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Saslaw to retire after about five decades in state politics

Jacquelyn Martin
The Associated Press file
Long-serving Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw, 83, says he will not seek reelection after his term ends in January. Saslaw joined the Senate in 1980 after serving in the House of Delegates.

Dick Saslaw, the acerbic, influential, business-friendly Democratic majority leader of the Virginia Senate, on Thursday announced plans to retire, saying he is proud of the legacy he will leave behind as his nearly five decades in state politics come to a close.

“Sooner or later, you know, you’ve got to realize that you’re going to have to move on. But it’s been a very interesting and a great 48 years," the 83-year-old Saslaw, whose term will end in January, said in a floor speech.

A businessman and Army veteran, Saslaw is the longest-serving member of the Senate, which he joined in 1980 after serving four years in the House of Delegates. While representing a Northern Virginia district, he has been a resolute defender of abortion rights and a strong ally of Dominion Energy on regulatory issues. He helped lead the push for Medicaid expansion and at times staked out more centrist positions than many fellow Democrats on criminal justice issues.

Saslaw’s announcement was followed by an outpouring of bipartisan praise from his colleagues as his wife, Eleanor, looked on from the gallery, along with other admirers, including lobbyists who donned shirts sporting his photo. Several speakers seemed close to tears as they heralded him as a legend in Virginia politics, as well as a hard-working, loyal and brutally honest friend and colleague.

“He is the epitome of a Virginia gentleman,” said Republican Sen. Ryan McDougle.

Another Republican, Jill Vogel, said she was initially leery of Saslaw’s tough reputation when she first joined the General Assembly and recalled a “terrifying” first encounter with him. But it took just a week or two to be charmed, she said.

“He is joyful. He is fun. Even when he’s fuming and furious, he’s still a little bit funny," Vogel said.

Saslaw’s news is part of a recent flurry of retirement announcements as the ongoing legislative session draws to a close.

All 140 seats in the General Assembly will be on the ballot in the fall in an election that has the chance to substantially reshape the membership of the Democrat-controlled Senate and GOP-controlled House.

Lawmakers will be running for the first time in districts that were overhauled during the redistricting process that concluded in late 2021.

The new districts were drawn by independent experts without regard to protecting incumbents, and the resulting maps led to overhauled districts with legislators paired in many of them. General Assembly members must live in the district they represent, and some are stepping down after being faced with crowded primaries or more politically unfriendly lines.

“Everybody’s got primaries. They’re in districts with other people who are their friends. It’s a very unsettling session because of that distraction,” Democratic Sen. Dave Marsden, who was drawn into a district with Saslaw and has at least one other primary opponent, said earlier this month.

In Saslaw's case, he made self-deprecating quips about his age as he said it was simply time to retire.

“I did serve with a man whose father fought in the Civil War. I didn't fight in the Civil War,” said Saslaw, who does often joke that he's so old he confabbed with the founding fathers.

Saslaw said he thought that during his time in office, lawmakers had improved the lives of Virginia citizens, especially racial minorities, while at the same time maintaining a business-friendly environment. But he also warned that the General Assembly has become too partisan.

"One of the big changes that I’ve seen over the years is that we’ve lost the ability to compromise. And that is really unfortunate. When I first got here, things got worked out," he said.

Saslaw, who narrowly defeated a primary challenger who ran to his left in 2019, served with 13 governors and said meeting Queen Elizabeth twice was among the many highlights of his time in public office.

“I can't just tell you how great it's been," he said.

In the 100-seat House of Delegates, several members this week announced plans to step down, including Del. Jeff Bourne of Richmond, who was paired in a seat with a fellow Democrat and told the Richmond Times-Dispatch he wanted to spend more time with family.

Republican Tim Anderson ruled out a run in a newly redrawn district where he would have faced another Republican incumbent.

Democratic Del. Ken Plum, who is the longest-serving member of the House, also confirmed this week that he will not seek reelection, as did Del. Mike Mullin, who told The Daily Press he wanted to spend more with family.

A day later, Mullin confirmed to the newspaper the death of his infant son. Lawmakers and others were floored by the news; some cried on the House floor as Minority Leader Don Scott and others addressed it.

“There are no words,” Scott said.