Women first came to the English colony at Jamestown Island in 1619–400 years ago, and hence their arrival is part of the American Evolution 1619-2019 commemoration going on throughout the Commonwealth. As with the other events that marked the historic significance of this year and that I have written about in this column, the real meaning of the events comes about in examining the decades and centuries that followed from 1619. There is no surprise that the land developers who were making investments in the new colony would advertise free voyage to women to come to this new land of potential opportunity and freedom from poverty and oppression they may have felt at home. If the colony was to have success in developing economic opportunities and stability that families would bring, it needed women to come and find themselves adventure…and a husband.
English women who came were not slaves although they no doubt had to work hard to start a life and a home in the wilderness. If they came with an indenture to pay off their voyage fare, they could work off their obligation over a number of years. But just like in the society they left, even with the indenture paid off, women were not free or in the same category as men. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence nearly a century and a half later, he proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” We speculate that if he were writing a document today that he would say “all persons,” but his writing at the time reflected women’s lesser role in society. The story of women’s rights continues to evolve even until today.
The capital of Virginia moved to Richmond in 1780, but it was not until this week that a memorial noting the contribution of women to the Commonwealth’s history was finally dedicated on Capitol grounds. The twelve women chosen to be depicted as bronze statues in the Virginia Women’s Monument represent women from all corners of the Commonwealth, both widely-celebrated women, as well as those with previously unknown but equally important stories. Many more women will be memorialized on the Wall of Honor and in the accompanying virtual educational modules. To get to know these women, most of whom I dare to say few have heard of, visit Women’s Monument.
Also recognizing the struggle of women for their rights, the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association (TPSM) is building a national memorial to American suffragists–with a special focus on those imprisoned at Occoquan, VA, who endured harsh conditions and abuse to win voting rights for American women. For more information on the women who led the suffragist movement and the hardships they endured, visit suffragistmemorial.org. The nineteenth amendment ensuring women the right to vote was not ratified until 1920. Virginia rejected it in 1920 and did not vote for ratification until 1952.
A fitting tribute to Virginia women 400 years after their arrival would be passage of the Equal Rights Amendment by the General Assembly at its next legislative session.
Four hundred years ago is a long time, but what happened four centuries ago has implications for us today. Virginia is in the midst of a year-long series of programs and experiences based on events that happened a dozen years after the first permanent English colony was settled at Jamestown in 1607. All the activities taken together are referred to as American Evolution 1619-2019. There are many events scheduled for the remainder of this year.
The planners of the commemoration are to be commended for recognizing that while the historic events that occurred are noteworthy and interesting, the real lessons to be learned come after the actual dates of historic events as we discuss and consider their resulting impact. Many references are made to America’s beginning as being 1776, but it can be argued that the beginning of America as a representative democracy began in the Virginia colony with the meeting of the first representative body meeting in Jamestown in 1619. Remembering that date in 1619 should cause us to reflect on all that has happened after that date that led us to the society and government we have evolved into today.
Similarly, the arrival of 20 or so Africans at Old Point Comfort just down the James River from Jamestown Island four hundred years ago in August of 1619 must be noted. They came not with steamer trunks of fancy dress; they came in shackles having been captured in Africa and brought here at the beginning of a slave trade that would fuel the economy of the colony and then the Commonwealth of Virginia for the next 250 years. To look at African Americans then and now without an examination of what happened in between is to miss a tragic part of our evolving history–the racism that gripped our country for its entire history and is still with us today.
Those Africans who arrived in 1619 were slaves. Soon after their arrival that first legislative body passed laws that defined their enslavement and the limitations on their very existence. The few efforts like Nat Turner’s rebellion that attempted to gain freedom for slaves were put down harshly with further slave codes being passed to limit them from being taught how to read and write and allow for more cruel punishments to keep them in line. When the constitution was written for the new country after the Revolution, slaves were to be counted as three-fifths of a person, despite Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence proclaiming that “all men are created equal.” It was not until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that the descendants of the slaves of 1619 could claim anything close to equality.
