A conversation with Karishma Mehta, candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates.
21 February 2021
From left to right: Karishma Mehta, teacher, activist, and candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates; Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, which intends to open "HQ2" in Arlington, Virginia; Alfonso Lopez, member of the Virginia House of Delegates.
Virginia is rarely seen as fertile ground for the insurgent Left. The historically conservative Southern state's emergence as a Democratic stronghold in the 2010s is usually credited to the party making inroads with upper-income professionals in Northern Virginia, a group usually not considered to be amenable to the Left in primary elections.
But the notion that Virginia is a land of lobbyists and defense contractors in five-bedroom homes couldn't be more inaccurate. A large, extremely diverse state—one hundred and twenty three languages are said to be spoken in Virginia—there are plenty of opportunities to build progressive power in Virginia.
The largest city in the Washington metropolitan area besides D.C. itself, Arlington is best known for being the site of Reagan National Airport, the Pentagon, and the eponymous National Cemetery.
But Arlington is so much more than a regional commercial hub or the site of nationally-significant buildings and monuments. The city is a cultural melting pot, noted for featuring the largest Bolivian-American community in the country and one of the highest proportions of Arab-Americans of any large city.
Though famed for its affluence, material deprivation remains the reality for far too many Arlington residents. In 2017, Amazon announced it would build HQ2 in "National Landing", a corporate branding effort to describe the Crystal City and Pentagon City neighborhoods following Amazon's move-in. While Amazon contests that HQ2 will benefit the lives of Arlington residents, many residents reasonably fear that it will lead to displacement.
Alfonso Lopez has represented the 49th district in the Virginia House of Delegates, comprising portions of Arlington and Fairfax Counties, since 2012. A "career politician" in every sense of the term—after interning in the White House during law school, Lopez has spent almost the entirety of his professional career in lobbying, leading Democratic organizations, or advising public officials—Lopez has become the target of scrutiny over his record, particularly in the realm of immigration.
If Lopez represents the Virginia Democratic Party of today, then perhaps his primary opponent, Karishma Mehta, represents its future. A preschool teacher and organizer, Mehta is running as an avowed democratic socialist for the seat in 2021. Mehta has been generous enough to speak with Labyrinth about her groundbreaking campaign.
"My outlook at what I was doing, and what I was accomplishing, as an educator shifted, just the way our movement has shifted. All that rage inspired me to seek out a different way of making an impact."
Mehta credits her upbringing with helping to shape much of her political outlook. A child of immigrants from India, Mehta was raised in a working-class household in Chattanooga, Tennessee. "My family comes from a culture of community and service and those values were instilled in me from a very young age. As the oldest child, I was also instilled with responsibility over my younger siblings." Mehta grew up often taking care of her younger siblings due to her parents' busy work schedule, and as she got older she transitioned into taking care of younger students as a mentor in high school out of a sense of service.
A defining moment in her young life was the tragic suicide of a student she mentored, just prior to their 18th birthday. The situation led to a realization that, as tirelessly as she and others work to serve and uplift the underprivileged, only systematic change could rectify the injustices so many face. "As hard as I tried to instill in these children to be bold and to demand that they inherit a world that’s compassionate, I couldn’t successfully do that when there were so many systemic issues that blocked their ability to doing anything positive in life."
After graduating from George Washington University, Mehta would become a preschool teacher, seeking to uplift similar students from a young age. Mehta credits the time period between 2015 and 2016 that coincided with Bernie Sanders' first presidential candidacy with inspiring her to become involved in politics. "That’s why I started making that move into electoral politics to hopefully be able to champion the legislation that I would want for education, so that it trickles down into my classroom."
"So it’s really a matter of “who is it developed for?” There’s a certain demographic of person who it’s being catered to and a certain demographic that’s being systematically and intentionally pushed out very rapidly."
Described as “the suburb of the future” by the Washington Post, Arlington is often cited as an example of a city being powered by “smart growth”, combining rapid population growth with responsible planning that minimizes congestion. The perception of Arlington as a uniquely livable city is hampered by the fact that it simply isn't "livable" for far too many workers, a sizable portion of whom struggle to make ends meet. When asked about her view on the reality of Arlington's famed "sustainable development", Mehta notes that it’s really a matter of “who is it developed for?”
