Profiles in cowardice: Our dissembling General Assembly

THE ODD DOMINION

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Virginia's Capitol Building in Richmond. File photo. Virginia's Capitol Building in Richmond. File photo.

In order to at least partly fulfill our New Year’s resolution to accentuate the positive, we’d like to start this column with one for the “credit where credit is due” file. While we’re not usually big fans of Governor Bob McDonnell (to put it mildly), there is one area in which he has been a consistent force for good: felon’s rights. Yes, as difficult as it is to fathom, Virginia’s current Republican governor has actually restored voting rights for more previously incarcerated persons than either Tim Kaine or Mark Warner did during their respective gubernatorial terms. Still, it came as quite a surprise when McDonnell, in his recent State of the Commonwealth speech before the General Assembly, forcefully advocated for legislation that would automatically restore a nonviolent felon’s civil rights (including the right to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury) upon completion of his or her prison sentence. (As it now stands, Virginia is one of only two states to deny all of these rights to convicted felons in perpetuity, barring a reprieve from the governor.)

Of course, the fact that McDonnell’s unexpected proposal received a standing ovation from the Democratic side of the aisle, while Republicans sat grumpily on their hands, presaged a bumpy ride ahead. And indeed, despite a personal visit to the House of Delegates from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in support of the proposal, a House panel unceremoniously rejected the legislation, smothering it before it could make it to the floor for a vote. The Senate, on the other hand, did manage to advance a bill out of committee “without recommendations,” but the chances of it surviving the legislative sausage-making machinery (not to mention the voter referendum required for constitutional amendments) seems very slight indeed.

And so the tone was set for the 2013 General Assembly, which—despite many promises to the contrary—looks to be just as divisive, myopic and intolerant as last year’s infamous session (colloquially known as the “vaginal ultrasound circus”). In fact, we’ve already got a slew of radical right-wing proposals flying around, including proposed laws to exempt employers from having to provide insurance with contraceptive coverage, and a typically loony piece of legislation from Prince William Delegate Bob Marshall (R-Crazytown) that would criminalize any abortion performed solely for the purposes of gender selection.

But the defining moment of this Assembly’s first week, for us, was the sight of 12 Senate Republicans physically walking out of the chamber to avoid casting a confirmation vote on Judge Tracy Thorne-Begland, an openly gay ex-prosecutor (and former Navy fighter pilot) who has been serving as an interim judge after being rejected by last year’s narrow-minded caucus.

Thorne-Begland was ultimately confirmed by both houses, but not before having to endure such pearls of wisdom as this from Marshall (what, him again?): “Advocating for homosexual behavior…undermines the natural traditional family and does not serve the public good.”

But at least Marshall and his fellow homophobes in the House had the cojones to stand up and vote no. The Senate’s despicable dozen, on the other hand, couldn’t even summon the intestinal fortitude to have their votes recorded, which is truly cowardice of the highest order.

Sigh. Guess we’ll just have to get used to it—it’s going to be a very long year.

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