(Updated at 4:25 p.m.) This afternoon, a group of Washington-Liberty High School students are giving their peers more than 100 copies of two politically controversial books.
The books are “Beloved,” Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel following a Black family during the Reconstruction era, and “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s award-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust and his father’s life during World War II. Both have explicit content that has some parents and politicians questioning their place in schools.
Controversy around “Beloved” is part of the origin story for a bill passed by the state Senate earlier this month, which would require teachers to label classroom materials that have sexually explicit content. “Maus,” meanwhile, rocketed into the national spotlight after a Tennessee school board voted last month to remove the book from its curriculum due to “inappropriate language” and an illustration of a nude woman.
In addition to labeling classroom materials that have sexually explicit content, the new law requires teachers to notify parents if they are going to teach the materials. It gives parents the right to opt their children out of these lessons and request alternative materials.
But some high school students in Arlington and Fairfax counties are calling the law “backdoor censorship” and organized the distribution in response. It began at 3:15 p.m. in Quincy Park, near W-L.
“Great thinkers and proud Virginians like Thomas Jefferson, Maggie Walker, James Madison, George Mason and Oliver Hill — men and women who understood the importance of education and the value of studying difficult and divisive ideas — are rolling over in their graves,” W-L freshman and giveaway organizer Aaron Zevin-Lopez said in a statement.
Zevin-Lopez tells ARLnow he teamed up with George Marshall High School student Matt Savage — who has been facilitating distributions in Northern Virginia schools this month — to host a book giveaway in Arlington.
“Kids at my school understood that the Governor was attempting to limit reading rights within schools, so we thought that handing out the books beforehand could be a great way to spread the message of resistance and making sure the youth understands our past, both good and bad,” Zevin-Lopez said.
The two students are leaders of the Virginia chapter of a Gen-Z political advocacy group called Voters of Tomorrow, which is providing financial support for the giveaway.
“When the government establishes laws to label literature in terms of a single factor like ‘sexually explicit’, regardless of that factor’s significance to the larger world of literary merit or meaning, it edges closer to censorship,” said Savage, president of Voters of Tomorrow Virginia. “It means we are labeling content for the sole purpose of suppressing it.”
Watch out @GlennYoungkin, we’ve been handing out copies of ‘Beloved’ at Virginia high schools. Students deserve access to literature that teaches real history, and we’re proud to provide it. Thanks @nachyomommy and @MrMattSavage for organizing distribution – give them a follow! pic.twitter.com/QO1AWgYyzZ
— Voters of Tomorrow Virginia (@VOTVirginia) February 23, 2022
The students say requiring teachers to define their lessons in terms of how much “sexually explicit” content it contains will dissuade them from using anything that may be considered “objectionable.” They add that the law will force teachers to draft two entire lesson plans for one class on the objection of just one parent.
The bill is similar to one passed in 2016, which became known as the “Beloved” bill because it was inspired by a mother’s attempt to have the novel removed from her son’s English class. It was vetoed, however, by Gov. Terry McAuliffe — and his veto narrowly avoided being overturned by the House of Delegates.
The question of parental involvement in education became a central theme of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign after McAuliffe said during a debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Passing the law was a campaign promise of and priority for Youngkin when he assumed office. The Republican governor unsuccessfully tried to pass other laws, including one rooting out curriculum based on critical race theory, and created a tip line for people to report teaching strategies they object to.
(Updated 3:45 p.m. on 2/22/22) A typo in a recent public hearing notice has had some larger consequences for Arlington County.
The error — an incorrect date printed on posters around town — also sparked a County Board discussion yesterday (Tuesday) about finding more effective ways to communicate with residents about upcoming hearings and projects.
This is a recurring conversation for Board members, who have now critiqued the county engagement processes for being neither penetrative nor inclusive enough.
Currently, the county posts signs at and near near the sites of future land-use projects, per its zoning ordinances. It also prints advertisements in the Washington Times newspaper to meet state public notice laws.
The fliers posted this time around bore the wrong date: Feb. 19, or this Saturday, instead of Feb. 12, when the County Board actually met.
As a result, most of the hearing items impacted — including plans for a church moving to Ballston, a new daycare coming near Clarendon and a private school opening in a church near Crystal City — will be rescheduled for a meeting on Saturday, March 19.
