(Updated at 4:05 p.m.) A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge dismissed a case today (Friday) that sought to recall Dranesville District School Board Representative Elaine Tholen.

Tholen’s legal team had argued against letting the case continue in court, which came after a parents’ group called Open FCPS Coalition collected and submitted over 5,000 signatures to protest school closures during the pandemic.

“Citizens who disagree with elected officials’ policy choices should vote for someone else in the next election, not ask courts to yank them from office,” Tholen’s legal team previously argued in seeking to dismiss the case.

The group, which has received funding in part from a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and a nonprofit committed to with center-right policy advocacy, voiced opposition to how the school board handled the closures. A petition submitted to court argued that keeping schools closed hurt children with disabilities the most.

The legal team for Tholen, who represents Dranesville District, argued in part that the lawsuit contained “no allegations that comes close to showing that Tholen acted with ‘wilful,’ ‘evil’ or ‘corrupt’ intent.”

“We are very pleased that the Court dismissed this case and saw it for what it was – an attempt by a small number of people to substitute their judgment for that of the full elected School Board,” a Fairfax County School Board spokesperson said in a statement. “We look forward to a full, five-day schedule of in-person classes starting next week.”

Democrats weighed in on the matter Friday.

“Republican operatives are leading these so-called ‘bi-partisan’ groups seeking to overturn the democratic election of our officials,” Fairfax County Democratic Committee Chair Bryan Graham said in a statement Friday afternoon. “The pandemic has caused a difficult situation for all of us, and our school board has done a tremendous job balancing the need to keep our community safe while serving the education needs of our students” and more.

Del. Marcus Simon, a Democrat whose office covers part of Fairfax County, called the dismissal a signal that recall efforts are a waste of time and resources. He said on Twitter that the “statute is being misused to frivolously harass elected officials by a small minority” of constituents.

Open FCPS Coalition had also been collecting signatures to recall two other school board members, Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish and Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen. The group previously said those members were chosen because those representatives gathered the least amount of votes, which lowered the amount of signatures needed to file recall efforts.

When it submitted the petition for Tholen on July 19, Open FCPS Coalition said only one school board member, Megan McLaughlin, advocated for reopening in a way that it felt was consistent and a priority.

The petition required that a special prosecutor to handle the case. Commonwealth’s Attorney James Hingeley of Albemarle County was appointed to that role on Aug. 10.

“[Hingeley] concluded that he could not prosecute the recall petition because it did not have a sufficient basis to move forward,” the school district said in a statement. “So, he moved to dismiss the petition and the judge granted the motion to dismiss.”

In a statement, Open FCPS derided Hingeley’s decision to request a dismissal as evidence of politics being put ahead of children’s well-being.

“It is a shame that the voices of thousands of parents have been silenced by a Commonwealth’s Attorney, who just like the School Board, is more interested in politics than the wellbeing of our kids,” Open FCPS Coalition founder Dee O’Neal said. “Hingeley chose special interests over parents and children who deserved representation.”

In a statement, Tholen called the legal case “an ordeal” but said she was glad she could now focus her attention on the students who will return for five days a week of in-person learning on Monday (Aug. 23).

“I am excited to say, we have over 180,000 students starting school next week. Those students need our full attention to keep them safe and to give them the best education possible,” she said. “They are still suffering in a pandemic, just like the rest of us. Please, let us put these divisive events behind us and work together to give our students the positive, undivided attention they deserve.”

Fairfax County Public Schools has implemented a universal masking rule and announced earlier today that staff will be required to be vaccinated by late October.

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A group of parents submitted over 5,000 signatures yesterday (Monday) to the Fairfax County Clerk of Court in a petition to recall Fairfax County School Board member Elaine Tholen, who represents the Dranesville District, over school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Open FCPS Coalition formed in the fall to protest Fairfax County Public Schools going virtual during the pandemic and has been campaigning to recall Tholen and two other school board members, Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish and Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen.

“I look forward to continuing to earn my constituents’ trust and support as we prepare to welcome all students in person five days per week,” Tholen said in a statement. “As a former classroom educator and now a school board member, I have always worked for my students’ well-being and to help them reach their utmost potential. I will continue to put our students’ best interests first.”

Recall supporters have a different perspective.

The petitions that citizens signed argue that, in supporting an all-virtual start to the most recent school year, the school board was not acting in children’s best interests. The petitions also allege the school board violated state and local laws and regulations guaranteeing students with disabilities a free, appropriate education.

“Just how far behind are our students? How will these deficits be met?” Zia Tompkins, a coalition board member and former school board candidate, said, raising questions about staffing and other issues. “Parents have been left in the dark about these issues and…as such have real doubts as to whether the Fairfax County school system is even serious about opening full-time in-person for the fall.”

