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Week 2: Engaged Citizenry: It's not all Tweets

With two weeks of the legislative session behind us, the pace has picked up in Richmond. Bills are making their way from committee to the floor, accompanied by a flurry of advocates and activists, who have filled the halls of the Capitol and the Pocahontas Legislative Office Building. I am always impressed with the passion and dedication of those who make the trek down to Richmond to meet with legislators, legislative aides, or to testify on behalf of bills in committee hearings. 

Members of Equality Virginia, an LGBT advocacy group, have worked throughout the year to support my bills to end discriminatory practices both in public employment (SB998) and housing (SB1232) the latter of which is combined with Senator Jennifer McClellan’s (D-Henrico) bill (SB1109). The group’s work underscores an important lesson on advocacy--it isn’t just a process that occurs during the legislative session in Richmond.

To ensure possible legislative fixes to issues in Virginia, it’s critical that constituents share their priorities with lawmakers long before the legislative session begins. This allows the part-time legislators and their staff time to research, draft, and submit bills. Once a bill is introduced, its success often relies on work done throughout the year to bring awareness to and buy-in for the bill--both from the general public and elected officials. Equality Virginia has excelled at this work, coordinating constituents across the Commonwealth to write their legislators and speak to elected officials who have reservations about their priorities. Because of this work, we are closer than ever before to passing critical protections for the LGBT community in Virginia. This is exemplified by Republican Delegate Roxann Robinson of Chesterfield introducing the House version of my legislation to end housing discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Environmental protections are also on the move in the General Assembly. Senator Scott Surovell’s bill, which I co-sponsor, seeks to address water pollution caused by coal ash ponds in Virginia (SB1533). It has passed out of the Agriculture, Conservation, and Natural Resources Committee and moved to the Senate Finance Committee for further review. This bill, if passed, will improve and protect our water quality and for that reason I support it. However, it was still very helpful to hear from a number of constituents who called and emailed my office flagging the the bill, underscoring community interest in its passage.  

Other environmental protection efforts require further engagement and support. My bill to allow localities to apply a five cent tax to throwaway bags (SB1070)--a policy that has proven to drastically reduce the amount of waste in waterways and farmland of other states and countries--unfortunately failed to advance in the Finance Committee on a party line vote. Though the outcome was disappointing, the committee had the opportunity to hear about the long-term damage that microplastics do to our aquatic life and our own physical health through testimony given by David Millman, a senior from a Richmond high school. Members of the committee left with a better understanding of the issue, and one of my Republican colleagues even mentioned his desire to ban plastic bags outright. David’s testimony is a reminder that no matter your age or experience, advocacy can make a difference. 

The defeat of my bill also speaks to the point that advocacy can be an uphill battle. Members of Moms Demand Action, a citizen lobby group that has been working day-in and day-out to for years to end the scourge of gun violence through common sense reforms, watched more than a dozen gun violence prevention bills voted down in both House and Senate committees. This included red flag laws that allow judges to grant emergency protective orders removing firearms from those that law enforcement or family members believe to be a risk to themselves or others, universal background checks, and measures as simple as requiring the reporting of lost or stolen guns. With a Virginian dying from gun violence every ten hours, and an overwhelming majority of our citizens supporting these measures, the majority party can ill-afford to continue to keep these bills off the floor. I am confident, however, that despite this frustrating setback, these hard working women and men will persevere in their fight for a safer Virginia. The nature of advocacy can discourage some who are newer to the legislative process, but returning again the next year to start the process again is critical to attaining real change. Persistence is key, and legislation, no matter how good, can sometimes take years to pass. 

I look forward to seeing more constituents and advocates throughout this session. The insights I gather in these meetings and in committee are essential for representative democracy to continue to succeed in our state. Advocacy is not all hashtags and tweets, its a year long, dedicated process ensuring that the right thing gets done. If you can’t make it to Richmond, I will be holding two town halls next weekend in Arlington and Alexandria in addition to those held I held last weekend in the Mount Vernon and Lee Districts. Please also take my online constituent survey which you can access here:

It is my continued honor to serve the 30th District.