By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)
Former Alexandria City School Board chairwoman Karen Graf announced Monday she will challenge for the Democratic nomination to the Virginia House of Delegates seat in the 45th district.
Graf will run in the Democratic primary on June 13 against incumbent first-term Delegate Mark Levine. She served on the nonpartisan school board for the past five years, including four as chairwoman.
The district encompasses sections of Arlington and Fairfax counties as well as part of the city of Alexandria. Graf said with the changes at the federal level under recently elected President Donald Trump and the impending election for governor in Virginia, she wanted to help uphold Democratic policies in the General Assembly.
She also pointed to the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Trump’s secretary of education as one example of a recent event that motivated her to run. DeVos has been criticized in some quarters for favoring charter schools and voucher programs over public education, and had a rocky road to confirmation in the U.S. Senate.
“I feel like if I can get down to Richmond and convince our state legislators to at least hold the line on really good policies and laws that are already in place instead of dismantling or eroding them, I would be serving our community tenfold,” Graf said. “Until we pass the phase that we are in, this is really what compelled me to get involved. I just can’t stand on the sidelines on this one.”
She said her efforts that helped prevent Jefferson-Houston School from falling under state control were among her most rewarding as school board chairwoman, and helped her build relationships regardless of party affiliation. In 2014, Jefferson-Houston failed to meet state accreditation standards three years in a row, and was under threat from state takeover by the Opportunity Educational Institution.
Graf lobbied against the OEI alongside then-Delegate Rob Krupicka (D-45), and the body was declared unconstitutional that same year.
“I think that’s really one of the assets that I can give to our voters: I really value the relationships, which give way to the right decision-making and policy,” Graf said. “That’s why I really feel that this is an opportunity for a different kind of style down there. I’m not sure that firebrand or grenade throwing is really going to benefit the constituents at the end of the day. It has to be deeper than that.”
Colleagues on the school board praised Graf’s leadership surrounding Jefferson-Houston, which is in the third year of a three-year program to regain full accreditation.
“I’ve always been impressed with her attention to detail, her interest in how Alexandria is impacted by decisions made at the state level in Richmond, and she demonstrated that in her leadership in standing up for local solutions and local control and the improvements we’ve been making at Jefferson-Houston,” said school board member Chris Lewis. “That was a local and state combination discussion, and we were all involved in it, but she was chair at the time and was leading our interactions with state officials.”
Graf said she intends to be an advocate for Northern Virginia, which she said has been unfairly targeted at times by legislators from other parts of the commonwealth. She cited this year’s legislative session, when state Senators looked to force the city’s sewage system to stop polluting the Potomac River in three-and-a-half years with the threat of Alexandria losing all state funding.
But Graf said the bipartisan nature of that legislation, which had Republicans and Democrats voting in favor of a pro-environmental bill, could be a blessing for her if elected. She said such issues can bring compromise across party lines. Graf cited health care, with the ongoing federal discussions about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, as another issue that lends itself to bipartisan solutions.
“Most of my debate has been non-partisan, so I’m going to go into my first couple of conversations finding that common ground and trying to see where we can move the needle despite party,” Graf said. “It’s not interesting to me to hold party lines. It’s interesting to me to have good policy.”
Alexandria Democratic Committee chairman Clarence Tong said a competitive primary challenge in June will help energize voter turnout for November’s general election. Tong said the ADC has seen increased membership since last year’s presidential election, and that they will look to take advantage of more participation.
“Having opportunities like competitive primaries, and this is not only for the 45th district but also in our governor’s race and lieutenant governor’s race and other elections, helps keep those people energized and doing productive things for our party,” Tong said. “One of the things after the primary, we want all Democrats to come together, and it’s very important that we build a strong organization and are able to turn out the vote.”
Geoff Skelley, an analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said it is unsurprising that Levine will face a primary challenge, given the fragmented nature of his 2015 win and the lack of an apparent Republican challenge.
That year, Levine bested four primary competitors, but only won 27.82 percent of the vote, en route to replacing the retiring Krupicka. He was unopposed in the general election.
“When you’ve got such heavily Democratic districts, I guess it’s not that surprising that you might have some primary challenges,” Skelley said. “A primary challenge actually being successful is often surprising, but when you have one party really overwhelmingly controlling a district, all the action is on that side.”