Va. General Assembly starts on historic note

George Copeland Jr. and Jeremy M. Lazarus | 1/10/2020, 6 a.m.
The General Assembly was gaveled into a potentially history-making session Wednesday with Democrats in control of both houses and eager …
Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax County is sworn in as speaker of the House of Delegates on Wednesday by Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons. She is the first woman to hold the powerful position in the 401-year history of the Virginia legislature. Photo by Ava Reaves

The General Assembly was gaveled into a potentially history-making session Wednesday with Democrats in control of both houses and eager to usher in changes that will make it easier for Virginians to vote, reduce the barriers they face in renting and increase the minimum pay they receive for working.

Northern Virginia Democrat Eileen Filler-Corn was sworn in as the first woman speaker of the House of Delegates in the legislature’s 401-year history.

With a record number of African-American and female legislators filling seats in both the House of Delegates and state Senate, a wave of policy changes is anticipated that also would impact education, gun purchases and the environment, with swift action predicted on a number of high-profile issues that Republicans have blocked for years.

Among other things, Democrats are promising to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to give women equal constitutional standing, raise the minimum wage to as much as $15 an hour, decriminalize marijuana possession and repeal laws restricting women’s rights to abortion.

Also on the Democratic agenda are plans to ban discrimination on the job and in housing on the basis of sexual orientation and reinstate the one-handgun-a-month restriction on purchase and require background checks on all gun sales to end the “gun show” loophole.

“This is a new year in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and a lot of these things that we’ve been talking about for years are now going to become a reality,” Gov. Ralph S. Northam said Friday in announcing a wave of criminal justice reforms, including proposals to permanently ban the state from taking a driver’s license for unpaid court fines and fees for unrelated matters and to reinstate parole for older inmates and those who are terminally ill or severely disabled.

Few groups will do more to usher in change than the 23-member Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. With the most members ever, the group now represents 30 percent of the 76 Democrats elected to the General Assembly’s two chambers. Caucus members also will hold an unprecedented number of leadership posts in the legislature noted Henrico Delegate and VLBC Chair Lamont Bagby at a Capitol news conference Wednesday.

VLBC members will lead the Democratic caucuses in both the House and the Senate and also will chair nine of the 26 committees, including seven of the 14 House committees and two of the 12 Senate committees.

“We’re excited,” Delegate Bagby said, about entering the session with real clout to fulfill the mission of the caucus to improve the lives and condition of the state’s African-American residents.

One indication of the influence came Monday when Gov. Northam announced he is backing proposals by Norfolk Delegate Joseph C. “Joe” Lindsey to make Election Day a holiday and rid Virginia of the Lee-Jackson Day tribute to the Confederacy, and to allow early voting at least 60 days in advance of elections by ending the need for Virginians to cite an excuse to vote absentee.

Delegate Lindsey, the new chair of the House Privileges and ElectionsCommittee, said at the Wednesday news conference his committee will focus on ways to “make it easier to exercise the right to vote.”

He said that would include creating a system of automatic voter registration and eliminating potential barriers, and supporting passage of nonpartisan redistricting so legislators could no longer “choose their voters.”

Richmond Delegate Jeff Bourne, vice chair of the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, said the state no longer can leave “issues of homelessness and eviction unattended.”

He said he and other caucus members will be at the forefront to boost tenants’ rights, including imposing bans that would keep property owners and landlords from refusing to rent to survivors of domestic violence or people seeking to use government vouchers or other aid to help pay their rent.

Such discrimination “is abhorrent,” he said, in noting that VLBC members also will join in prohibiting discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community in housing and employment.

He said the VLBC will back efforts to increase a state investment pool for afford- able housing and beef up eviction diversion programs in Richmond and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Portsmouth state Sen. L. Louise Lucas, the dean of the VLBC who will serve as Senate president pro tem and also chair the Senate Health and Education Committee, said she will push to expand Medicaid coverage for pregnant women and dental and eye care, seek to scrap work requirements for Medicaid recipients that Republicans imposed and work to repeal restrictions on abortions.

Delegate Bourne also will be on the front lines in the high-profile issue of gun safety, with Democrats pledging to pass “common sense gun laws” such as universal background checks on gun sales. Bills also have been filed to limit the size of weapon magazines and the purchase of military-style, semiautomatic rifles and to reinstate local government authority to pass gun control measures for public places.

The caucus also will support “red-flag” laws to strip firearms from those engaged in domestic violence or who have violent offense records and are considered a serious threat.

Gun rights groups have pledged stiff defiance. The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a prominent pro-gun group, said it plans to have “enough citizens armed with handguns to take over a modern, mid-sized country” at its annual lobby day on Monday, Jan. 20.

Delegate Charniele Herring of Alexandria, the new House majority leader, addresses the House chamber on Wednesday. Other delegates, from left, are Hala Ayala of Prince William County and C.E. “Cliff” Hayes Jr. of Chesapeake.

Delegate Charniele Herring of Alexandria, the new House majority leader, addresses the House chamber on Wednesday. Other delegates, from left, are Hala Ayala of Prince William County and C.E. “Cliff” Hayes Jr. of Chesapeake.

The VLBC also will seek to keep a proposal in Gov. Northam’s budget to shift the entire $83,000 allocated yearly to maintain Confederate graves to supporting the upkeep of historic and previously neglected African-American cemeteries.

Richmond state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan noted that the caucus is celebrating the 35th year of black women serving in the General Assembly. But she added that she and others “stand on the shoulders of the first black delegates and senators” who took office a little more than 150 years ago when the General Assembly, abolished for nearly two years, was restarted under a new constitution that allowed black men to vote.

“We are their legacies,” she said. “As they did, we will continue to work to eliminate the last vestiges of racism and white supremacy in Virginia. All of us are ready to work. It is our time.”