The group met outside the Fairfax County Courthouse before a dozen supporters and leaders went inside to deliver the signatures.

While the Open FCPS Coalition describes itself as a grassroots, bipartisan group concerned with keeping politics out of schools, its largest funding contributions have come from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder and N2 America, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing center-right policies in the suburbs.

The coalition’s largest expenditure has been for signature collection services from a center-right door-to-door voter contact firm, Blitz Canvassing LLC, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

The group hopes a judge will review the signatures as part of a trial that could ultimately lead to Tholen being removed from her position.

Open FCPS Coalition says only one school board member, Megan McLaughlin, advocated for reopening in a way it felt was consistent and a priority. But only three school board members were chosen for recall efforts because of the group’s limited resources.

Coalition board member Nellie Rhodes said Monday that work to recall Cohen and Omeish continues.

The coalition’s website says it has over two-thirds of the 4,000 signatures needed to recall Cohen, which if obtained, would represent over 10% of the total number of people who voted in her election — the threshold required for a recall to be considered in Virginia.

After shifting entirely to virtual learning on March 13, 2020, FCPS began phasing in some in-person learning in October, but the process was put on hold when COVID-19 cases started to surge around Thanksgiving.

Students began 2021 in remote settings before the school board approved the return of a hybrid model — where students could opt for two days of in-person classes or to remain all-virtual — starting on Feb. 16. FCPS expanded its in-person offerings to four days for some students in April.

Open FCPS Coalition board member and Vienna resident Hemang Nagar says he ended up taking his daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, out of school in the fall because of the distress virtual classes caused her. He said she used to love school but would cry whenever he opened the computer.

“Virtual learning was an utter disaster for her and so many like her,” he said.

His daughter, who is now 10, returned to her elementary school when in-person classes restarted in February.

“They pretend to care but never put their words into action that does any good for any students,” Nagar said of the school board members that the coalition is targeting for recalls.

FCPS plans to resume a five-day in-person week for students this fall.

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Fairfax County’s once-a-decade redistricting process took a significant step forward this morning (Tuesday), as the Board of Supervisors approved appointees to a committee that will be responsible for recommending new district boundaries.

The 20-person Redistricting Advisory Committee consists of one resident representative from each of the county’s nine magisterial districts as well as three at-large members.

The county board made a conscious effort to appoint individuals from a variety of backgrounds, including people from the local African American, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Arab-American communities, according to the news release.

“Redistricting must be done fairly and in a way that ensures transparency and fair representation of the diversity of Fairfax County,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said in a statement. “This is a community-led process, and I am confident the committee will develop fair and equal districts and everyone will have the same access to representation.”

Like other localities, Fairfax County is required by Virginia law to reexamine its electoral district boundaries every 10 years to ensure that each district has roughly the same number of people, with adjustments based on how the population has changed.

Because redistricting is tied to U.S. Census data, whose delivery has been delayed this year, the RAC won’t be able to start its work until Aug. 30. The committee is scheduled to deliver a report with its proposed district boundaries on Oct. 19, though it will ultimately be up to the Board of Supervisors to adopt a new plan on Dec. 7.

The county says members of the general public will be encouraged to provide input on the new district maps, including through an online portal that will allow residents to draw their own maps.

“Public input will be key to the committee’s efforts,” the county said. “Residents are encouraged to submit their own plans and provide feedback, revisions and comments on the committee’s or other’s proposed plans.”

The Hunter Mill District, which includes Reston, will be represented on the committee by Richard Chew, the Hunter Mill District chair for the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. He is one of seven FCDC members appointed to the RAC.

The full list of appointees, information about the redistricting schedule, and an overview of the legal criteria and policies guiding the process can be found on the county website.

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Morning Notes

An orange day lilly (via vantagehill/Flickr)

Police Seek Help in Search for Missing Lorton Woman — Fairfax County police are offering a $20,000 reward for information about the disappearance of 72-year-old Lorton resident Emily Lu, who was last seen at an Aldi in Woodbridge on June 3. Homicide detectives are now involved in the case, as police suspect foul play. [WTOP]

Woman Robbed at Herndon ATM — “Town of Herndon Police are investigating a robbery that took place recently at an ATM on Elden Street, according to the weekly crime report. Around 8:30 a.m., on June 5, a woman told police she was at an ATM in the 300 block of Elden Street when to people approached her and demanded money.” [Patch]

Attorney General Nominees Hold First General Election Debate — Incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring and Republican challenger Jason Miyares each presented the other’s vision as “radical wrong turns” for Virginia in a debate yesterday, the first since the Democratic primary wrapped up last week. Herring highlighted his support for police reform and stricter gun regulations, while Miyares criticized his opponent as having “a criminal first, victim last mind-set.” [The Washington Post]

