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.
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.
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.
Absentee voting in Fairfax County begins tomorrow (Sept. 20) for the Nov. 5 elections.
Eligible community members can register to vote for the upcoming elections online or at the Office of Elections (12000 Government Center Parkway) in conference rooms two and three. Voters may also receive their ballots through the mail.
Absentee voters in Reston may also submit their registration or ballots to the North County Governmental Center (1801 Cameron Glen Drive) on Oct. 17- Nov. 2 from 3-7 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturdays.
All absentee voters will need a valid driver’s license or state-issued identification card and their social security number to register.
For those unfamiliar with the process of absentee voting, Fairfax County published a variety of resources to explain the procedure and help answer questions.
Ballots will be translated into English, Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese.
The last day to apply for an absentee ballot is seven days before the election, or Oct. 29 by 5 p.m., according to Fairfax County. All absentee ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Nov. 5 in order to be counted.
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.
(Updated at 1:50 p.m. to clarify that the ALEC contribution and contributions from Alcorn’s developer friends are two separate issues).
Walter Alcorn, a candidate running for the seat of Hunter Mill District Supervisor, has returned small donor contributions from the CEO and Strategist of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing, pro-business group that has been criticized for furthering the goals of its corporate benefactors.
In that release, Dodd also pointed out that Alcorn accepted contributions from developers in violation of his pledge to not take money from developers.
Alcorn said the donations were from college friends who do not have projects in the Hunter Mill District. He said he has maintained his pledge to decline donations from developers, noting the small size of the contributions from ALEC employees.
According to the latest campaign finance reports, the Democrat raised nearly $71,000 and has $44,942 in the bank — well beyond his competitors.
In 2012, the Democratic Party of Virginia condemned donations from ALEC, stating that the organization is on a “stealthy mission to purchase our democracy,” powered by funding from the Koch brothers.
Dodd told Reston Now that Alcorn’s statements about the matter are unethical and deeply disturbing.
Alcorn clarified that he will not accept contributions from developers who have a stake in land-use cases in the Hunter Mill District.
Dodd, Shyamali Hauth and Parker Messick have also pledged to accept no developer contributions.
Photo via Walter Alcorn
If a sign of a healthy democracy is a lot of people running for elective office, we have become a true democracy in Virginia. This year is a busy year for elections because a lot of terms for elective offices are up this year. In Fairfax County, for example, all the seats on the County Board of Supervisors are up for election as is the chairman of the Board who is elected county-wide. The June 11 Democratic Party primary election has four contenders vying for the supervisor’s seat that is being vacated with the retirement of Supervisor Cathy Hudgins. I am not sure whether the Republicans intend to nominate a candidate to make for a race on November 5. For chairman of the Board there is a Democratic primary to pick the nominee who the Republicans will presumably challenge in the November election.
School Board members for Fairfax County also are up for election. A member is chosen for each magisterial district plus three at-large members. School board elections are non-partisan, but candidates seek endorsement of one of the major parties. Currently there is a scramble in Hunter Mill district to replace retiring member Pat Hynes. A broad and diverse field of candidates is seeking party endorsements.
Constitutional offices which in Fairfax County are the Commonwealth Attorney and the sheriff are also on the ballot this November. The incumbent Commonwealth Attorney must withstand a primary challenge in the Democratic Party before getting to the fall election. The sheriff is likely to move smoothly through the November election.
Adding to the number of candidates for whom you are likely to see ads, receive brochures or answer those pesky robo-calls are the candidates for the House of Delegates and the Senate, all of whom are up for election this year. While it is too early to know for sure who all the challengers will be as it is possible for political parties to name candidates up until early June, we already know the field is crowded. There is an unprecedented number of challenges in primaries and a larger than usual number of retirements of incumbents. On the State Senate side there are eleven Democratic and five Republican primaries that include challenges to four incumbent Democrats and three Republican incumbents.
On the House of Delegates side of the General Assembly there are 13 Democratic primaries involving five incumbents and seven Republican primaries with two incumbents being challenged. These numbers do not include districts in which conventions may be held to select candidates.