We did not start with a perfect union; we have not achieved one today. We have been on an arc of history that in another context suggests that it is bent towards justice. The American Evolution 1619-2019 program is providing an important context for understanding the stream of history that is our past and upon which we must strive to build a more perfect union.
For the second week in a row my column opens with a reference to sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg who spoke to the United Nations Climate Action Summit last week after having sailed across the Atlantic on a zero-emissions sailboat. Her message was hard hitting. As she had said to a Congressional committee, it was not necessary that she speak for a long period of time for the scientists had already spoken in the numerous reports on climate change that had been written. As a leader who had inspired weekly sit-ins outside the Swedish Parliament resulting in a growing movement of youth climate activists holding their own protests in more than 100 cities worldwide her message was clear to the world leaders: “We will be watching you…How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight!”
Gun violence is an issue about which young people have become increasingly concerned as well. A student who was at the high school in Parkland, Florida, when there was the mass shooting there has been quoted in the Washington Post as saying that “You see these shootings on TV every day and very little happening around it. It’s painful to watch. And I think it’s been really hard for me and many other students and people that we work with to find hope in this time.” Once again, the young people are watching.
Students from the high school in Parkland have formed an organization called March for Our Lives whose very name indicates the seriousness with which they are approaching the issue of gun violence. They have more than 100 chapters nationwide. Their proposed plan to combat gun violence, “A Peace Plan for a Safer America,” goes well beyond the limited measures being debated in the adult world. Their plan creates a national licensing program with a gun registry, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, a waiting period for gun purchases, and a mandatory buy-back of assault weapons. Their program may seem extreme to many, but it deserves careful attention for it is written by young people who have the experience of having survived a mass shooting where their friends around them did not survive. Once again, we can expect that these young people and others will be watching what we adults do about this issue if indeed anything is done.
Many years ago I worked in a manufacturing plant in the Shenandoah Valley with a man who as a devout member of the Brethren Church. He would regularly remind me that we should live our lives as though someone is watching us for we could be sure that someone is watching us and observing our ethics, honesty and sincerity. We may be able to talk a good game, but those observing our behavior can learn more about us than we may care for them to know. In the political world these days there is way too much talk and too little action on critical life and death issues. Young people are watching and are calling us out!
Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic on a zero-emissions sailboat to speak at the United Nations Climate Action Summit this week. Thunberg has a strong reputation as a climate activist having staged weekly sit-ins outside the Swedish Parliament resulting in a growing movement of youth climate activists holding their own protests in more than 100 cities worldwide. Having a young person speak about climate issues is appropriate considering the higher-level interest shown by young people over adults on climate-related concerns. After all, it is their future that is being discussed.
Results of a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last week found that young people include climate change among the issues they think are most important facing the country. Eighty-six percent of youth think that human activity is causing climate change. Of considerable concern is the finding that 57 percent of the youth polled said that climate change makes them feel afraid. It is their future, and they feel afraid of the future we adults are leaving them. The good news is that 54 percent feel motivated to do something about it.
But young people fortunately are not alone in being fearful of climate change and motivated to do something about it. The 2019 Virginia Climate Crisis Forum held at the First Baptist Church in Vienna attracted nearly 300 activists to focus on climate justice. The forum was moderated by William Barber, III, son of the famous Rev. Dr. William Barber II, and Karenna Gore, the eldest daughter of former Vice President Al Gore. Reflecting the broad interest in the issue, panelists included representatives of the Green New Deal of Virginia, People Demanding Action, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions and others. Emphasis of the discussion was on working together to repair a damaged climate while ensuring that everyone most impacted–including low-income people, people of color, the vulnerable, and those on the front lines–are part of every solution and not disproportionally impacted.
