One of the first tasks in a new session of the Virginia General Assembly is to decide who is going to run the show. In the Senate of Virginia, the decision is made by the voters of the Commonwealth when they elect the Lieutenant Governor whose principal duty is to preside over the Senate. In the House, the Speaker of the House is the presiding officer who is elected by the members of the House.
The political party with the most members has control of the House and elects the Speaker. Republicans control of the House is 51 to 49 this session, a sharp drop in the 66-34 control of recent years. The closeness of the balance of power led to some meaningful discussions that should result in more transparency in the operation of the House.
My interest in becoming the presiding officer of the House by being elected Speaker was well known. Once the two disputed delegate elections where decided in favor of the Republicans there was no way I could reasonably expect to win. Only the Republican who had worked in his party and in the legislature for decades was nominated, and he was elected unanimously. That helped the session get underway in a cooperative spirit. There will be ample opportunity for debate when the many bills that reflect the issues before the General Assembly are considered.
What does a Speaker wannabe do when his party does not gain control of the legislative body? I have decided for myself that if I cannot be the formal Mr. Speaker of the House of Delegates then I can return to my role as Mr. speaker (small “s”) speaking out on tough issues that some may want to duck, and I can speak out on institutional practices that are not transparent or fair.
In this way, I can best serve my constituents and the long-term interest of the Commonwealth. I can also serve as a mentor to the many new exciting members that are joining the House of Delegates, and I can help to reduce any feelings of intimidation they might be experiencing. Certainly the legislature provides experiences that are not replicated in any other role in life.
The techniques of mass communication through phone calls, postcards, rallies, opinion writings, and other practices that were so successful in helping to get candidates elected can be utilized in the legislative process to help influence the outcome of legislation. I have already been seeing groups shifting from advocacy for individual candidates to advocacy for issues. On issues like expansion of health care and independent redistricting, a strong public voice and advocacy are necessary for success.
There will be more opportunities for the public to follow the legislature in real-time this year than ever before. Video streams of meetings of House Full Committees can be accessed online. Download an instruction sheet at Live Stream Instructions.
The General Assembly convened for its annual session on Wednesday. Hopes that the historic election results of November brought forth have dimmed somewhat as the drawing of lots to settle the results of the final district race gave the Republicans a one-member advantage to control the House of Delegates. Many wonderful people have been at work on the terms for a power-sharing agreement.
Now the incentives for such reform have diminished with the acceptance of a disputed ballot that led to the Democrats losing a seat that would have made for a partisan tie in the House and much more likelihood of a power-sharing arrangement. There is likely to be some reform of the process but not a change of one-party dominance that has thwarted efforts to deal with some major issues.
I continue to be impressed with the make-up of the House of Delegates as the new members are reflective of the people of Virginia. For the first time in our history women will make up half the membership of the Democratic caucus. The new members bring wonderful backgrounds, expertise, and life experiences that will bring a greater sense of reality to legislative debates. We will make progress on more issues for sure but maybe not as great as I led people to believe when election results were announced.
One of my greatest concerns is that the thousands of men and women who chose to take part in the electoral process for the first time in ways other than just voting not become disillusioned with the process and retreat from it. Make no mistake about it: the outcomes of the legislative and state-wide races in Virginia in 2017 were historic. Voter turnout in these races was greater than in any other year with the same seats to be filled. The solid Republican majority of 66 to 34 was reduced to 51 to 49. Senior members of the majority with more than adequate monies to finance their races lost to a public uprising. All involved in this process can rightfully be proud. All that activity has been focused on campaigning; now we must turn to governing.
I hope that all those who campaigned so hard for candidates will identify one or perhaps several issues upon which they can focus their attention and with the same techniques of phoning, social media, door knocking, rallying and more can help persuade members of the legislature to vote responsibly on the issues. Just as we sold voters on candidates, we need to sell legislators on important issues. Such campaigns can make a difference in the outcome of legislation.
Political parties on both sides will be eager to take credit for the outcomes of elections in which they participated. Without a doubt, the success of elections this cycle came from the women and men who volunteered–sometimes in organized groups or acting as individuals–that made the difference. Political parties can learn from these people. Please do stay involved, for your participation can make such an important difference as the General Assembly lumbers along.