All this activity is good news for democracy but might seem overwhelming to voters. At this point in time races are not all set with candidates. After the June 11 primaries, the line-ups will be clearer. Party activists will be busy informing voters who their candidates are. In the meantime, please forgive me if any of my numbers are off as this story continues to emerge. The good news is there will be many choices that have the potential to lead to better government. Don’t be alarmed by this crowded field!
While I would never recommend reading the Code of Virginia for pleasure, as it is filled with legalese intended for trained lawyers and judges to debate its intended meaning, it can be a useful document to understand the history of an era.
Because court decisions at the state and federal level can change the application of a law, the words that are in the Code may have been superseded by such a decision or by later enactments of law.
If all that is not enough to confuse us non-lawyers, there are the “notwithstanding” clauses that effectively say that whatever else the law may provide the effective meaning follows the clause.
Laws can be read to help understand the community mores and values of the past. This session saw a meaningful number of bills passed that reflect a cleaning-up of the Code to reflect changing community values.
Some of these include repealing remnants of Jim Crow laws of racial oppression of the past. Thanks to Del. Marcia Price and State Sen. Lionell Spruill, the provisions in Code that exempted Virginia’s minimum wage requirements for newsboys, shoe-shine boys, babysitters who work 10 hours or more per week, ushers, doormen, concession attendants and cashiers in theaters, all of which were occupations that were most likely held by African Americans, were repealed. The old law made it legal to discriminate through wages. A new law will require employers to provide pay stubs as a way to assist low-wage workers to manage their money and be treated fairly.
Up until action of the General Assembly this session, if you owed court fines and fees in Virginia, your driver’s license could be suspended unless you established a payment plan. As the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy that advocated strongly for a change in the law explained it, one in six Virginia drivers (approximately 900,000 people) has had his or her license suspended because of owing court fines and fees. Almost any poor person who has interacted with the criminal justice system owes some court fines and fees.
Essentially, by taking away someone’s license and therefore likely preventing the person from finding or keeping a job, the state denies the person opportunity to escape from poverty (and ever pay back those fines and fees). This policy was a “debtors’ prison” approach. There is no evidence that suspending people’s licenses increases the rate of payback for fines and fees. The issue disproportionately affected low-income workers, and its repeal this year was past due.
Virginia has historically had one of the highest rates of rental evictions in the country. Laws that disproportionally favored landlords over tenants caused this situation that was disruptive to families. A series of revisions to create a better balance in the law and that provides more options for tenants should make the laws operate more fairly.
Virginia has also had a very bad record in the management of its foster care program. Children were shifted from family to family with limited stability in their lives. Major changes in the laws related to foster children should greatly improve the situation.
It is critically important that we clean up the Code from time to time.
The House of Delegates and the State Senate were in session yesterday (April 3) for the annual reconvened session as required by the constitution. Often referred to as the veto session, part of its business is to consider bills vetoed or with amendments proposed by the governor.
During the regular odd-numbered short session that adjourned on Feb. 24 after 46 days, there were 3,128 bills and resolutions considered. Setting aside resolutions that do not have the force of law of bills, there were 883 bills that passed the legislature all of which must have the signature of the governor in order to become law. The governor’s veto can be overturned by a vote of two-thirds of the members of both houses.
The governor in Virginia has the unique ability among executive officials to propose amendments to bills that previously passed but then must be approved by the General Assembly in the reconvened session with the amendments proposed. This ability for the governor to make corrections or to change the provisions of a bill gives the governor important legislative powers and enhances the importance of the reconvened session that typically lasts for a single day but can go up to three days.
Among the bills on the docket for this reconvened session is a bill that had passed both houses of the legislature but died at the last moment of the regular session. The dispute was over legal language to prohibit the use of cell phones that are not hands-free. The bill will be back before the legislature thanks to an amendment by the governor, and it is likely to finally pass.
I expect to support the governor in his vetoes of bills. One bill that he vetoed would limit his authority to involve Virginia in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program among Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states that mandates emission reduction in the power sector. Virginia’s involvement in this program is among the most important steps the state can take in reducing greenhouse gases and tackling climate change.
Governor Ralph Northam has also vetoed a bill that I had opposed during the regular session that would force law enforcement agencies to use precious resources to perform functions of federal immigration law that are part of the current immigration hysteria. He also vetoed a bill that would have limited the ability of local governments in making decisions about their local employment and pay consideration.
