At the Halfway Point, What Has the New Democratic Majority Focused on in Richmond?

Feb 11, 2020

Credit AP Photo / Steve Helber

Lawmakers are zooming through the busiest day of the General Assembly session, the final deadline for moving bills from one chamber to the other.

A little more than a month after taking power, the new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate are marking a critical halfway point in the General Assembly session — the final deadline for crossing bills from the House to the Senate and vice versa. They’re passing bills increasing gun control and decreasing restrictions on abortion clinics; bills making voting easier and raising the minimum wage.

Stephen Farnsworth at the University of Mary Washington says Democrats have been strategic in choosing their agenda.

“One potentially fruitful Republican argument would be that Democrats have tax and spended their way into a state crisis," Farnsworth says. "But many of the things the Democrats have chosen to focus on so far in this session do not involve significant taxpayer outlays, and that strikes me as smart politics.”

Quentin Kidd at Christopher Newport University says the lack of public conflict within the Democratic caucus has been surprising. 

“I think I expected there to be a little bit more intra-party conflict in the Democratic coalition than there has been," he says. "In the elections this last fall, progressive voices were very loud about some of the things they wanted and I just figured there would be more of a conflict over some of that stuff, and it just hasn’t turned out to be that way.”

Some of the more progressive parts of the Democratic agenda have been scuttled, like banning Dominion Energy from making political contributions or overturning Virginia’s right to work law. But, Kidd points out, there weren’t a lot of fireworks on the floor on those issues.

Beating the Crossover Deadline

The Senate worked late into the night Tuesday to complete work on its bills before the crossover deadline.  The House of Delegates did not need as much time and adjourned Tuesday afternoon.

Among the items that made it under the deadline: Giving local governments the power to move or remove Confederate monuments and war memorials.

Delegate Charles Poindexter said giving local governments that authority is a mistake. “Removing the memory of bad actions takes away the great gift of learning from mistakes. So now we’re being told that our forefathers were not nation builders but slave owning villains who should be erased from the history books.”

The bill giving local governments the authority to remove those statues was introduced by Delegate Delores McQuinn.   “Then when you have statues and monuments that are high and lifted up and people riding on their horse sending words of intimidation to a certain population reminding that population that they were once subservient, that they were to be submissive. That’s why they’re big. That’s why they’re large. That’s why they’re in the public square,” McQuinn said on the floor of the House.

A measure changing how Virginia allocates its Electoral College votes also made it out of the House.

Virginia has 13 electoral votes, and the way it works now they all go to the presidential candidate who gets the most votes in Virginia. But Democrats in the House of Delegates passed a bill that would instead cast those electoral votes for the winner of the nationwide popular vote, an attempt to essentially bypass the Electoral College.

Republican Delegate Lee Ware said that’s a mistake.   “The idea of the majority vote of all the citizens in a direct popular vote — that was considered, it was debated and it was rejected in 1789.” 

To make that point, he quoted Federalist Number 68, written by Alexander Hamilton. Delegate Mark Levine is a Democrat from Alexandria who introduced the bill to join the national popular vote compact.

Levine said Hamilton was wrong. “If Hamilton thinks that the best considered vote of the people is a few people in a closed room, I would suggest to you the best way to determine the vote of the people, with due respect to Alexander Hamilton, is to consult the people and let them cast their votes.”

Other measures that advanced include an increase in the minimum wage, a ban on the sale of assault-style firearms and legislation to restore the State Corporation Commission's oversight of Dominion Energy.

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