Virginia’s New Democratic Legislators Shaping Agenda Despite Minority Status

RICHMOND (CN) – More than a dozen new democratic legislators entered the Virginia General Assembly this year, and while many of the issues they ran on have failed to gain traction in a body the GOP has dominated for decades, their presence in the assembly chamber is already having an impact.

Democrats had high hopes after election day when it briefly appeared they’d taken control of General Assembly by a slim margin.

Those hopes were dashed earlier this year after a series of recounts and other tiebreakers — including the selection of a winner’s name out of a ceramic bowl — returned control of the body to GOP which now holds a 51-49 majority.

The near equal numbers on each side of the aisle has led to some effort at working together in the early days of the term. But there’s no getting around the fact the GOP still holds the majority.

One recent illustration of this transpired during a meeting of a subcommittee of the General Assembly’s General Laws Committee.

The nine-member panel was considering four bills that revisited proposals to increase protections for LGBTQ individuals in housing and public employment. Similar proposals had previously been considered by the subcommittee and rejected out of hand.

Among those in the chambers, was Delegate Danica Roem, who made history in November as the first transgender individual elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.

She was a spectator for the bills being heard, but her legislation relating to traffic problems in her district had been killed earlier in the session.

As she listened, Democrats on subcommittee failed to advance a single of the LGBTQ measures. As some in the public gallery hurled shouts of “shame” at the panel, Roem picked up her things and headed to her next committee meeting.

“It is very easy, in this [governing] body, to have your spirit broken and come away feeling demoralized,” she said.

“[The] first thing you recognize is when you’re a freshman and a Democrat, [is that] you’re not …  going to get a lot of stuff passed, but you can set a tone,” she continued.

Roem is not alone in her frustration.

Delegate Elizabeth Guzman, who in November was one of the first two Latinas elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates, unsuccessfully pressed the legislature to make the cost of state colleges the same for immigrant students in Virginia on a visa or and other temporary status as it is for American citizens.

And Delegate Debra Rodman, who upset a 17-year incumbent Republican to claim her seat, saw her attempt to make feminine hygiene products tax-free in Virginia killed in committee.

Other measures, including a bid to have a study done on the potential benefits of offering universal healthcare in the Commonwealth and one to create a state-level net neutrality law, also proved futile.

House Democratic Minority Leader David Toscano said under the circumstance, he understands why Roem and her freshman colleagues might be feeling discouraged.

“It is quite a jolt to people when they first come down here when they try and learn the system,” Toscano said.

“Learn the system” was one of the first pieces of advice he offered the 16 newly elected democrats as the current session of the legislature got underway last month.

“It’s natural to be a bit dispirited because a bill they thought was the greatest thing since sliced bread was defeated in what they think was partisan action,” he said. “Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.”

Freshman House Democrat Schuyler VanValkenburg, who represents a district encompassing the Richmond suburbs, said before arriving in the statehouse he was determined to learn more about the legislature and its culture and traditions.

“Each part of the General Assembly has a different rhythm,” he said. “When you get here you’ve got to learn the rhythm for each committee, the floor, the caucuses; you’ve got to learn them to learn how to legislate.”

While Roem saw her initial legislative proposals rejected, VanValkenburg managed to get one piece of legislation through the House and on to the state Senate, another GOP-controlled body, but one that historically has proven more inclined to bi-partisanship.

His bill, which would stop the Commonwealth from pulling someone’s professional license if they default on student loans, was based on similar legislation passed in several conservative-leaning, GOP-controlled states.

VanValkenburg said in crafting the bill’s language he was mindful of Republican calls to reign in “government overreach.” By framing his bill along those lines, he said, he was able to get Republicans who’d ordinarily run from a democrat’s proposal to sign on.

VanValkenburg’s experience illustrates another truism offered by Toscano to incoming freshman.

“Sometimes people feel they’re being targeted for partisan reasons, but in reality they’re being questioned about the what the words on the paper say,” the Democratic leader said.

Geoffrey Skelley, political analyst at University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said while the slim majority the GOP now holds increases the odds that bipartisan deal-making will be more common as the session continues, Democrats are still unlikely to make significant inroads in advancing their legislative agenda.

“Getting anything passed is difficult because of the Republican majority. They’re unlikely to agree to Democrats’ bills whether they’re freshmen or not,” he said. “But Republicans also aren’t very interested in giving these freshmen wins in their first year.”

Toscano said while failures to get their legislation passed may aggravate freshman democrats, their presence in the chamber has had an impact in the first weeks of the session.

He said Democrats in the House have given new life to a long-running debate over whether to expand Medicaid; helped pass legislation that increases the threshold for felony larceny (starting July 1, anyone who steals anything worth $499 dollars or less will only be charged a misdemeanor ), and introduced a bill to disrupt the  Commonwealth’s so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” Virginia’s practice of referring students who get in trouble to the legal system.

“That couldn’t have happened years ago,” Toscano said. “It’s only because of the new members of the assembly.”

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