Housing, ethics take center stage in 31st District Senate forum

Arlington County Democratic Committee chairman Jill Caiazzo (left) introduces 31st District state Senate candidates Nicole Merlene and Barbara Favola at an April 13, 2019, candidate forum.

Arlington County Democratic Committee chairman Jill Caiazzo (left) introduces 31st District state Senate candidates Nicole Merlene and Barbara Favola at an April 13, 2019, candidate forum.

Affordable housing and ethical issues took center stage as Democratic contenders for the 31st state Senate seat last week squared off for the first time leading up to the June 11 primary.

Facing an uphill battle to knock off a two-term incumbent, challenger Nicole Merlene pressed the case that state Sen. Barbara Favola is too beholden to special interests to effectively represent the district.

At an April 13 breakfast forum sponsored by the Arlington County Democratic Committee, Merlene accused Favola of “using public office for private benefit,” which “although legal, was still not right.”

“You will be the only people I will be lobbying for. This office is about you, the people,” said Merlene, who pointed to Favola’s efforts lobbying for Marymount University and Virginia Hospital Center, as well as the incumbent’s willingness to take money from corporate donors like Dominion Energy.

“It’s false to say [politicians] are not influenced by money; [they] just are,” Merlene said.

Working to parry the jabs, Favola said her work for the university and hospital were on efforts that will benefit the entire community – “I’m proud to be associated with Marymount and Virginia Hospital Center” – and said donors don’t get preferential treatment from her.

“A Dominion donation has never, ever influenced my vote,” said Favola, who calculated she had received less than $10,000 in donations – or about one-half of 1 percent of total contributions received – during her eight years in legislative office.

Favola and Merlene will face off in the June 11 Democratic primary, with the winner moving on to the Nov. 5 general election. The 31st Senate District includes a large swath of Arlington north of Columbia Pike, as well as all of Great Falls, parts of McLean and a sliver of northwestern Fairfax County. Above 70 percent of the vote total comes from Arlington precincts.

Favola, who previously served 13 years on the Arlington County Board, first was elected to the Senate seat in 2011 after surviving contentious and expensive but in the end not particularly close primary- and general-election races. She easily won re-election in 2015.

“You know me,” Favola told the roughly 100 people in attendance. “We’ve been in battle together. You can trust me.”

Merlene countered that she was part of a rising generation ready to take on the mantle of leadership.

“We need to get more people involved that are representative of this community,” she said.

On the issues, the two sparring partners spent the most time on affordable housing, and what the General Assembly was (or wasn’t) doing to help localities.

Merlene said Favola and others in the legislature had failed in “allowing local governments their own discretion to determine what is best for their community,” while Favola said progress was being made, albeit incrementally.

“I’m doing a lot in this area – I was very, very, very much in a leadership role,” Favola said. “Not only do I talk the talk, I walk the walk.”

Merlene criticized the small number of pieces of legislation Favola had carried on issues like housing and transportation. The incumbent, who positions herself as a “pragmatic progressive,” said she had forged alliances with both Democrats and Republicans to get legislation passed.

“I’m very good at convincing people to do the right thing,” Favola said.

The candidates were split on how to best address shortages of child care in parts of Northern Virginia, but largely were in agreement on a number of other Democratic litmus tests, ranging from labor relations and gun control to passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Both suggested the best way to effect change in Virginia is to elect Democratic majorities in the General Assembly.

(Not mentioned by either of the candidates or the questioners was the controversy that still swirls around Gov. Ralph Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.)

Merlene, an Arlington native, is a member of the county’s Economic Development Commission, and served as vice president of the Arlington County Civic Federation before resigning to seek office. “We’ve put in a lot of elbow grease” in reaching out to voters in the district, she said at the forum.

Asked, as candidates seemingly always are at debates these days, to say something nice about each other, Favola said Merlene was “very energetic and very much wants to be part of the conversation, and that’s great.” But the incumbent also suggested that she wasn’t anticipating a nail-biter of a night when her constituents decide on her fate at the polls.

“I expect they’ll return me to the Senate,” she said.

Merlene, whose efforts to topple Favola remain something of an uphill battle, suggested she would support the incumbent in November if voters gave Favola the nomination.

“She’s a good Democrat,” Merlene said, praising Favola’s efforts on mental-health issues while in the legislature.

While the primary remains almost two months away, absentee voting opens April 26 at 8 a.m.