In 1998 I chaired a task force of business and community leaders to collectively document what Northern Virginia needed to do to be an “EV Ready Community.” Our work was part of a national effort involving ten communities under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Energy and the Electric Vehicle Association of the Americas to prepare for the introduction of electric vehicles. Our inch-thick report was very comprehensive in detailing the infrastructure needed in charging stations, building and roadways, and other changes that electric vehicles would require.
We were ahead of our time. Within about a year of our report the first commercial electric car, EV1, was no longer available and other manufacturers were not offering electric vehicles. Move ahead less than two decades and electric vehicles are becoming commonplace in many areas. I even own one, and on trips in my community I always see more than one.
What happened in the meantime is a greater awareness of our transportation system’s contribution to greenhouse gases and pollution. In the United States alone in 2017, the transportation sector accounted for 29% of the nation’s total emissions of 6.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e (the CO2 equivalent of an individual greenhouse gas). Driven largely by the transportation sector’s emissions of fossil fuels, concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere have risen steadily since the early 1980s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Interestingly, when there is a recession there is a corresponding dip in emissions.
In addition to the increased awareness of the adverse effects of our conventional transportation on the environment, there has been an increase in the number of entrepreneurs who are willing to make major investments in developing electric cars and other vehicles and increased competition from abroad. A Super Bowl commercial sponsored by General Motors lamented the fact that in Norway 54 percent of the new cars sold are EVs. The president of General Motors announced recently that the company would phase out gasoline vehicles and sell only electric passenger cars and trucks by 2035. Press accounts are that Ford Motor Company is making major investments in electric vehicles and VW that is about to move its US headquarters to Reston will be investing $37 billion in electric vehicles.
In the General Assembly I am a co-patron along with the patron Delegate Lamont Bagby of HB1965 that directs the State Air Pollution Control Board to implement a low-emissions and zero-emissions vehicle program for motor vehicles with a model year of 2025 and later. The legislation will help resolve the problem of consumers in Virginia who want to buy an electric vehicle but must go out of the state to do so. Along with a rebate program the vehicles will become more affordable for persons of limited income. There have been major investments in charging stations throughout the state enabling travel without the fear of running out of juice. You may have noticed the Wawa in Vienna that sells electric charging only but no gas.
I need to review more carefully that report of two decades ago to make sure we are ready for EVs. Ready or not, here they come!
Under current Virginia law a person who steals something of value less than $1,000 can be punished by up to 12 months in jail with fines up to $2,500 along with any restitution that might be owed. As tough as that sentence may seem, if that same person commits another misdemeanor larceny of whatever amount less than a thousand dollars within any time frame in the future, that person under current law can be jailed for between 30 days and 12 months. A third or any subsequent offense at any time in the future results in a Class 6 felony with up to five years in prison.
Persons who practice law defending individuals facing such charges tell me that the accused are most likely to be poor, and the vast majority are homeless and/or mentally ill. Upping the penalties on such persons is neither just for the vulnerable persons involved nor does it make society any safer. With thanks to Justice Forward of Virginia (justiceforwardva.com) for bringing my attention to this injustice, I introduced HB2290 that is now making its way through the House to repeal the enhanced penalties.
This bill is but one example of laws that have been on the books for years but upon examination are clearly not just laws; they do not agree with what is considered morally right or good. For most of the years I have served in the House of Delegates, I was the lone vote against a series of bills that added to the list of capital crimes. Along the way conservative Republican Frank Hargrove of Hanover County joined me in my opposition to the death penalty. In more recent years, opposition to the death penalty has grown to the point where it appears likely that the death penalty will be abolished this year by a bill of which I am a co-patron.
Abolishing the death penalty would help put just into the justice system in the Commonwealth. Between 1901 and 1981, 258 Black people were executed in Virginia at a rate nearly six times the rate of white people. Not a single white person was executed for any crime other than murder while Black persons were executed for crimes that included armed robbery and attempted sexual assault. During its history stretching back to 1608, Virginia put to death 1,300 people including the most women and young children of any state in the Union.
This legislative session may be the most historic yet in reforming the criminal justice system. Bills pending before the current session include repealing mandatory minimum sentencing, ending felony possession for drugs, reforming the broken probation system, instituting automatic expungement of criminal records, establishing pay parity for public defenders, and ending presumption against bail.
