Virginia’s General Assembly opens Wednesday with a Democrat in the Governor’s mansion and a Democratic majority in both houses for the first time in more than two decades.
Lawmakers say they have a mandate to enact dramatic change on voting rights, guns, the environment, minimum wage and protections for the LGBTQ community — and they have just 60 days to get that agenda passed.
“Virginians spoke loud and clear on Election Day,” incoming House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said Tuesday. “They came out in record numbers, as you all well know, and they told us they want action.”
Filler-Corn, of Springfield, is the first woman and the first Jewish lawmaker to be elected House Speaker in the body’s 400-year history. The new Democratic leadership from Northern Virginia also includes House Majority Leader Charniele Herring of Alexandria, the first African American and the first woman to serve in that role, as well as House Caucus Chair Rip Sullivan of Arlington. In the state Senate, veteran Richard Saslaw of Springfield will head the majority.
“The demographics of this new leadership team are a little different than in the past,” noted Gov. Ralph Northam.
The Democratic agenda for Virginia is ambitious. It includes ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, which would bar discrimination on the basis of sex in the U.S. Constitution. Virginia would be the 38th and last state needed to ratify the amendment nationwide, although the deadline for passing the amendment has long expired.
Another top priority is tightening gun laws, a top issue in November’s elections.
Del. Dave LaRock represents parts of Loudoun County and is the last Republican lawmaker represent Northern Virginia. He said the Democratic agenda “is pretty much exactly what they have promised and in many ways it does go against the priorities I have been sent here to address as a legislator.”
Still, he thought there might be room for cooperation on some parts of criminal justice reform. Democrats are likely to forge ahead with or without Republican cooperation.
The session begins at noon Wednesday, and Northam will deliver his State of the Commonwealth Address at 7 p.m.
Here are the some of the issues Democrats have labeled top priorities:
This has emerged as possibly the most explosive area for new laws in Virginia. Democrats plan to pass universal background checks and a “red flag” law to allow authorities to temporarily take the firearms of people deemed a harm to themselves or others. They also are putting forward laws to ban AR-15 purchases and possession in the state. Thousands of gun rights activists in Virginia and around the country are vowing to protest at a rally on Jan. 20 in Richmond.
In addition to passing the ERA, Democrats have promised to roll back restrictions on abortion that Republicans passed in the previous legislative session. These include requiring women to have an ultrasound at least a day before the procedure and mandating that only physicians perform abortion.
Democrats are proposing bills to make Election Day a statewide holiday. They also want to extend absentee and early voting privileges and allow for same-day voting registration. Speaking on Tuesday, Del. Charniele Herring noted the state’s history of excluding women and enslaved Africans from the franchise, a stark contrast to her role as the first African American and first woman to serve as House Majority Leader. “That right to vote, that access to the ballot box: fundamental for our democracy,” she said.
Democrats want to shore up protections for air and water in the state and provide funding for the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. They also want the state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon trading scheme for states on the East Coast. Several other bills would loosen restrictions on renewable energy like solar power.
Wages And Labor
Several bills in the House of Delegates and state Senate would gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in the coming years. Democratic Del. Lee Carter of Manassas sponsored a bill repealing “right to work” laws that prohibited mandatory union membership; others like Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell of Fairfax County have said this year is not the time for it.
Decriminalizing marijuana for personal use may provide a rare point of cooperation across parties. In the Virginia Senate, Democrat Adam Ebbin of Alexandria co-sponsored a bill with Republicans Tommy Norment and Siobhan Dunnavant to decriminalize simple possession, although Republican support for the measure is not unanimous.
Democrats put forward bills to outlaw discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in employment, housing and schools. Del. Marcus Simon of Falls Church also sponsored a bill to require the Department of Education to develop model policies for the treatment of transgender students in public schools.
A potential thorny topic for Democrats is gerrymandering. A 2018 Supreme Court ruling required Virginia to re-draw voting districts that disenfranchised African American voters. Lawmakers had passed an amendment to the Virginia Constitution that would create a bipartisan commission to address the issue, prior to November’s elections. That amendment still has to be ratified; now that Democrats are in control, its fate is unclear.
Several Democrats, including Mark Levine of Alexandria and several members of the Legislative Black Caucus, say the commission is an imperfect measure because it will refer disputes to the state’s Supreme Court, which is dominated by Republican-appointed judges.