Reston Community Center Recognizes Volunteers — “We love our RCC volunteers! Thank you for all that you do to build community. We enjoyed being with you June 12 for the Volunteer Appreciation celebration.” [RCC/Instagram]

Reston Hospital Gives Scholarships to Local Students — South Lakes High School students Virag Ellen Murphy and Emma Lynch are among 16 high school seniors in Fairfax and Loudoun counties to receive scholarships from Reston Hospital Center. The hospital’s medical staff awards $13,000 in scholarships every year to local high schools in support of students who plan to pursue a career in health care. [HCA Virginia]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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Parents who have spent the last year calling for a five-day return to school for Fairfax County Public Schools students are circulating petitions to remove three Fairfax County School Board members.

They are Springfield District representative Laura Jane Cohen, Dranesville District representative Elaine Tholen, and At-Large Member Abrar Omeish.

“Our petitions are all about the board ignoring science, dismissing the wishes of parents to have kids in school, and putting politics (unions) before our children,” the Open FCPS Coalition group told Reston Now. “We have people of all walks of life — young and old, with kids and without kids signing. People were afraid to sign at first because they didn’t want to get involved. But as more time passed, and people got disappointed about the school board lying to us, they started signing.”

They admitted that the campaign faces long odds. According to Ballotpedia, Virginia has seen just one successful recall campaign in at least the past decade, with the majority of efforts — including one against former Mason District School Board representative Sandy Evans — failing to reach a circuit court.

This parent coalition has been around since November and started distributing petition templates to other counties around that time. But the momentum did not pick up until mid-February, members said.

“December and January, people still weren’t getting out much and if they were, it wasn’t to come and sign a petition,” the group said. “Many people who sign now sign because of other things that they are frustrated with, but we are just glad people are recognizing our efforts.”

The Open FCPS Coalition describes itself as a bipartisan organization.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, donor records show that its largest gifts have come from former Republican governor candidate Pete Snyder and N2 America Inc., a conservative group that has been vocal in school reopenings. Its largest expenditure has been for signature collection services, an expense that went to a center-right door-to-door voter contact firm with ties to N2 America.

“Anyone who wants to donate is welcome to…If the Dem party wants to donate we surely will take it,” the group said. “But it seems that though many Dems have signed and silently support, some are afraid to stand up for open schools. Thankfully we have Dems in our group who are bold and brave and know that nothing about the recall is personal or about politics. It is about what is moral.”

Coalition members aimed to collect enough signatures to recall at least one school board member by the end of this school year, which concluded on Friday (June 11).

The coalition chose Cohen, Tholen and Omeish after watching school board meetings and determining only one member had a record of voting and speaking that prioritized reopening over other issues: Braddock District representative Megan McLaughlin, according to the group’s website.

So, members narrowed down their targets to the two members who were elected with the fewest number of votes — Cohen and Tholen.

“Based on this discovery, the voters in their districts would likely provide the most support for the removal effort,” according to the website.

When reached for comment, Tholen said she centers all her work and decision-making on what is best for students.

“I am busy at this point fulfilling my job as a school board member,” she said. “I am closing out this school year, celebrating our class of 2021, planning for summer programs and preparing for fall when we will welcome all students in person five days per week.”

Cohen, meanwhile, said that her “focus is, has been, and always will be ensuring our students have the best opportunity to be successful in our schools.” Read More

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Fairfax County School Board Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish addresses the reaction to her tweet criticizing Israel at the board’s May 20 meeting (via FCPS/YouTube)

(Updated at 5:30 p.m.) Abrar Omeish doesn’t regret taking a stand on the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, but if she could go back, she might have expressed her opinion a little differently.

The at-large Fairfax County School Board member sparked a heated local debate about one of the most contentious subjects in global politics last month when she recognized Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that concludes a month of fasting, with a tweet decrying Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid and colonization.”

As the board’s only Muslim member and the first Muslim woman elected to a school board anywhere in Virginia, Omeish says she felt a responsibility to speak up about the escalating violence that, at that time, had killed 10 people in Israel, including two children, and 192 people in Gaza, including 58 children.

Her May 13 tweet was part of the larger #EidwithPalestine hashtag that went emerged after Israeli security forces stormed the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem amid tensions over Palestinians being evicted from the city’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

“The idea was [Muslims] celebrate [Eid], but it’s bittersweet because we can celebrate while mourning and knowing that our Holy Land is being disrespected and people are being killed in their efforts to defend it,” Omeish told Reston Now. “…Being, like you said, the only Muslim voice, I felt tremendous pressure, and it’s not like I didn’t anticipate backlash.”

