Around Town

With special election coming, Mark Keam reflects on representing 35th District

Mark Keam served as delegate for Virginia’s 35th House District for 13 years (courtesy Mark Keam)

Mark Keam’s 13-year tenure in the Virginia General Assembly has come to a close.

After accepting a position in the Office of National Travel and Tourism in the Biden administration, Keam announced on Tuesday (Sept. 6) that he has submitted his resignation as delegate for the 35th House District, which includes Tysons, Vienna, Dunn Loring, Oakton and Fair Oaks.

Vying to succeed him in a special election set for Jan. 10 — one day before the legislature convenes for its 2023 session — will be Providence District School Board Representative Karl Frisch and BRAWS Executive Director Holly Seibold. Candidates can file to run until 5 p.m. on Nov. 14.

In a brief interview with FFXnow, Keam reflected on legislative highlights from his six-and-a-half terms in office, the increased diversity of the General Assembly, and his advice for the district’s next delegate.

(Editor’s note: The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

What are the accomplishments you’re most proud of?

I’ve been very, very honored and fortunate to work on many, many issues…I’ve been able to pass, last time I counted, it was about 120 bills that I drafted myself, either under my name or something I drafted was incorporated into somebody else’s bill.

Among them, I think the one that stands out the most to me in terms of significance and [that] I feel very proud of is the Virginia Environmental Justice Act. It requires Virginia state government agencies, as they’re issuing permits and authorizations, to look at the environmental justice impact, not just in terms of how much it’s going to cost and the economics, but also who’s going to be harmed and who’s going to be benefitted from something where we’re allowing — let’s say, for example, a pipeline to go through a neighborhood or we’re building something that’s going to create smog and pollution. Because unfortunately, a lot of environmental impact, the worst part falls on people of color and minorities, poor people, uneducated people who don’t have a voice in our government.

…Another one I’m very proud of supporting and pushing through after years and years of trying is the Solar Freedom Act, which means that we allow now solar energy to be provided a lot more accessibly for families and homes and businesses and local governments, so that was something that I was very proud to do.

I think the other thing I was really, really proud to accomplish is I worked for years to get rid of the taxes on tampons and personal hygiene products, because I think that’s so discriminatory for women to have to pay taxes on tampons and menstrual pads. Guys never have to do that, so I always thought that was an unfair thing, and after working for years and years, I put the first bill in in 2016, and after working for five years, Governor Youngkin’s budget actually gets rid of that now. We were able to accomplish that, so I feel good about that.

…Throughout my career, I’ve tried to find issues that people are ignoring or those issues where people don’t think are that important because it doesn’t affect them directly, but in my mind, it affects a lot of people, and why wouldn’t we want to help people whose lives would be impacted if there’s a way we can make sure the government can be there for them. So, I look for ways to make a difference with issues like that, and as a result, I think I was able to find a lot of innovative ways to do things.

And frankly, what I’m most proud of is that most bills that I’ve passed into law were done in a very bipartisan way. There are very few bills that I did that were purely partisan, because…I guess you’d have to ask other people how they thought about me, but I’ve always thought that I was very reasonable, somebody that could work with anybody. So, when I did things, I didn’t want people to think that I had some kind of agenda, that I was actually doing it for the right reasons.

As a result of that, I think I was able to get a lot done, a lot more bills passed than most people have in their careers, and I’ve always looked for ways to make a difference, so when I was done with the job, people can say that I actually made a difference.

Since you announced your resignation, Karl Frisch and Holly Seibold have said they’re going to run in the special election. What are your hopes for the next delegate?

I’m not going to take a side during a primary. I normally don’t get involved in primary elections. I think it’s always good for people to run and fight for themselves as opposed to having other people endorsing them. I think they’re both good people. I like them both personally. I’ve known them both for a long time. I think either of them would be excellent in terms of representing my district.

What I would like for them to do is just the way I’ve done it. Just focus on things that are really meaningful to the constituents, and it’s easy to fall into partisan traps, especially now. Everybody’s so partisan all the time. It’s easy to find things that are wedge issues, that just galvanize the extremes, but what I think are important are things that really matter to the average person, so things that might not be exciting, but things like working on traffic congestion, looking for ways that our schools can be the best they can be for kids, preschool in particular, and for kids that don’t have access to parents or daycare. We want to have schools that are available to everybody in meaningful ways, and [have] teachers that are highly qualified, but I’m also looking ahead.

We want Virginia to be a great state for future jobs, so having innovative programs from K-12 to college and beyond, I always look for things like that. I try to think about what’s coming down the pipe, not just what’s in front of us now…What’s happening in the future and how do we ensure that Virginia remains at the top of our game in the future? So, I think if you can avoid partisan politics as much as possible, and focus on commonsense things that everybody agrees on, I think, in the long run, those are better policies for people that care about these issues.

Is there anything else you want to say?

I’ve really, really been honored to have done this job. I can’t thank people enough for letting me have this opportunity to represent them for so long, 13 years. I never thought I would be doing this for this long, but I enjoyed every second of it, and I was very proud that I saw, while I’ve been in office, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of diversity and change in our state demographics.

When I was first elected, I was the first person from Asia to be elected, but now, we have enough that we actually formed a caucus. We have the Asian American caucus. When I was first elected, there were very few people that had a diversity of religion and sexual orientation, different kinds of backgrounds, but now we do, because there’s so many people that come from every background possible representing us in the General Assembly, and I think that’s a good thing, to have diversity. So, as Virginia’s diversity has changed as a state, our political representation has also reflected that, and I think that’s a good thing.