle this time around — lawmakers with power over the state’s purse strings may be loathe to give up any budgetary discretion, after all.

Even the one-time cash infusion could prove difficult for Lopez to achieve, considering that Republicans have already declared Northam’s budget proposals “dead on arrival,” as a fight over tax revenues brews in the General Assembly.

“We’re all very concerned that with Republicans being so opposed to the governor’s amendments… that we’ll really have to wait and see whether the governor’s housing trust fund plans survives these deliberations,” Krocker said.

It doesn’t help matters either that some key lawmakers (and even some Northam administration officials) shied away from including more affordable housing money in the state’s proposal to Amazon, arguing localities and developers are better suited to fund this kind of development.

But Lopez is “hopeful” that the grave concerns raised about the housing market in the wake of Amazon’s announcement could help change minds on the issue, and he’ll certainly have allies among Arlington’s legislative delegation.

“Housing will be an issue here for at least a decade or more,” said Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th District). “Amazon coming in won’t change all that dramatically, but it does increase the urgency for affordable housing and putting funding behind this.”

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As Amazon moves into Arlington, it seems the company is ready to start spreading some of the wealth around to local lawmakers — but, so far, one has already turned down the tech giant’s cash.

Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) told ARLnow that Amazon sent him $1,000 in late October to back his re-election effort this year, just before announcing that it plans to set up a new headquarters in Pentagon City and Crystal City. In fact, Lopez’s South Arlington district covers some of the locations that the tech firm eventually plans to call home.

Yet Lopez says he quickly returned the contribution once Amazon formally selected Arlington, in order to avoid any implication that the company will influence his decision making in Richmond, no matter how small.

“While I would never allow a campaign contribution to affect my judgement as an elected official, trust in the government is essential,” Lopez wrote in a newsletter to constituents today (Monday) announcing his decision. “Constituents should have no doubts about the independence of my judgement, or think there are any motivations beyond doing what is right for the community. This is the right thing to do. Fostering trust in government is more important now than ever.”

Lawmakers are currently gearing up to vote on an incentive package that could someday send anywhere between $550 million and $750 million in state grant money to Amazon, so long as the company comes through on its promise to bring at least 25,000 jobs to the area. Legislators will also be charged with signing off on hundreds of millions more in transportation and education spending designed to lure the company to Arlington, likely to be included as part of a bill adjusting the state’s biennial budget.

Though the company has attracted plenty of criticism locally, the General Assembly is broadly expected to approve the incentives (negotiated primarily by Gov. Ralph Northam’s staff) by a wide margin. Yet Lopez’s move comes as Democratic politicians all over Virginia wrestle with the influence of corporations on the state’s politics.

A growing number of Democrats, Lopez included, have pledged to refuse money from state-regulated monopolies like Dominion Energy, long the biggest political donor in the state. Northam has also backed a ban on corporate donations of any kind in state elections, and Lopez has recently drawn a primary challenger pledging not to accept any cash from corporations.

In a separate bit of controversy, activists have targeted Lopez for scorn after he reported earning thousands of dollars from a company that runs an ICE detention center in Central Virginia.

In general, however, Amazon has yet to chip in much money for Virginia lawmakers, even though the company has long operated a variety of offices and data centers around the state.

But the tech firm did send Lopez $250 back in October 2017, and donated $5,000 to Northam’s inaugural committee last January. Amazon has also contributed $11,000 to the influential Northern Virginia Technology Council, and currently retains the services of nine lobbyists registered in Richmond, according to state records.

As for how much money the tech company has since donated to other state lawmakers, that won’t become clear until legislators submit final campaign finance reports covering the second half of 2018 tomorrow (Tuesday). All 140 lawmakers will be on the ballot this fall, and will soon begin reporting campaign contributions on a more regular basis.

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The head of Arlington’s chapter of the NAACP is launching a primary challenge to Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District), a powerful member of Democratic leadership in Richmond who has attracted criticism from within his own party in recent months.

Julius “J.D.” Spain told ARLnow that he’s filed to run as a Democrat in the South Arlington district, in the hopes of providing people there “with an alternative to the status quo.”

Lopez, who also serves as Democratic co-whip in the House of Delegates, first won the seat back in 2011, replacing now-Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30th District). Lopez hasn’t faced a primary challenge since he won a contest with Stephanie Clifford for the chance to run for the seat in the first place.

“No incumbent is entitled to stay in office forever,” Spain said. “And I believe I can sharply draw a contrast with some of what Alfonso has done, or hasn’t done, over the years and bring a fresh new face to the field, to the party.”

Spain is a 26-year Marine Corps veteran who has been active in Arlington’s civic institutions for years now. He’s served on the county’s Civil Service Commission since 2014, and worked in leadership roles in Nauck’s Masonic Lodge 58.

