RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia Democrats had history in mind Wednesday (Jan. 8, 2020) as they convened this year’s General Assembly session.
“It is our time,” state Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond proclaimed as she stood with members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus to outline legislative priorities.
With an all-time high of 23 members – one-sixth of the entire legislature – the black caucus will wield unprecedented influence in the new majorities that Democrats have won in both the House of Delegates and Senate.
Once the session gaveled in at noon, jubilant Democrats swore in a new slate of leaders. Del. Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax was unanimously elected House Speaker, the first woman to serve in that role in the body’s 401-year history.
“A new torch is being passed today,” Filler-Corn said. “One that ushers in a modern era, representing all Virginians, learning from our shared experiences and moving forward in our collective prosperity.”
Overall, the House swore in 18 new members, the Senate five. After years in the minority in both chambers, Democrats hold a 55-45 majority in the House and 21-19 in the Senate.
Among the new members were the first two Indian-American legislators and the first Muslim senator. Both chambers gaveled in with record numbers of women, who now make up about 30 percent of legislators – 29 in the 100-member House and 11 in the 40-seat Senate.
Most of the women are Democrats, although their numbers grew in both parties. In the House, 25 of the women are Democrats, four Republicans, while in the Senate, seven are Democrats and four Republicans. Women make up 45% of the Democratic Caucus in the House and 33 percent in Senate.
Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, was set to deliver his annual State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday evening, laying out his priorities for the 60-day session. Northam, who less than a year ago almost resigned over a controversy about a blackface photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook, now has a chance to become one of the most consequential governors in modern Virginia history.
With consolidated Democratic power, he has set an ambitious agenda of gun control; passage of the Equal Rights Amendment; criminal justice reform, including decriminalization of marijuana; removing restrictions on access to abortion; adding LGBT protections; increasing the minimum wage, and more.
Northam also has proposed a $135-billion two-year spending plan that makes big investments in environmental cleanup and early childhood education.
What promises to be a busy session began relatively quietly, with lawmakers holding news conferences and lobbyists finding their way around to new offices.
The first burst of activity focused on the ERA, as dozens of activists favoring passage rallied outside the entrance to the Capitol, cheering wildly as legislators friendly to their cause walked by.
“Get it done!” and “Women’s rights, human rights!” they chanted.
At the same hour, the conservative Family Foundation and others warned that ratifying the ERA would be a setback for women, erasing distinctions on sports teams and in locker rooms, bathrooms and the military.
“Things may have changed around here, but we still have a voice,” said Del. Kathy Byron, a Republican from Bedford.
Virginia would be the 38th – and arguably final – state to ratify the amendment, which prohibits sex-based discrimination. But the deadline to enact the amendment passed years ago.
Republican leaders were adjusting to the loss of power – smaller offices, fewer staffers. Former Speaker Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights walked alone through the legislative office building, just another delegate now.
“We are still relevant,” House minority leader Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah said in an interview with reporters. “And we are still here and fighting for our beliefs. And we think that very quickly the voters of Virginia will begin to get buyer’s remorse about what they’ve done here.”
Gilbert warned Democrats to remember that the majorities they won in November hinge on a handful of districts that could yet swing back toward Republicans. “Virginia is not deep blue yet,” he said.
Republicans are watching the bills being filed by Democrats before they determine their own strategy for the session, he said. But “it doesn’t look like we’re going to get off to a great start today,” he said, noting that Democratic House leaders signaled they were not ready to roll out the package of rules that will govern the conduct of the session.
That means members don’t yet know their committee assignments, and Republicans don’t know if they’ll get proportional representation on panels or be relegated to insignificance.
Democrats were officially mum about the lack of rules, but some indicated that the delay was partly to avoid confronting a volatile issue on opening day: whether to allow guns onto Capitol grounds.
Passing some form of gun control is a priority of Northam and the new Democratic leadership. The prospect has whipped up a furor among gun rights advocates, with some national groups promising to send thousands of armed protesters to Richmond later this month.
Filler-Corn has signaled that she intends to curtail old rules that allow guns to be carried in and around the Capitol as a security measure.
Gilbert scoffed at the prospect.
“A sign on the fence saying ‘no guns’ is not going to stop someone who has evil intentions. The only thing that would stop them is someone with the right to defend themselves,” he said. “Yeah, we think tensions are high, and I hope the governor is paying attention to how upset people are across the commonwealth.”
Despite the sharp rhetoric – and Gilbert insisted the copy of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” prominently displayed on his desk was a random coincidence – he said Republicans expect to work with the new Democratic majority on many topics.
“I think the general public misses that the majority of what we do here is bipartisan,” Gilbert said, mentioning K-12 education, college affordability and job training as priorities.
Still, he couldn’t resist one more barb. “We’ll see if that is still the overriding atmosphere in terms of everybody getting along under the new leadership.”