By the Primaries for Progress Team
Decades ago, in a more conservative Virginia, Dick Saslaw became the leader of Senate Democrats. And since then, he’s just...stuck around, with his outdated attitudes and deep corporate ties just as bad as they’ve always been. Saslaw has a long history of thinly-veiled Islamophobia, was the lone Democrat to defend Ralph Northam during the governor’s blackface scandal, and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dominion Energy. But just saying “Dick Saslaw is an Islamophobic blackface-enabler bought and paid for by Dominion” doesn’t do it justice.
A Corporate Friend
Saslaw has taken more than $350,000 in contributions from Dominion over his 40 years in politics, more than any other candidate for office in Virginia. This cycle, he’s already taken more than $75,000 (once again the highest total of any Virginia candidate.) What has that hefty sum gotten Dominion?
First, what is Dominion? Dominion Energy is a power company that supplies mostly electricity and natural gas, and do so through a swath of the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and South. In Virginia, they operate essentially as a state-sanctioned monopoly, with total dominance of large portions of the state. They have exploited this power as ruthlessly as you would expect, and they wage perpetual charm offensives to get out of the meager regulations they’re supposed to follow.
Let us give you a taste of what Dominion is like. Dominion dreamed up a massive project that would enrich them while providing questionable benefit to anyone else, while increasing dependence on fossil fuels. Despite the existence and sufficiency of existing pipelines, despite the growth of green power making the need for additional pipelines dubious, and despite the truly insane level of environmental risk, Dominion decided to build a 600 mile long pipeline through mountains, delicate forests, and small towns. The outcry was immediate and ongoing, with continual protests and lawsuits. This is the giant corporate monopoly Saslaw is taking money from.
During the worst of the criticism Dominion was getting for the aforementioned pipeline, and while the Virginia Democrats were beginning to mobilize against it electorally, six Virginia legislators signed onto a letter to the federal government to get the pipeline approved. Saslaw was the only Democrat of the six. When the Virginia Democratic Party criticized a Republican state senator for being friendly with Dominion, the mega-utility immediately dispatched an executive to send Saslaw an indignant email. Saslaw apologized—and said the state party should have been more appreciative of Dominion’s generous financial support of Saslaw.
Saslaw has long been an unwavering advocate of allowing Dominion to continue the worst of its consumer abuses. In 2018, when some politicians had caught wind of Dominion double-charging its customers, they introduced a bill to stop it. Saslaw not only killed that measure but then (along with two Republican colleagues) spearheaded a measure allowing Dominion to continue double-charging its customers. At the same time, Saslaw quietly killed his own party's attempts to ensure Virginians received refunds from Dominion for their inflated electric bills (estimated to be inflated to the tune of a staggering $400 million a year.) $350,000 is a lot, but when it saves the company’s $400-million-a-year price-gouging racket, it’s a damn good investment. And that’s not all they’ve gotten Dick to do: he’s introduced legislation to allow utilities to charge inconsistent rates and make it harder for the state to regulate utility rates. He voted for a bipartisan bill, signed by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, that exempted Dominion from state oversight and customer refunds until 2022. He’s so firmly sided with the fossil fuel giant that he once called the Sierra Club, a respected environmental group, “crazy,” and referred to Clean Virginia, another environmental group, as a “dark money company.” (Speaking of the Sierra Club, they gave Saslaw a lower rating than several of his Republican colleagues.) He’s pretty proud of all he’s done for his moneyed friends, too: in a debate with a Republican senator, when the Republican claimed to be more pro-business, Saslaw countered with the following: “Go ask Dominion, go ask any of these companies—beer and wine wholesalers, banks, the development community—every one of them will tell you… I’m the most pro-business senator.”
If anything, Dominion may have overpaid when they bought Saslaw. In 2011, then-Majority Leader Saslaw introduced legislation (which ultimately passed) to vastly expand the industry of car-title lending, a type of predatory lending similar to payday loans. Consumer groups, and even some Republicans, were outraged; Saslaw called the consumer groups “a bunch of phonies.” Predatory lenders only had to pay the low, low price of $37,000 to get Saslaw to do their bidding, and it paid off handsomely for them--at the expense of struggling families victimized by the car-title lenders.
Incidentally, Saslaw has a long history of helping the payday loan industry. He voted for the 2002 bill which created Virginia’s payday lending industry. Sure, he also introduced a toothless restriction bill, years later--but consumer groups called his bill “sham reform” that would “do nothing to help payday borrowers avoid the cycle of debt.” Consumer groups were understandably skeptical of Saslaw already, given he had killed attempts to reform the payday lending industry in the past, and was the industry’s largest recipient of campaign cash.
As the news of Ralph Northam’s blackface picture and the ensuing scandal spread, basically every Democrat in the country (even Strom Thurmond/Jesse Helms apologist and literal school segregationist Joe Biden) called for his resignation. Every Democrat, that is, except for one: Dick Saslaw, the state senate minority leader. Instead, Saslaw...waxed nostalgic about his Army days?
“While it’s in very poor taste, I would think no one in the General Assembly
would like their college conduct examined. I would hate to have to go back
and examine my two years in the army. Trust me. I was 18 years old and
was a handful, okay? His life since then has been anything but. It’s been a
life of helping people, and many times for free.”
(Uh...Dick, my dude, what were you doing in the Army?)
