The primary race for Virginia’s 37th Senate District pits an “old-fashioned” incumbent against a “progressive” who’s relatively new in Virginia politics.
Facing off for the Democratic nomination are longtime state Sen. Chap Petersen and Fairfax Young Democrats vice president Saddam Azlan Salim. Last week, a second challenger, Erika Yalowitz, dropped out to support Salim.
On the surface, the race is a classic match-up between a veteran lawmaker and a fresh face, but the candidates also have considerable political and policy differences, as evidenced in a recent debate that touched on Virginia as a “right to work” state, healthcare access and reproductive rights for women, and gun laws.
In an interview with FFXnow, Salim said he decided to run because he feels Petersen no longer reflects the political and population demographics in the 37th District, which includes Vienna, Tysons, Merrifield, and the cities of Falls Church and Fairfax.
“When I started talking to community leaders…about what they were looking for in a future senator, they wanted somebody who’s progressive,” Salim told FFXnow, “…when it comes to affordable housing, when it comes to the environment, when it comes to reproductive rights…and they’re not getting that from their current senator.”
Petersen told FFXnow he doesn’t “get caught up in ideology” and instead focuses on improving people’s lives in the community, calling himself “old-fashioned.”
He acknowledges the demographics in the district he currently represents and the new one created by redistricting have changed, becoming more diverse and “more oriented toward an immigrant population.” However, he says residents have the same basic concerns.
“A lot of the sort of older population that had worked at the Department of Defense, worked at the Pentagon has retired or moved. So, that core Republican constituency is diminished,” Petersen said. “I don’t think that necessarily changes the issues, per se. When I go door to door, people talk about property taxes. People talk about frustrations with the school system. [It] doesn’t change the state and local issues.”
One of those issues regionally is affordable housing, both candidates agreed. Salim said an insufficient supply has prevented essential county workers from living in the place they serve.
“Teachers can’t afford to live in this area. Richmond has the ability to work together with localities, to find workforce housing that works for workers that are in the county,” Salim said, charging Petersen with not being vocal enough about the need “to ensure that teachers stay in the area.”
Building new developments and housing around public transportation would help teachers and other workers more easily get where they need to go without relying on a car, Salim noted.
Petersen agrees about the need for more dense and vertical housing around public transportation hubs, but cautions that there isn’t “one great solution.”
In Fairfax City, where Petersen was a city council member in the late 1990s, a program called the Renaissance Housing Corporation provides no-interest loans to people who bought old, dilapidated and abandoned properties to fix them up with their own money.
Petersen said those places could offer “some type of temporary housing or at least give people an option.” He has also advocated for split-rate taxation, which would lower the tax rate for property improvements relative to building on undeveloped land.
“Raw land really becomes a tax burden,” he said. “You’re incentivized to develop it, and that’s something that other localities have used to incentivize development in the places where you want it.”
The two also diverge on the Dillon Rule, which limits local powers to those expressly granted to them by the state — something Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay has said is becoming more intrusive in day-to-day operations.
Salim says Virginia should eliminate the Dillion Rule due to its restrictiveness on localities, specifically Fairfax County. He believes it has directly impacted the county’s ability to innovate, move quickly on seemingly simple policy, and diversify its taxes.
While he agrees the state should ease restrictions on the county, Petersen doesn’t think the Dillion Rule should be eliminated, saying he believes it’s important to have uniformity in state law.
Petersen said he can foresee the General Assembly expanding the county’s authority on zoning and “certain tax issues,” but he opposes the idea of a local personal income tax.
“I disagree with Jeff [McKay] on having a local income tax. I’ve never agreed with that,” Petersen said. “I think that one of the reasons why people relocate to Fairfax as opposed to, say, Maryland, is because we don’t have a local income tax. I think that [tax is] a disincentive for business and for the residents.”
Expressing support for an assault weapon ban, Salim noted his opponent’s involvement in blocking legislation in 2020 that would have restricted sales and outlawed certain firearms. Petersen said the bill raised “constitutional issues.”
Salim also criticized the incumbent as not doing enough to support reproductive rights by protesting, setting up more health care clinics in the district and “standing up” to conservatives. Petersen said at last week’s debate that he would support amending the state constitution to ensure individuals can choose their own health care.
As Petersen’s first challenger in over a decade, Salim may face a tough road in the primary. The incumbent has out-raised him by more than 10 to 1, per recently filed campaign finance reports.
Plus, with so many experienced lawmakers retiring, Democratic voters may question whether they’re willing to lose another veteran legislator.
“Would I like to step into those shoes and be that leader? Yes, I would,” Petersen said about his potential position as one of the state’s longest-tenured senators. “But no one automatically qualified for reelection because they’re an incumbent. That’s why I’m out knocking on doors every night after dark, because I’ve got to earn it.”
If reelected, Petersen says he’ll continue voting “the way that my constituents will expect, which is keeping Virginia as a pro-education, pro-business, and a welcoming environment.”
Salim thinks the senate needs more progressives who he believes will better represent the constituents of the 37th District.
“This is the movement where we’re going to start electing more progressive,” he said. “We’re going to start electing folks that are from different backgrounds, financial backgrounds, and healthcare backgrounds, public service backgrounds. They’re going to shape the future of Virginia.”
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