Virginia Democrats Set Sights on Equal Rights Amendment

Voters cheer their candidates at a Democratic Party event in Richmond, Va., on Nov. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Flanked by members of the newly Democratic-controlled Virginia House of Delegates, the chamber’s incoming majority leader said ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a top goal of the 2020 legislative session.

“On Election Day, Virginians spoke loud and clear,” Eileen Filler-Corn, the first woman to hold the title in the state’s 400-year history as the nation’s oldest representative democracy, said at a press conference Monday afternoon. “They made a mandate and said bring Virginia forward to make the Commonwealth a better place for us all.”

Nearly 100 years in the making, the constitutional amendment would guarantee equal rights for women by outlawing sex discrimination. It was first introduced in 1923 and passed by Congress in 1972, and was then sent to state legislatures for ratification.

Virginia’s ratification would bring the Equal Rights Amendment to the 38-state threshold needed to take it back to Congress, in light of expired ratification deadlines. It was one of many issues state Democrats ran on during the 2019 election cycle which saw both of Virginia’s legislative chambers flip blue for the first time in two decades.

“With the mandate we’ve been given by voters, we’ll be taking our own path for Virginia… one that serves all people, no matter gender, language, who they love,” Filler-Corn said. “Passing ERA is one example… adding women to the Constitution is long overdue.”

With control of the statehouse, and Democrat Ralph Northam in the governor’s mansion, it still remains to be seen just how much Virginia liberals will flex their muscles.

Delegate Mark Levin, whose northern Virginia district is one of the most liberal in the state, is about to enter his third term. While not one of the longest sitting Democrats in the state, he was around long enough to figure out his party’s place under GOP control.

The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. (Photo via Anderskev/Wikipedia Commons)

“When you’re in the minority, the majority tends to kill your bills,” he said in a phone interview.

But Levin promised to return in 2020 with a renewed sense of purpose, as many of the pieces of legislation he long championed will now likely at least get out of committee and onto the House floor for a full vote.

“This year we’re going to get the details right because it’s going to become law,” he said of various proposals.

It’s in those details where the fate of Democratic control will be determined in a state once seen as a Republican stronghold of the Old South, and still dotted with conservative bastions like the National Rifle Association headquarters in the D.C. suburbs and Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s Liberty University in Lynchburg.

Whatever legislation that is passed by the Democratic majority will be front and center for attack ads when House of Delegates seats are up for reelection again in 2021. The concern over lasting control might temper some of the more progressive efforts hailed by the majority party’s newest members.

“Things will be incremental,” Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at Mary Washington University, said in a phone interview.

He noted Northam is much more of a centrist who was almost recruited by the Republican Party years before he won the governorship in 2017.

“Some of the folks who imagine this election has made Virginia the California of the East Coast will be disappointed,” Farnsworth said.

And while the season for prefiling legislation has already begun, Northam’s lean towards the middle is already on display.

Among the most progressive pushes from some legislators is an effort to roll back the state’s right-to-work law, which bans forced union dues and generally stifles organized labor. But the governor signaled such a move is unlikely.

“I can’t foresee Virginia taking actions [that would include] repeal of the right-to-work law,” Northam said Monday at a meeting of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Revenue Estimates, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Lee Carter, a Bernie Sanders-backed Democratic Socialist who entered the Legislature in 2018 and kept his seat this year by championing worker’s rights and ending the state’s right to work law, told Virginia Public Media he promised to submit legislation to address the anti-union law again this year.

“What [Northam] does with it is up to him,” he said.

However, there will be plenty of legislative agreement for most of the newly empowered party’s priorities, chief among them being gun restrictions like closing the “gun-show loophole,” changes to election laws including no-excuse absentee voting and same-day registration, and creating protections for LGBTQ citizens in public accommodations and employment

A common theme to these bills, Farnsworth noted, is their lack of impact on the state’s bottom line. As progressive as the state may have become, he thinks Democrats realize any legislation that would allow them to be labeled as tax-and-spend Socialists will not gain traction.

Conversely, efforts that would increase revenue for the state could see bipartisan support.

Beginning the process of marijuana legalization, which has the support of Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, and bills filed by both Democrats and Republicans for casino-style gambling have already arisen as big legislative changes that have support across the state.

John March, former spokesperson for the Virginia Republican Party, said hemp legalization that took effect in 2018 has already found friends in traditionally red, rural parts of the state where farming efforts have seen increased jobs and revenue. He said further legalization of full THC cannabis has gained ground with conservative legislators as a way to appeal to younger voters.

There’s still plenty of time for new bills to be submitted before the start of the legislative session on Jan. 8, and while the list grows so do the dreams of Democratic legislators. How far they will go is yet to be seen, but one thing’s for sure – the legislative agenda is no longer being determined by the state’s conservative leaders.

“There really is a new sheriff in town,” Farnsworth said.

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