That backlash came from expected sources, given the school board’s decidedly Democratic makeup, as the Fairfax County Republican Committee chair called for Omeish’s resignation or removal and endorsed a parent-led campaign to recall her and other school board members that originally stemmed from frustrations with pandemic-related school closures in the fall.

However, the tweet also drew some criticism from colleagues and allies.

Hunter Mill District School Board Representative Melanie Meren said in a tweet on May 14 that she was “aghast” and “appalled,” calling Omeish’s sentiments alienating to members of the community, including herself, and a setback to Fairfax County Public Schools’ equity-related efforts.

“Rebuilding of relationships will need to happen,” Meren said.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington nixed plans to honor Omeish for supporting the recognition of additional religious holidays in the FCPS calendar. Four other school board members were still honored at the advocacy group’s annual membership meeting on May 20.

“The language Ms. Omeish used in this Tweet is deeply offensive and inflammatory to all who support Israel,” JCRC President Ronald Paul and Executive Director Ron Halber said in a joint statement on the decision. “…It is irresponsible of her to use her public platform to publicly advance controversial political views that target and marginalize Jewish students and their families and divide our community.”

The letter went on to say that conversations about why JCRC found Omeish’s comment offensive were unproductive as she “continued to stoke the flames of division and acrimony” by not removing the tweet or taking “affirmative steps to try to stem the vitriolic, hateful rhetoric on social media triggered by her remarks.”

For her part, Omeish says JCRC’s statement was “a complete mischaracterization” of how she approached their interactions, saying that she “got yelled at on the phone aggressively” and has “been threatened by JCRC multiple times” about her stance on Israel.

“They told me, if you don’t take this down, we will post a statement about you and it’s not going to be pretty,” she said. “They would say things like that to me, and for me, I’m like, look, I respectfully reject the threat. I’m not going to change my position because you’re scaring me.”

Halber and JCRC Associate Director Guila Franklin Siegel disputed Omeish’s characterization of their interactions in a statement to Reston Now:

“We took no pleasure in having to rescind Ms. Omeish’s award. But there is no place for the divisive and offensive language she used in her May 13th Tweet or for her insulting insinuations about the JCRC. We never have and never would threaten anyone. Ms. Omeish stands out among the thousands of elected officials and interfaith leaders from every background who have successfully partnered with the JCRC in nearly a century of community-building. We hope Ms. Omeish undertakes the hard work necessary to understand how her hurtful language impacted members of the Jewish community, including our children in FCPS schools. For the benefit of the entire FCPS community, we hope to be able to work with Ms. Omeish in the future to pursue unity, equity, and mutual respect in Fairfax County.”

Omeish got another opportunity to engage with Jewish leaders, as she promised in a follow-up tweet, at a roundtable convened on May 23. Read More

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Morning Notes

Taking a walk on North Shore Drive (Photo via vantagehill/Flickr)

Fairfax County Commemorates COVID-19 Losses — The Northern Virginia Regional Commission held a COVID-19 Remembrance Ceremony at the Fairfax County Government Center last night to recognize the more than 2,350 lives that have been lost to the pandemic. The ceremony streamed live on Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay’s Facebook page.

Sunset Hills Road Sidewalk Closes for Reston Station Construction — “Beginning yesterday, June 8, the sidewalk on Sunset Hills Rd. near the intersection of Wiehle Ave. will be closed long-term due to the ongoing Comstock construction projectSee the map for closure area and alternative pedestrian route.” [Hunter Mill District News]

County Board Approves PIVOT Grant Program — The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday (June 8) to create a new grant program that will use $25 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to support businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The program will focus on the hotel, food service, retail, and arts and culture industries with applications scheduled to open from June 23 through July 9. [Fairfax County Government]

Democratic Primary Favors Moderates over Progressives — Three of the Virginia General Assembly’s most outspoken Democrats lost their seats on Tuesday (June 8), as voters largely opted for more moderate candidates backed by the party’s establishment. The upset incumbents included Herndon Del. Ibraheem Samirah as well as Prince William’s Del. Lee Carter and Del. Mark Levine of Alexandria. [Virginia Mercury]

Reston Chamber Offers Grants to Business — The Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce’s nonprofit subsidiary INCspire Education Foundation is launching a BizMaker Grant Program to “promote inclusive entrepreneurship and a diversity of economic opportunities for businesses committed to job creation and revenue generation within Fairfax County.” [Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce]

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Morning Notes

Fairfax County to Host COVID-19 Remembrance Ceremony — The Northern Virginia Regional Commission will hold a virtual ceremony next Wednesday (June 9) at the Fairfax County Government Center to honor the more than 2,350 people in the region who have died from COVID-19. Local officials will discuss the pandemic’s impact, and the event will conclude with a “last alarm” bell service courtesy of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. [Fairfax County Government]