Virginians will be no less safe in their person or in their possessions when the laws become more just, fair and equally applied regardless of one’s race. Laws that are just are more likely to be respected and certainly easier to defend.
On the east side of Capitol Square near the Executive Mansion in Richmond is the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial featuring 16-year-old Barbara Johns who led the student walkout that resulted in a civil rights case before the Supreme Court as part of Brown v. Board of Education that found racially-segregated schools to be unconstitutional. With her on the memorial are statues of attorneys Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson who argued the case and representations of persons who faced repression throughout Virginia’s racist history.
On the west end of Capitol Square, near where the new General Assembly office building is being constructed, is a lone statue of Harry F. Byrd: Senator, VA (1933-1965), Governor of Virginia (1926-1930), and Virginia State Senator (1924-1926).
Barbara Johns is about to receive an additional recognition as a civil rights pioneer. A sculpture of her will join a copy of the Houdon sculpture of George Washington in the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol representing Virginia and replacing the one of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that has already been removed.
A resolution making its way through the current session of the General Assembly directs that the Harry Byrd statue be removed. Byrd held political office for many years and dominated Virginia politics for nearly four decades as head of what was called the Byrd Organization that in any other state would be called the Byrd machine. He stayed in power through racist voter suppression laws that were some of the most effective in keeping Black voters from the polls and kept Virginia with the lowest voter participation among the states. He was known for his fiscal conservatism as governor and senator, and Virginia remained near the bottom of the states in funding for public schools and health and social services programs while he and his machine controlled state government. While states moved towards racial desegregation of their schools, a Byrd-devised “massive resistance” ploy delayed school desegregation in Virginia by more than a decade amid about forty or more lawsuits. In the process, some public schools were closed, and some children stayed home for as many as five years because of Byrd’s resistance.
As a teenager, I worked “up on the mountain” from my home in Page County at Skyland Lodge on the Skyline Drive. As a room clerk I was told not to rent the best room we had until after 6 pm in case Senator Byrd wanted to come for the night. He was extended this courtesy for the pivotal role he played in establishing the Shenandoah National Park. His biographer Professor Ronald L. Heinemann in Harry Byrd of Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 1996) pointed out that while as governor he modernized state government for the time, his conservative economic and social policies held the state back. He was a product of the Jim Crow era, and he could never get beyond it.
Barbara Johns as a young woman took a big risk standing up for what she knew was right. She played a pivotal role in Virginia moving from a civil rights back-water to the progressive state it is now becoming. She reflects the image I want our state to have!
Photo via Ken Plum
Like most people, I will not be attending any inaugural events this year because of the pandemic restrictions and threats of civil disturbances. The event today does bring back wonderful memories of the first and only inauguration I ever attended. It was on January 20, 1961. In 1960 I had graduated from high school and had not gone to college because of doubts as to whether I could be successful. Instead, I was attending a short-term vocational program in Washington, DC and living in a single room in a boarding house just a half dozen blocks from the White House. Even then I had an intense interest in politics and followed the Kennedy-Nixon campaigns and debates intensely. I loved candidate and then President-elect John F. Kennedy as did millions of others. I was not about to miss the opportunity to go to his inauguration when I was living so close by.
On the day before the inauguration, temperatures dropped to 20 degrees and eight inches of snow fell. I got up early Inauguration Day and literally put on all the clothing I owned and started a trek to the US Capitol on foot. Workers directed by the Army Corp of Engineers had been working throughout the night to haul away as much of the snow as possible from Capitol grounds and Pennsylvania Avenue. The military had brought in flame throwers to melt some of the snow and ice. More than a thousand cars that had been stranded in the area had to be removed
At the Capitol I was able to position myself on the edge of a wall that allowed me to see the inauguration over those who had tickets and were seated at the Capitol. My plan to film the event with my brother’s 8 mm camera did not happen because the cold kept the camera from running a few minutes after I brought it out from under my coat. Certainly there was security, but nothing like we are seeing leading up to this inauguration. I felt free to move about except for the area that had been blocked off for special invited guests.
The speech given by our new president still brings tears to my eyes. His words, “ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country,” inspired me to public service.
We have been through four years that have been tragic for our democracy. I believe we are all better informed about threats to our system of government. The Biden-Harris team is well suited to restore hope and confidence in our government. Honesty and decency will become a new norm for the executive branch. Attention to the COVID-19 crisis will be focused, coordinated and intense. Respect for others will dominate our society except for a small minority that will slink away into the background. Equity will be the new standard by which we measure our economy. All this can happen if we truly believe it and dedicate ourselves to making it happen. We can have another inauguration to remember!