Coming out of the Virginia Clean Energy Summit also held last week was an announcement by Governor Ralph Northam that the goal in Virginia is that by 2030, 30 percent of Virginia’s electric system will be powered by renewable energy resources and by 2050, 100 percent of Virginia’s electricity will be produced from carbon-free sources such as wind, solar and nuclear. In his Executive Order establishing the goals, the Governor expressed the concerns being heard from the young people and in the various meetings on the issue: “Climate change is an urgent and pressing challenge for Virginia. As recent storms, heat waves, and flooding events have reminded us, climate disruption poses potentially devastating risk to Virginia.” Reflecting the concern about economic justice, the Governor’s Executive Order stated that “These clean energy resources shall be deployed to maximize the economic and environmental benefit to under-served communities while mitigating any impact to those communities.”
Young people remind us that there are ample reasons to be afraid of an unknown future with climate change. The best response to that fear is to intensify the discussions such as have been going on while taking positive steps like that by the Governor to reverse impact on climate change.
Last week while Democrats in the North Carolina House of Representatives were attending a 9/11 remembrance service, Republicans called a surprise vote to overturn the Democratic governor’s veto of the state budget. While Democrats and media were told that there would be no voting during the morning session, Democrats’ attendance at the vigil allowed Republicans to get the three-fifths vote needed to over-ride the veto.
Reaction to the maneuver has been harsh. The Charlotte Observer in an editorial said that “the verdict is now plain. North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders–not actually leaders but connivers–are beyond shame.” The paper described what happened as a “stunning display of contempt for democracy…but this isn’t a case simply of hardball politics and sly legislative maneuvering. This is a case of breaking faith with the people…” The Senate must concur on the over-ride before it becomes effective.
Before Virginians get too smug about what happened in North Carolina we must remember what happened in the Virginia General Assembly about a month ago. With the continuing string of mass murders in the country–beginning about the time of the massacre at Virginia Tech that for a while was the largest ever and continuing through a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building–Governor Ralph Northam called a special session of the General Assembly to consider several bills intended to reduce gun violence. The special session convened on July 9 to take up bills related to gun violence but without notice to Democrats or media the Republican majority adjourned 90 minutes later without taking up any of the bills and with a return date scheduled after the elections.
There were no bills among those introduced to respond to gun violence that would have confiscated guns or altered the Second Amendment. They were common-sense bills that according to all public opinion polls I have seen are supported by more than 80 percent and some by more than 90 percent of the public. The experience in Virginia can be described by the same terms of that in North Carolina: contempt for Democracy, a travesty of the process, legislative deceit. You may have seen news reports that the Republican floor leader in the Virginia House received a $200,000 campaign contribution from the NRA several weeks later.
Partisan control of the Virginia House and Senate are on the line this November 5 as all 140 seats are on the ballot. There are numerous critically important issues on the ballot that it would take several columns to enumerate. I do want to add one that gets too little discussion and that is legislative reform. Such reform includes independent drawing of legislative district lines, or getting rid of gerrymandering, that allows the abuses of legislative power in North Carolina and Virginia that are discussed here. As the Charlotte Observer said of the situation in North Carolina, “It was an illegitimate majority acting in an unethical way.”
What happened in both states demonstrates once again that the speakership be defined not as the head of the majority party but as an impartial and fair leader. In both instances the speakers of their respective houses should have stopped these episodes of legislating by skulduggery.
While most of my columns are about issues that need resolution and challenges that state government must meet, a column focused on what others are doing to improve life in our communities is appropriate from time to time. If we allow ourselves to relax for a few moments to see and marvel in some good news, it does not mean that we are any less committed to improving the world or that we will lose our momentum in trying to do so. There are many more stories of progress that I hope to share in this short space in the future, but an event last month deserves our immediate attention.
