Virginia Democrats See Long-Awaited Returns at 2020 Midpoint

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Mark Sickles joined the Virginia House of Delegates 16 years ago, but 2020 marks the Fairfax Democrat’s first in the legislative majority. Already the change is noticeable.

“You’re able to do so much more,” said Sickles in a phone interview. After control of the House shifted left for the first time in more than two decades with the November 2019 election, Democrats are finally seeing movement on legislation that was previously all but doomed under Republican leadership.

“We’ve done more on progressive issues since I was elected 16 years ago,” Sickles said, expressing surprise at how quickly floor sessions have been occurring, and bills passing, with little debate.

“I think Republicans have resigned that we have the votes,” he said. “It’s been a great feeling to get so much passed so quickly.”

The Virginia Capitol building on a chilly January morning. (Photo by Brad Kutner/Courthouse News Service)

As the state’s legislative session hits its crossover — a midpoint where legislation passed by one chamber crosses over to the other for approval — a record number of Democrat-sponsored bills are on the path to passage. The nonpartisan political watchdog the Virginia Public Access Project counted nearly 90 bills that died in committee last year but are now on track to pass in the next month and a half.

Issues like an increase in the minimum wage, marijuana decriminalization, paid family and medical leave, and criminal-justice reform, long the domain of Democrats, have new life in 2020.

“The activity is a lot more frenetic,” said Karen Hult, a political science professor at Virginia Tech. “The change in party control was historic so you have a unified government and lots of pent-up Democratic demand that was unleashed.”

Nationally notable highlights include the creation of LGBTQ protections, mandatory background checks on gun purchases, a rollback on pre-abortion ultrasounds and other so-called TRAP laws (short for targeted restrictions on abortion providers) that forced the closure of some clinics in the state. Voting-access bills — removing barriers like required ID and allowing no-excuse absentee voting — also sailed through both chambers like never before.

A myriad of bills aiming to address local issues have also survived. Both chambers passed bills that will allow localities to remove war monuments, an issue highlighted by the 2017 Unite the Right rally in which neo-Nazis gathered around a statue of Robert E. Lee that the city of Charlottesville has been working to remove. Other avenues for revenue, from a tax on plastic bags and even legal gambling, will be left up to localities in the near future.

“The Democratic majority is doing what the they said they would do: aggressive efforts to reverse controversial Republican policies and otherwise doing things Democratic voters would have liked to see,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor from the University of Mary Washington.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, center, shakes the hand of Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer after giving remarks during a news conference regarding the shooting at a municipal building on May 31, 2019. (Kaitlin McKeown/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

Indeed, Democrats ran tough races in 2019 and made big promises in the process. Gun laws, in the wake of a Virginia Beach mass shooting that left 13 people dead, were top among the list, but those efforts didn’t go unchallenged. An estimated 20,000 activists stormed the capitol demanding the preservation of Second Amendment rights, and more than 100 localities passed what are known as “2A sanctuary city” policies that they hope will insulate them from new laws.

At crossover, however, fears about the state taking people’s guns appear to be overblown. While red flag and other firearm limits survived both chambers, an assault weapons ban failed to survive in the Senate and a House version was passed after heavy edits.

Shawn Kenney, former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, said this kind of moderation was the most successful politicking he’s seen this session, and it’s thanks to Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Falls Church.

This is Saslaw’s second term as leader as the Senate flipped blue from 2008 to 2012. Kenney said that experience, as well as the longer term limits, have given the majority leader a chance to govern in the face of pushback from the right and left.

“You’re not going to see a whole lot of oxygen for things like [a repeal of] right to work or other alarming bills coming out of the House,” Kenney said in a phone interview. He also pointed to the low visibility of Governor Ralph Northam as he continues to reel from a blackface scandal linked to his college years.

“The governor isn’t really in the process,” Kenney said. “It’s the Senate leader governing the commonwealth.”

For his part, Northam said in a statement that he was proud of what House and Senate Democrats had achieved so far.

“While I’m encouraged by our progress, we still have important work ahead,” he said. “Virginians sent us here to do this work. Let’s get it done.”

But as much as Saslaw might be steering the ship in the Senate, early action in the House was a bit more chaotic as chamber and committee leadership transitioned into power for the first time in decades.

“It speaks to a sophomoric approach to the legislative process, and they lost some opportunities,” Kenney said.

The use of “sophomoric” is not too off base considering a large portion of the new majority was elected in within the last four years.

But Kenney also said House Republicans didn’t unite against the progressive onslaught like they could have.

“They got a bit too comfortable in leadership and you’re starting to see that rust,” he said.

With just over two dozen days left in the 2020 session there’s still plenty to debate, and there’s the two-year budget as well as a redistricting-reform effort via a constitutional amendment, both issues that will require bipartisan support to advance. But in the meantime, Democrats are basking in their newfound success.

“Voters demanded action in November. They called for decisive action to make their communities safer, more equal and more prosperous,” said House Speaker Elieen Filler-Corn in a statement. “At the crossover of the 2020 General Assembly session, I am proud to say the House of Delegates has delivered on the voters’ mandate.”

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