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Dick Saslaw was the lone VA Democrat to rush to Northam’s defense. It could cost him re-election.

Yasmine Taeb, a progressive candidate running against Saslaw, says he'll pay a price for wavering on an issue that demands moral clarity.

Virginia State Sen. Richard Saslaw (D) faces a primary challenge from progressive candidate Yasmine Taeb. (Credit: Screenshot, YouTube)
Virginia State Sen. Richard Saslaw (D) faces a primary challenge from progressive candidate Yasmine Taeb. (Credit: Screenshot, YouTube)

Virginia’s US senators Tim Kaine (D) and Mark Warner (D) late Saturday joined a growing chorus of politicians and organizations calling on Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to resign, after a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page was published by a right-wing website.

Yasmine Taeb, a progressive candidate for the Virginia State Senate, told ThinkProgress that it shouldn’t have taken them so long.

“The two highest officials in our state are older white men who were the last two to come out,” said Taeb. “What sort of message does that send to marginalized communities?”

Taeb, a human rights attorney and the first Muslim woman to be elected to the Democratic National Committee, is running against State Sen. Richard Saslaw (D), one of Northam’s ardent supporters and the only Democratic legislator who rushed to his defense when the story about the photo first broke.

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“His whole life has been about exactly the opposite, and that’s what you need to examine, not something that occurred 30 years ago,” Saslaw said on Friday.

“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 I 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.”

Hours later, Saslaw tepidly changed course, tweeting, “After a conversation with my colleagues, the Virginia Senate Caucus calls on Governor Northam to resign.”

Taeb, who, as a former refugee from Iran, has made a career of advocating for immigrant rights, said she wasn’t surprised by Saslaw’s initial reaction, adding that his about-face was “too little, too late.”

Shortly after news of the photo broke Friday, calls for Northam to resign came from the state Democratic Party, Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus, Democratic presidential candidates, and progressive and environmental organizations, many of whom doubled down Saturday.

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But Northam hasn’t budged, holding a bizarre press conference Saturday, during which he denied that he is either of the people appearing in the photo, which shows two men, one in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe and another in blackface. Although he apologized for the photo on Friday, Northam backtracked Saturday, claiming he had never seen the photo because he didn’t purchase the yearbook.

At Saturday’s press conference, Northam told reporters that while he is not pictured in the photo, there was at least one other occasion when he appeared in blackface — a dance contest that same year during which he dressed up as Michael Jackson. Although he couldn’t explain why, he also acknowledged that he was called “Coonman” by his classmates. The nickname appears to reference a derogatory term for African Americans. 

Taeb pointed out that Northam’s “despicable” behavior is indicative of a “good ol’ boys network” in Virginia that protects problematic white men from repercussions at the expense of communities of color. Furthermore, Saslaw’s vacillation on an issue that demands moral authority, she said, is a clear sign that Virginia needs to “clean house.”

“Anyone who defended the fact as some sort of college, mischievous behavior should absolutely step aside,” she said. “We should be centering people of color in this conversation … The new Virginia way is representative of Democrats that are as diverse as their constituents.”

Saslaw has served in the Virginia state Senate for nearly 40 years, without ever facing a primary challenger. Taeb’s campaign will change that. She’s counting on the diverse demographics of the 35th district — which includes parts of Fairfax County and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church — to help propel her to victory.

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“There’s a movement happening, not just in Virginia, but all across the country, of people who are absolutely, unequivocally going to fight for racial and economic and environmental justice,” said Taeb. “It’s important to me to lead on this issue.”

Credit: Yasmine for Virginia
Credit: Yasmine for Virginia

Saslaw has expressed skepticism about Taeb’s chances. The Intercept reported last week that, at a George Mason University-sponsored debate between Tim Kaine and Corey Stewart last September, Saslaw said, in a conversation with students, that Taeb “can’t win in a district like this” because it is majority white.

Not only is the statement “racist,” Taeb said, it’s not true.

The district is “more than 60 percent non-white. So, either he knew that and he was just lying or he’s just completely out of touch and he doesn’t know the makeup of the district he’s been representing for the last 40 years.”

Taeb’s progressive platform includes raising the minimum wage to $15, supporting Medicare for All, ending the death penalty, and taking corporate money out of politics. She’s also put Saslaw’s connections to Dominion, one of the state’s electric utility monopolies, front and center in her campaign. Saslaw has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Dominion, which has come under fire for its proposal to build a natural gas pipeline through one of Virginia’s historically black communities, a plan Taeb calls “environmental racism.”

If Taeb wins, she would join a slew of progressive leaders across the country who have stood up to the Democratic establishment in state legislatures, including 13 progressive candidates who were elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in the last election — all of whom refused to take donations from Dominion.

Taeb said these progressive allies give her hope.

“Despite what we’re seeing either in discriminatory and unconscionable policies from the [Trump] administration and what we saw from our governor, I’m still hopeful that we can work toward building a more inclusive commonwealth, electing leaders that are going to be fighting for our diverse communities,” she said.