Spain adds that he’s been active with the NAACP for roughly two decades, and was elected as the group’s president just last fall. He’s also served as a precinct captain for the county’s Democratic committee, and describes himself as “a hard-core Democrat,” though this is his first bid for elected office.

He declined to offer specific critiques of Lopez’s record, only saying that he would lay out “temperate, discrete and pointed” rebuttals over the course of the campaign.

Other Democrats have not been nearly so reticent to criticize Lopez, however — Lopez has reported working in the past for a private company that runs an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Central Virginia, sparking all manner of protests over the past year. Lopez has since worked to defuse concerns over those ties by meeting with activists to explain his support for immigrant rights, particularly given his status as one of just a handful of Latino legislators in the General Assembly.

For his part, Lopez says he plans to run for a fifth term on the strength of his “record of fighting hard for our progressive values in Richmond,” citing his work on housing affordability, environmental issues, the Medicaid expansion and Metro funding.

“As the son of an undocumented immigrant, I grew up seeing discrimination firsthand and made it my mission in life to seek justice for all,” Lopez wrote in an email. “I will continue fighting every day to build a Virginia where we lift everyone up and leave no one behind. I look forward to a substantive conversation about how we can best serve the people of the 49th District in Richmond and in our community.”

Meanwhile, Spain says the primary focus of his run against Lopez will be on issues like housing affordability in South Arlington, a key concern for the community as Amazon moves in nearby, and the achievement gap between white students and students of color in Arlington schools.

He also hopes to “represent the people, and not just the people who have money,” and says he won’t accept any donations from corporations over the course of his campaign.

“I’m not taking any contributions from any corporations, or any businesses that infringe on the rights of those less fortunate or those that harm the environment,” Spain said. “I’m not a deep-pocketed politician with a lot of ties. I’m just your average American citizen, and that’s who I want to represent.”

The issue of corporate money in Virginia politics has become a particularly potent one among Democratic candidates for office in recent months, with many swearing off money from state-regulated utilities like Dominion Energy, in particular. Lopez himself has pledged to refuse money from Dominion, though he has taken cash from corporations — Gov. Ralph Northam is backing a ban on corporate campaign donations in this year’s legislative session, though Republicans have shown little interest in advancing such a bill.

Accordingly, Spain is hoping to run a “grassroots” campaign, though he says he’s still getting organized a bit. He hopes to make a formal announcement at a county Democratic committee meeting next month, then ramp up the campaign from there.

A June 11 primary will decide all races between local Democrats. All 140 state legislators are set to face voters this November.

Local activist Nicole Merlene has also launched a primary challenge to state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st District), while Parisa Tafti is running against Democratic Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos.

Photo via Facebook

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After years facing powerful Republican majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, Arlington lawmakers are accustomed to harboring only modest ambitions for each legislative session.

But as legislators return to Richmond today (Wednesday), members of the county’s all-Democratic delegation say they’re ready to flex their muscles a bit over the new, 45-day session.

With all 140 lawmakers on the ballot this fall and Democrats just one seat away from seizing power in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, Arlington legislators sense an opening. Republicans have taken a beating in all manner of elections across the state over the last two years, and Democrats expect that will inform how GOP leaders manage their slim majorities in this session.

Arlington lawmakers hope that will result in some of the party’s more moderate members finally embracing their efforts around everything from redistricting reform to gun violence prevention, in a bid to appear more attractive to swing voters. What it all comes down to for state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30th District) is a simple motto for his colleagues across the aisle: “lead, follow or get out of the way.”

“They can can decide to lead on some of the most important issues facing Virginia, which they have failed to do, they can choose to follow Democrats, or they can have voters get them out of the way,” Ebbin told ARLnow. “If they come to the table on a variety of issues, I think their chances are enhanced… But will [House Speaker Kirk Cox] want to allow bills to come to the floor so that a handful of members who want to appear to be moderates vote for them, or even sponsor them? Time will tell.”

Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th District) says he’s “hopeful” that Republicans will pursue such a strategy over the next weeks — not only does he see it as wise political strategy, he jokes that “with my last name, I don’t have a choice” but to be optimistic.

But Del. Mark Levine (D-45th District) takes a gloomier view of the GOP, arguing that Richmond Republicans have done nothing but “march in lockstep” with their leadership for years, and could soon face an electoral price for doing so.

“If moderate Republicans continue to fall in line and do what’s against their constituents’ wishes, we will absolutely run against them for it and they will lose in November,” Levine said. “I see it as a win-win: either we get the policies we want, with majority support, or we get these people out.”

Should Republicans choose to sign onto some Democratic priorities, Arlington legislators see two key areas for agreement: a constitutional amendment establishing a nonpartisan commission to draw district lines, and the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In both cases, the Democrats expect they’ll have enough votes to pass the bills on the floor — Republicans have either introduced or co-sponsored bills on both subjects — the question is whether the legislation will make it out of committee, where a handful of lawmakers have the power to quickly kill the bills.

Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th District), a key backer of redistricting reforms, sees a real “sense of urgency” to the aforementioned issue this year, simply due to timing. Democrats hope to pass a constitutional amendment before the next round of redistricting in 2021, and that requires a complex process.

Lawmakers need to pass the amendment twice: once before a legislative election, and once afterward. Then, the matter will head to a statewide ballot referendum, which Sullivan is hoping to line up with the 2020 elections. Should it pass all those hurdles, stripping power from lawmakers to draw their own districts, the new commission would be in place by the time the Census mandates a change in boundary lines.

Considering that Democrats may well take control of the General Assembly this fall, Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) expects it would be in the best interest of Republicans to agree on a nonpartisan process now while they still can. Levine notes that it doesn’t help the GOP’s chances either that federal courts have ordered a redrawing of some House district lines over claims they were racially gerrymandered, a process that will likely weaken Republican chances in several important seats.

“Not passing something will essentially hand the reins of gerrymandering back to Democrats, and I don’t think that’s what they want,” Lopez said.

Even with this newfound pressure, however, Sullivan says it’s “not clear to me that leadership will even allow a vote” on redistricting or the ERA ratification, which could revive the long-dormant effort to mandate equal rights for women in the U.S. Constitution.

“There’s a lot of momentum behind the ERA, so it will be interesting to see if Republicans, in an election year, will let it come forward for a vote,” Hope said. “And I’m absolutely convinced it will pass if gets to the floor.”

Instead, it seems clear to lawmakers that a debate over tax revenues will prove to be the dominant issue of this legislative session.

The Republican tax reform bill shepherded through Congress in 2017 will result in an extra $1.2 billion in state revenues, and battles lines are already being drawn about how to spend that money. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam is proposing a mix of tax relief for low- and middle-income families and new investments in everything from education to broadband access; Republicans would rather see all of the money invested in tax breaks for slightly wealthier earners.

“If you think we argue or fight when times are tight, wait until you see the kind of arguing we can do when there’s extra money,” Sullivan said.

Cox and his fellow Republicans claim that Northam’s proposal amounts to a “middle-class tax hike” because it doesn’t send all of the savings generated by the federal tax cut back to middle-income families. But Democrats charge that the GOP’s plan, which centers on households making between $125,000 and $150,000 a year, targets only richer families and leaves the poor behind.

“We really need to encourage those folks working hard in the toughest economic circumstances to make it easier for them to have childcare, to have healthcare,” Ebbin said. “For people working hard, we should help them get ahead. That’s what this country is about.”

Democrats point out that Northam’s proposed investments, which could raise teacher pay across the state and expand select healthcare programs, would provide their own benefits for Virginians across the income spectrum. But Lopez also concedes that the most likely scenario is that the two sides strike a a compromise with “a little bit of both” tax relief and new spending.

With all this uncertainty, however, one thing is for sure — the short session will move awful quickly, especially with elections on the horizon.

“It’s going to go fast, and it’s going to be furious,” Lopez said. “And there are a lot of issues affecting Arlington families that we’re going to try to keep folks updated on.”

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Arlington Democrats say they’re pushing for an open debate down in Richmond on a redrawing of some of the state’s electoral lines, but hope seems to be fading among state lawmakers that a special session convened on the issue will yield many results.

Gov. Ralph Northam reconvened the General Assembly today (Thursday) for its second gathering outside of normal business this year, with the avowed purpose of approving a new map governing district lines for 11 districts in the House of Delegates.

A three-judge panel on a federal court ruled last month that those districts, concentrated in the Richmond and Norfolk areas, were improperly drawn to pack African American voters into safely Democratic districts. The court gave lawmakers an Oct. 30 deadline to correct the problems it identified, or else it will appoint an independent arbiter to do so.

House Democrats introduced their own attempt at crafting a new map yesterday (Wednesday), but Republicans have so far declined to do the same. They’re appealing the federal court’s ruling on the districts all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the GOP’s slim, 51-49 majority in the House potentially hanging in the balance ahead of next November’s elections.

“We just feel Republicans are delaying, delaying on this,” Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) told ARLnow. “The fact is, we’ve gone through four cycles with racially unconstitutional maps, and that’s eight years too long. It’s high time that we changed these maps.”

Republicans have charged, however, that Democrats haven’t engaged in the process in good faith. They argue that the map lawmakers presented is simply gerrymandering the map in the direction of Democrats, claiming that it would imperil five Republican-held districts while further shoring up margins of four Democratic districts.

“It’s clear that this is hypocritical partisan power grab that would fail to pass legal muster,” House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-15th District) wrote in a statement. “For almost a decade Democrats have pushed for so-called independent redistricting commissions. Yet when they had the chance to do so, they drew a partisan plan in secret without any input from the public or Republicans.”