The Business Roundtable made up of 181 CEO’s of America’s biggest companies issued a new “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation” last month that makes a dramatic shift from past statements that emphasized shareholder primacy to a “fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders.” The broadened purpose is explained to include delivering value to customers, investing in employees, dealing ethically and fairly with suppliers, and supporting communities in which they are located. (opportunity. businessroundtable.org)
Socially responsible actions taken voluntarily on the part of many companies may have spurred the new Business Roundtable statement, but the hope is that other corporations will follow with actions that are as positive for their workers and the communities they serve as they are for the bottom line. As the Roundtable statement explained, “investing in our employees…starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits.” Maybe there will be a future where my bill to increase the paltry $7.25 an hour minimum wage in Virginia will be supported by local Chambers of Commerce instead of outright opposition they have expressed in the past. Concern for workers at the minimum should be that they are paid a wage on which they can live.
The Roundtable statement acknowledged that “while each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders.” Among the stakeholders are the communities in which businesses are located to which the Roundtable members expressed that “we respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.” The consumer continues to have the choice of buying products that are made in a sustainable way and to refuse to purchase those that are not.
The auto manufacturers who made an agreement with the state of California to follow strict emission standards for automobiles regardless of the irresponsible action by the federal government to lower standards are to be applauded and supported by other states in the court suit. How ironic would it be if the courts decided that companies could not gain a competitive advantage by being more environmentally responsible.
The Business Roundtable Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation concludes that “each of our stakeholders is essential. We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.” Those same “stakeholders” are referred to in government as “constituencies.” When the common goals of business and society as reflected through its government are recognized, success will be realized by stakeholders and constituencies!
Labor Day is the traditional time that election campaigns get underway, but in Virginia with an election schedule different from that in most states election campaigns seem to be continuous. Voters in most states have the year off, but Virginia voters this November will face ballots filled with candidates for local and state elections. And next year when all states have federal elections for members of Congress and the presidency Virginians will have those elections too. If the outcomes were not so important people in the Commonwealth could grow weary over all these elections. Some of the low turnout at the polls on election day could probably be attributed to voter fatigue.
If someone has not yet knocked on your door or sent you information in snail mail or social media, you need to get ready for the flurry of campaigning that is about to happen. On November 5 voters will elect all 100 members of the House of Delegates and the 40 members of the Senate. In addition to the many critical issues facing the state, the elections this year will determine if the Republicans maintain their razor thin majorities in both houses or whether the Democrats will take one or both houses. Polling indicates that the Democrats are in a very strong position for a coup. Find out your election district if you have forgotten by going to Voter Information.
At the local level in Fairfax County voters will elect their representatives on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and on the Fairfax County School Board. In addition voters will elect three at-large members of the School Board. The election also includes the sheriff and the Commonwealth’s attorney. That’s a lot of candidates to be knocking on your door, calling you on the phone, and sending you dozens of slick brightly colored post cards touting their strengths and sometimes alerting you to the weaknesses in their opponents. As has been observed many times the system may seem to have its abuses and flaws, but no one has been able to come up with a better system.
As a change-up to traditional campaigning I sponsor a free family picnic to get entire families involved for everyone is welcome and as a way to reduce the costs of campaigns to constituents who are expected to contribute at most events. Bring your family and join us at Temporary Road Park in Reston at the corner of North Shore Drive and Temporary Road on Saturday afternoon, September 7, 4 to 6 pm. Let us know you are coming at [email protected] so that we have enough food prepared. Other candidates are expected to come.
We can enjoy the end of the summer holiday season and the beginning of the fall campaigns in a relaxed environment. The issues before us are too important to not participate in the process regardless of your political persuasion. Our outdoor social can get us in the mood for yet another round of voting in Virginia.
Continuing my story about electric vehicles that began more than two decades ago, Jane and I purchased a Tesla a week ago. It is environmentally friendly, has many safety features, and will be very comfortable for my numerous trips to Richmond!
When asked at a session at the National Conference of State Legislatures what is the most important thing the government should be doing today, the Honorable Robert “J.B.” Pritzker, the 43rd governor of Illinois, responded “preparing young children to be successful in kindergarten.” His answer was not surprising considering that he had written earlier in a publication of his Pritzker Foundation that “preparing young children to learn the first day they enter kindergarten is the single most important step we can take to ensure better K-12 education, healthier kids, lower poverty rates, increased wage-earning capacity, and a stronger, more competitive workforce.”
