Last Sunday I made my annual winter trek south to Richmond for the General Assembly session. My two-hour trip is not far enough to get me to sunny weather, but it is far enough for me to be in some hot debates. I stay in a hotel with such proximity to my office that my daily commute is just a walk of a couple of minutes. Going south in the winter may be a vacation for some, but for the next 60 days it is the most intense period of work that one can imagine. Fortunately, I get home most weekends for a brief reprieve.
This trip south has been one filled with great anticipation. For the first time in two decades I am not in the minority! I chair a committee now, the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, that will be acting on many environmental bills. I can expect that bills I introduce will get a fair hearing and most of them will pass. My colleagues and I reflect the population of the Commonwealth more than any previous General Assembly session ever. Not only do we have more women in the legislature, but we have the first ever woman Speaker of the House!
Being a member of the majority party brings enormous responsibility. As the party “in power,” we must exercise our duties in ways that are judicious and fair. There is no time for political pay-back. We must shift from campaigning mode to governing mode. Although it may be tempting to do otherwise, we must conduct ourselves in ways towards the minority party members that would be the way we want to be treated in the distant future when we may find ourselves the minority again. Yes, the golden rule should apply even in the legislature.
How exciting it is to realize that in a few short months we will be able to add Virginia to the list of states that have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment even if we are the last needed for ratification. We will strengthen our existing antidiscrimination laws and add to them. We will make our communities safer from gun violence. We will add essential funding increases to our educational and human service programs. We will make critical decisions on protecting our environment and responding to climate change. And more. When all this work is done we have a governor who has pledged to sign our bills into law!
Last Saturday’s public hearing by the Fairfax General Assembly delegation reminded us that there is not total accord on what we will be doing. About half the audience of around 300 people in attendance seemed to be there to shout down those with whom they disagreed. Their efforts to show support for what they define as their second amendment rights was to violate the first amendment rights of others. The lack of civility in public discourse across the country has found its way to Virginia. What a shame!
I am honored to be here, and I am going to do my best to fairly represent your interests. Make a trip south to see me and the legislative process over the next couple of months. To live-stream the legislative sessions, go to House of Delegates and to Senate. To follow the progress of bills, visit lis.virginia.gov.
With the outcomes of the elections in 2019 Virginia may be considered by some to be in an altered state. While the flipping of the legislature from red to blue will have consequences, actual proposed changes will not be known until campaign rhetoric is translated into legislative languages, a multitude of interest groups and individuals have weighed in, and the level of political will for significant change can be measured by votes in legislative committees and on the floors of the House and Senate. Readers of this column will be getting steady reports over the next weeks and months following the beginning of the next 400 years of the Commonwealth.
In the meantime, it is helpful to step back as much as that is possible and to closely examine where we are today as a baseline in moving forward. The Commonwealth is a wealthy state–twelfth wealthiest among the states. That is not common wealth however. Three regions of Virginia that make up the Golden Crescent from Northern Virginia through Tidewater exceed U.S. per capita income. Northern Virginia jurisdictions have a per capita income level greater than Connecticut which is the highest in the nation. At the same time, three regions of Virginia in Southwest and Southside have per capita income less than Mississippi, the poorest state in the country. Parts of Virginia are the wealthiest while other parts are the poorest in the United States. Even with its great diversity in income Virginia continues to have the lowest state minimum wage in the country at $7.25 which had it simply kept up with inflation would be $10.54.
Virginia is certainly not unique among the states in having broad differences in growth rates and wealth within its boundaries. There are many factors that create differences. From a public policy perspective, it is important that Virginia be viewed in its uncommon aspects as well as generalized as a state on the whole. One size seldom fits all, and certainly the diversity of Virginia requires that its unique regions be considered in any statewide policies and programs.
Unfortunately, the regional differences seen in per capita income are reflected in the growth rate, educational level, life span and many other measures of the health of the state. Northern Virginia grew by about 12 percent in population between 2010 and 2017, central Virginia by about 7 percent while Southside declined by 2.5 percent and Southwest by 4 percent.
A recent national America’s Health Ranking report shows Virginia moving up from 20th to 15th among the states in health rankings. A big drop in persons smoking–29 percent to about 15 percent of adults–helped. At the same time there has been a significant increase in drug-related deaths over the past three years, from 10.1 deaths per 100,000 people to 15.4.
The diversity of the state will impact the business of the legislature. I will discuss these and further aspects of the Commonwealth at a State of the Commonwealth Breakfast this Friday, the 3rd of January, at the Hidden Creek Country Club in Reston at 8 am. RSVP to secure.actblue.com.
