Local Commentary

Delegate Simon’s Richmond Report

I can’t tell you all how glad I am to have the primary election behind us. Picking amongst my fellow Democrats is almost like asking me to pick a favorite family member. On any given day I may have a preference, but I never want them to know that.

This year, though, I did make my preferences known, and as readers of the FCNP know, it put me at odds with some of my best political friends here in Falls Church. Now that the nominees are decided, we can all put that unpleasantness behind us and work together toward our shared goals.

That said, it’s a little easier to be magnanimous when all of your favorites win. I’m proud of the great campaigns run by Dalia Palchik for Providence District Supervisor, Jeff McKay for Fairfax County Board Chairman, and Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Steve Descano for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Arlington/Falls Church and Fairfax respectively.

With the Commonwealth’s Attorney races being perhaps the most contentious, with some aspersions cast (unwarranted in my view) about how these races were funded, I hope supporters of all the candidates share my excitement about what comes next.

Both Mr. Descano and Ms. Tafti have promised to implement evidence based best practices in their offices to ensure their policies will actually reduce crime and incarceration rates. For instance, both have pledged to stop asking for cash bail. Cash bail unfairly discriminates against low-income people. In localities where Commonwealth’s Attorneys that stopped asking for this, there has not been any significant impact on public safety or court appearances.

Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring appears to have been paying attention to our local races as well. He recently announced that he now agrees that prosecuting marijuana possession is a waste of time and resources, an issue on which both successful candidates campaigned. Voters chose the candidates who agreed to use their discretion not to prosecute these misdemeanors.

I look forward to watching both Ms. Tafti and Mr. Descano work to reshape the legislative agenda of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorney (VACA), which lobbies the General Assembly. A more progressive VACA membership means they may drop their opposition to marijuana decriminalization, embrace a prohibition on the death penalty for the seriously mentally ill, and support new trials for people sentenced with junk science.

Some folks have lamented the role of money spent on behalf of the challengers in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s races.

As a champion of campaign finance reform since my first term, I have introduced legislation to prohibit using campaign funds for personal use, to strengthen our ethics laws, to require online political ads to be regulated like newspaper and TV ads and to give localities the option to publicly finance campaigns – just to name a few.

The concerns about money in politics I hear from constituents generally have to do with the role of business interests influencing those who are supposed to be their watchdogs. They feel like the system is rigged against ordinary people — a system where big business buys influence and pays off politicians in exchange for favorable rules, regulations, and laws. For instance, allowing bail bond companies to contribute to the Commonwealth’s Attorneys who oppose ending cash bail. Or Defense Attorneys feeling obligated to pitch in to these races.

Transparency is also a concern. Dark money is money that comes from organizations that don’t disclose their donors’ identities for the purpose of influencing elections. Unlike a political action committee, these organizations are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission.

That said, the race for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Fairfax and Falls Church-Arlington was about a need for a more progressive approach to our criminal justice system that was sorely lacking. The voters of Falls Church, Fairfax and Arlington won because they ran good campaigns and connected with voters who share their values.

As for campaign finance reform, we can still do better. I’ll keep introducing legislation to increase transparency and hold elected officials accountable in how they receive (and spend) their campaign funds. And we owe it to our constituents to do so.