A hearing for the Marbella Apartments, a forthcoming affordable housing project near Rosslyn, will be heard at a special meeting on Monday, Feb. 28 at 6:30 p.m. so that the project can meet an early March deadline to receive tax credits from Virginia Housing.
Those who spoke at the Saturday meeting will have their comments entered and don’t need to return, officials said.
“Unfortunately, [for] this error — which anyone can make an error like that — we didn’t have redundancy, which is something we’re going to address immediately,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said. “We’re going to be immediately improving our process to address this.”
Only one person reviewed the dates before the printed placards went out, he said. The newspaper advertisement, meanwhile, had the correct date, but County Board members mused about whether putting legal notices in the Washington Times, a conservative daily newspaper with a circulation around 50,000 in the D.C. area, is effective.
“This invites the question of not just ‘What went wrong here?’ but ‘What could go better in the future?'” Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey said. “Many have long decried our practice of advertising in the Washington Times, given its relatively low circulation in the county. While it meets the legal requirements, it doesn’t necessarily meet the spirit of broad notice.”
In Arlington, Board Chair Katie Cristol said, the challenge is that the county can choose broad circulation and additional expense with the Washington Post or low prices with the Washington Times.
She said she “would love” to advertise with an online news source, but state law mandates that such notices be placed in print publications.
“We have at least one of those where a lot of Arlingtonians get their news,” Cristol said. “We are constrained by state code from doing that — and some very effective lobbying from what I understand is the Virginia print industry, which is very interested in keeping that requirement the same.”
Virginia Press Association Executive Director Betsy Edwards says the current system “works very well for the majority of the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
(Updated 9:10 a.m. on 1/26/22) A second candidate for the new, metropolitan House of Delegates District 2 has emerged.
And Adele McClure, 32, says she was in the right place at the right time to even consider running. She was in the middle of moving apartments when the state Supreme Court accepted new district maps after a months-long redistricting process.
“The opportunity literally arose when I found out my old place was no longer in the district and the new place was,” said McClure, who is the Executive Director of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. “Isn’t that crazy? It felt like everything was aligning.”
If elected — and the election will likely be held in 2023 — McClure says she will increase funding for and expand affordable housing and homeownership opportunities, fully fund public schools, make healthcare more accessible and equitable, champion criminal justice reform and tackle climate change.
She said she will bring professional and personal experience to her role while, as a Black and Asian woman, representing marginalized perspectives in Arlington’s state delegation, which has been historically white. McClure has worked both in the legislative and executive branches of Virginia government and has lived experiences of the same issues she’s tackled professionally.
“I’ve been at the execute and implement stages, creating the legislation, getting it through and jumping it over to execution side to make sure that communities have the resources they need and connecting with folks to make sure the bill gets off the ground,” she said.
McClure says she experienced hunger and periodic homelessness growing up in the Alexandria portion of Fairfax County and attending the public schools there. In high school, she worked three jobs and took care of her niece and nephew while her brother was incarcerated. She was the first in her family to attend college, graduating in 2011 from the Virginia Commonwealth University.
“If you told me, as a little girl, I would be running to represent Arlington County, I would think it was so out of the realm of possibilities,” she said.
Since then, she has spent the last decade building up a resume of service in Arlington and in state politics.
After graduating from VCU, she moved to Arlington, where she lived until she decamped to Richmond to work under Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax as the policy director. (She resigned after he became the target of sexual assault allegations.)
She also ran the state Department of Housing & Community Development’s first eviction-prevention effort. Three years ago, McClure earned a spot in the law and policy category of the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 list and was elected to the Forbes Under 30 Global Board.
In Arlington, McClure has served on the county’s Action Plan for Ending Homelessness, the Board of Directors for the Alliance for Housing Solutions, the Community Services Board and on the CSB’s Substance Use Disorder committee, and the Continuum of Care homelessness outreach program.
She is involved in the Arlington County Democratic Committee, has volunteered during elections as an assistant precinct chief, and worked to establish the Dulles Justice Coalition, which provided interpreters and attorneys to travelers when former President Donald Trump’s travel ban went into effect.