Since many of her friends had told her there was no Santa, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon had no idea when she wrote to the editor of the New York Sun asking if there was a Santa Claus that his editorial response to her would become the most quoted newspaper editorial ever. The editor’s response to her question was “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”
For residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia the question has arisen with the announcement of every biennial budget, Is there a Santa Claus who can provide the resources for making progress in the state? The answer last week was clearly, “Yes!” and his name is Governor Ralph Northam. The Governor presented a budget for the next two years that will warm many hearts and respond to many unmet needs.
Among the many improvements in programs and services, Governor Northam observed “But perhaps the smartest investment we can make is in our children and their education.” His budget proposals include an additional $1.2 billion for public education, one of the largest investments the Commonwealth has ever made in education from early childhood through high school. Beyond that investment the Governor has proposed free community college for those with a financial need who are enrolled in programs leading to jobs. More school counselors and teacher raises are also included in his proposed budget.
The affordable housing program will receive an additional $63 million in funding under the Governor’s budget. Community Services Boards will receive much needed additional funding to respond to the people who are having mental health crises. The Governor has also proposed a state-based marketplace for the nearly 400,000 Virginians who buy health insurance on their own rather than through an employer. A state system can help keep premiums down.
The Governor is proposing to raise the cigarette tax which I have also proposed several times over the years. Even with an increase Virginia will have the lowest tax on cigarettes except for North Carolina. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in Virginia, and it directly causes more than $3 billion in yearly health care costs.
On transportation the Governor proposes an increase in the gas tax to raise money for improvements. To offset the increases, the Governor has proposed to save drivers $150 million per year by eliminating annual vehicle inspections that have not been shown to increase public safety. One of the greatest advancements in transportation improvements for Northern Virginia was announced days after his speech on the budget. Expansion of the Long Bridge across the Potomac River between Arlington and D.C. will take place over the next several years greatly expanding rail transit in the region.
With whatever holidays you celebrate, may they be filled with happiness, good health and joy! I look forward to serving you in the new year.
In the oddities of the Virginia government calendar, the one-term limited governor spends the first two years of the term implementing a biennial budget proposed by the previous governor and passed by the General Assembly in the first two months of his term.
It is only after serving nearly two years that the governor has the opportunity to propose a budget reflecting the priorities on which he was elected. The governor then has two years to implement his budget before proposing a budget that will be implemented by his successor.
The complexities of changing the calendar are more than is likely to be undertaken at this time. Some like the system for it slows down the process of change for certainly the “Virginia Way” has never been to bring about any change too swiftly!
A fix that would take care of part of the snail pace of doing business in the Commonwealth would be to allow the governor to run for a successive term. I support such a change for it would allow the voters to decide if an individual should be granted a second term.
One area in which there is a need for haste in taking action is related to the environment and the role the state will take in reducing carbon emissions and responding to climate change and all of its ramifications.
Gov. Ralph Northam ran on a platform promising more protection for the environment. He and his staff worked busily on his new budget that was announced yesterday before this column was written. In the weeks leading up to his announcement, the governor held press conferences around the state on various parts of the budget including one on his environmental proposals.
The budget and legislative proposals he announced on environmental protection are the strongest ever proposed by a Virginia governor. He said of his proposals that “these significant investments in environmental protection, environmental justice, clean energy, and clean water will combat climate change and ensure we maintain our high quality of life here in Virginia.”
To reduce carbon pollution the governor recommends removing budget language added by the Republican legislature two years ago prohibiting Virginia from participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). He instead proposes legislation making Virginia a part of the regional effort to reduce carbon emissions by requiring the purchase of credits that through the marketplace will make fossil fuels more expensive than solar and wind sources of energy. The proposal is already being attacked as a “carbon tax.”
The governor’s proposals include $400 million for the Chesapeake Bay clean up that will keep that effort on track. Significant new investments in state agencies with environmental responsibilities will provide the staffing and resources for doing a more effective job in enforcing environmental regulations, improving public engagement, and ensuring environmental justice.
An investment of up to $40 million to upgrade the Portsmouth Marine Terminal will support the offshore wind supply chain and the development of offshore wind energy generating capacity to achieve 2,500 megawatts by 2026. Additional funding will also be provided for land conservation. This additional focus on the environment is sorely needed in Virginia.
Taking down Confederate monuments is but one part of a continuing story in Virginia as the Commonwealth tries to come to grips with its racist history. The story is in no way a pretty one. Africans who were brought to the colony as enslaved people were kept in bondage with cruelty and repression. They were stripped of their names and given names that had no meaning to them. Slaves were for the most part not taught to read and their ability to congregate together was severely restricted. They were overlooked in the Declaration of Independence and considered only three-fifths of a person in the Constitution. When Virginia plantations no longer found their labor needed with the depletion of the soil in the state, slaves were sold into the deep South with their families being broken up. The Civil War brought emancipation, but repression of Black people continued with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, and Jim Crow laws. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 that African Americans started to realize what equal protection of the laws really meant.