Included among the bills that passed are bills that passed in identical form but were only introduced in one house. Some advocates and legislators believe that there is more certainty that a bill will finally pass if it moves through the legislature on two separate tracks. The governor signs both identical bills to keep from choosing among competing bill sponsors. No one that I know has taken the time to count these bills, but I believe that more than half fall into this category. I question that approach — it seems like unnecessary duplication in an already complex system.
Increases in budget revenues as a result of federal tax changes and the ability to tax sales on goods purchased on the internet put Virginia in a unique position to increase its budgeted funds mid-year of a biennial budget while at the same time providing many taxpayers with refunds.
As the fall elections approach, the actions on the state budget will receive many different “spins.” Certainly, taxpayers like getting money refunded. At the same time they recognize when programs to meet needs are underfunded, they may over a period of time become even more underfunded. It is more than mathematics and accounting to approve a budget when revenues have increased — it is also very much an expression of values on the part of decision makers.
An example of values affecting budgetary decisions came during the Great Recession of 2008. State revenues dipped at the greatest rate in modern times just as many businesses faltered and failed. A great bail-out went to businesses from the federal government as did major funding to state government. The feds did not match the private losses, but they did provide relief for some greater cuts for programs like education.
Only now has the Virginia economy recovered such that the funding of education today is exceeding that of pre-2008 levels.
Beyond simply funding programs and services with more money next year than last year are the equity issues involved in distributing money across programs. My trip to Prince Edward County as I described in my column last week reminded me just how inequitable funding can be. There was no pretense of equity among black and white schools. The whites went to a brick school that was modern for its time; the black children went to school in a tar-paper shanty. With many federal court decisions we have gotten beyond the inequities of segregated services and programs, but inequities still exist.
The budget presented to the General Assembly by Gov. Ralph Northam represented the greatest attempt at resolving equity issues that I have seen. Funding for schools was increased but with those who had the greatest needs receiving the most money. Programs for students with special needs were enhanced as was funding for historically black institutions of higher education. The governor found himself with a major problem pushing his agenda as he got himself in political hot water for his behavior many years ago. Whatever way that situation is resolved, it need not take attention from the basic problem of increasing equity among school divisions, mental health programs and criminal justice programs.
There is ample evidence gleaned from numerous studies that document inequities that exist in the state’s budget. These facts will be manipulated among candidates this election season to gain the advantage, but candidates need to acknowledge that inequities exist and must be dealt with fairly. I understand that most regions feel that they do not get a fair shake. There are metrics that can be used to find the inequities; once resolved the state will be stronger because of it.
March is Women’s History Month. Before women had the whole month, the U.S. recognized Women’s History Week; before that, a single International Women’s Day.
Dedicating the whole month of March in honor of women’s achievements was seen “as a way to revise a written and social American history that had largely ignored women’s contributions,” according to an article in Time magazine. The first Women’s Day took place on Feb. 28, 1909 to honor the one-year anniversary of the garment worker’s strikes in New York when thousands of women marched for economic rights and to honor an earlier 1857 march when garment workers rallied for equal rights and a 10-hour day, according to the article.
Recognizing the achievement of Virginia women goes beyond naming a month. A monument is under construction on Capitol Square, “Voices from the Garden,” which will be the first monument of its kind in the nation. Representative of the state’s regions, the monument recognizes the 400-year history and the diversity of achievement, ethnicity and thought that women have made to the Commonwealth.
Even more significant in recognizing women in Virginia is the fact that there is historic representation of women in the Virginia House of Delegates, including the election of 11 new women members in 2017, all of whom ousted male incumbents. The House Democratic Caucus is almost 45 percent women, including 11 women of color. The House Republican Caucus is less than 10 percent women. Caucus Chair Charniele Herring is the first woman to chair a caucus in the House of Delegates throughout its 400-year history. Leader Eileen Filler-Corn is the first woman to be elected leader of a caucus in the General Assembly.
Recently I served on a panel, “Can Women Save Democracy? We’re counting on it!” at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University along with Herring, iller-Corn and Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton. There was a clear consensus in the room that women will play a pivotal role in getting our country back on the right track. Witness this year’s state and local elections when there are record-breaking numbers of women lining up to run in primaries and the general elections.