“There are a lot of folks out there who can give a ton of background and lived experience with these policies,” she said. “I’m intentional about reaching out to those who will be closely impacted by the legislation.”
She’ll be going up against Nicole Merlene, a former candidate for State Senate and ARLnow columnist. Merlene has also made expanding affordable housing in her hometown of Arlington a top priority and has an extensive resume of local leadership.
Today (Friday) marks the last day lawmakers can file legislation to be considered in the 2022 session.
Several of the bills Arlington County legislators introduced align with County Board priorities — from making permanent electronic participation in public meetings to increasing state funding for affordable housing and including race and ethnicity on driver’s licenses.
They’ve also introduced legislation to address issues that came up in the community last year.
After residents exposed poor living conditions at the Serrano Apartments to ARLnow, Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49) pre-filed a handful of bills aimed at strengthening tenant protections. Lopez also appears to have taken inspiration from the Advanced Towing saga with a bill that would make tow truck driver violations subject to the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.
Here’s a roundup of some other bills Arlington’s lawmakers put forward.
- Independent policing auditor: This bill, House Bill 670, would allow Arlington County to appoint an independent policing auditor who will support the law enforcement Community Oversight Board that was created out of the Police Practices Group recommendations. Del. Patrick Hope (D-47) is chief patron of the bill.
- Law-enforcement officers; conduct of investigation: HB 870, which Lopez introduced, would require an officer who was involved in a shooting to be interviewed within 24 hours of the incident.
- Beverage container deposit and redemption program: HB 826, introduced by Hope, would establish a beverage container deposit, refund and redemption program involving distributors, retailers and consumers. There would be an advisory committee, required reporting and civil and criminal penalties for violations.
- Packaging Stewardship Program and Fund: The bill, HB 918, would allow the state Department of Environmental Quality to charge sellers in the commonwealth a fee for the amount of packaging their products use and if they’re easily recyclable. Those fees would be paid into a fund and used to reimburse participating localities for expenses related to recycling, invest in recycling infrastructure and education and pay the program’s administrative costs. Lopez introduced the bill.
- Parking of vehicles; electric vehicle charging spots; civil penalties: Senate Bill 278 prohibits a person from parking non-electric vehicles in electric vehicle charging spots. It sets a civil penalty between $100 and $250 with the possibility the vehicle is towed or impounded. Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) introduced the bill.
- Driving Decarbonization Program and Fund. This legislation, HB 351, would establish a program and a fund that would assist developers with non-utility costs associated with installation of electric vehicle charging stations. It was introduced by Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48).
- Insurance; paid family leave: SB 15, introduced by Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31), would establish paid family leave as a class of insurance that would pay for the income an employee loses after the birth of a child or because the employee is caring for a child or family member.
- Hospitals; financial assistance for uninsured patient, payment plans: This bill, SB 201, requires hospitals to screen every uninsured patient, determine if they’re eligible for financial assistance under the hospital’s plan and create a payment plan. The bill also prohibits certain collection actions. Favola introduced the bill.
- Constitutional amendment; marriage; fundamental right to marry, same-sex marriage prohibition: This constitutional amendment, SJ 5, would repeal the constitutional provision defining marriage as only a union between one man and one woman as well as the related provisions that are no longer valid as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015. Ebbin introduced the amendment.
- Absentee voting; verification by social security or driver’s license number: SB 273, introduced by Ebbin, would make optional the current absentee ballot witness signature requirement. It would give the voter the option to provide either the last four digits of their social security number or the voter’s valid Virginia driver’s license number instead.
Attorney General Jason Miyares won’t be axing a state investigation into potential housing discrimination against residents of the Serrano Apartments launched under his predecessor.
Early last week, the civil rights division of the Office of the Attorney General — led by former AG Mark Herring — began searching for evidence of discrimination against tenants based on their race, national origin and disability by local affordable housing developer AHC Inc., which owns the Columbia Pike affordable housing complex.
“The ultimate goal of this inquiry is to determine whether unlawful discrimination is taking place, and if so, to eliminate those discriminatory practices and ensure that non-discriminatory housing opportunities are available to all,” two attorneys with the OAG’s Office of Civil Rights division said in a letter to the local branch of the NAACP requesting any information the group may have.