Noting the visible disparities one encounters while "driv[ing] down Columbia Pike", Mehta calls into question the value of "smart growth" initiatives as long as working-class families are getting "pushed farther and farther onto the fringes of our district" and "small businesses that are owned by those working families or supported by those families that can’t afford skyrocketing rents either for their business. Mehta has argued that Lopez has ignored the interests of diverse, predominantly working-class communities such as Green Valley (née "Nauck") and Bailey's Crossroads throughout his tenure, which she says are "typically the areas of our district that’s left out of the conversation".
Fearing that the construction of Amazon HQ2 will only hasten the affordability crisis, Mehta has endorsed a Virginia Homes Guarantee. Decrying what she considers an artificial housing shortage in Virginia, Mehta's expansive housing platform includes support for banning state subsidies for luxury developers and investing hundreds of millions of dollars in public housing in Virginia. Mehta supports enacting a tenant bill of rights, universal rent control, and right-of-refusal legislation to allow tenants to be first in line to purchase their units should they be put up for sale.
In the House of Delegates, Mehta has indicated her support for ending right-to-work laws and taxing Amazon should HQ2's construction be seen to completion. Though the incumbent has felt the heat from activists to the point that he has rejected direct campaign contributions from Amazon and has endorsed further affordable housing, there is no question that the prospect of Mehta's election terrifies Amazon. Mehta stated that "Delegate Lopez has only rejected Amazon money due to pressure from the community... he would not have said anything, really, about Amazon had it not been for the young immigrant activists showing up at his doorstep". The company has proven itself to be intimately invested in the results of local elections, and it's entirely possible it will intervene to prevent Mehta's election, even if through third party PACs.
"I think that there are a lot of different areas of legislation that could come into play that benefit the migrant community, but I think that the most crucial and pressing ones are making sure that ICE no longer plays a role in that equation in Virginia, and also putting in that moratorium so that no additional facilities like that can be built."
Perhaps uncharacteristic of most state legislative campaigns, the incumbent's record on immigration will serve as one of focal points of the race. Operating in central Virginia, ICA-Farmville is a private immigrant detention center notorious for its brutality towards detainees. The National Immigrant Justice Center has been vigilant in documenting the crimes committed by those in charge of the detention complex, which include covert cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the violent abuse of detainees.
The facility became the subject of national scrutiny by immigrant advocacy organizations in 2011, when Anibal Ramirez-Ramirez died following days of neglect by medical staff despite being visibly ill. Despite claiming to champion the rights of immigrants in the House of Delegates, Lopez has rightfully received scrutiny from activists for his documented financial ties to the center. In response, Lopez has accused immigrant activists of supporting open borders, and even angrily told a group of protesters "[y]ou don’t want any detention” as if it's an indictment of their values.
As Mehta likes to point out, the battle to protect immigrants in Virginia is intertwined with the struggle to protect privacy rights against Amazon and other corporate giants. "What people don’t realize is that Amazon is a cloud service for Palantir which cooperates with ICE, they hold the information of immigrants that ICE then uses to track and deport immigrants. People also don't realize that Amazon also has security councils that uses surveillance technology for the community that work with local police departments to target people."
As a member of the House of Delegates, Mehta has pledged to push for an end to migrant detention altogether. "It's crucial that we get all of the migrants out of those detention facilities... I think that the most crucial and pressing ones are making sure that ICE no longer plays a role in that equation in Virginia, and also putting in that moratorium so that no additional facilities like that can be built."
Mehta, who emphasizes sustainable agricultural policy and the need to end food insecurity, stated that securing better conditions for migrant farmworkers would be a priority of hers in office. "We have 16,000 migrant workers that come into Virginia every year, they deserve quality housing and fair wages, translation services, all of those things that we would be fighting for at the farmworker front."
"We need people that are going to champion [climate action] and reject the money from Dominion and fossil fuel companies, but also introduce legislation and stand by it."