During this history the General Assembly of Virginia passed laws that make those of us interested in the state’s history hang our heads in shame at the racism they embodied. Earlier this year Governor Ralph Northam appointed The Commission to Examine Racial Equality in Virginia Law to take a look at the language and intent of legislative actions in The Acts of Assembly and the Code of Virginia. The interim report issued this past week was shocking to those of us who study this issue for its sheer volume as well as for the stark language it uncovered of racism in the laws. Take a look for yourself at Racial Inequity Report.
Passed as recently as 1956 was a law, part of Massive Resistance, that provided that “no child shall be required to enroll in or attend any school wherein both white and colored children are enrolled.” The Commission found that “Virginia policymakers engaged in deliberate and coordinated legislative strategies to deny equal educational opportunities to black students…” There are numerous examples of laws including the poll tax that were intended to keep black people from voting.
Though most of the laws identified by the Commission are outdated and have no legal effect, they remain in the law. The Interim Report states that “the Commission believes that such vestiges of Virginia’s segregationist past should no longer have official status.” Laws that have been found to be unconstitutional or otherwise been invalidated should be repealed to ensure that they “could not be revived with a change of law or interpretation by a different leadership or court.”
The Commission found that “white and nonwhite Virginians face starkly disparate outcomes in health, educational attainment, financial stability, and access to justice. Any assessment of their disparities must take into account Virginia’s haunting legacy of coordinated, intentional, and official acts of forced segregation and overt racism.” The past is for recording in history books and not in official laws of today. The General Assembly meeting in January must take the important step of wiping the slate clean!
After intensive lobbying by some local governments and private investors during the 2019 session, the General Assembly passed a bill requesting the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission (JLARC) on which I serve to conduct a review of the impact if resort-style casinos were to be built in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Richmond. These locations represent a pattern only of local governments that are interested and /or private investors who want to invest there. The JLARC staff along with assistance of private consultants who specialize in gambling operations reported to the Commission last week. A copy of the report is available at jlarc.virginia.gov/landing- 2019-gaming.
Gambling has long been prohibited in Virginia, with the exception of the lottery, charitable gaming such as bingo, and wagering on horse races. Virginians currently wager over $1 billion annually on these forms of gaming, generating about $600 million in revenue for various purposes, primarily K-12 education. Nearby states permit more forms of gambling than Virginia does, including casino gaming, sports wagering, and online casino gaming.
According to estimates from The Innovation Group, a national gaming consultant who assisted JLARC staff with the study, resort-style casinos could be built and sustained in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Richmond. These estimates assume an initial $200 million to $300 million capital investment and an annual gaming revenue state tax rate of 27 percent (the national median). Casinos in these five locations are projected to generate about $970 million annually in net gaming revenue and approximately $260 million in gaming tax revenue for the state. For comparison, the Virginia Lottery generates over $600 million annually after prizes are paid out. About one-third of total casino revenue is projected to be generated by out-of-state visitors.
The projected median wage of $33,000 for casino employees would be below the median wage in the five localities. Not all casino jobs would represent a net gain of employment for the localities, and nearly half of the jobs would be low-skill and low-wage. Casino gambling would reduce the revenues in existing forms of gambling such as the Lottery that generates money for the schools.
According to the study, the prevalence of problem gambling in Virginia has not been measured, but evidence from national studies and states with a broad array of gaming options suggests that an estimated 5 to 10 percent of adults may experience gambling problems. The introduction of casinos would make more people at risk of experiencing problems as gambling opportunities increase.
The negative impacts of gambling are not limited to problem gamblers. The report indicates that research consistently shows adverse effects on others, most often a spouse or partner, but also the parents and children of problem gamblers, as well as other family members and close friends. The negative effects of problem gambling can be severe in a small portion of cases and include financial instability and mental health and relationship problems.
I am skeptical of introducing additional gambling opportunities in the Commonwealth. From what I have been able to learn, the modest revenues are not worth the risks involved. Is there something I am missing?
I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787. “It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” Mr. Jefferson would have been pleased with the voter rebellion of 2019 that shifted power in both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in two decades.
With all the history-making details of the outcome of the 2019 elections, some of what happened is a repeat of past events from which there is a great deal to be learned. In my first term in the House of Delegates in 1978 there were 78 Democrats; that number dwindled to 47 in 2000 when Republicans assumed control of the House.
