Editor’s Column: How a Good Local Paper Helped Achieve an Upset

In a local primary election for state senate in Falls Church, Virginia, home of my 33-year weekly general interest newspaper, what I like to call “the mighty” Falls Church News-Press, there was a massive upset this week.

An elected incumbent who’d held office for over 20 years mostly unopposed, one “Chap” Petersen, was upended by a rookie upstart, and by a solid margin, by name of Saddam Azlan Salim, a native of Bangladesh who came to the U.S. with his parents in 2000 after a huge flood in his native country, arriving almost the same year Petersen was first elected.

What a contrast in styles and appearances! Petersen came across as a cocksure veteran, even if his district boundaries shifted due to redistricting to include Falls Church for the first time. He wore his signature bow tie everywhere and made an obligatory effort to introduce himself to his first time Falls Church voters by going door to door over the past several months to almost every household in this town of about 15,000.

Salim, by contrast, more modest by all appearances grew up in the basements of friends for two years upon arriving in the U.S. before distinguishing himself as a local high school and then college student. His parents supported his family by working long hours at a respected local restaurant.

Despite gaining political traction as a promising Young Democrats leader in the region, he was still a considerable long shot when he threw his hat in the ring to run against Petersen, his chances only slightly improving when another challenger pulled out only a couple months before they started early voting in the lead up to the June 20 election.

Petersen made some classic missteps. First, he angered a lot of the local Democratic leadership in Falls Church when he decided not to attend the Democratic Committee’s annual potluck in the spring.

Then he pulled what he, I’m sure, thought was a “fast one” when he talked the leaders of the local Chamber of Commerce to relocate their candidates’ night debate from Falls Church to a location in his home base of Fairfax City on grounds the venue could hold more people. To be sure, almost no one from Falls Church was willing to go that far out of their way to attend such an event.

He also clearly ducked local LGBTQ+ activist Brian Reach, who used to volunteer for him until it became clear he was a bigot, and pressed him on some basic questions of inclusion and diversity. He dismissed Reach as “just one person.”

Similarly when he was challenged at a meeting of the local Democratic Committee for holding onto his membership in an arch-conservative church that had allied with defectors of the historic Falls Church Episcopal, where George Washington was once a deacon, in an attempted illegal appropriation of the church property, he tried to defend himself on religious freedom grounds.

He’d been challenged by this reporter since the days the so-called Marshall-Newman Amendment 15 years earlier had enshrined anti-LGBT discrimination in the Virginia constitution on the assertion that marriage must be between “one man and one woman.”

Despite huge advantages in fundraising and cash, Petersen was driven to a major blunder, when he hoped that by aligning with two other candidates in nearby Fairfax County, he could forge a “Common Sense” slate with a barrage of TV ads that identified Petersen as the payer.

But it meant that he was taking sides in a contested two-way race for the Fairfax Commonwealth Attorney, taking the side of the underdog challenger to a popular incumbent, no less. It turned out that the man he struck this unholy alliance with was soundly defeated, and there can be no doubt that many voters saw Petersen’s association with him as grounds for voting against him, as well.

Finally, the downfall of this incumbent was only in part due to his arrogance and attendant missteps. The biggest factor was the light that my local newspaper shined on all these things, something that Petersen didn’t have to cope with in his old district. It is a glorious testament to why good local papers are so important.