State and local governments are going to play a huge role in the fight for climate action, and Mehta is keen on making Virginia a leader on environmental protection. The natural gas industry has long played an outsized role in Virginia politics, with Dominion Energy in particular wielding disproportionate influence in both parties. Mehta's environmental justice platform includes support for 100% renewable energy in Virginia by no later than 2036, banning hydraulic fracturing, increased oversight on factory farms to prevent them from polluting, and a massive investment in public transit infrastructure.
Mehta's proposal for a Green New Deal for Virginia would mandate that at least 40% of jobs created by the program would be placed in frontline communities that have bore the brunt of climate change. To secure a just transition for workers currently employed in the natural gas sector, Mehta has proposed the creation of a pension fund that would pay for a five years salary for an energy worker who lost their job. Perhaps the most ambitious plank of her environmental program is a proposal to use state-level antitrust enforcement to break up the monopoly companies like Dominion Energy have over solar farming in favor of publicly-owned utilities.
"There’s a two-pronged approach to it: meeting those economic needs and also realizing that curriculum and discipline is almost always geared towards targeting, marginalizing, and removing students of color from the school system."
As a teacher, Mehta knows firsthand that decades of underinvestment in schools has led to a broken public education system. Mehta's comprehensive education platform calls for raising teacher's salaries to at least $60,000 a year, divestment from charter schools, universal pre-K education, and tuition-free public education and trade schools. Mehta wants to transform the public education system into one that can respond effectively to socio-economic discrepancies among students, stating that "making sure that there’s no lunch debt and removing a lot of those economic barriers that we see also alleviates a lot of the inequities that we see at a racial level."
Mehta is firmly aware of the racial discrepancies in Arlington Public Schools. In response, Mehta seeks to recruit more teachers of color, ban racist dress code policies, and curate the curriculum to center the stories of communities of color. To heal the wounds of white supremacy in public education, Mehta wants to invest in culturally responsive therapy to serve both educators and students. "I think that truly getting to an anti-racist education system means providing therapy... You know, we can’t adequately move towards an anti-racist and equitable school system unless we are also uplifting the teachers that are serving those students and to do that there has to be a sustainable way of providing that therapy for them."
In response to rampant police violence in Virginia, Mehta has endorsed a significant divestment in state funds for policing, stating that at least half of current funds should be reinvested in public services. Mehta's criminal justice platform includes support for the abolition of the death penalty, the legalization of marijuana and the expungement of records of those convicted on cannabis-related charges, and an end to mandatory minimum sentencing. Though Lopez has endorsed some criminal justice reform initiatives in recent years, his ties to the detention industry and the support he has received from police unions gives little reason to believe he'll champion decarceral measures without the threat of a primary challenge.
There's no question that defeating Lopez is going to be a challenging affair. Recent financial reports show that Lopez maintains a clear fundraising advantage over his competitor, though the gap may narrow considerably over the course of the campaign. In 2019, Lopez was able to defeat civil rights activist J.D. Spain in a primary challenge, a year that also saw local state senator Barbara Favola beat back a challenger to her left.
However, the progressive movement in Arlington has only grown in the last two years, and Lopez's recent transgressions, such as his vote to effectively kill an effort to repeal right-to-work after publicly championing it, gives fodder for a primary. Joe Biden won the district handily in the 2020 Democratic primary, but the fact that the combined vote total of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren roughly equaled his margin gives some hope for future progressive campaigns in the district.
Recognizing the disappointing results for past progressive campaigns in Arlington, Mehta stated that "one of the things that was fundamentally lacking was, for either primary, the importance of a good field strategy, and actually reaching into the district and bringing new people into the process." Mehta is an extremely enticing candidate in her own right, and the recent endorsement of the influential Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America (MDC-DSA) is a positive harbinger. State elections are crucial for the progressive movement as it looks to build power across the country, and electing Mehta to the House of Delegates would be a historic accomplishment in a state that has been written off for the Left by too many people.
Aidan Smith (@Aidan_Smx) is the founder and political director of Labyrinth. He has contributed to an array of publications, including The Nation, The Appeal, Current Affairs, and Salon.
Artwork by Aidan Smith. Design by Tia Wagh. (@Tia_Wagh)