Photo via Ken Plum
I can remember every word of the conversation as if it took place yesterday, but it happened in 1959. I am reminded of the talk as the person speaking to me, Mrs. Lena Kite, passed away last week at age 94. She was the first person to hold the position of guidance counselor at then Shenandoah High School. She called me into her office one day just as I was entering my senior year of high school. She said, “Kenneth (no one called me Ken in those days), it is time for you to think about applying to go to college.” I was dumbfounded! I hardly knew how to respond. I finally uttered, “I cannot go to college; no one in my family has ever gone to college.” She assured me that yes I could go to college.
Mrs. Kite changed the entire trajectory of my life that day. I was about to graduate from high school which was the expectation for me. My parents who taught me so much of the basics of life of honesty, decency, and hard work had themselves finished but a couple of years of schooling. They had not talked to me about college for it was beyond their knowledge and beyond what they thought could be their children’s aspirations. But Mrs. Kite in her new role as guidance counselor knew better and got me to thinking differently about my future. I owe her a great debt of gratitude and told her that the couple of times I saw her over the last decade when we talked about the two degrees I have. Her obituary said that in her role first as a teacher of typing and shorthand and later as guidance counselor she touched the lives of more than 6,000 children. I am sure she had as equally a positive impact on them as well.
In my first years in the General Assembly there was a debate over several sessions about adding guidance counselors in the elementary schools. My experiences personally and as an educator convinced me of the importance of early intervention with children who have needs beyond what classroom teachers have the time or expertise with which to respond. Evaluations of school programs have clearly shown the importance of and value of support personnel in schools to include counselors, social workers and psychologists.
Children in our schools represent the broad cross section of communities. Some have limited exposure to education as I had; others have had traumatic experiences that must be taken into account if their school experience is going to be successful. As we look to end the classroom to prison pipeline as part of criminal justice reform we have come to recognize the importance of early school experiences for students to be successful. Most everyone needs a push or at least a nudge from time to time in order to go in the right direction. I look forward to the continuance of establishing early childhood programs, improved ratios for teachers and counselors, and other improvements to our public schools as the General Assembly convenes next week.
In two weeks the General Assembly will convene for its annual session that will mark 50 years since the people voted to ratify revisions to the Jim-Crow-laden Constitution of 1902. Up until those revisions, the state legislature met only every other year. The revised Constitution provided for annual sessions to be sixty days in the even-numbered years and thirty days in the odd-numbered years with a provision that any session could be extended up to half its length by a two-thirds vote of the members. Full sixty-day sessions have run over a day or so but have not been extended; thirty-day sessions have always been extended to 45 days to get the work done. The minority party leadership in both houses has indicated that they will not vote to extend the session this year. Not only will the session be shorter, but it will also operate under the restrictions of the pandemic. The House will meet virtually by Zoom, and the Senate that has the smaller number of members will meet partly in Richmond and partly by Zoom. Much business is on the agenda, and careful planning is essential to having a successful session.
The agenda will be full. The budget will need to be revised to reflect the changes brought on by the pandemic. Criminal justice reform that got underway this year has remaining work to be done. Climate change continues, and we must do our part to combat it. Help needs to be given to the unemployed and the homeless or those under threat of eviction. The list is long.
Your help with the planning is essential if the General Assembly is going to be responsive to the needs and interests of the people. Several opportunities exist for you to participate in that planning.
Senator Janet Howell and I will be holding our annual pre-session town hall meeting virtually this coming Tuesday, January 5, 7 to 8:30 p.m.. To take part, register at Virtual Town Hall. After you register you will receive a link by which to join the virtual town hall meeting. You may join to simply listen, but we encourage you tell us your priorities and recommendations. Remember we will have a time crunch during the session that means we will be dealing only with priority items.
Senator Howell and I will also be participating with the Northern Virginia members of the General Assembly in a virtual public hearing on Saturday, January 9 from 9 a.m. to noon. Look for a registration link to be publicized soon so you can participate in the hearing.
I also encourage you to participate in my online voter survey that is accessible on my website, www.kenplum.com. While some complex issues have been simplified to the survey form, I encourage you to fill in the details of your recommendations in the comment section of the survey or in an email to [email protected] While time does not permit me to respond personally to every survey submitted, I do consider your ideas and recommendations.
