Virginia’s Legislative Session Spotlights Shifting Political Power

Now in their second full session with complete legislative control, Virginia Democrats continue to roll back old GOP efforts and make new laws with the state’s increasingly diverse citizenry in mind.

Virginia Sen. Amanda Chase and Republican gubernatorial candidate, speaks from her desk at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Va. on Tuesday, Feb. 2. (AP Photo/Ryan M. Kelly)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia’s annual legislative session, now in its second year under Democratic control, continues to show what happens when political power shifts after decades in the hands of Republicans. 

Friday was the 30-day, 2021 session’s midpoint, known as crossover where bills switch between chambers for final review and passage, and the bills left standing this year once again highlight just how stark a political shift can be.

The biggest headline making bills relate to marijuana and the death penalty — legalizing the first and abolishing the second. 

Virginia has long been one of the nation’s leaders in capital punishment. Second only to Texas, the state has executed 1,389 people since 1608 with 113 of those since 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the practice. 

But now similar versions of a bill ending the practice have passed both chambers. Governor Ralph Northam also asked for its demise at the session’s open, so it’s expected to become law in the coming months. 

“The death penalty is an antiquated, expensive, inhuman punishment that does not aid in crime deterrence or advance public safety, but it does disproportionately impact people of color in our country,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, a Democrat from Alexandria, one of the bill’s chief co-patrons, in a statement following its passage. 

Notably two House Republicans crossed the aisle to support the effort. However in the Senate, it passed along party lines after amendments to keep the punishment in cases where law enforcement officers were killed were nixed.

Marijuana reform kicked off last year when the state passed a decriminalization bill, but Democrats in both chambers have set their sights — and made some promises to constituents — on a full legalization and retail market creation measure this year. While both chambers have since passed their own versions of a new law, differences between the two are plentiful. 

The Senate version allows localities to opt out of local markets, the House version does not. The Senate allows vertical integration, with companies owning grow operations, production outfits and retail stores, the House does not. And the House has different priorities and caps for licenses than its smaller, more moderate counterpart. 

Delegate Lashrecse Aird, a Democrat from Petersburg, says her chamber’s stronger effort to maintain social equity, considering the long running “war on drugs’” disperate impact on Black and brown populations, is where the issues lie. 

“We’re trying to get to a place where we’re not only rectifying the social inequalities, we’re also taking the opportunities to make sure it impacts Black and brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted,” she said. 

The differences have added stress on the process, and while Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat from Richmond, argues her chamber is similarly prioritizing equity, she believes the state will most likely see an incremental process, starting with the removal of the prohibition on simple possession first. 

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Democrat from Henrico, is on a House subcommittee that spent a week debating their version of pot legalization and will eventually get their hands on the Senate version. He expressed concerns about the wide disconnect between the two chambers’ drafts and how that might impact final votes. 

“The kind of space where you can get enough people to compromise is going to be difficult,” he said. 

Alongside marijuana and the death penalty are a number of other criminal justice reform efforts Democrats have long called for and are finally seeing get a chance at passage. 

An end to mandatory minimum sentences, giving legislative committees the ability to examine racial equity impacts on further criminal law changes, bail reform and other issues have all succeeded under Democratic control where they would have tanked under the GOP’s former leadership.

“We’re reversing the approach we’ve taken in the commonwealth; I’m thrilled to see that,” said Aird, who also sponsored a bill which declares racism a public health crisis. 

But criminal justice was far from the majority party’s sole concern. 

Delegate Elizabeth Guzman, a Democrat from Woodbridge, submitted a bill requiring paid sick leave for some private employees and, after years of attempts with similar efforts, and finally got it out of the House. 

Now in her second term and running for Lt. Governor, Guzman said paid sick leave has always been a priority after hearing from voters who got healthcare from the Affordable Care Act and the state’s expansion of Medicaid, but now those same voters were unable to take time off to use the services.

“These are the people who have been driving the economy through this pandemic,” she said of essential workers, the limited class of workers who would be covered after compromising on earlier forms of the bill.

But the Senate will be an uphill battle for her bill. 

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, a Democrat from Fairfax, is pushing the closest comparable effort which provides workers compensation protections for first responders impacted by Covid-19. 

While the Senate is controlled by Democrats, the 40-member chamber is more moderate than the 100-member House due to term limits and the wider-swath of land their districts cover. 

Under Saslaw’s leadership many of the more progressive House efforts have been neutered or nixed entirely.  

Abortion access, however, appears ready to expand less than a decade after the state and its then-Attorney General-turned Trump DHS appointee Ken Cuccinelli enacted some of the strictest measures in the nation. 

“I spent 14 years in the minority fighting against things that hurt marginalized communities and access to healthcare and abortion care,” said McLellan, who served in the House before the Senate and is now in the middle of a 2021 gubernatorial bid, after her bill rolling back a ban on ACA-market health plans covering abortions survived a full Senate vote. 

“To now roll back those restrictions, I can’t even begin to describe how good it feels,” she added. 

Other newsworthy efforts from the 2021 session include expanding voting rights and access. Like many southern states, Virginia had long kept voting to a single day, applied limitations on early and absentee voting, and was uninterested in any changes in the process under GOP leadership. 