Republicans had been treated shabbily under Democratic majorities, and they never passed up an opportunity to point out the arrogance and unfairness of the Democratic majority. For decades Democrats had not put Republicans on committees that met.
When Republicans took over the majority in the House, they told stories over and over of Democratic abuses of the past to justify minimizing Democratic participation in the legislative process. Republicans were doing the very things about which they had complained for decades. To the victor goes the spoils. It was time for revenge
Republican campaigning to take the majority never fully transitioned to fairly governing the Commonwealth. Retribution was sought for past grievances. I and many others were removed from major committee assignments. Committee operations were changed to keep Democratic bills bottled up with no recorded votes. In all ways the Republican majority was no better than the Democratic majority had been.
Some examples of abuses: Gerrymander districts to protect Republicans and to reduce chances of Democrats getting elected; Stack committee membership to ensure that their bills were the only ones to get passed; Add subcommittees without adhering to proportional membership or recorded votes to dispose of bills on gun safety, ERA ratification, or nondiscrimination in a way to leave no fingerprints or blame.
Democratic legislators have many stories they can relate about their suffering over the last couple of decades under Republican dominance. The campaigns that just ended were full of dirty tricks. Democrats may well be in the mood to seek revenge; payback can be so sweet.
I believe, however, Democrats must act as though we have learned from past mistakes. Winning the majority puts Democrats in the position to bring about critically needed reform in the legislative process and to act on legislation for which they were not able to get a hearing over the last couple of decades.
Flipping the General Assembly should be more than a color change from red to blue: it needs to be a change to a more open and transparent government. I believe that voters do not want political wrangling; they expect reform of the way business has been done in the past. The majority must provide leadership for meaningful reform while ignoring temptations for revenge. A history of bad deeds should not be repeated.
The November 5 elections in Virginia produced results of historic proportions. The House of Delegates that has had a Republican majority since 2000 was flipped to a blue Democratic majority of 55 Democrats to 45 Republicans. As recently as the election for 2014-2016, Democrats in the House had dropped to 32 members. The turn-around came decisively in amazing political time; there will be a recount in only one seat the Democrats won. The Senate that had a Republican majority before the election flipped to blue with 21 of the 40 Senate seats now being held by Democrats.
The General Assembly when it convenes in January will have a Democratic majority in both houses. In addition, as a result of elections held in 2017 Democrats occupy all statewide offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General. The historic level of Democratic wins is not only about party, it is about representation. There will be more women in the General Assembly than ever before in Virginia’s history. In the House of Delegates there will be 30 women in the 100-member legislative body. In the Senate there will be 11 women in the 40-member body bringing the total number of women to 41 in the General Assembly. While the number is small relative to the proportion of women in the total population, the number of women in the legislature is a huge increase when compared to past years when it could be counted on the fingers of one’s hands. The number of women running this year in both parties was at a historic level of 85.
There were other historic changes in the oldest continuous legislative body in the western world celebrating its 400th anniversary this year. A Muslim woman will join the Senate as the first ever elected to that body. The number of African Americans in the General Assembly will increase to the highest number since Reconstruction. The first ever Indian American man was elected to the House of Delegates.
The new members of the legislature have already indicated their willingness to make history. The Democratic caucus of the House met this past weekend and chose as its Speaker-designee, Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn, the first woman to ever serve as Speaker of the House of Delegates in the 400 years of its history. She will be elected formally by the entire House when the General Assembly convenes in January. Adding to this historic moment, she will assume the leadership position, considered the most powerful in Virginia government next to the governor, with the least seniority of anyone ever taking the position in the modern day. She will be the first Jewish Speaker serving along with the Senate majority leader who is also Jewish. While I had hoped to become Speaker myself, I fully support Eileen who is amazingly smart and talented and will do everything I can to ensure her success.
The electorate broke through many hurdles in its votes this election year. Some results called historic today will become commonplace in the future as the General Assembly reflects more the demographics of the state as a whole. I have always felt honored to serve, and with the historic results of this election year I feel even more honored. Thank you, voters!
Readers of this column no doubt have next Tuesday, November 5, marked as election day on their calendars. You are exceptional. If history holds true, fewer than half of registered voters will vote. Getting people to register is a year-round activity but getting registered voters to actually cast a vote is a crunch-time activity for the last couple of weeks before the election.
Tired of all the robo-calls? Slick postcards in the mailbox? Contentious debate on the news media? Endless social media posts? Much of that activity is directed to reminding people to vote and to gain a competitive advantage, but it oftentimes turns off folks who are cynical about the electoral process or who are confused by it all.