We will get the New Year underway with challenges and hope. By planning together we can be successful. Happy New Year and thank you for your help!
Last Sunday evening Confederate General Robert E. Lee lost his position of representing the Commonwealth as part of the Statuary Hall Collection at the United States Capitol. A copy of a statue of General Lee by sculptor Edward Valentine had been standing in the Capitol since 1909 most recently in the Crypt where a statue representing each of the thirteen original states stood. General Lee’s statue was carted off just as statues of him have been taken down across the state including the huge equestrian statue of him that will be taken down from Monument Avenue in Richmond as soon as lawsuits about it are resolved.
The other statue representing Virginia in the Capitol Statuary Collection is a copy of Houdon’s statue that stands in the Rotunda of the State Capitol in Richmond of the Father of Our Country George Washington. It was Washington’s strong leadership and the time-honored precedents he set that helped the new nation to get started. Lee on the other hand had led an insurrection that attempted to break away from the nation and establish the Confederate States as a separate country that allowed slavery of human beings!
Who else could represent Virginia as the second statue allowed by each state in the Statuary Collection? The Governor appointed a commission to answer that question. After their public hearings and deliberations, the commission concluded that the appropriate person should be Barbara Johns. For too long a time many Virginians have not known of the heroic acts that Barbara Johns did to help set the course for recent history in Virginia. Her statue is already on the Virginia Capital grounds in the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial recognizing her leadership in bringing about changes in the unequal ways that white and black schools were funded in Virginia.
The Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education in 1954 that desegregated public schools included a Virginia case that came about as a result of a boycott of Prince Edward County Schools led by 16-year-old Barbara Johns. White children in Prince Edward County went to school in a new brick building while Black children went to school in a tar paper shanty with limited heating. NAACP lawyers Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson took her grievance all the way to the Supreme Court and won!
Barbara Johns will join Rosa Parks who was the first Black woman to have a full-size statue in the U.S. Capitol. As Virginians we can be proud to show our children and grandchildren the statue of Barbara Johns representing us and explain to them the important role she played in standing up to injustices and bringing about significant civil rights changes in our state.
The Constitution requires that after the federal census every ten years there is to be a reapportionment of legislative districts based on population growth and shifts reflecting “one-man, one-vote.” Virginia voters made history this year by approving a constitutional amendment establishing a Redistricting Commission. With Virginia having elections in odd-numbered years including in 2021 elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and members of the House of Delegates, Virginia is on a fast track to get the Commission underway.
In the special session that ended in October, the General Assembly passed enabling legislation to establish the Commission by November 15. Already the eight legislators who will be on the Commission have been named as well as the retired judges who will participate. In all instances of appointing members, consideration shall be given “to the racial, ethnic, geographic, and gender diversity of the Commonwealth.” The partisan leadership in the House and Senate who made the appointments were prohibited from appointing themselves.
Applications are being accepted through December 28 from citizens who would like to serve on the Commission. Persons who have been involved in partisan political activity or who are relatives of members in office or those involved in partisan political activity are not eligible to serve on the Commission. For details on who is eligible for membership and details on applying, go to redistricting.dls.virginia.gov.
The enabling language for the Commission includes extensive requirements for public participation in the redistricting process. “All meetings and hearings held by the Commission shall be adequately advertised and planned to ensure the public is able to attend and participate fully. Meetings and hearings shall be advertised in multiple languages as practicable and appropriate.” At least three public hearings are to be held. The legislation also requires that “All data used by the Commission in the drawing of districts shall be available to the public on its website. Such data, including census data, precinct maps, election results, and shapefiles, shall be posted within three days of receipt by the Commission.”
The Commission is required to submit to the General Assembly plans for districts for the Senate and the House of Delegates of the General Assembly no later than 45 days following the receipt of census data and for Congressional Districts by 60 days. If the Commission is unable to agree on districts, the responsibility for drawing of district lines goes to the state Supreme Court. The law requires that the Court shall appoint two special masters to assist the Court in the establishment of districts. The two special masters shall work together to develop any plan to be submitted to the Court for its consideration. Special masters have been used by the courts to resolve district conflicts in the past including related to Virginia past redistricting.
The timing on the process is limited between the availability of census data and primary elections that could result in a delay in primary elections and reduced time before the general election. Virginia voters have spoken, and a complex process is underway to ensure that voters pick their representatives rather than legislators picking their voters.