Not only are women running and winning races, but they are determining the outcome of elections with their tireless work in making calls, knocking on doors, and working on behalf of the candidates they support. Organizations like Indivisibles, with Herndon-Reston Indivisibles being a model organization, and Moms Demand Action among others are making their influence felt on policy issues like ending the epidemic of gun violence.
The big disappointment in celebrating women in history is the refusal of the Virginia House of Delegates to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Ratification failed on a tied vote on a procedural matter that makes it even more frustrating that the amendment was not allowed to be debated on the floor of the House of Delegates. There is more women’s history to be written in Virginia, and I suspect the next step will be the election of even more women this fall and ratification of the ERA next year!
Updated at 3:25 p.m. — Deputy Minority Leader Mark Sickles was recently added to the event.
An upcoming Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce event plans to examine how the current political climate will likely impact businesses across the state.
The event next Wednesday (March 13) features House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox (R-66th District), Deputy Minority Leader Mark Sickles (D-43rd District) and Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.
Attendees can expect to learn about how Gov. Ralph Northam’s policies and a narrowly divided General Assembly may affect businesses for the next two years. Cox will provide insight into which passed bills will impact the business community.
The event will be held from 7:30-10 a.m. at the Hyatt Regency Reston (1800 Presidents Street). Online registration will close on Tuesday (March 12).
Image via @SpeakerCox/Twitter
Virginia’s state law-making body, the General Assembly, adjourned sine die — until another day — this past Sunday — one day later than its scheduled adjournment date. With more than 3,000 bills and resolutions considered, it is somewhat miraculous that the body came that close to its scheduled 45-day end date.
There were positive accomplishments. Legislation designed to curtail record levels of rental evictions was passed. Major reforms to the foster care program were enacted with Del. Karrie Delaney providing leadership in this area. The legal age for buying cigarettes and vaping products was raised from 18 to 21 — a remarkable achievement in a city that was once the cigarette making capital of the world.
A bill I introduced at the suggestion of the Chris Atwood Foundation passed and will increase the persons authorized to administer the miracle drug Naloxone that can save the lives of persons suffering from drug overdoses. The concern about coal-ash ponds has been resolved with a requirement that clean-up occur on the property of utility without transport and in ponds that are sealed at the highest level of environmental protection.
Revisions that were made to the biennial budget that we are now half-way through bring lots of good news. Monies were increased for public education, including districts that have the highest levels of poverty and most need. School counselors were increased in numbers, although not at the level sought by the governor. Most taxpayers will get some money back as a result of the impact of federal tax cuts on state revenue.
A resolution that could lead to a constitutional amendment if passed next year would result in a redistricting commission. While the commission is not as strong as I and the independent redistricting advocates had hoped, it will increase public input into the process of drawing legislative boundaries. A week of no-excuse absentee voting before elections that was passed is much less than in other states, but it will start the process of opening up elections in the future.
Up until the final hours of the session, it appeared that the current limitations on holding a phone while driving would be strengthened, but the bill died for failure to agree to language that would be enforceable.
The ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment that I thought was going to occur was defeated by a mostly partisan vote. When the legislation was passed by the Senate and defeated in a House committee, there was an effort to change the rules to allow a vote by the entire House. The rules change was defeated by a 50-50 tied vote with one Republican who had narrowly won re-election in 2017 voting with the Democrats.
All gun safety measures were defeated, including my bill to require universal background checks. My bills to raise the minimum wage and to establish an earned income tax credit system were also defeated.
I am available to speak to groups and organizations about the session; just email me at [email protected] Future columns will discuss the session further.
This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
As you read this column the Virginia General Assembly will be nearing its adjournment sine die for the 400th year of its existence, having first met in the church on Jamestowne Island in 1619.
During this commemorative year, there will be many opportunities to learn more about Virginia and to reflect on how its history influences it to today even in the current legislative session and in what on another occasion was referred to as its “recent unpleasantries.”
That first session of what became known a century and a half later as the General Assembly was composed of a representative of the 22 plantations that had sprung up along the major rivers of the state as there were no local government, political boundaries or transportation networks in existence. The representatives were all white males who were landowners.
African Americans had to wait for the outcome of the Civil War and women had to wait for the twentieth century before they became part of the electorate. While the right to vote has begrudgingly expanded, over time there continues to be a resistance to making it easier to vote.