Reston’s First Homocide Remains a Mystery — 49 years after her death, the family of Gwen Ames is still hoping for answers, as Fairfax County police have yet to identify a suspect in the first murder recorded in Reston. A 17-year-old student at Herndon High School, Ames was killed on June 4, 1972 while walking home from a dance at Lake Anne Plaza. [Patch]

Democratic Governor Candidates Spar in Final Debate — The Democratic candidates to become Virginia’s next governor faced off in the last debate before the Democratic primary on Tuesday (June 8). Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has been leading in polls, focused on attacking Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin, an approach that drew criticisms from his opponents. [WTOP]

Leidos Subsidary Lands NASA Contract — “Dynetics Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Reston-based Fortune 500 government contractor Leidos Holdings Inc., has received a potential $90 million contract from NASA to produce a laser air monitoring system (LAMS) for the agency’s Orion spacecraft, beginning with the Artemis III mission, which plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972’s Apollo 17 mission.” [Virginia Business]

Herndon High School Holds Graduation Ceremony — Herndon High School seniors got to graduate in person yesterday (Wednesday). Attendees included Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn, who congratulated the Class of 2021 on overcoming the challenges of the last year and said that “we can’t wait to see what your future holds.” [Walter Alcorn/Twitter]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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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. Read More

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This opinion piece from Mary Barthelson, who is challenging Del. Ken Plum in the Democratic primary for the 36th House District seat, was submitted in response to Reston Now’s profile of the race. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now. Reston Now runs opinion columns from Plum every Thursday.

While speaking to voters, I have gotten frequent questions about topics ranging from criminal justice reform to my leadership style. Here are my short answers to your top asked questions.

What are your ideas on police reforms?

Police brutality is not something which only happens far away. We have seen police brutality in Virginia, including in Fairfax County. The Fairfax NAACP proposed maintaining the police budget along with 8 critical reforms which I support. In both the Donovan Lynch and Lt. Navario cases there were body camera failures. My background as a security engineer with experience developing body camera programs uniquely qualifies me to navigate expansion of Virginia’s program and ensure Virginia is utilizing technology appropriately in policing. Technology can be beneficial or harmful depending on how it’s used. Facial recognition has been discussed for its privacy concerns as well as its potential to inflame racial profiling due to higher rates of failure in identifying black people. There are, however, other forms of facial recognition which can be used to automatically obscure faces, which improve privacy. As innovation continues, the need to have a legislator present who can answer difficult questions in real time on the General Assembly floor grows. Virginia should not have to rely on the benevolence of lobbyists who are not elected by the people to ensure laws are getting passed.

Do you believe in campaign finance reform?

Virginia has some of the worst campaign finance laws in the country and attempts to change them recently have failed. There are currently no caps on personal contributions. Some of the financials I have seen in this election cycle as well as the past are deeply troubling. A few individuals hand picking elected officials and influence is undemocratic. Local communities should not have to compete with corporations and billionaires. Campaign finance reforms are important to ensure our legislators are representing the best interest of their voters. For that reason, I have not taken any corporate or PAC money. All of my donations have come from individual voters contributing an average of less than $100. I will do my part to get those campaign finance laws passed and hold elected officials accountable.

Do you support the legalization of drugs and sex work?

Having a moral disagreement with something does not mean that criminalizing it is the best way to address it. Drugs and sex work may be better addressed as civil and public health matters. Decriminalization helps collapse black markets which fund organized crime and human trafficking while also keeping consumers safe. In addition to two dozen teenagers dying in the last few years as a result of unregulated marijuana cartridges, Breonna Taylor was killed last year when police raided her home over drugs. The public understands there are risks to fighting crime. Children have been killed in their homes during drug raids and there was not a significant outcry. What was missing from the discussion around Breonna Taylor was that the response signaled a cultural shift away from seeing the war on drugs as legitimate crime fighting. People will not care whether or not police followed protocols if they don’t believe in the policies in the first place. We need to make sure the laws we ask our officers to enforce have public support. With more states and countries decriminalizing, we will have more examples to draw on to help craft new laws. I would like to carefully consider alternatives and discuss them with the General Assembly. The promising studies coming out of Johns Hopkins on the use of psilocybin for treating PTSD and depression could make reclassifying it from a schedule I drug the next realistic near-term goal.

Do you support affordable housing?

Quality housing is fundamental to family stability and well-being. I have pledged to reinstate the ‘Penny for Affordable Housing’ to ensure that we are meeting the need. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) is assisting in funding some housing for Fairfax County. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is setting aside an additional half cent to raise $14 million for senior and affordable housing in the County FY22 budget. In addition, I support measures to ensure occupancy restrictions take into account home size and easing restrictions on accessory dwellings to make existing housing available.