Historically there have been many efforts to suppress the vote by passing laws that prevent various classes of people from qualifying to register or that add to the complexities of voting that discourage people from going to the polls. Virginia’s history is filled with numerous examples of laws that reduced the franchise. Literacy tests that were unreasonable or unfairly administered, poll taxes that not only charged for voting but included a time schedule for collection that only insiders could meet, and unusually long residency requirements are but a few examples. For much of our history in Virginia, the majority party in control of state politics worked to keep people from voting!
Against that backdrop of individual cynicism and confusing election laws, what are we who understand the importance of elections to do to increase participation in voting? I believe we need to get past the old adage that it is not polite to talk about politics and religion. Leaving religion for another discussion, I believe more than ever that we need to have a more inclusive discussion that might inevitably lead to a debate about politics and government in our state and in our nation. Keep it civil is the first rule but be sure to end the discussion with a reminder to friends, family and neighbors to vote. Our government is no better than voters decide.
Between 6 am and 7 pm Tuesday, November 5, polls will be open for voting in Virginia. If you are not sure where to vote, go to fairfaxcounty.gov/elections. You can find where your polling place is but also what is on the ballot. All seats in the House of Delegates and the State Senate are up for election as are Constitution officers (for Fairfax that is the sheriff and the Commonwealth’s attorney). At the Fairfax County level, voters elect the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, the supervisor to represent their magisterial district, three at-large School Board members and a School Board member for their magisterial district, three members of the Soil and Water Conservation District Board, and a question on issuing school bonds.
There are few surprises in how I intend to vote. School children often ask me if I vote for myself, and I can assure you that I do. I will be voting for Senator Janet Howell; for Sheriff Stacey Kincaid; for Commonwealth’s attorney Steve Descano; for Board of Supervisor chairman Jeff McKay; Walter Alcorn for Hunter Mill supervisor; Melanie Meren for Hunter Mill School Board representative; for School Board at-large Karen Keys-Gamarra, Abrar Omeish, Rachna Sizemore Heizer; and for Soil and Water Conservation Board Gerald Peters, Chris Koerner, and Monica Billger; and yes on the school bond issue.
If you need to vote early, get absentee voting information at Elections. See you at the polls with your friends and neighbors on Tuesday. Now more than ever, it is important to vote and to take someone to the polls with you!
My parents were not political; they tended to always want to avoid controversy. One exception was their support of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. They were married shortly before the Great Depression and had a really tough go of it in rural Virginia during the depression. They were convinced that it was President Roosevelt’s New Deal that saved the country, and they never let me forget it! Many historians would agree with them.
While the challenges facing our state today are very different from those that the country faced in the 1930s, there are issues that burden many of our citizens and jeopardize our country’s future that demand a plan and a set of actions not unlike those of the New Deal era. Appropriately the response to these needs is called the Green New Deal. (www.greennewdealva.com)
Many politicians are shying away from the Green New Deal terming it too ambitious, too hasty, and too costly. I support the plan and share its goals of “creating thousands of good jobs addressing climate change and restoring Virginia’s environment.” A long list of groups and organizations supporting the coalition have very thoughtfully put together our immediate need to respond to climate change with the need to put more people to work productively. Green New Deal supporters seek “to develop and implement a comprehensive state-wide energy transformation plan that centers environmental sensitivity, equity, transparency, justice and sustainability in its solution.”
The devil in the myriad of details that must be worked out over the next several years will require listening to each other, respecting the needs and rights of all our citizens, compromising when it moves us towards our ultimate goals, and giving credit to all stakeholders as they make advances supporting the goals.
With the emphasis being put on climate change and the necessity that we move forward on renewable energy, I was pleased that Governor Ralph Northam last week announced what is being characterized as “the largest state renewable energy contract in the Nation.” As the Governor described it, “With this landmark contract, Virginia is leading by example and demonstrating how states can step up to combat climate change and advance a clean energy economy.” Under the contract the partners will supply state government with 420 megawatts of renewable energy, which is the equivalent of powering more than 100,000 homes. It is an important small step forward that puts the Commonwealth on record as being on board with renewables.
Virginia has had a slower start than many of us would like, but I am encouraged by recent developments. The first off-shore wind turbines in federal waters are to be completed by the end of next year leading to full development of 2,600 megawatts of offshore wind that would power 650,000 homes. A press release from the Governor’s Office indicates that since January of 2018 the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has issued 23 permits for solar projects that will generate more than 800 megawatts of energy, and the agency expects to issue permits for an additional 478 megawatts for seven projects by the end of the year.
It is time for a new deal in Virginia and a green one at that. Children of the future will appreciate the wisdom of the actions that we are taking today.
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.