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As Historic Legislative Session Draws to a Close, Just How Progressive Were Democrats?

Steve Helber



Virginia’s legislative session is scheduled to end this weekend, and it was a historic one. For the first time in decades Democrats were in power, not just of the Governor’s mansion but of both chambers of the legislature. While there are still a lot of items on the to do list, here’s a look at what Democrats accomplished. 


Julia Newton is a proud member of her local union and she worked hard to help flip the statehouse from Republican to Democratic control. She’s lobbied the legislature on labor issues for six years, but when she came to the statehouse this year it felt different. 

“I came in that first day and I was like a peacock,” Newton remembered. “I was just so happy. We had won, winning feels good.” 

Taking that mandate to heart, the new Democratic majority went to work reshaping Virginia. In a matter of weeks they had ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, eased restrictions on voting, and banned discrimination against gay and transgender folks. They dispatched legislation that for years had been caught behind a Republican firewall. 

Anna Scholl, with the organization Progress Virginia, says it’s been surreal to see legislation she’s backed for almost a decade finally get passed. 

“Session is such a whirlwind in these 60 days with so many bills to work on and move forward, I think it hasn’t quite sunk in yet,” Scholl said. “But when we get to sine die and everybody can take a deep breath I think really that’s going to be a moment to celebrate.” 

Freshman Delegate Suhas Subramanyam said he’s amazed at what the new majority has accomplished.  

He points not just to headlin-grabbing measures like passing gun control and making it easier to get an abortion, but also to less flashy items. He’s proud of the push to include more funding for guidance counselors in public schools, and creating a health insurance exchange. 

“We’re finally going to get an Affordable Care Act exchange in Virginia, we did a lot to lower the cost of care. People remember Medicaid expansion but now we’re lowering the cost of care for every family,” he said. 

Credit Steve Helber / AP
Virginia State majority leader, Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, is one of a bloc of moderate Democrats.

One point he would have liked to have seen more progress was environmental issues. A couple bills that would have restored some regulatory power over Dominion failed. They were halted by a bloc of moderate Senate Democrats who voted alongside Republicans. 

A similar coalition blocked a ban on assault style weapons. And they’re still leveraging for more incremental advances in the minimum wage. 

“Being in the Senate we tend to be the more moderate body and sometimes we’re a break on things and that’s kind of the role that we play,” said Democratic Senator Chap Petersen, adding that he’s concerned about doing too much too fast. 

“We’re putting a lot of mandates on small business. What does it all mean? How are we still going to have one of fastest growing economies in America?” he questioned whether some things need a second look. 

When union member Julia Newton began hearing statements like that in the midst of the session, from Democrats she worked to get elected, that initial glow from winning began to fade. 


“It seemed like (some Democrats) cared more about mom and pop businesses than the people that worked those mom and pop jobs,” Newton said. “If it wasn’t for the working people there would be no businesses.”

For Newton and others Democrats haven’t moved far or fast enough on many labor issues. 

Newton says telling low-income workers they have to wait another year to join a union, or get paid leave, is like telling them to wait to get their medications filled or put food on the table. Fellow SEIU member Tony Hedgepeth says he understands being in charge for the first time is a learning process, but that many Virginians don’t have time for Democrats to learn. 

“We want action now. We thought we were going to have it by now,” said Hedgepeth. 

With just a few more days for final answers on questions like the minimum wage and paid leave many Virginians are still waiting - and watching - to see what happens.


This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.


Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.