He is not a former educator turned politician. He is an extraordinary person, however. According to Wikipedia, he holds more private wealth than any other governor in U.S. history and is the second wealthiest U.S. politician to have ever held office, after Michael Bloomberg. Forbes estimates his personal worth at $3.2 billion including his interest along with his family in the Hyatt hotel chain.
Governor Pritzker along with his wife established The Pritzker Children’s Initiative which directs its investments on a single, attainable goal: that all at-risk infants and toddlers in the United States have access to high-quality early childhood development resources, increasing their likelihood of success in school and life. As the Governor explained further, “Early childhood development is an arena that’s long been overlooked by philanthropy and government. Even programs as large as Head Start cover a very small sliver of the population of at-risk kids. It’s an arena attractive for a private philanthropist like me because I see it as a terrific investment.”
There is an abundance of evidence to support the Governor’s conclusion, but government has been slow to invest in early education as he advocates. While Virginia has made some modest beginnings, there is much remaining to be done by state and local government. There are some hopeful signs. Last week Governor Ralph Northam announced release of an Early Childhood Education Needs Assessment and Draft Strategic Plan for public reviews and comment. Echoing the sentiments expressed by his counterpart in Illinois, Governor Northam said that “when children have access to quality, stable, affordable care during their earliest years they build the foundation they need for future success not only for themselves but for their communities.” I encourage everyone interested in this critically important issue to review the draft plan at vcef.org and to submit their comments on it to [email protected] by August 31, 2019. More information on the plan and an opportunity to discuss it is provided on August 14, 10:00 a.m. at the ACCA Child Development Center, 7200 Columbia Pike, Suite 2, Annandale, VA 22003. Sorry for the last minute notice that I just received.
The Virginia State Chamber of Commerce that has been a consistent supporter of early childhood education is teaming up with the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation for a conference in Richmond on “Smart Beginnings for Virginia’s Workforce Pipeline” for legislators and thought leaders to explore a strong, public-private early childhood system in Virginia.
The evidence of the importance of earlier than kindergarten programs must not be ignored by politicians.
State Senator Toi Hutchinson of Illinois who is president of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) spoke last week in Jamestown as part of the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of representative democracy in the United States. She was eloquent in describing the evolution of legislative bodies in the states: “That evolution is breathtaking–from that rudimentary gathering of a handful of land-owning, white men to professional legislative bodies filled with the best and brightest of every race, every creed and every gender. Legislatures now serve as the place where ordinary hard-working Americans become extraordinary ambassadors of their neighborhoods, towns and cities and strive together to secure the blessings of liberty.” (full text of her remarks)
I am attending the annual meeting of the NCSL this week. NCSL uses the term “laboratories of democracy” in describing the states. The attendance at its annual meeting reflects the diversity that President Hutchinson described in her remarks at Jamestown. The Virginia General Assembly has made major strides in becoming more diverse the last several years as more people reflecting diversity have come forward to run for office and have been welcomed by the voters. Recent court decisions that wiped out some of the gerrymandering that kept white men in charge will no doubt add to the diversity in election winners this November.
Just as in any laboratory setting, the results of some experiments are worth keeping and others are just as well cast aside. Too many states are still involved in passing laws to restrict those who can vote and to legalize discrimination against certain classes of people. Fortunately few if any of these people show up at this conference but rather go to other meetings where they might feel more comfortable. NCSL for the most part tends to attract middle-of-the-road moderates to progressives.
With the federal government reneging on so many matters that might best be resolved with common solutions across state lines, the states are having to step up to respond to these issues. The current federal administration continues to deny climate change, but it is the people in the states who are getting their feet wet and who are suffering the consequences of climate change including extreme weather events. I look forward to attending sessions with expert speakers and panels who will present what is happening in states that are taking environmental issues seriously.