So it is in the Commonwealth of Virginia: the action of governance goes on. Since 1619 there has been a form of representative government in first the colony and now the state. The legislative branch, the General Assembly, has since 1971 been meeting every year; prior to that time the House of Delegates and the Senate met only every other year. The legislative sessions convene as prescribed in the Constitution on the second Wednesday of January for sixty days in the even-numbered years and for thirty days in the odd-numbered years unless at least two-thirds of the members agree to extend the session for not more than thirty days. The sessions have always been extended but by not more than 15 or so days. There is talk by the minority party of not agreeing to any extension of the session scheduled to start on January 13, 2021.
In addition to the regular session, there is a reconvened session beginning on the sixth Wednesday after the adjournment of the regular session to consider any bills returned by the governor with amendments or with a veto. The governor may call a special session “when in his opinion the interest may require” or when two-thirds of the elected members of both houses request it. There is a regular beat to the work of the General Assembly: regular session, reconvened session, special session. For even a part-time legislature, the work goes on!
But there is much more to legislating than the formal and now virtual floor sessions of the House and Senate. Earlier this week there was a deadline to request drafting of legislation to be pre-filed before the session. There is a limitation on how many bills a legislator can introduce especially after the convening of the legislature. For members of the legislative staff who actually draft the bills, this is the intense period between Thanksgiving and the opening of the session when 140 members present their best ideas to be crafted into a form that would be suitable to go into the Code of Virginia. The entire support staff of the legislative branch could not be more helpful and deserve our thanks for helping get us through the stressful period of the session.
Pre-session work also includes meetings with advocacy groups (virtually now), monthly meetings of the Appropriations Committee and the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission and other committees on a less regular basis until the session gets underway, and caucuses with our party colleagues. Constituent inquiries and recommendations are very helpful and take time to read and consider.
Prior to the pandemic there was a need to find housing in the Capital city and to arrange to be away from home for the week. The session beginning in January will be virtual so there is the need to make sure your home office has the broadband that will support daily committee and floor sessions. The work is demanding, but I am honored to be part of it. As the song continues, “drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain.” The work goes on!
Next week is the formal day set aside for thanksgiving. For many that means food, and I love the foods associated with the holiday of Thanksgiving. It is a time of generosity as many people and groups make sure that everyone has something to eat at least on that day. For others the meaning of Thanksgiving may be the sales that come with unique bargains that are offered on “Black Friday” although I do not know how those sales will be accommodated during a pandemic. Certainly the crowds pressed against the front doors of stores about to open would not be safe nor would the rush to the best bargains be a good idea.
Some believe that the first Thanksgiving occurred on December 4, 1619 when Captain John Woodlief and 35 Englishmen landed at what is now known as Berkeley Plantation. They immediately fell to their knees as the charter under which they were sailing required giving thanks to the good Lord for their safe passage from what had been a rough voyage and for the thousands of acres of pristine lands on which they were going to settle. There was no mention of the indigenous people who had occupied the land for as many as 15,000 years before their arrival. More than a year later at Plymouth Settlement a festival occurred that included settlers and indigenous people in what is more often referred as the first Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving as a holiday on the fourth Thursday of November dates to a proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on October 3, 1863. Even in the midst of a civil war, Lincoln reminded the nation of “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies” under the “providence of Almighty God.” Lincoln found that “a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity” had not “arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship” and “the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase in freedom…the gracious gifts of the Most High God.”
The spirit of Lincoln should be with us as we celebrate Thanksgiving this year. Our institutions of government have been tested over the last nearly four years as seldom before. The voters have largely dispersed those who showed little respect for our values and traditions. It will soon be less painful to read the morning newspaper or to listen to the evening news. There will be fewer times of looking at social media with disbelief at the actions of our national leaders. We will have lively debates as we always do in our democratic republic, but those debates can lead to greater freedoms from inequalities, hunger and health threats.
The pandemic is testing our patience as few other events in our lives have, but we can remind ourselves and others that face masks, social distancing, and no crowds will help to preserve our health as well as that of others. And we can remind ourselves and others that the blessings we ultimately enjoy are not simply of our own making but are as Lincoln reminded us “the gracious gifts of the Most High God”–by whatever name we may call that spirit!
Enjoy your Thanksgiving next week!