A few days after the letter was sent, the future of the investigation was thrown into jeopardy when Miyares fired at least one of the letter’s co-authors, Helen Hardiman, after taking office last weekend, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
His dismissal of 30 staff — including 17 attorneys, the Richmond newspaper reports — generated a buzz over how his office will treat civil rights violations in Virginia.
This is incorrect. Only 2 personnel changes have been made out of a 12 person office.
The OAG looks forward to working with Sen. Lucas on these issues in the future. https://t.co/jgVmGW3XnL
— Victoria LaCivita (@VLaCivita) January 14, 2022
Despite these changes, the inquiry into the Serrano apartments is set to go forward, Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita said.
“The inquiry into the housing conditions will absolutely still happen and any wrongdoing found will be pursued to the fullest extent of the law,” LaCivita tells ARLnow. “We’ve brought in a team full of bright and dedicated lawyers who are looking forward to examining every case with a fresh perspective and working with the OAG staff.”
The inquiry, which the local branch of the NAACP publicized on Wednesday, comes nine months after residents and advocates told ARLnow about the poor living conditions at the Serrano (5535 Columbia Pike). They described rodent infestations and mold as well as deferred maintenance and disrespectful treatment by management.
In response, AHC says it has made a number of changes under the eye of the Arlington County Board, undertaking repairs, installing new leadership, adding communication channels and establishing a claims process for damaged belongings. The saga has inspired a handful of bills going before the Virginia House of Delegates and now, the OAG’s investigation.
Tenant advocates say they’re encouraged the Serrano saga reached the state level at all.
“It set a precedent,” longtime advocate Janeth Valenzuela tells ARLnow. “We want this to continue and I hope that Miyares will see this not as a political thing we are doing.”
The investigation will explore if AHC imposed discriminatory terms on residents or made discriminatory statements based on race and national origin or refused reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities, wrote Hardiman and fellow attorney Palmer Heenan.
Susan Cunningham, the interim CEO of AHC, responded to the inquiry in the following statement to ARLnow.
Arlington officially has a new Virginia House of Delegates district that has local Democrats talking about who will run for the seat. One hat has already been tossed into the ring as of today.
The Supreme Court of Virginia last week unanimously accepted new district maps for Virginia’s House of Delegates, the state Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. For Arlington’s Richmond representation, the maps created an entirely new House District 2 encompassing Arlington’s Metro corridors, and redrew boundaries for the state Senate.
Last fall, a newly-created bipartisan group, the Virginia Redistricting Commission, began the decennial process of redrawing district maps. When the group couldn’t agree on new maps, the courts appointed two “special masters” to draw the final maps.
The maps take effect in the next general election to be held for each office, says the Virginia Public Access Project, which would be this year for U.S. Congress, 2023 for state Senate and this year or 2023 for the House of Delegates.
The new maps divide Arlington into House Districts 1, 2 and 3, which are mostly contained within county lines, save for part of District 3, which extends into part of the City of Alexandria.
House District 2 includes Rosslyn, Courthouse, Clarendon, Virginia Square, Ballston, Crystal City and parts of Pentagon City. Those neighborhoods currently are part of House District 49 (represented by Del. Alfonso Lopez), House District 48 (represented by Del. Rip Sullivan), or House District 47 (represented by Del. Patrick Hope).
Sullivan, a McLean resident, has been redrawn out of Arlington and into the new District 6, which encompasses McLean and Great Falls.
Hope and Lopez also reside outside House District 2, according to a VPAP analysis, and some local Democrats are already thinking about who will represent the district, located within a populous, heavily Democratic part of Arlington.
— Blue Virginia (@bluevirginia) December 29, 2021
Former State Senate candidate Nicole Merlene officially threw her hat into the ring this morning (Monday).
“After decades of underrepresentation in the Virginia General Assembly, Arlington’s metro corridor now has the opportunity to have a voice,” Merlene, who also previously wrote an ARLnow opinion column, said in her campaign announcement.
If elected, she said she will “help expand middle class housing, require mental health parity in our healthcare system, expand childcare capacity and increase school funding, expand criminal justice reform to eradicate the disproportionate incarceration of Black people, and include environmental sustainability in all legislation.”
