Mark Levine wants to make history in Virginia. But will voters let him?

Mark Levine
(Photo by David Stuck)

Mark Levine stands at the ready, with a handful of pamphlets and a friendly disposition. It’s April 23, the start of early primary voting in Virginia. Levine, a state delegate, is surrounded by an assortment of other candidates and their staffs, each jockeying to make a last-minute pitch to voters before they enter the downtown Alexandria polling place.

Levine, in a dark gray trench coat, scans the streets for approaching voters. Over 40 minutes, few came to cast their ballot, prompting Levine to remark that the lack of a presidential election had diminished interest in the statewide race. Regardless, his campaign has the chance to make history.

Levine, 55, of Alexandria has represented the 45th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates since 2015. The district includes parts of Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax. In the Democratic primary, Levine is running not just for one office, but two: his House seat, against Alexandria’s vice mayor, Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, and Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.

“It’s weird,” Levine said of this electoral multitasking. ”I think it shouldn’t have happened, but it’s perfectly legal under Virginia law.”

Reelection as delegate is Levine’s fallback. If he manages to best the six other Democratic competitors in the primary and win in the November election, Levine will be the first Jewish and openly gay lieutenant governor in the commonwealth’s history. But what Levine sees as more important is his goal to transform the position.

The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate and casts the deciding vote in the event of a tie. The lieutenant governor’s other duty is to take over if the governor resigns or is incapacitated. The job pays $36,000 a year, and with the state legislature only being in session for a couple months a year, Levine said many treat it as a part-time position. He wants to make it full time.

Levine wants to bring the lieutenant governorship into “the 21st century and spend 12 months or a year traveling all across Virginia hearing from people.” He said the state-level position will give him the authority and credibility to talk to residents outside his home district and then make their voices heard in Richmond.

“As a delegate from Alexandria, I’m just a guy,” Levine said. “But if I’m lieutenant governor of Virginia, chatting with [people from across the state], I think that gives people a chance to really be heard.”

Levine is a constitutional lawyer, a Fulbright scholar, a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School and a former radio talk show host. He attends services at Agudas Achim Congregation and Beth El Hebrew Congregation, both in Alexandria.

For now, his candidacy is a long shot. A poll released on April 22 indicated 64 percent of Democratic voters were undecided in the lieutenant governor’s race. At 12 percent, Del. Sam Rasoul (D-11th District) was the front runner. Levine and the rest were more or less tied at 2 percent each.

Levine grew up in Nashville, Tenn., in a “Conservative, very Zionist family.” They belonged to West End Synagogue and his mother served as president of the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. Levine said growing up as a Southern Jew is a “clear minority” experience.

“When I was 3 years old, I had to answer the question, ‘Why don’t you celebrate Christmas?’ ‘Why don’t you accept Jesus?’ I think a lot of Northern Jews don’t get asked those questions and don’t get challenged,” Levine said. “I mean, I must have had 100 people trying to convert me by the time I was 5. And so you get a bit of a thick skin.”

Levine said he was drawn to politics by the death of his sister, Janet. In 1996, she was murdered by her husband, Perry March, who then ran off with their two children to Mexico. Her body was never found. Levine’s family spent the next decade battling for custody of the kids. Levine drafted a state law to protect victims of domestic violence and their children. It passed unanimously. March was convicted in 2006.

“The most impactful thing by far was getting justice for my family. That’s the mountain that seemed the hardest to climb,” Levine said. “I spent every year of my 30s, every day, looking for justice.”

Levine cites one of his accomplishments as a state delegate the co-founding of the Virginia Transparency Caucus in 2016. The caucus’ advocacy led lawmakers to record, livestream and archive committee and subcommittee votes and debates in the General Assembly. In 2010, before taking office, he helped craft and defend in court the bill that legalized same-sex marriage in Washington, D.C.

Levine sees the lieutenant governorship as the next stop in his political career. The challenge will be getting voters to agree. But Levine is undeterred.

“Being Jewish helped me being gay because it told me that just because everyone says you can’t do this, doesn’t mean you can’t do this. And that’s kind of the theme of my life and my campaign,” Levine said. “They all told me I couldn’t do this, and I did it anyway.”

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