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Fairfax County Democrats oust two established senators, as incumbents prevail in local races

Fairfax County’s General Assembly delegation will look drastically different next year after a pivotal Democratic primary yesterday (Tuesday) that also bolstered incumbents in most county-level races.

In two upsets, Sully District school board representative Stella Pekarsky eked out a win over veteran state Sen. George Barker for the 36th District nomination, while Fairfax Young Democrats vice president Saddam Azlan Salim ousted Sen. Chap Petersen in the 37th District.

Currently in her first term on the Fairfax County School Board after getting elected in 2019, Pekarsky received 52.2% of the vote — just 662 more votes than Barker, according to unofficial results from the Virginia Department of Elections.

First elected in 2007, Barker was pursuing a fifth term in the state Senate. Encompassing Chantilly, Centreville and Clifton, the 36th District was created by the Virginia Supreme Court during the 2021 redistricting process and includes just a portion of Barker’s former 39th District.

In a statement, Pekarsky thanked Barker “for a hard fought campaign on the issues.”

“Our constituents benefited from the conversation and I look forward to uniting behind our shared vision of standing up for Democratic values,” she said. “I am running to stand up for public education, protect abortion access, keep our community safe from gun violence, and build a brighter future for the next generation. I look forward to sharing that message with every voter in the district leading up to November’s election.”

Pekarsky will face Republican nominee Julie Perry, a history teacher, in the general election on Nov. 7.

In the 37th District, which covers Tysons, Fairfax City, Vienna, Oakton, Falls Church and Merrifield, Salim beat Petersen by 999 votes, or 53.8%. He campaigned as a progressive alternative to the more conservative Petersen, challenging the incumbent on issues like gun violence prevention and reproductive rights.

“This was an incredible grassroots movement of constituents all across the district and we achieved this victory together,” Salim said in a statement. “I look forward to being your Democratic nominee and continuing our fight for the issues that we care about: gun violence prevention, affordable housing, reproductive rights and so much more.”

If he wins in November, when he will face Republican nominee Ken Reid, Salim will become the first Bangladeshi-American elected to Virginia’s state Senate, according to his campaign.

First elected to the House of Delegates in 2001 before moving to the Senate in 2008, Petersen presented himself as a business-friendly, “common sense” candidate. In a statement to supporters, he admitted “the results last night were not what we expected but that happens in a democracy,” congratulating Salim on earning the nomination.

“My term in office and my season in politics is coming to a close,” Petersen said. “I want to thank everyone who helped me in any way along this long and winding journey, especially over the last six months. We ran a positive campaign for re-election based on my past record as a Senator. It didn’t work this time and I bear all responsibility.”

Notably, Petersen and Barker both significantly outraised their challengers, reporting over $1 million each in campaign contributions, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. In comparison, Salim raised just $188,653, and Pekarsky got a total of $639,435.

The Democratic nominees in the other General Assembly races on the primary ballot are:

Incumbents prevail in county races

In contrast to the fluctating state-level contests, incumbents prevailed in all of the local races where they were on the ballot.

In the most contentious race, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano stayed on track for a second term by beating challenging defense lawyer Ed Nuttall with 53.4% of the vote. After Descano jumped out to an initial 60% lead, Nuttall made some gains as the count continued, but ended the night at a 9,151-vote deficit.

Thanking Nuttall for campaigning and “allowing us to have a referendum on the future of justice reform,” Descano described his victory as a show of support for his office’s reform efforts, including the elimination of cash bail and an increased focus on diversion.

“We won because the people of Fairfax County share our vision of justice that treats people fairly, no matter the color of their skin or how much money they have in their bank accounts,” he said in a statement. “…The people have spoken, and I’m excited to continue fighting for their values and building a better justice system for our county.”

A former prosecutor for Fairfax County, Nuttall accused Descano of ignoring victims and public safety, while Descano blasted Nuttall as “not a real Democrat” and for his work defending police officers as general counsel to the Fraternal Order of Police Fairfax Lodge 77.

Nuttall, who campaigned on a “common sense team” ticket with Petersen and Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, posted a statement congratulating Descano on his win this morning.

“We started this campaign back in February to give voices to victims of violent crime,” Nuttall said. “I believe we have accomplished that. The support from my family, friends, volunteers and courthouse community has been amazing. Thank you to all who worked so hard and ran such a positive, straightforward campaign.”

No Republican candidates have stepped forward to challenge Descano in November.

Descano’s victory was matched by primary wins for Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Loudoun Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj, who were similarly elected on reform platforms in 2019 and have since faced criticisms of their approaches to crime, handling of victims and office management abilities.

Seeking a third full term as the county’s first and only female sheriff so far, Kincaid ran away with 75% of the vote to defeat challenger Kelvin Garcia, a former D.C. police officer and football coach for Herndon High School who positioned himself as a progressive candidate.

On the Board of Supervisors, Chairman Jeff McKay and Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck defeated challengers Lisa Downing and Maritza Zermeno.

Former Dranesville District Democratic Committee chair Jimmy Bierman beat McLean Citizens Association board member David R. Fiske in his bid to succeed longtime Supervisor John Foust, while local tech entrepreneur Albert Vega topped county firefighter John Nowadly for the chance to unseat Republican Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity.

In the most crowded local race, Mason District Planning Commissioner Andres Jimenez edged out local business owner Reid Voss by just 275 votes. He received 35.2% of the vote in the four-way battle for Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross’s successor, also defeating Rep. Don Beyer staffer Jeremy Allen and business owner Steve Lee.

Voter turnout exceeds 2019 Democratic primary

After a slow start, the county’s voter turnout for the primary ultimately exceeded participation in the 2019 Democratic primary, the last time local races were on the ballot.

According to the Fairfax County Office of Elections results, there were 86,896 ballots cast in the primary representing 12.1% of the county’s 717,153 active, registered voters. Most of those ballots (52,926) were cast yesterday, with 16,598 ballots coming through early voting and 17,372 ballots sent in by mail.

The 2019 primary saw a 10.3% turnout, totaling 74,022 votes cast out of 721,716 active, registered voters.

Mailed ballots can be counted up until noon on Friday (June 23), as long as they were postmarked on or before the day of the election. The county’s Electoral Board met this morning to begin canvassing, a process that will also add any provisional ballots to the tally.

While a formal analysis hasn’t been conducted, there has been “a slight increase” in provisional ballots since Virginia introduced same-day voter registration last year, according to an Office of Elections spokesperson. The option first became available with the Congressional midterms last November.

The county will send its results to the state by next Tuesday (June 27) for official certification.

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