A former progressive Democrat candidate for the state house, Matt Rogers, told ARLnow he’s mulling a bid as well.
“My current plan is to go on active military duty this spring and deploy to the Middle East for an Army Reserve mission,” he said.
An oft-discussed potential pick for state legislature, County Board Vice-Chair Katie Cristol, was not available to comment. She is poised to become the next County Board Chair during the Board’s first meeting of 2022, rescheduled from today to tomorrow (Tuesday) due to snow.
With redistricting complete, the Arlington County Republican Committee says it intends to put forward qualified House candidates.
“We were delighted to see Republican candidates in each of Arlington’s House of Delegates districts in 2021, and we encourage former candidates and would-be candidates to get involved in their community and consider running for office,” said GOP Communications Director Matthew Hurtt.
A half-dozen bills are set to hit the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates in January that were inspired by the poor conditions at the Serrano Apartments and other Virginia affordable housing properties.
After residents exposed poor living conditions at the Columbia Pike apartment complex, Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49) tells ARLnow he began drafting bills to strengthen tenant rights and improve living conditions in affordable housing properties across the Commonwealth.
“I believe no one should have to go through what the folks at the Serrano went through,” said Lopez, whose district includes the Serrano, owned by affordable housing developer AHC Inc., as well a dozen other properties owned by AHC and other local developers.
Since residents and advocates came forward in an ARLnow article published in May, AHC has committed to making changes under the eye of the Arlington County Board, undertaking repairs, installing new leadership, adding communication channels and establishing a claims process for damaged belongings.
Lopez is proposing the following bills to protect tenants with livability grievances against their landlords:
- Include “bare minimum livable standards” in the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code
- Extend the period of time eligible for rent reimbursement for condemned properties
- Strengthen the prohibition against retaliatory evictions by landlords
- Institute a “warranty of habitability” clause that tenants can enforce against landlords whose properties don’t meet living basic standards
These are also four changes that former ARLnow opinion columnist Nicole Merlene called for after the conditions at the Serrano garnered widespread attention.
“I’m appreciative that Del. Lopez has been working with local stakeholders to ensure that tenants living in aging buildings will have enhanced rights moving forward,” Merlene, who co-chairs Arlington’s Tenant-Landlord Commission, tells ARLnow.
Lopez has pre-filed these and two bills unrelated to the Serrano. After they’re drafted by attorneys with the Virginia Division of Legislative Services, he’ll introduce them to the House of Delegates during the upcoming two-month General Assembly session, which begins in mid-January.
The first bill would make it easier and cheaper for residents to substantiate in court that their dwelling is unlivable. With “bare minimum” livable standards only found in the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, tenants must hire professional experts to testify on their behalf, Lopez says.
“If these basic standards were in the code, a county inspector would be able to file an abatement order and write a letter of attestation for use in court,” he said.
Advocates say the current court process, with the lawyers and experts required, dissuades tenants from asserting themselves.
The second would entitle residents to three months of rent if their residence is condemned and they have to vacate, since Lopez says the conditions wouldn’t have worsened “overnight.” Currently, tenants are only entitled to one month’s rent and their security deposit.
The third bill would protect tenants from being evicted six months after they bring problems to their property management or sue. Lopez said states with similar laws presume eviction is retaliatory if it happens within a six-month period.
“The reason that’s helpful is so that tenants aren’t scared to bring forward issues,” Merlene said.
Newly proposed redistricting maps would create a new Virginia House district in Arlington while potentially pitting long-time Senate incumbents against each other.
Last week, the Supreme Court of Virginia unveiled draft maps for the Virginia House of Delegates, the Virginia Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. The maps were drawn up by one Democrat and one Republican appointed by the court, after a non-partisan committee failed to complete the task earlier in the year.
The maps are based on 2020 census numbers and are not final. As mandated by federal and state law, districts are redrawn every decade based on new census data.
In the proposed maps, both the borders and numbering system of all the Virginia House districts are altered. The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) has a tool that allows residents to see which House, Senate or Congressional district they’d be in if these maps were approved.
While the proposed maps have those who follow state politics considering the Commonwealth’s future political alignment, in Arlington the potential redistricting does not alter the Democratic stronghold.
But the draft maps do take into account Arlington’s recent population growth, as 15% more people live in the county now compared to a decade ago.