Saslaw’s boys-will-be-boys defense of bigotry would be bad enough if it were sincerely about forgiving the past, but it’s not: Saslaw has no problem with bigotry today, and he practices it himself. He has a well-documented aversion to Muslims serving in public office.
Dick Saslaw’s Islamophobia goes back years. When Atif Qarni, a Muslim, ran for a blue state senate seat in 2015, Qarni claimed local party leaders had told him a Muslim could not win; when pressed, he named Saslaw as one of those party leaders. Saslaw’s 2019 primary opponent is human rights attorney Yasmine Taeb, the first Muslim woman elected to the Democratic National Committee. Saslaw claimed that Taeb could not win in a majority-white, majority-Christian district because of her faith and ethnicity. (Taeb is an Iranian immigrant who fled the Iran-Iraq war as a young girl in the 1980s.) Not only is that assertion built on racist, incorrect assumptions (Reps. Ilhan Omar and André Carson, both Muslim, would be quite surprised to learn that they can’t win majority-white districts like their own), it shows how out-of-touch Saslaw is with his district—it’s not even 40 percent non-Hispanic white.
As if Islamophobia wasn’t bad enough, Saslaw also opposes the impeachment of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a man accused of rape by two different women. His justification? Impeachment is only for crimes that occur while an elected official is in office—even if a past offense as grave as rape is only discovered during the elected official’s tenure. Under Saslaw’s rule, all you have to do to avoid consequences for your past actions is to avoid getting caught until after you’ve taken the oath of office. (For some reason, we think Saslaw isn’t particularly concerned with the procedural minutiae of the Fairfax case, given he gave Fairfax a vigorous thumbs-up after Fairfax’s bizarre, offensive rant in which he called the rape allegations a “political lynching.” Something tells us Saslaw’s just a rape apologist.)
But Wait, There’s More!
Yeah, we’re not done. Dick Saslaw contains multitudes (and they’re all bad.)
In 2013, Saslaw reportedly offered to stop any Democratic criticism of Republicans over abortion if they would stop passing new abortion bills. This was during a period where Republicans were taking major heat for crazy shit like Virginia’s ultrasound laws, to the point where public pressure was already a force in stopping some of those laws. That very same year, Democrats took back the governor’s office in no small part by messaging against Republican insanity on abortion.
As bad as that is, it’s not the only time he gave Republicans an assist. When Republicans passed a blatant racial gerrymander after the 2010 Census, Saslaw cried foul; however, his objection wasn’t to racial or partisan gerrymandering. It was because the map didn’t do enough to protect incumbents: “When I did the redistricting I went to every single Republican, except four or five, and gave them the districts they wanted.” He’s fine with electing Republicans and subverting democracy, so long as it’s done in a way that protects his buddies in office, his buddies including the Republican Senate Majority Leader, but not, apparently, black members of his own caucus.
While we’ve already shown you some pretty bad stuff Saslaw did, this article wouldn’t be complete without a roundup of awful legislation he’s introduced during his 44 years in the legislature. Privatizing vehicle inspections! Cutting the corporate income tax rate! Letting corporations appeal their tax bill if they don’t like it! Exempting large home contractors from licensing requirements! Virginia’s version of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform! Virginia’s three-strikes law, a cornerstone of mass incarceration! Requiring school boards to punish kids for drug and alcohol offenses! And his votes weren’t any better than his harmful legislation. For example, he voted to create Virginia’s charter school system. He voted to make it harder for prisoners to file lawsuits. He voted to let the state get its execution drugs without revealing the suppliers, amidst outcry over shadily-sourced lethal injection drugs causing painful, drawn-out executions, saying, “I really could care less how damn long you suffer.” One thing he voted against? Letting ethics investigations continue after a legislator leaves office.
You may have noticed he takes a pretty 90s-style tough-on-crime stance most of the time. The one offense where he expressed skepticism of tough-on-crime laws was cockfighting, saying: “I don't know what the big deal is. They're all going to end up at KFC and Popeye's anyway.” He’s bad, through and through.
Yasmine Taeb, who we mentioned above, is running a vigorous campaign, with the support of numerous local and national progressive activists and groups, because she opposes all of the horrible things Saslaw supports or excuses. Taeb offers a sharp contrast to Dick Saslaw’s dated worldview and corporate-flavored politics, and the voters of Virginia’s 35th State Senate district have a clear choice in June’s Democratic primary. Donate to the Progressive Virginia Project, which seeks to take down Saslaw and legislators like him--such as Barbara Favola, a senator who is also a registered Richmond lobbyist (that’s legal, somehow); she was the chief cosponsor of that corporate tax appeal legislation I mentioned earlier. Neither Data for Progress nor Primaries for Progress will receive any money from donations to the Progressive Virginia Project. Everything goes straight to the candidates. Read about the full slate of progressive candidates here.
Since this post was originally published, Saslaw has:
Taken over $22,000 from Dominion, the most of anyone in the state
Claimed the Green New Deal would result in Northern Virginia going without power for 16 hours a day.
Showed up at a constituent’s house uninvited because he heard they’d hosted a fundraiser for his opponent.
Said that his Iranian refugee opponent was “anti-Israel and pro-Iran.”
Claimed that partisanship was caused by lack of required military service.
Filed a fundraising report showing thousands in illegal contributions he had to quickly amend.
Editor’s Note: This post originally ran in Primaries for Progress - a newsletter focused on deep dives into the primary races that shape the future of the Democratic Party.