Criminal justice reform, educational reforms including the expansion of early childhood education, new approaches to mental health, cybersecurity, and a fair census and resulting redistricting are a short list of topics that will be on my mind and the minds of legislators from other states with whom I will have an opportunity to interact during the several days of the conference. I will share some of what I have learned or confirmed in future columns.
As at any meeting, discussions that take place at the breaks and social gatherings can be the most profitable. I know there will be an overwhelming number of attendees who will be gravely concerned about what is happening with our national leadership and institutions. That makes work as state legislators even more important as we work to maintain our laboratories of democracy.
In last week’s column I suggested that the record-breaking for brevity, 90-minute session of the General Assembly came about because of a dysfunctional House of Delegates and a lack of leadership by the Speaker of the House. Further evidence unfolding since I wrote that column strengthens my concern and adds to it the problem that in the Virginia House of Delegates the “fox is guarding the chicken coop.”
The Special Session of the General Assembly that was called by Governor Ralph Northam in response to increasing gun violence should have provided a forum for debate to determine a response by the legislature to keep the people of Virginia safe. Few sessions general or special have attracted as much public attention as this one with hundreds of advocates at the Capitol representing all sides of the issue.
One side got high-level special attention. Ordinary citizens and state-wide and national groups concerned about gun violence attended a rally at the Bell Tower in Capitol Square and spent the rest of the morning visiting legislative offices and milling about the street between the Pocahontas Building where legislative offices are and the State Capitol. The National Rifle Association (NRA) representatives were in the Speaker of the House of Delegates Conference Room picking up their red caps and tee shirts and no doubt getting reassurances that everything was going to be alright.
A website inviting NRA members to the event encouraged their attendance: “Governor Ralph Northam and his gun ban allies are ready to push their extreme anti-gun agenda when the General Assembly convenes its special session tomorrow–July 9th. Your NRA is calling on members and Second Amendment supporters to join in the fight against Gov. Northam’s misguided gun control proposals by coming to Richmond on July 9th to personally urge their elected officials to stand up for our rights and oppose the Northam gun ban agenda.”
The most astonishing part of the announcement came in the details of the event: “WHERE: Pocahontas Building, 6th Floor, House Conference Room.” That just happens to be the Conference Room of the Speaker of the House of Delegates!
On this topic the Speaker effectively relinquished any impartial role of conducting the business of the House and became the host for those opposing common-sense gun safety laws that according to dozens of public opinion polls are supported by an overwhelming majority of Virginians. It brings back memories of the time this same Speaker moved from his position as Speaker to take the floor of the House of Delegates to speak passionately against a women’s right to make decisions about her own reproductive health.
The announcement included some red meat to encourage participation: “Our members are concerned that Gov. Northam’s special session is a political stunt aimed at distracting from his scandals…”
With the cooperation of the Speaker of the House of Delegates we clearly have the fox guarding the chicken coop in Virginia.
The House of Delegates broke all records for brevity last week when it adjourned 90 minutes after convening. It was not because the 100-member body had become so efficient that it got all its work done; to the contrary it demonstrated how dysfunctional the body has become over the last several decades.
Brought together at the call of the Governor as he is constitutionally authorized to do, the House and the State Senate were asked to enact legislation in response to the gun violence that takes the lives of more than 1,000 citizens of our state each year including the most recent tragic mass murders of a dozen people in a Virginia Beach municipal building. The Republican majorities in both houses instead chose, on a partisan vote, to adjourn the Special Session before legislation on gun safety could even be discussed. Tellingly, the Special Session is adjourned until November 18 which happens to also be past the date of the next election.
The charade of sending the eight bills the Governor had recommended, along with the two dozen or so others that had been introduced, to the Crime Commission for study is laughable. All these bills had been introduced before and defeated in small subcommittees. There is little more that can be said about these bills other than they become more popular with the public as gun violence increases. The bill I introduced on universal background checks has been thoroughly examined over many years and in public opinion has an approval rate among voters hovering around 90 percent.