The maps propose an entirely new House district that essentially encompasses Arlington’s Metro corridors, including Rosslyn, Courthouse, Clarendon, Virginia Square, Ballston, Crystal City and parts of Pentagon City.
Currently, those neighborhoods are either part of House District 49 (represented by Del. Alfonso Lopez), House District 48 (represented by Del. Rip Sullivan), or House District 47 (represented by Del. Patrick Hope).
None of these incumbents reside in the proposed newly-created House District 2, a VPAP analysis says, meaning there’s an empty seat that could be filled by a political newcomer.
“They redrew maps by shrinking the borders of the current districts,” said David Ramadan, professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a former Virginia House delegate for Loudoun County. “Because [the law] requires them to have a close to equal population. That’s why there’s a new district.”
The population of Arlington’s Metro corridors, purposefully, have grown tremendously in size over the last decade. In fact, a census tract within Ballston now has the highest density of population in the entire D.C. area.
Local officials are already taking notice of this potential new district in Arlington, which would likely add another Democrat to the Virginia House of Delegates.
Looks like Arlington would have an open House of Delegates district with this map—HD 2 including Ballston, Courthouse, Lyon Park, Rosslyn, and Crystal City https://t.co/sUkoK7YZkt
— Barbara Kanninen (@BarbaraKanninen) December 9, 2021
Senate maps, meanwhile, do not propose a new district, but they could pit two long-standing local Democrat incumbents against each other in the next primary election.
Janet Howell, first elected in 1991, currently represents Senate District 32, which covers Dominion Hills, East Falls Church and Westover as well as parts of Fairfax County. The new maps would see those Arlington neighborhoods moved to District 40.
A big chunk of the current Senate District 31, which includes Rosslyn, Ballston, Cherrydale, Columbia Pike, Pentagon City, Aurora Highlands and Arlington Ridge, will also become part of District 40. District 31 has been represented by Barbara Favola for a decade.
Pandemic recovery, childcare and criminal justice reform will be receiving millions in federal and county funds.
This week, the Arlington County Board voted to put federal COVID-19 relief funding and unspent county budget dollars toward these areas and other equity initiatives. Members also signaled the county’s commitment to these priorities by adopting them in their state legislative priority package.
It also put more than $6 million in surplus from the 2020-21 budget, or “closeout” funds, toward retention bonuses and compensation of county employees, support for restorative justice initiatives, review of body worn footage cameras and a new position in the Sheriff’s Office.
“Our American Rescue Plan and closeout funding allocations focus on our continued responsibility to keep our community healthy and safe, providing funding for testing, vaccine support and COVID response,” County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti said. “We also are investing in mental health care through the Crisis Intervention Center and childcare, a critical issue that the pandemic has revealed as more pressing than ever, as well as transportation and our employees.”
Since the plans were introduced in October, the county added some line items to the ARPA and “closeout” spending plans. Two of particular note include money to establish a childcare capital fund and to hire a quality assurance employee for the Arlington County jail.
The Board left $2.4 million ARPA funds unallocated to meet any unforeseen needs determined in 2022, as well as $14.1 million in unallocated close-out funds to address financial pressures in upcoming 2022-2023 budget.
Direct pandemic response — such as testing site and vaccine clinic support — received $9 million while local programs, ranging from housing assistance to the expansion of the Crisis Intervention Center for behavioral health services, received $20.5 million.
New to the ARPA spending plan is $5 million to develop affordable childcare options, spearheaded by childcare champion and Board Vice-Chair Katie Cristol.
“ARPA federal guidelines highlight some of the uses for it: they include investment in new or expanded learning services, support for pandemic-impacted small businesses and support to disproportionately impacted populations and communities. One thing at the center of those three circles of the Venn diagram is childcare,” she said during the Board meeting on Tuesday. “This has emerged as one of the top needs during the pandemic.”
Arlington has increased the number of available childcare slots, but they are not affordable to those making 50% or less of the Area Median Income, she said.
The county would put the $5 million toward a new childcare capital fund to be accessed by providers and developers who agree to set aside some affordable spots on an ongoing basis in exchange for a one-time infusion of dollars.
