A veteran legislator and a fresh face contend for Virginia’s 36th House District seat

Ken Plum is not used to being challenged.

It has been more than two decades since the long-time delegate for Virginia’s 36th House District last faced a primary opponent, but Plum seems to welcome the challenge presented by Mary Barthelson, who declared her candidacy on March 17.

“I could say it’s inconvenient for me, but it’s a good thing for democracy to have other people get in the ring,” Plum told Reston Now.

Early voting is currently underway in Fairfax County for the June 8 Democratic primary, where Plum and Barthelson are vying for the chance to face Republican Matt Lang in November’s general election.

As the race stands now, Plum has established a comfortable advantage, at least when it comes to finances.

The latest campaign filings indicate that Plum has about $45,500 in funds, including about $19,000 that has been raised since the beginning of 2021. His largest recent individual contribution came from Newport News Shipbuilding, a builder of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and submarines that gave $1,000.

The longest-serving member of the Virginia House of Delegates, the 79-year-old legislator believes he has managed to stay in office since 1982 because of the close alignment of his politics and those of the 36th District, which encompasses Leesburg Pike in Great Falls to Flint Hill Road in Vienna.

“It’s a very progressive group of people,” Plum says of his constituents. “We believe in fairness and equality for all people.”

By contrast, Barthelson is a 27-year-old first-time candidate for public office and has raised about $5,700, a majority of which are from contributions of under $100.

She has yet to garner any major endorsements and paused her campaign in April for a brief time due to “personal reasons,” she told Reston Now.

Nonetheless, Barthelson says she still intends to follow through on the primary challenge, telling Reston Now that she got interested in running for public office after seeing disinformation flourish online during the 2016 presidential race.

She says she’s concerned that state laws have failed to keep up with technology’s influence on society.

“I think a lot of our laws are very behind,” Barthelson said. “Some important bills are getting pushed because legislators don’t understand them and the public is getting confused. Some are important for green technology, some for criminal justice reform and policing. Technology is just becoming more and more integrated with everything that we’re doing.”

Technology has long been a key focus for Barthelson, who attended a STEM-focused high school in Haymarket and obtained a master’s degree in systems engineering from George Mason University. She worked as a data analyst before becoming a security engineer.

She says that, if elected, she would take a different approach in governing than many other legislators.

“I would definitely be a data-driven legislator,” she said. “I’m very good with numbers…I’d speak to all the stakeholders to get a high-level view of everything and communicate what policy I think is best based on data.”

In recent Northern Virginia election cycles, a slew of younger, progressive-minded candidates have challenged incumbents. Some have won, while others are working to be a formidable challenger.

Plum says his progressive bonafides speak for themselves. He cites his work to pass a law that requires universal background checks on all gun purchases in Virginia as well as efforts to expand voting rights and abolish the death penalty.

An advocate for repealing the death penalty for years, Plum stood behind Governor Northam when he signed the law last month.

“If you ask people who followed the General Assembly over the last four decades who are the most progressive leaders in Virginia, they would list me among the top couple of delegates,” Plum said. “That’s who I am. That’s where I come from.”

Barthelson says she’s “probably as blue as the incumbent” but believes she has a clearer understanding of the challenges facing her generation.

Both Plum and Barthelson cite education and the environment as the top two issues raised by voters.

They also both value the welcoming nature of the 36th District.

“This is probably the friendliest place I’ve lived in Northern Virginia,” Barthelson said. “People definitely look out for each other and are very supportive of one another. I think that’s part of Reston culture.”

Plum agrees, saying that history of openness and a belief in fairness is what he loves most about the 36th District.

“Reston was founded as an open community, open to people of all races,” he said. “I am truly honored to represent the district, and I don’t say that lightly.”

Photo courtesy Mary Barthelson, file photo

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