Primary battle for the 86th House District showcases a new Virginia

Incumbent Del. Ibraheem Samirah (left) and challenger Irene Shin (right) are competing in the Democratic primary for the 86th District (Photos courtesy Ibraheem Samirah, Irene Shin)

Virginia’s political transformation over the past decade can be summed up by the arc of the 86th House District.

10 years ago, former Herndon mayor and Republican Tom Rust was reelected for a sixth term, running unopposed in both the primary and general elections. Two years later, Jennifer Boysko fell just 54 votes shy of ousting Rust, and in 2015, she turned the district blue after he opted not to seek reelection.

Jumping to 2021, the Town of Herndon and western Fairfax County down to Route 50 in Chantilly are represented in the House of Delegates by Del. Ibraheem Samirah, the Palestinian American grandson of refugees who succeeded Boysko in 2019 as part of a new wave of Democratic leaders that gave the party control of the General Assembly.

As Washingtonian put it two years ago, Samirah represents a “younger, browner — and much less demure — future” for Virginia politics that defies the old “Virginia Way,” a commitment to decorum and tradition that he argues has resulted in a government overly beholden to private interests and a state ranked as the best in the country for business but among the worst for workers.

“I’ve tried my best to work with the old Virginia Way for the benefit of my constituents, but the reality is that the old Virginia Way is outdated,” Samirah said in an interview with Reston Now. “…The old Virginia Way believes that we should only focus on profits over people, that we should get along with each other, even if that means putting down the interests of the people along the way.”

Now seeking a second full term in office, Samirah faces a primary challenger in Irene Shin, a community organizer whose background similarly reflects an increasingly diverse Fairfax County.

The daughter of Korean immigrants, Shin’s past political experience stems from work for nonprofits and election campaigns, including now-Vice President Kamala Harris’s run for the Senate in 2015. She currently serves as executive director of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table.

After building a career recruiting and training candidates for public office, Shin says she decided to become one herself upon watching Harris get sworn in as the first female, Black, and Asian vice president of the United States.

“I felt like I had something different to offer to the community and the folks of the 86th [District] and a different set of experiences — not just professional, but also lived — that I obviously believe will serve our community very well,” Shin told Reston Now.

Among those lived experiences is a firsthand understanding of growing up without health insurance and the challenges of navigating the American health care system, particularly for immigrants and people whose first language isn’t English.

When she was 16, Shin’s father was diagnosed with cancer. The out-of-pocket medical costs became so expensive that her father eventually flew back to Korea, where he was able to get the surgery he needed within a day of landing in Seoul.

Shin says that “pretty drawn-out ordeal” highlighted some of the barriers that still limit people’s access to health care, the ballot box, and other needs.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, critical information about everything from vaccine appointments to unemployment benefits has often been only available in English or through inadequate translation widgets, which can be an issue in places like Herndon where almost 57% of residents speak a different language at home.

“If…people don’t have access to the government and the resources they need to be able to live healthy lives, there’s a disconnect there, and that’s what I want to address,” she said.

Samirah’s perspective on health care issues has also been shaped by personal experience — namely his career as a dentist, which he says gives him more familiarity with the mechanics of health care costs and private insurance than most other legislators.

He cites creating universal health care as one of his top priorities, along with addressing the need for quality, affordable housing and reinforcing democratic processes by improving the accessibility of voting and reforming campaign finance laws.

Samirah has made some headway on the health care front in his two years in office, including with the introduction of a bill that assists separated parents in obtaining coverage for their children. The measure was adopted during the General Assembly’s 2021 special session and will take effect on July 1.

However, his efforts to pave the way for a single-payer system by introducing a public insurance plan on the private marketplace have proven less successful, even as the idea of a public option gains traction, including in the White House.

“2.5 million adult Virginians…either don’t have any insurance plans or have an insurance plan, but they can’t afford to use it. They can’t pay for the co-pays and the deductibles to be able to utilize the health insurance at the doctor,” Samirah said. “So, I’m trying to fix that big problem.”

Shin says she “definitely would support a public option,” but the two candidates diverge in their plans for tackling affordable housing needs, an issue that is only expected to get more urgent in the Reston and Herndon area with the arrival of the Metro Silver Line’s second phase.

While they both support increasing affordable housing trust funding, Samirah has championed upzoning — allowing multi-family residential units in single-family zoning — as essential to increasing the supply of housing and addressing inequities created by longstanding, exclusionary zoning practices.

“New housing development is usually relegated to the far suburbs, which puts low-income people further away from the job centers,” he said. “It increases car and highway dependency, and it damages Virginia’s natural environment. The scarcity of housing units in those job centers translates to really high rents for existing residents, so we need to do away with exclusionary zoning.”

Shin is skeptical, though, that eliminating single-family-only zoning will result in more affordable units. Her approach to housing focuses primarily on working with localities to increase funding for affordable housing and ensuring that development is concentrated around public transit.

“What I have learned is that accessory dwelling units and granny flats over everyone’s garage is not the answer or the magic bullet that some would like to believe it is for affordable housing,” she said.

If elected, Shin says her top three priorities would be providing universal pre-kindergarten education across the Commonwealth and guaranteeing both paid family medical leave and paid sick leave for all workers.

In addition, while Virginia state legislators only get funding to pay one full-time staffer, Shin plans to retain a staff member from her campaign to act as a community liaison.

“It is a priority of mine that our community is being heard and…that they’re feeling like the solutions and the policies that I’m carrying are just accurately reflective of their priorities and their values as well,” she said.

Early voting in the June 8 Democratic primary is currently underway. The Democratic nominee for the 86th District will face Centreville High School history teacher and Republican candidate Julie Perry in the general election on Nov. 2.

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