In the current session, there were proposals to allow people to vote early or vote absentee without an excuse and to make election day a holiday for the convenience of voters, but it does not appear that any will become law. Establishing a fair way to draw legislative boundaries has been hotly debated, but the decision to establish an independent redistricting commission will await the closing hours of the session.
Slaves were brought to the colony of Virginia in 1619 to work the tobacco fields that were the mainstay of the colony’s economy. They had none of the rights that Englishmen claimed and beginning in the 1640s were subjected to “slave codes” that defined them as property to be bought and sold with no access to learning to read and write or to move about freely.
After the Civil War, these restrictive laws became the Jim Crow laws that continued to limit the rights of black people who were kept in line by the Ku Klux Klan and by public lynchings. White supremacy reigned with black-face entertainment intended to degrade black people through crude humor.
Happenings during this legislative session showed how little we have progressed on issues of human rights and respect, but there is hope. The reminder to the governor of his racist past will make him an even more enlightened person who if he continues can provide important leadership to dismantling racism in the state.
The incredible people of color who were elected to the House of Delegates in the last election bring strong voices to the need for greater equity and justice in the Commonwealth. Some limited reforms that will help establish equity and remove racism in the criminal justice system are on their way to passage.
Women first came to the Virginia colony in 1619. While rights of women have expanded slowly over the centuries, having Virginia ratify the Equal Rights Amendment is still in doubt. May the lessons of this historic legislative session move us forward in future years.
To check on the fate of specific bills, go to lis.virginia.gov.
State Sen. Janet Howell (D-32nd District) is breaking the silence among Reston lawmakers about the recent developments in a series of scandals among state-elected officials.
Earlier this week, a racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page surfaced, prompting Reston-area lawmakers to join widespread calls from both sides of the aisle for Northam’s resignation.
Then, the man in line to replace Northam if he steps down, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, became mired in scandal after a woman came forward alleging Fairfax sexually assaulted her in 2004.
On Wednesday (Feb. 6), Attorney General Mark Herring, the third in line for the governor’s seat, admitted to wearing blackface while he was a student at the University of Virginia in 1980.
Yesterday, news reports revealed that Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City County) was a top editor of a 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook that included photos of people in blackface and racial slurs.
Howell called the recent news a “horrible week” in a newsletter she wrote to constituents today (Feb. 8).
While Howell previously urged Northam to step down, she stopped short of calling for the resignation of Herring, Fairfax and Norment in her newsletter.
Here is her message:
This has been the week from h— here in Richmond. All of us, regardless of party, are shocked and devastated by the recent revelations about our Richmond leaders. Ralph Northam, Mark Herring, Justin Fairfax, and Tommy Norment are men we have known and worked with for years. Worse, we have trusted them to lead our state. We are all trying to sort through what is true and what isn’t.
At the same time we are being surrounded and queried by press – most of whom know little about Virginia. They don’t know about our shameful racist past or about how hard we have been working to overcome it.
I saw raw racism in Virginia. In 1963 I was a 19 year old civil rights worker in Danville, trying to guarantee fair pay and voting rights for everyone. Tensions were high and skirmishes broke out between civil rights activists like me and local white youth. The day after I left, a police riot occurred – called “Bloody Monday”- where dozens of peaceful demonstrators were injured by police. Those were ugly times.
People of goodwill have been working tirelessly to help Virginia move beyond the disgraceful parts of our past. Progress has been slow but there has been progress. We recently have been viewed as a beacon of hope for the South. The revelations of the past week and the pain they have caused have been a major setback. Obviously we must work harder. A bandage cannot cover the pain.
I am hopeful that this can be a cleansing moment for our state. We must each search our souls and work to bring about reconciliation and healing. There is a role for each of us to do so. This is not a time to sit back.
Meanwhile, please be assured that we are working hard here in Richmond to do the people’s business. Just yesterday the Senate passed our budget – on time and balanced. We Senate Democrats worked closely with Senate Republicans to produce a budget we can be proud of.
Please feel free to write me about anything of concern to you. I read all the emails myself and respond to as many as humanly possible.
Sen. Janet HowellP.S. I found this article to be very insightful and urge you to read it.
Photo courtesy of Janet Howell’s office