What politicians do you admire most?

I admire the leadership of Danica Roem and Jennifer Wexton. I decided to enroll in Emerge Virginia last summer to learn about running for office after seeing Danica Roem was an Emerge alum. It has been inspiring to watch her combat bigotry and bring a voice to trans people. I hope that I can also be a voice for those waiting to be heard. Jennifer Wexton exemplified strong leadership when she took on Barbara Comstock and defended women’s right to healthcare. I would be proud to be the first woman to represent District 36 as House Delegate.

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Andria McClellan, a Democratic candidate for Virginia lieutenant governor, released a plan on Thursday (April 29) outlining her policy platform to support small businesses coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In conjunction with the plan’s launch, McClellan visited the Town of Herndon to talk to Mayor Sheila Olem and community members about the state of local small businesses. The Herndon visit was a part of an ongoing tour of Northern Virginia and the state as early voting in the Democratic primary gets underway.

While visiting various town businesses, including Green Lizard Cycling and Great Harvest Bread Co., McClellan acknowledged the challenges many small businesses have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, while praising the sense of community fostered by both town officials and residents.

“It’s great to see a community like Herndon where the community members came together and supported the local businesses and did the GoFundMe pages and things like that,” McClellan said. “Hearing from Mayor Olem about how their economic department was helped by folks from parks and rec calling all the small businesses and doing that reach out, it just makes me feel really good about the community.”

Currently a member of the Norfolk City Council, McClellan says her small business plan was shaped by her 30-plus years of experience volunteering, fundraising, and pursuing various business endeavors, including work with nonprofits and public sector work as well as two start-up ventures.

“What happens with small businesses that are independently owned, when they make money, they put it right back into the community where they’re working and where their people are working,” McClellan said. “So, supporting those businesses and those jobs also supports the greater community.”

Her plan focuses on reducing red tape to clarify and simplify certification processes while providing government support to communities requiring the help. She also wants to foster “local and regional small business ecosystems” by connecting small business owners to one another and resources.

McClellan’s plan also calls for more opportunities for new businesses that work with renewable energy sources and water quality and more state funding to expand access to capital for small businesses through microloans, mid-range capital, and seed funding.

She believes the state’s economy and tax revenues are in better shape than anticipated given the impact of the pandemic, but she emphasized that she remains concerned about what will happen to people “who have suffered greatly” when the federal eviction moratorium comes to a close.

“It’s great to see this thriving community here, but I think underlying in all of our communities, there are a lot of people who are still hurting,” McClellan said. “We’re going to see that in much greater detail the second half of this year and we’ve got to be prepared for it.”

McClellan faces Del. Hala Ayala, Del. Mark Levine, Sean Perryman, Del. Sam Rasoul, and Xavier Warren for the Democratic nomination to replace Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is running for governor. Voting for the Democratic primary concludes June 8.

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Del. Ken Plum/File photoThis is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

Inevitably someone is going to refer to the nominating contests for candidates for the Virginia statewide offices and the House of Delegates as horse races–not because of the characteristics of any of the candidates but because of the crowded field of persons who are offering themselves for public office. Space limitations on this column will not permit me to list all the candidates for they are numerous. For whatever the reason, Virginia voters have more choices than ever. That is a good thing. Democracy has broken out in the Commonwealth.
Virginia election cycles do not parallel those of other states except for New Jersey where state elections are held in years other than those in which federal elections are held. This November Virginia will be electing a governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and all one hundred members of the House of Delegates.
That is the schedule for the general election. Before we get there, however, candidates must be chosen by the political parties. Democrats pick their candidates in primary elections this year on June 8, and Republicans use conventions to pick their candidates. What is amazing is the number of people who have shown up seeking the nominations. For the names of all persons who have declared themselves at the time of the writing of this column, go to https://www.vpap.org/elections/.
For governor, there will be five Democrats on the June 8 primary ballot from which voters can choose their candidate. Republicans will have seven candidates from which to choose in a convention-like process adapted for the pandemic to determine their candidate for governor to be on the ballot for the General Election on November 2.
At the same time and as part of the same process, the major political parties will pick their candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general. For lieutenant governor there are five Republicans and eight Democrats seeking their party’s nomination. For attorney general there are three Republicans and two Democrats seeking their party’s nomination. There may be independent candidates on the ballot in November, but they must qualify through another process.
In the House of Delegates races there are more challenges to incumbents and to open seats than I can remember. For Democrats who have a slight majority in the House of Delegates and who have been realizing amazing success in getting their legislative agenda passed, there are fourteen challenges to incumbents with many of them being to Democratic progressives in Northern Virginia. On the Republican side there are contests for the House nominations in seven districts with a couple of the most conservative members being challenged for their nomination.
In the past two legislative sessions the General Assembly passed and the Governor has signed many pieces of legislation to make voting easier and more accessible. There will be early voting this year with no-excuse absentee voting, curbside voting, drop-boxes for ballot delivery, longer voting times. Voter registration is for life. There is no excuse for not voting. And for this year in particular, there is no lack of choice. The candidates are off, and you get to decide who wins!
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Del. Ken Plum/File photoThis is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin who when asked at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia what kind of government had been formed replied, “a republic if we can keep it!” As the General Assembly concluded the work of its annual session this past weekend the same kind of question could be posed as the changes in the Commonwealth’s laws and governance have been so profound. The answer I believe is a progressive state measured not by southern standards but by comparison to all the other states. At the ballot box the state over the last several years has gone from red to purple to blue. All statewide elected officials are Democrats, and both houses of the General Assembly have been controlled by Democrats since the elections in 2019. Far more meaningful than the partisan labels of elected officials are the changes that have taken place in the laws of the Commonwealth.