Tears welled up in my eyes last Saturday evening as the President-elect Joe Biden and the Vice President-elect Kamala Harris addressed their supporters and the nation for the first time after having been declared the winners of the presidential election. The words they said, the message they delivered, and the tone they set struck the chords that have been so vitally important to me and to many others throughout our lifetimes. If we seemed ravenous in listening to their words, it was because we have not heard them for too long and were hungering for inspirational and positive leadership.
The President-elect made his approach to governance clear: “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify–who doesn’t see red and blue states, but a United States, and who will work with all my heart to win the confidence of the whole people.” Starting with that kind of attitude will go a long way toward his success in being a unifier.
My interest in politics goes back to my teenage years and has been influenced by the great speeches I have heard, not simply for the words that were said but because of the hope they offered and the vision for greatness for our country they inspired. I stood in the foot-deep snow at the United States Capitol on January 20, 1961 and heard a leader I revered, the new President John F. Kennedy, say in his inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Another inspirational moment came for me on my birthday, November 3, 2008, when Jane and I stood for hours in a crowd estimated at 80,000 people at the Prince William County Fairgrounds waiting for candidate Barack Obama who arrived at 10:30 p.m. for the final appearance of his campaign to be president. In his usual inspiring way he told us, “I come away with an unyielding belief that if we only had a government as responsible as all of you, as compassionate as the American people, that there is no obstacle that we can’t overcome. There is no destiny that we cannot fulfill.”
In an echo of President Kennedy’s words, former President Obama this fall challenged the country with his words, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” And just as President-elect Biden reminded us of the unity of America, Barack Obama at the Democratic Convention in 2004 in a speech that brought him to the attention of political leaders had reminded us that, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America–there’s the United States of America.”
While these quotes are words, they reflect attitudes and beliefs that can stir us to positive action to realize the potential for an honest and decent America that is open and inclusive and where the American dream can become a reality for all.
This column is being written before election day with a schedule for publication the day after the polls close. It may be a bit optimistic to suppose that the results of the many election day contests will be known by the next day, but I surely hope for my own sanity and those I know that the results will be known right away. The eagerness of voters to see these elections over with is evident by the historically high number of persons casting their votes early. In some localities the number of votes cast early eclipsed the total number of votes cast in that place four years ago. The event reported on social media where a voter asked those standing in line how long they had been waiting to vote and got the response “four years!” may not have actually happened, but it certainly captured the sentiment of many including myself that the last nearly four years have been a disaster for our country and its institutions. Pandemic aside we have much to do to restore faith in our institutions and confidence in each other and our communities.
In Virginia there were elections only for federal offices this year as state offices are filled in “off year” elections. Next year voters will choose a new governor–as Virginia governors cannot succeed themselves–lieutenant governor, attorney general and all members of the House of Delegates. While the results for federal offices are just coming in with some congressional races downstate reflecting the wide division of opinions reflected nationwide, there are those who are already lining up for the statewide positions that will be on the ballot next year. If you thought that some space would be freed up on your e-mail accounts with the elections this year being over, think again. Many people have already announced for election next year with more no doubt coming soon from whom you will be receiving pleas for support and of course for funding to make their election possible.
While we understandably might want a respite from politics, the sudden shift in attention to the next election cycle is good news. It shows our faith in the system and our understanding of the need for healing and active work to repair the immense damage of the last nearly four years. The peaceful evolution of power has been a hallmark of the American system of government from its beginning, and the several attempts to disrupt that process have in the long run been over-ridden. I know the threats that have been made about the transition of power this year, but I am counting on an overwhelming vote result that will erase any doubts about the true winners. Over time with leaders who represent true American values we can deal with the needs of American citizens with honesty, decency, compassion, and equality. The people will have spoken, and the results are in. It is time to put the horrors of the recent past behind us and build a stronger country because we have had a glimpse of the alternative!
When the then underdog Mark Warner, whose only experience in political life had been to chair the Democratic Party of Virginia and manage the successful campaign of Doug Wilder for governor, had the courage in 1996 to take on Senior Senator John Warner in his re-election bid, Mark Warner’s bumper sticker read, “Mark, not John.” While the phrase may have helped voters differentiate the two candidates who are not related, it was not enough to cause voters to change their senator. Republican Senator John Warner went on to serve a total of 30 years in the United States Senate, the second-longest of any Virginian. Mark Warner went on to be elected governor of Virginia in 2001 and ran in 2008 to succeed Senator John Warner when he retired.
