Yasmine Taeb, a human rights attorney and Democratic National Committee official, announced Thursday that she is challenging Virginia Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw in the state’s June Democratic primary.
Taeb, senior policy counsel at the Center for Victims of Torture, is taking on Saslaw, a veteran lawmaker known for his coziness with big business, from the left.
If successful, Taeb’s challenge would shift Democratic governance in Virginia in a more populist direction. Saslaw, who represents the state’s 35th Senate District, has served in the legislature since 1976 and in the state Senate since 1980. He would become majority leader if Democrats take back the chamber in the November 2019 elections.
“The district is the most Democratic district in the entire state and yet it’s being represented by one of the most conservative Democrats in the general Assembly,” Taeb told HuffPost. “The voters of the 35th Senate District deserve to have someone represent them who is a real progressive and someone who is going to be fighting for their values.”
Taeb is part of a new wave of progressive activists challenging the Democratic establishment in influential but oft-ignored state legislatures.
In fact, as last week’s New York primaries attest, the activist left has had far more success making inroads in state legislatures than statewide posts or congressional seats.
In Virginia, a new progressive cohort has already transformed the way the state regulates its famously powerful electric utility companies, Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power. Twelve of the new freshman Democrats elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in November took a pledge not to accept contributions from the two monopolies; one of them is a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
These freshmen helped lead a surprise legislative victory over the monopolies in February when they forced passage of a provision barring the utility companies from double-charging ratepayers on infrastructure upgrades.
If we are serious about supporting millennials and women and candidates of color, this should be greeted with open arms by the establishment. Yasmine Taeb
Taeb plans to make Saslaw’s ties to Dominion, in particular, a major issue in her primary challenge. Saslaw, who has received over $350,000 from Dominion in the course of his career ― more than any other state lawmaker ― argued against the double-charging prohibition on the grounds that “the donors got some experts, too,” and unlike Virginia’s Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, those experts had determined that the bill did not allow double-charging.
Although Virginia state law allows unlimited direct contributions from corporations, Taeb has committed to refuse any such money, including from Dominion or Appalachian. She supports tougher oversight of the two monopolies, and opposes two natural gas pipelines that are due to traverse the state, one of which is being built by Dominion.
“Dominion is ripping off Virginia families and pushing through unnecessary and dangerous pipelines,” Taeb said.
At the same time, Taeb is not running on one issue alone. She advocates a $15 minimum wage, campaign finance reform, measures to reform the criminal justice system, an end to the death penalty and better representation for the district’s marginalized communities. (In 2017, Saslaw abstained on a committee vote tabling a Democratic-sponsored bill gradually raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour; Saslaw is also an ardent advocate for the death penalty.)
Taeb, an observant Muslim, also plans to run as a champion of her fellow millennials, immigrants and people of color in a northern Virginia district that includes diverse pockets of Fairfax County, Falls Church and Alexandria. It is a majority-minority district: just 40 percent of residents are non-Hispanic whites.
“If we’re serious about being Democrats, about making sure that the people in office are great representatives ― if we are serious about supporting millennials and women and candidates of color, this should be greeted with open arms by the establishment,” Taeb said.
Taeb’s parents fled Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. As a young girl, Taeb sneaked into the United States through the U.S.-Mexico border with her mother and siblings, only obtaining permanent legal status and citizenship years later.
Taeb recounts the ordeal in a 3-minute campaign announcement video.
“This country, my country, has given me everything,” she says. “And I am determined to give every one of my neighbors that same opportunity.”
Taeb’s personal experience has inspired her career as an advocate for immigrant rights, civil liberties and less interventionist U.S. policies in the Middle East. She previously served as the legislative director for human rights and civil liberties at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
Taeb was a key organizer of Washington-based protests against President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban in the months after his inauguration. And in her capacity as an attorney for the Center for Victims of Torture, she helped lead public opposition to the confirmation of Gina Haspel as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
In the video, Taeb also notes that she graduated from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the site of a deadly mass shooting in February that sparked a wave of activism for greater gun regulations. Aaron Feis, a classmate of Taeb’s who became the school’s assistant football coach, was among those killed in the massacre.
Shortly after the shooting, Taeb and DNC Chairman Tom Perez co-authored an open letter to the shooting’s survivors endorsing stronger background checks, banning high-capacity magazines and assault rifles, and using a public health approach to tackle gun violence. “We give you our word that the Democratic Party will work to prevent anything like what happened at your school from happening again,” they wrote.
In addition, as one of Virginia’s representatives to the Democratic National Committee, Taeb has been a staunch supporter of efforts to reform the party’s presidential nominating process, including the successful drive to strip superdelegates of their power and make caucuses more successful.
While Taeb has been active in Virginia’s Democratic politics for years, she is also a fixture in the party’s insurgent wing, having backed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) presidential run, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison’s bid for DNC chair and Tom Perriello’s Virginia gubernatorial run ― all three of which were unsuccessful.
Taeb has yet to secure the backing of the Clean Virginia Project, an independent PAC focused on taking on the state’s powerful electric monopolies.
But she does have the endorsements of dozens of prominent Virginia Democrats, including Koran Saines, a member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors; David Jonas, the policy director for Perriello’s gubernatorial campaign; Julie Emery, executive director of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table; Jennifer Lewis, Democratic nominee in Virginia’s 6th Congressional District; and Josh Stanfield, Lewis’ campaign manager and a founder of Activate Virginia, the group that created the pledge not to accept Dominion and Appalachian donations.
She has also picked up the support of national figures like Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action; Leah Greenberg, co-founder of the Indivisible Guide; Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council; Jorge Quintana, vice chair of the DNC’s Hispanic Caucus; and Michael Kapp, chairman of the DNC Youth Council.
Taeb nonetheless faces formidable challenges in her bid. She moved to Falls Church from neighboring Arlington this year, leaving her open to charges of opportunism.
Taeb has a preemptive rebuttal at the ready. “It’s mainly because of my close work with refugees and immigrant communities that I moved to the diverse district,” she said.
And Saslaw, who has never had a primary challenge, already has over $1 million on hand for his re-election bid. After Dominion, his top donors this cycle are Verizon and the Virginia Bankers Association. He has also received $25,000 from Altria, a central Virginia-based tobacco giant.
Taeb is already coming up against stiff resistance from powerful Democrats and interest groups.
In an email to Taeb supporter Boyd Walker obtained by HuffPost, Gail Gordon, a Virginia-based Democratic attorney, activist and fundraiser, warned Walker that Taeb “can’t win this. Saslaw’s district is a bunch of old rich people and they love him.”
“I will also personally work to fuck up anybody who prevents us from taking back the Senate and House of Delegates,” Gordon added. “This is our big chance. I don’t give a damn if people don’t like Saslaw and I don’t give a damn about Dominion.”
Gordon is a volunteer attorney for Protect the Vote, and a founder of the Bad Ass Women PAC, which raises money for women candidates, but will not be aiding Taeb. Gordon is also active in a local chapter of the gun control group Moms Demand Action, though her views do not reflect those of the organization.
In fact, it is hard to imagine any scenario where Democrats lose Virginia’s 35th Senate District. The Northern Virginia seat is solidly Democratic, regularly re-electing Saslaw with over 75 percent of the vote in the general election. In 2015, Saslaw’s only opponent was an independent green candidate; there was no Republican on the ballot.
Gordon emphasized in a follow-up conversation that Saslaw’s fundraising capacity was unparalleled.
“If he has to use his own campaign funds to fund a primary rather than give that money to other Democrats in seats we don’t have, we could lose the majority in the General Assembly,” she said.
This story has been updated to include comment from Gail Gordon.