In the regular and a special session of the General Assembly last year, historic legislation was passed including ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and lifting of barriers to abortion. Jim Crow era laws were repealed, and the Virginia Values Act prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment was passed. Bills to reduce gun violence were passed as were bills to reduce the school to prison pipeline. Criminal justice and policing reform bills were passed. And more.

In the session that just ended, criminal justice reform continued. The death penalty was abolished, and criminal defendants and civil litigants were granted an automatic right to appeal that exists in every other state. My bill that ended excessive fines and prison time for petit larceny passed. Criminal records for many nonviolent offenses will be expunged under a new law. And more. Details for both sessions are at https://lis.virginia.gov.

All of these changes along with record levels of funding for COVID-19 relief and pay raises for teachers, police and other essential workers have led to references about Virginia being the leader among states in progressive legislation. The first ever woman Speaker of the House of Delegates Eileen Filler-Corn said that the House Democratic majority elected in 2019 “has kept its promise to protect families, keep Virginia healthy and rebuild our economy stronger.”

As one who served during years when the news coming from Richmond was not so good, I am aware that these reforms passed with barely a majority of Democratic legislator votes and a rare and scant few of Republican legislator votes. Attention is already shifting to the fall when the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general will be elected along with all 100 members of the House of Delegates. The progressive reforms will be on the ballot: do we build on them in the future or do we turn back the clock? Already a former governor, two Black women, and a self-avowed socialist are running for the Democratic nomination for governor and a self-proclaimed “Trump in high heels” and a staunch opponent of abortion rights are among those seeking the Republican nomination. There is likely to be a record number of candidates running for the House of Delegates. The voters in November will ultimately decide if we keep our progressive state!

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The Virginia General Assembly has been debating a range of legislation since convening for its 2021 session on Jan. 13.

Here are some notable bills introduced or co-sponsored by Fairfax County legislators that have passed either the House of Delegates or state Senate and are now awaiting approval by the other chamber:

HB 1842

Introduced by Del. Mark Keam (D-35th District), House Bill (HB) 1842 would give legal authority to owners of condominiums and other multi-dwelling units to ban smoking within their premises.

“As Virginians continue to shelter at home due to COVID, I hear from constituents who live in apartments or condos concerned that their neighbors who smoke are making things even worse for their physical and mental health,” Keam said in a press release.

The bill is currently being considered by the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology after passing the House of Delegates 72-27 on Jan. 19.

“My bill offers new tools for property owners to tackle this public health issue by requiring smoking residents to stop second-hand toxins from spreading on their premises and harming neighbors,” Keam said.

SB 1157

Senate Bill (SB) 1157 would move all local elections for city and town council and school board from May to November. The bill’s language would put the change in effect with elections held after Jan. 1, 2022.

The bill was introduced by Senator Lionell Spruill (D-5th District) and counts Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th District among its patrons. It passed the Senate on Jan. 21 after Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax broke a 19-19 tie by voting in favor of the bill.

“It will create a more streamline, school safe, cost-saving, and inclusive election for all,” Spruill said on Twitter following the Senate vote.

HB 1909

Del. Kathleen Murphy (D-34th District) is a chief co-patron of HB 1909, which permits any school board to deem any non-school zone property it owns or leases as a gun-free zone. The bill passed the House on Wednesday (Jan. 27) on a 55-44 vote and is now pending review by the Senate.

HB 1736

Del. Kaye Kory (D-38th District) is the chief co-patron of HB 1736, which would require local school boards to employ at least one full-time equivalent school nurse position at each elementary school, middle school, and high school.

