Tables Turn in Virginia as Democrats Take Over Legislature

People demonstrate outside the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Virginia’s Republican lawmakers and their legislative efforts are facing new hurdles with Democrats in control of both chambers for the first time in decades.

The difference was on display at a Senate subcommittee hearing Friday morning, where a number of bills that would have faced certain death under GOP leadership met a new fate.

Chief among them was legislation directing the Virginia Department of Education to create a statewide policy to support transgender students’ needs.

“Under this policy schools are required to treat students according to their gender identity,” said Senator Jennifer Boysko, D-Herndon, who added the policy was in line with federal civil rights law, specifically Title IX.

The bill faced pushback from other members of the small subcommittee. Senators Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, both expressed concerns about defining gender and how the policy could impact gender-specific school sports programs.

The measure advanced in a 3-2 vote along party lines. It was the first hurdle in the long legislative process, but activists say it was an important first step.

“I think it’s safe to assume it would not have passed,” Bill Harrison, executive director of the LGBTQ group Diversity Richmond, said of the bill under the previous Republican-controlled Legislature.

He’s watched pro-LGBTQ legislation die in committees for years but was elated by this bill’s success.

“I’m happy there are new faces at the table that will help pass this needed LGBTQ-inclusive legislation,” Harrison said.

Meanwhile, Senator Tommy Norment, R-James City, who held the Senate majority leader title for the past six years and now serves as minority leader, had a bill hoping to make gun safety courses mandatory for K-12 public school students. While his effort wasn’t outright killed, it was reduced to a study and carried over to the same committee next week.

“I think if [the bill] is approached reasonably, then it has an opportunity,” Norment said in an interview after the vote. “If a study is appropriate then so be it.”

The reality of the situation might be a bit bleaker than Norment let on.

When Democrats took both the House of Delegates and Senate in the 2019 election, a number of privileges came with it. Among them is the ability to nominate chairs and hold majorities on committees and subcommittees, allowing them to pass their broad political agenda. There are smaller privileges too, like setting the agenda for the order of bills heard in committees.

Friday’s vote on Boysko’s transgender bill, for example, was held long before Norment’s gun safety classes bill.

Norment had arrived on time for the 8:30 a.m. meeting but he was forced to wait through a number of other agenda items. He left the hearing at times and his bill was eventually heard just after 10 a.m.

“What happened in this subcommittee demonstrates in powerful ways that there’s a new majority in town,” Stephen Farnsworth, director of the University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said in a phone call.

He noted how committee chair Senator Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, chose to hear Norment’s bill towards the end of the hearing.

“When there are clear Republican and Democratic divisions parties take care of their own,” Farnsworth said.

Other legislation that survived Friday’s meeting included a bill offering free menstrual supplies at public schools, which was also submitted by Boysko.

She had submitted related legislation aimed at nixing the sales tax on all menstrual supplies for years in the House and Senate. A more modest version of the bill reducing the sale tax, known as a “pink tax,” was eventually signed into law, but not before a committee hearing-induced headache.

When it first went before one House committee, she waited three hours before Republicans ended the session without a vote. Social media exploded with complaints from activists and a special meeting was held to give the bill a full hearing the following week.

Boysko didn’t want to speculate as to the timing of hearing Norment’s bill during Friday’s meeting, and she said she specifically requested to have her bill heard earlier due to another committee meeting she had to sit on that was held in the same time window.

But she volunteered the history of the pink-tax bill’s legislative journey when asked about committee agendas.

“I am appreciative that my bills today did get a hearing and were taken seriously,” she said.

Still, Norment hopes whatever slights his party might have dealt in the past won’t be returned on him and his minority allies.

“[It’s] always a little unsettling as we readjust committees but it’s not personal, at least for me,” he said. “One of the problems is too many people take this stuff personally when they should be taking a business approach.”

With hundreds of committee meetings still to be held, how each Democratic chair handles their agendas remains to be seen.

“One of the common rules of politics is ‘do as was done unto you,’” Farnsworth said.

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