Now, with one and a half regular sessions and one Covid special session under their belt, Democrats are aiming to make the commonwealth a model for ballot access. 

Efforts include codifying Covid-era drop box expansion, expanded ballot curing, technical changes to the reporting process as well as allowing polling stations to open on Sundays for early absentee voting. 

“The goal of adding additional early voting hours on Sunday is not only to provide opportunities for faith groups to assist their members in getting out to vote but to provide more weekend hours, when most voters have a greater ability to go vote,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, a Democrat from Henrico, on the “souls to the polls” effort which in other states has seen increased turnout in Black communities and beyond. 

Opposition to the efforts from Republicans, who have avoided or voted against nearly every voting expansion effort this year, was present. 

“It’s obvious that Democrats want to loosen the rules that assisted them in the last election and so greatly contributed to undermining confidence in the last election,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, a Republican from Shenandoah, in a press call earlier in the session as the left’s election efforts began to stream out of subcommittees.

VanValkenburg, who also sits on the House’s elections committee, said Gilbert’s complaints amount to an “emperor with no clothes.”

He pointed to the lack of 2020 election-related lawsuits filed in Virginia where the former president lost by 10 points in 2020 and by five points in 2016.  

“We have clear code language that allowed people to access the ballot,” he said. “Any attempts to say otherwise are an attempt to muddy the waters.”

Other formerly dead on arrival efforts now seeing unheard of success are changes to state LGBTQ laws.

Blocking the use of the so-called “gay/transgender panic” defense in criminal cases, expanding resources for HIV positive and sexual minority senior Virginians, nixing a so-called “conscience clause” which allows state-funded adoption agencies to deny services to sexual and gender minorities and beginning the process of rolling back the state’s 2006 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage are all on their way to becoming law.

The marriage effort, which most Republicans voted to oppose 15 years after it was enacted, still needs to pass both chambers in a second session before it goes on the ballot for the public to vote on, but LGBTQ members of the more than 400-year-old body are hopeful for its eventual removal along side the Legislatures’ broader support for diversity. 

“These issues mattered to large portions of our districts,” said Del. Danica Roem, a Democrat from Manassas Park, the state’s first openly transgender elected official now in her second term, on the handful of bills which all have elected members of sexual or gender minority communities as lead patrons. “It’s acknowledging the reality that LGBTQ people live and work in our communities.”

But the session hasn’t been all bad for the state’s former conservative leadership, though the bloodletting has mostly been slowed exclusively in the Senate.

An effort by Senator Mark Obenshain, a Republican from Rockingham, to open up the state’s parole process sailed through the body and is on its way to the House. The measure, originating from the COVID-era releases of inmates that Obenshain and others argued shirked the normal process, has an unknown future in the House where the body has been less willing to give Republicans a win. 

Another successful GOP Senate measure assumed to be dead on arrival in the House aims to force schools to open in the fall. Sponsored by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, a Republican from Henrico, and called “the most important bill that we will vote on this legislative session,” by fellow conservative Sen. Ryan McDougle, a Republican from Hanover, even Democrats who offered their support realized the one line bill did little beyond lean on Governor Northam to open public schools by the next school year. 

Meanwhile Northam called for schools to offer some form of in-class learning by mid-March shortly after the bill was sent to the House. 

“We need to get kids in school as soon as possible, but we have to do it in a responsible way,” VanValkenburg, a teacher and member of the House Education committee, said after doubting the bills success in his chamber. 

New firearm laws, which had a banner year in 2020 much to the GOP’s chagrin, appear less likely to succeed this time around offering another win to the right. 

An effort to require background checks before renting a gun at a shooting range will be left on a senate committee table after two Democrats supported it. 

“I earnestly want to find a way to make this work,” said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, a Republican from Henrico, who noted the bill was inspired by two suicides which involved a customer renting a gun at a range before using it to take their own life. One of the suicides happened in her district. 

“This bill, however, does not accomplish our goal,” she added. 

Last but far from least is the actual future makeup of the body. Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states who hold legislative elections the year after a decennial census. But between the virus and the Trump administration’s reported meddling, numbers that should have been sent to legislators to begin the map making process have yet to be seen.

“I don’t know enough to speak one way or the other, but there’s a path toward getting lines drawn this year,” said VanValkenburg. 

He admitted he was trying to remain optimistic in the face of overwhelming odds suggesting they’d need to come up with some kind of solution ahead of the state’s summer primary races which will require district lines for candidates to obey residency requirements. 

“It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but who knows?” he added.

As if this all wasn’t enough, Northam has already called both chambers back to extend the 30-day short session to line up with a normal 46-day session, an effort Republicans successfully blocked when Democratic leadership tried to extend it with a vote early on in the session. 

“People across our Commonwealth are facing tremendous challenges, and they expect their elected officials to deliver results,” Northam said in a press release announcing what amounts to a special session.

“I look forward to working with our counterparts in the Senate and the Governor to continue doing the people’s work,” said Democratic House Speaker Elieen Filler-Corn following Northam’s request. 

How these bills will fare for Virginia’s annual session will become clear when the lawmaking period ends in early March.

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