The result would be permanently discounted childcare spots created at the time a provider signs a long-term lease or a developer receives approval to build a childcare center, she said.
Before Tuesday night, the Board had previously allocated $2 million in ARPA funds for small business support and $3.8 million for restoring libraries, community centers and other important community facing programs.
After Republican victories in Virginia last Tuesday, Arlington’s Democratic state legislators say their focus is preserving policy gains they made over the last few years.
Last week, Virginians elected Glenn Youngkin as Governor, Winsome Sears as Lieutenant Governor and Jason Miyares as Attorney General. Despite a slight shift right, Arlington overwhelmingly elected and re-elected all Democrat lawmakers.
“My top priorities are defense, defense and defense,” Rep. Rip Sullivan (D-48) told County Board members yesterday afternoon. “In light of last Tuesday, there are a lot of things that I’ll be interested in making sure we can preserve, in terms of things that have been accomplished over the last couple of years.”
County Board members met Tuesday with state lawmakers to outline the Board’s priorities for the upcoming legislative session — such as vehicle noise enforcement and virtual government meetings — and hear what legislators are focused on.
Among House representatives and state senators, there was an emphasis on preserving work done under outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam.
“In terms of playing defense, as whip for the House Democratic caucus, we are going to be incredibly vigilant in making sure that all of the progress we’ve made [is] not whittled away at the 11th hour, 59th minute, at 7 a.m. subcommittee meetings — that we are casting a very bright light on all the actions taken on the House floor so there’s a very clear record at the end of this long session that people know what they voted for,” said Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49).
Looking to inject some optimism into the conversation, Board Member Christian Dorsey asked what areas could see bipartisan support. Legislators predicted bridging the aisle to reduce medical debt, expand broadband access, support small businesses, incentivize community college for in-demand jobs, fund mental health services and increase teacher pay.
More locally, the County Board and their state representatives had a number of overlapping priorities: allowing electronic meetings post-pandemic; improving access to childcare; firming up the rights of affordable housing tenants; and committing to environmental sustainability initiatives and teacher pay raises.
Top of mind for County Board members, however, is what they describe as an ongoing behavioral health crisis caused by the closure of most state psychiatric hospitals this summer and exacerbated by police and mental health services workforce shortages. The Board and county staff made the case for more state funding for community-based mental health services.
“This is very time sensitive and very important as we try to serve those most in need in Arlington,” Board Chair Matt de Ferranti said.
Without sufficient state beds to which to bring people in crisis, police have to detain people against their will in emergency rooms for multiple days while staff in the Department of Human Services make calls around the clock, searching for beds.
“They have no privacy, they’re in police custody day after day,” Arlington County Police Department Capt. Michael Rowling said. “I can’t imagine they’re getting better — they’re not getting treatment whatsoever.”
On a daily basis there are five to 10 individuals attended by police officers in the emergency department of Virginia Hospital Center waiting for a mental health bed, Human Services Deputy Director Deborah Warren said.
“It’s inhumane,” she said. “On the worst day of their lives, [people in crisis] are handcuffed to a gurney, under police supervision, agitated and maybe getting sedation.”
The race for the 45th District House of Delegates seat is a weird one.
Delegate Mark Levine announced in December that he would be running for Lieutenant Governor. A month later, Alexandria Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker announced that she would be running for Levine’s delegate seat. The wrinkle in all of this, however, is that Levine is also running for reelection in the 45th district as a precaution in case he doesn’t win the fairly crowded Lieutenant Governor primary.
He’s not alone in this — running for two seats is legal in Virginia — but it leaves the 45th district in an awkward Schrödinger’s cat-type race where Bennett-Parker is simultaneously running and not running against Levine.
“It’s a weird situation,” Levine admitted. “I never expected this to happen. [But] it’s legal under Virginia law. I think I’ve been a good delegate and the people should re-elect me. If I win both, I’ll resign from the 45th district and there will be a special election.”
(The 45th District itself is a bit odd, encompassing some of the residential neighborhoods around Pentagon City to the north; Shirlington and Fairlington to the west; Del Ray, Potomac Yard and Old Town Alexandria in the center; and a narrow corner of Fairfax County to the south.)