The bill defines a school nurse as a registered nurse engaged in the specialized practice of nursing that protects and promotes student health, facilitates optimal development, and advances academic success.

The House passed the bill 68-31 with one abstaining vote on Jan. 25. It now awaits Senate review.

HB 1848

HB 1848 would protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of disability as an unlawful employment practice under the Virginia Human Rights Act. Del. Mark Sickles (D-43rd District) introduced the bill, and Del. Mark Levine (D-45th District) and Kathy Tran (D-42nd District) are among the chief co-patrons.

The bill passed the House unanimously on Jan. 22. It is now pending review from the Senate.

SB 1445

SB 1445 would permit any qualified and available health care provider in Virginia to volunteer to administer the COVID-19 vaccine.

Qualified health care providers would include any person who is licensed, registered or certified and in good standing with the Department of Health, retired health care providers who were in good standing within the last five years, and emergency medical services providers who are certified by the Department of Health.

The bill also extends to health professions students enrolled in an accredited program in Virginia, provided they are in good academic standing with their school and the school certifies that the student is properly trained in the administration of vaccines.

The bill passed the Senate 38-0 on Jan. 22. It now is pending review from the House.

Photo via Virginia General Assembly/Flickr

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While Virginia’s U.S. Congressional delegation looks like it will remain largely unchanged after the 2020 general election, voters approved a state constitutional amendment that will reshape the process for how their representatives will be chosen in the future.

One of two statewide referendums on the ballot, Constitutional Amendment 1 shifts responsibility for drawing congressional and state legislative district lines from the Virginia General Assembly to a redistricting commission made up of eight legislators and eight appointed citizens.

According to the Virginia Department of Elections unofficial returns, Amendment 1 passed with 65.91% of voters casting their ballot in favor of it, though a few precincts had not yet reported results by Wednesday night and the results will not be official until they are certified on Nov. 16.

Fairfax County approved the measure by a smaller margin than the overall state, with 53.69% of voters supporting it and 46.31% opposing.

“From the start, this movement has been about putting the voices of citizens above politicians and political parties. Today, Virginia voters spoke loud and clear in approving Amendment 1,” Fair Maps VA executive director Brian Cannon and campaign co-chairs Wyatt Durrette and Bobby Vassar said in a joint statement on Wednesday (Nov. 4).

Fair Maps VA is a nonprofit advocacy organization formed in July by OneVirginia2021, the coalition of policymakers and citizens that spearheaded the redistricting commission proposal.

With Virginia set to redraw district lines next year, Fair Maps VA says the proposed commission will combat partisan gerrymandering by giving members of the public “a seat at the table” instead of leaving redistricting exclusively in the hands of legislators, as previously dictated by the Constitution of Virginia.

The General Assembly will vote on new district maps, but it will not be able to change them. If new maps are not approved by set deadlines, the Supreme Court of Virginia will draw them.

“In creating a bipartisan redistricting commission…[voters] said they want a transparent redistricting process,” Cannon, Durrette, and Vassar said. “They want civil rights protections to be added to the state constitution for the very first time. And they said that they want to end partisan gerrymandering in Virginia once and for all.”

However, opponents argue the proposed commission still gives lawmakers too much authority in the once-a-decade redistricting process, allowing them to shape district boundaries to benefit themselves or their party.

Some are wary of the role judges will play in the new process. In addition to giving the Supreme Court the power to draw district maps if necessary, the amendment puts retired circuit court judges in charge of selecting citizens that legislators will ultimately appoint to the commission.

Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus criticized the amendment for not guaranteeing representation on the commission for people of color, who are often targeted by gerrymandering.

“I was a little surprised at the lopsidedness of the outcome,” Del. Marcus Simon (D-53rd District) said of Amendment 1’s passage. “I hoped we would’ve done a better job at communicating some of the flaws with the constitutional amendment and convincing folks that we can do a better job of redistricting reform without the amendment than with it.”

Like many other Democrats, Simon initially supported the amendment when legislation to put it on the ballot passed the General Assembly in 2019, but he reversed his position when the issue came up again, as required by state law, during the 2020 session.

Now that the amendment has passed, however, Simon says the General Assembly can craft legislation to address the issues that people have raised, such as bills to establish qualifications for citizens appointed to the commission, ensure diverse representation, and limit the Supreme Court’s discretion.

With the General Assembly still in a special session first convened in August to address the state budget and criminal justice reform, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam will likely introduce the first set of enabling legislation for the redistricting commission by the end of this week, and state lawmakers could vote on the proposals early next week, according to Simon.

“I think we can continue to work on a better constitutional amendment for 2031,” Simon said. “So, I plan to start working right away to try to get us to achieve truly independent and nonpartisan redistricting, if not in time for this redistricting, then for the future.”

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