Too often overlooked in times of political rancor is the admiration and respect that develops among persons of different political parties even though they may differ on policy issues. Such was the case with the two senators Warner. As governor, Mark Warner regularly consulted with then-Senator John Warner to the advantage of the Virginia economy particularly as it related to the military presence in Virginia. When Democrat Mark Warner had a strong challenge to his Senate seat in 2014, retired Republican Senator John Warner endorsed him for re-election over his challenger who had been chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The two men have tremendous political experience between them and a moderate, pragmatic approach to resolving issues. It is no surprise that both have endorsed passage of Amendment #1 on the ballot this year to end political gerrymandering. Former Senator John Warner said, “the passage of Amendment 1 is essential to achieving this goal and to further strengthen our state’s political institutions. This referendum was drafted by a bipartisan group of volunteers from all walks of life and every corner of Virginia in order to give average citizens a stronger voice in the important process of redistricting.”
Senator Mark Warner told the Richmond Times Dispatch that he has already voted for the amendment. He said, “I believe in nonpartisan redistricting, and it’s an improvement over our current broken redistricting system. Voters should choose their elected leaders, not the other way around.” Virginia’s other United States Senator, Tim Kaine, who also served as Lieutenant Governor and Governor of Virginia supports Amendment #1 as does Congressman Don Beyer who was also Lieutenant Governor
While there is opposition to the amendment by those who see a loss of partisan political power if the amendment passes, there is broad support among others including Common Cause, the Brennan Center for Justice, Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Campaign Legal Center, AARP Virginia, ACLU, Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters, Virginia League of Conservation Voters, and political scientists in Virginia’s colleges and universities. The editorial boards of the Washington Post and the Richmond Times Dispatch and all major newspapers in Virginia have endorsed it.
While there have been suggestions that a better amendment could be written, no one in the nearly four decades that I have worked on this issue has come forward with specific language that has the broad support of this one. I urge your vote for its passage. Send questions or comments to me at [email protected]
With more than two months remaining in 2020, I can already say that it has been an amazing year in Virginia’s history. When the events of 2020 in the Commonwealth are reviewed in the future by historians in the context of the state’s history, the conclusion is going to be that Virginia underwent a consequential and transformative period equal to or superior to any other period of its history. For a state that is so rich with history I realize that might seem like an overstatement, but I believe my conclusion is fully supported by the facts.
I am not talking about surviving the COVID-19 pandemic or enduring what is likely to be called the absolute worst presidency in the history of the country, as important as both these situations are. I am talking about what went on with the Virginia General Assembly and its future impact on the state.
The year opened with a regular General Assembly session with many new faces from the 2019 elections. Never has there been a House of Delegates that was younger with more racial and sexual diversity. A Jewish woman took over the reins of power in the House of Delegates. More women and Blacks became committee chairs than ever before. And there was a determination to deal with unresolved issues that had plagued the state for decades and in some instances for centuries. The Governor was clearly on board to lead such a session.
Gun safety measures that had been talked about for years even as gun violence and mass murders had increased were enacted and signed by the Governor. Some had suggested for years that terrible things would happen if all gun transfers required a universal background check, but that system is now in place as a result of a bill I introduced that passed and was signed by the Governor. The more than 22,000 gun advocates most of whom were armed that assembled around the Capitol did not deter the Assembly from doing what it knew had to be done.
Non-discrimination legislation passed with the Virginia Values Act being one of the most comprehensive in the nation. Voting laws were changed to make voting easier and more accessible as voters are now learning as they cast their votes in this election. Many Jim Crow-era laws were repealed.
The special session called to deal with budgetary and other issues related to the pandemic built on the successes of the regular session with a pivot to criminal justice and policing reform. Civilian review boards have been empowered to investigate police-related complaints. Chokeholds were essentially eliminated as were rubber bullets and military-type equipment in local policing. Traffic stops for minor offenses–a big part of racial profiling–are now banned. Jury sentencing has been eliminated in what some are describing the most significant criminal justice reform. And there is even more that I will detail in future reviews.
Benjamin Franklin was asked at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention what kind of government we have. He responded, “A republic, if we can keep it.” In Virginia, we can say that we now have one of the most progressive governments in the country. To keep it, however, will require future vigilance and work. Many of the advances I celebrate here will become the stuff of future political campaigns where bigotry and fear will be used to try to turn the state back.