The argument that there was not time to hear the bills doesn’t ring true when you consider that a regular session of the General Assembly earlier this year considered more than 2,500 bills and resolutions in about a month and a half. All the weaving and bobbing and flimsy excuses are intended to cover up that the House of Delegates and the State Senate under present leadership have become dysfunctional.
The rules under which the Special Session was to be conducted were kept from the members and the public until the session convened even though the leadership had known the date for weeks from the Governor’s call for the session. Even more the sinister plan to do nothing by adjourning both houses came as a surprise to everyone but the smallest number of members in the Republican leadership.
One of the biggest problems in the House with its organization and operation is that the Speaker serves not as Speaker of the House but as head of the Republican majority. As a result there is no neutral arbiter to convene and conduct the business of the House. When I talked with the Right Honourable John Bercow M.P. of the British House of Commons a couple of months ago he spoke of his role as a neutral person who ensures that the House operates fairly. There is no pretense in the Virginia House that the Speaker is anything other than head of the majority party and operates the House not in fairness or impartiality but to the advantage of the majority even if that majority is secured by only one or two votes.
The House is dysfunctional as it currently operates and needs reform in the role of the Speaker.
The General Assembly went into Special Session yesterday, July 9, at the call of Governor Ralph Northam to address gun violence after a shooter with a silencer on his pistol murdered a dozen persons in a municipal building in Virginia Beach. The outcome of the session in which legislators introduced eight different bills at the request of the Governor is unknown as I write this column. I introduced the bill that I have introduced at other sessions to expand criminal background checks for all firearm transactions or universal background checks.
Virginia has had a criminal background check for gun purchases for 30 years. The system was put in place after a bill that was heavily debated and that seemed certain to be defeated was passed with the support of a senior delegate, Vic Thomas, who was an avid NRA supporter. He concluded that it was a bill the public clearly wanted and should pass because it did not interfere with the Second Amendment. In what may have been the last time the NRA took such a position, it did not support but it did not oppose the bill’s passage. Governor Gerald Baliles signed the bill into law even though he had earlier opposed any gun control legislation.
The resulting instant background check system that was put into place continues operating today. It was the promise of an instant background check without the need to wait for days for approval that was the feature that led to the bill’s passage.
There was then that continues today a major flaw in the law as originally passed that supporters had hoped to correct but have not been successful in amending. The law only applies to purchases made with federally licensed gun dealers. That’s about half the gun sales in the state each year although exact statistics are unknown because of statutory limitations on gathering information about gun sales put in place with NRA advocacy. This flaw in the law created what is referred to as the “gun show loophole.” At any of the numerous gun shows that are held throughout the Commonwealth one can purchase a gun from a federally licensed gun dealer with an instant background check; at the next table at the show a person can purchase a gun from an unlicensed dealer with no identification needed and no questions asked.
The astonishing statistic is that in 2018 the Virginia State Police conducted 446,333 firearms transactions involving licensed dealers with 3,457 of the transactions denied because of previous criminal behavior. Had the loophole in the law been closed there may have been as many as a half million more checks with a proportionally high number of persons with criminal records being denied another weapon.
What is good for the goose is good for the gander, as I have always been told. With a successful system for background checks in place for thirty years without opposition or hiccups, all gun sales should go through the system with minor exceptions related to family members. According to many polls, the public supports universal background checks at levels around 90 percent. It is time for the legislature to act or be able to explain to the public in the coming political campaign why this old adage is not being followed.
From my earliest years of study of history, I was always fascinated with the story of Ancient Greece. A goal that I had for decades was realized recently as Jane and I vacationed for nearly two weeks in Greece. We were not disappointed as we stood on the soil and envisioned from the ruins the glory that must have been Greece.
Greece is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and this column will use some broad generalizations to condense that history and create a context for the influence of Greek culture on world history. Linking the ancient classical Greek period and the Hellenic periods together, the Ancient Greek civilization extended from about 800 BC and lasted until about 400 AD. During this classical or golden age of Greece, the incredible accomplishments of the Greeks were recorded forever in history.