Levine, a former radio talk show host, was elected in 2015 and campaigned for stricter gun control regulations and expanding healthcare access, among other progressive goals. Levine, like many Democrats in the state legislature, has found it easier to make good on those campaign promises after Democrats took the majority in 2019.
“This year, the predominant gun regulations have been my bills and in all state-owned buildings and offices and polling places,” Levine said. “Introduced 47 bills and passed half of them… and it wasn’t my bill on marijuana legalization that passed, but I led the way.”
Bennett-Parker, co-director of the nonprofit Together We Bake, was elected to the Alexandria City Council in 2019 and said her experience working in local government would bring a unique perspective to the state legislature.
“First, having served as Vice Mayor, I understand the nuance of the role that local government plays in people’s lives and how the state is often an impediment to localities in serving their residents,” Bennett-Parker said. “Currently there are only 18 Delegates out of 100 who have served in city or county government and none of them are from Northern Virginia. Obviously, we face different issues than other parts of the Commonwealth. I hear from constituents all the time who want the City Council to do things that we can’t do because we don’t have the authority.”
Bennett-Parker also noted that she would be the minority in a government body that is still 70% male.
“Women have for too long been held back by governmental policies and programs designed by men,” Bennett-Parker said.
Bennett-Parker’s nonprofit, Together We Bake, is an Alexandria-based workforce training program that helps women exiting the criminal justice system, experiencing homelessness, recovering from abuse or addiction, or facing unemployment.
Bennett-Parker has been reluctant to criticize Levine openly, saying instead that she aims to focus on campaign goals.
“When I decided to run, this race looked like it would be an open seat, as Delegate Levine had announced he was running for Lieutenant Governor,” Bennett-Parker said. “I am focused solely on this district and serving its residents. I have delivered results for the 45th district as Vice Mayor and on regional bodies, and I will keep doing so in Richmond.”
(Levine’s campaign says he announced he was running for re-election at the same time as his lieutenant governor announcement.)
Levine, in contrast, has no qualms about saying that he doesn’t think Bennett-Parker is the right candidate to replace him as the 45th District delegate.
“No, I don’t think so,” Levine said when asked if he thought Bennett-Parker would make a good replacement.
Levine said that part of his role as delegate has been taking an active role in community meetings and discussions, something he says he hasn’t seen from Bennett-Parker.
“I absolutely have not neglected my community,” Levine said. “We had a shooting in Old Town on Monday night. I was at a community meeting with Police Chief Michael Brown. [Bennett-Parker] wasn’t there. It was a room full of concerned constituents and she wasn’t there… I was out at a COVID memorial. I was there. [Mayor Justin] Wilson was there. [City Council member Mo] Seifeldein and [City Council member Canek] Aguirre were there. You know who wasn’t there? Elizabeth Bennet-Parker. I’m more active in the community every day and I don’t see her.”
Some of Levine’s peers have disagreed with his assessment, however, with Bennett-Parker winning endorsements from state Senator Adam Ebbin and former delegates Marian Van Landingham and Rob Krupicka, among others. She was most recently endorsed by Arlington County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti, according to an announcement this morning.
While much of Levine’s campaign finance has been focused on the statewide race, in the 45th District Bennett-Parker has raised twice as much as Levine’s campaign for delegate.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Bennett-Parker has raised $106,434 to Levine’s $45,573 — though Levine has raised $705,284 in the lieutenant governor race. Bennett-Parker’s top donors include attorney and Democratic financier Sonjia Smith, Levine’s 2015 opponent Julie Jakopic, and Alexandria School Board member Veronica Nolan.
For both Levine and Bennett-Parker, expanding healthcare and combatting the effects of climate change are two of the major priorities ahead for the state legislature.
“In terms of fights ahead: healthcare is the big one,” Levine said. “We need affordable healthcare. I think healthcare needs to be more transparent and we need to make sure people aren’t being bankrupted by healthcare costs.”
Bennett-Parker said the state should take the momentum from expanding Medicaid and keep moving forward.
“Expanding access to affordable health care,” Bennett-Parker said, when asked about her top priorities. “Expanding Medicaid was an important step in the right direction, but we need to do more to make healthcare, including mental healthcare, more accessible and affordable for all Virginians. We also need to find a way to lower prescription drug prices, especially for seniors.”