Yet local Democrats like Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th District) point out that Republicans controlled the General Assembly by wide margins when these lines were first drawn back in 2011, creating these “constitutional infirmities” in the first place.

Lopez, who doubles as House minority whip, believes there are a whole host of reasons why the Democratic proposal is worth considering — arguing it creates districts that are “compact, contiguous and protects community interests” — but he also notes that Republicans have so far declined to offer their own alternative.

“They’ve shown indication they’ll propose their own map,” Lopez said. “Even the court is calling them out for stalling, so we are in an interesting place right now. Hopefully, it’ll all work out.”

House Republicans agreed to debate the Democratic map in committee this afternoon, and Lopez and Sullivan would both like to see them bring it to the floor for debate in the coming days.

Yet Lopez’s hope is flagging on that count. The Supreme Court has already sent back a previous appeal of a ruling on the district lines to a lower court, but that was before then-Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. With President Donald Trump’s nomination for a replacement, Brett Kavanaugh, expected to receive Congressional consideration next month, the GOP could hold out for a hearing from a court with a newly replenished conservative majority — and Lopez added that Democrats proposed setting a firm date to return and debate the maps, but Republicans defeated that measure.

“It’s up to the call of [Speaker Kirk Cox] for when we come back for next steps,” Lopez said. “We just don’t know right now.”

Sullivan, however, is a bit more hopeful. While he’d greatly prefer to see an independent commission of some kind draw district lines instead, he claims that Democrats are committed to “address the court’s concerns until the process changes.”

“I’m sort of a cockeyed optimist,” Sullivan said. “I would hope that the Republicans would engage on this issue, would debate the map we put in or put in one of their own. The court has asked them to do that, I think the citizens of Virginia want them to do that, and hopefully that’s what they’ll do.”

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Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49) says anonymous threats prompted him to request that police monitor a Indivisible Arlington town hall last weekend, and now he’s offering to meet with the pro-immigrant activists who confronted him at that gathering.

The question of who requested the involvement of Arlington County Police at the event, after some LaColectiVA activists asked some tough questions of Lopez on his ties to a contractor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has been on the minds of several meeting attendees and even other Democratic lawmakers in the days following the meeting.

The police who manage protection for state lawmakers — the Virginia Division of Capitol Police — told ARLnow last week that Lopez had indeed requested a police presence at the event, and Arlington County Police confirmed that they’d agreed to check in on the meeting, though they’re adamant that they were not actively monitoring it.

Now, in his first public comments since the May 12 meeting at Arlington Central Library, Lopez told ARLnow in a prepared statement that he’s been notifying the Capitol Police about any public event he’s attended since last December. He chalks that up to “unwanted anonymous threats,” echoing claims he made at the meeting that some members of LaColectiVA had crossed a line when protesting his consulting work for the ICE contractor.

“Since the Indivisible Legislators’ Forum was widely publicized on social media my office followed protocol and alerted Colonel Pike’s [the chief of the Capitol Police] office,” Lopez wrote. “I have subsequently learned that an Arlington police officer came to the event before it began. The officer was alerted that his presence was not necessary and he left. In the middle of the Indivisible meeting a second officer arrived. He stated that he was there because he had been contacted by library security because of the noise. He spoke to the crowd briefly. The officer was told this presence was not needed and he also left.”

The arrival of that second officer prompted consternation among the crowd of activists, and a new round of shouting after the meeting had initially quieted down after a tense beginning. Indivisible Arlington has even since apologized for the presence of law enforcement at the event, and LaColectiVA’s leaders wrote in a statement this weekend that the police presence at the event amounts to “the criminalization of people of color.”

Nelson Lopez, a LaColectiVA organizer who attended the meeting, has been adamant that his group has never threatened Lopez in any way, and the group reiterated in its Saturday (May 19) statement that the delegate’s claims are “outright lies.”

LaColectiVA’s activists have been particularly frustrated that they feel like Lopez has ignored their requests to engage with them on the issue — Lopez reported on disclosure forms that the Immigration Centers of America, which runs an ICE detention center in Central Virginia,  paid him $5,000 in 2014 and $10,000 in 2015 and 2016. He’s repeatedly stressed that he is barred from discussing that consulting work by a nondisclosure agreement.

However, in a letter to LaColectiVA’s leadership that Lopez provided to ARLnow, he points out that he’s met repeatedly with the group to discuss their concerns. He also offered to do so once again, “to discuss your concerns and ways that we can move forward on our areas of mutual interest.”

Yet Nelson Lopez noted that the delegate wants the meeting to be private and only with members of LaColectiVA’s leadership, which he feels would not satisfy the group’s efforts to encourage more public engagement on the issue.

“We have told him that the meeting needs to be public so that he can speak to the whole community, not just us,” he said.

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