As an online entry describes it, “Ancient Greece is considered by most historians to be the foundational culture of Western Civilization. Greek culture was a powerful influence in the Roman Empire which carried a version of it to many parts of Europe. Ancient Greek civilization has been immensely influential on the language, politics, educational systems, philosophy, art and architecture of the modern world, particularly during the Renaissance in Western Europe and again during various neo-classical revivals in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and the Americas.”
Historians agree that Greek intellectual achievements have been unparalleled in the history of the Western world whether you are talking about philosophy, literature, mathematics, science, art, architecture, or mythology. Greek intellectual leaders like Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle continue to influence the way we think about the way we govern, what we value, and what our ideals are. Their architectural achievements continue to be admired even as most of their most successful structures are in ruin as much from war and destruction as from the passage of time.
While the Parthenon is but a shell of its original magnificence with the pillage, destruction, and weathering it has endured, its significance cannot be overstated as to what happened within its walls. I had seen some of the incredible sculpture that had graced the building in the British Museum as it had been stolen from the edifice by the British in its occupation of the country. The new Archaeological Museum at the Acropolis is ultra-modern and contains dozens of sculptures from the Golden Age and would be a most suitable place for the British to return the art they made off with during their occupation.
Making your way up the steep steps of the Acropolis is a long distance and a long time from Ancient Greece to today that encompasses many conquests, occupations and failures. I am glad that we went to see the remains on the Acropolis and the site where the first Olympians trained and competed. As beautiful as the country and the waters that nearly surround it are, the country is not a major power. In recent times it has been rescued by its neighbors.
Great civilizations have not endured forever even as their influence may still be present. Are we living in a time when our own glory might at some future date be described in the past tense?
The Speaker of the House of Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain, the Right Honourable John Bercow M.P., spoke in the chamber of the House of Delegates in the State Capitol in Richmond recently. His speech was not to the members of the House of Delegates specifically although I and several other members were in attendance. He was addressing persons participating in the events as part of American Evolution, Virginia to America 1619 – 2019, the celebration of the 400th anniversary of historic events in the Virginia colony including the meeting of the first representative legislative assembly in the Western Hemisphere at Jamestown in 1619.
Speaker Bercow lived up to his reputation of being a very entertaining speaker with lots of stories and humorous details of his service in Parliament with its centuries of traditions and customs. Many routines in the House of Commons or the House of Lords can be explained by happenings centuries ago and by interactions with the British monarchy. Speaker Bercow clearly knows his history and uses it to create a context for understanding the operation of Parliament today.
Ironically the Speaker of the House of Commons — who clearly loves to speak — has a role that does not require him to speak often or engage in debate in the House. He explains his role as being obliged to be impartial in debate and to be a kind of referee to ensure that debates are held fairly for all participating parties. While he is a member of Parliament and is a member of a political party, he sets aside partisanship in his role as Speaker. His success in the role is evidenced by his continued unanimous re-election as Speaker by the members of the House of Commons.
In the earliest years as the parliamentary system of government evolved in Great Britain the speaker’s role was to be the person who spoke in the Parliament on behalf of the monarch. He made the king’s interest known to the law makers. As the form of government evolved, however, and with the decline in the power of the monarch, the speaker became the person to make the views of the members of Parliament known to the king. It was a bit of a role reversal as Parliament gained power with the ministers of government as part of its membership and the monarch assuming more of a ceremonial role.
The Founding Fathers writing the constitutions for the colonies as they became states and for the United States as a nation rejected the strong monarchical and parliamentary system of government in favor of separation of powers and checks and balances.
Speaker Bercow is a strong believer in the necessity of his being impartial in his role as Speaker of the House. At the same time he makes clear that he is in no way impartial in his support for representative government and is passionate about liberal democracy. Certainly the Speaker of the House of Delegates in Virginia could lead to more effective government in the Commonwealth were the person occupying the position an impartial leader and not the leader of the majority party.