Could tragedy and scandal bring consensus in Richmond?

Gus and Creigh Deeds on the campaign trail in 2009. Photo: Hyunsoo Leo Kim/REUTERS/ Gus and Creigh Deeds on the campaign trail in 2009. Photo: Hyunsoo Leo Kim/REUTERS/
Virginia’s General Assembly has descended on Richmond for the annual legislative session, and with 60 days to come up with the state’s biennial budget, local legislators seem optimistic that this year won’t be as contentious as 2004, when it took an extra 100 days to pass a budget—and it won’t reflect the gridlock in Congress that shut down the government. “I think people are reasonably optimistic we can get some things done,” said Charlottesville representative and Democratic Minority Leader David Toscano. “Democrats are excited about having a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general.”
The bills legislators bring to Richmond reflect the crises of the previous year. With Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen possibly facing federal indictments for accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Star Scientific’s Jonnie Williams, legislation to mend the state’s admittedly lax gift disclosure laws flooded in.
Two days before the January 9 session began, House of Delegates Republican Majority Leader Kirk Cox and Toscano crafted a package that proposes a cap of $250 in the value of gifts elected officials may accept, requires disclosure of gifts to family members, and creates a State Ethics Advisory Commission to issue opinions on transparency and train elected officials to avoid the pitfalls that ensnared the McDonnells.
Does this herald a new spirit of bipartisanship in the Republican-controlled House? “Virginia was extremely embarrassed by all these revelations about the McDonnells and [Attorney General Ken] Cuccinelli,” Toscano said. “We want to restore trust.”
If scandal sparks consensus, so does tragedy, particularly when it strikes one of the General Assembly’s own. State Senator Creigh Deeds, a Bath County Democrat whose district includes Charlottesville, was stabbed November 19 by his son, who then killed himself. The tragedy occurred just hours after Gus Deeds had been released from an emergency custody order when a psychiatric bed allegedly couldn’t be found during the six hours he could be held.
In a November interview with The Recorder, a heartbroken Deeds said the system failed his son, and he’s filed four bills, including one that allows people to be held up to 24 hours on an emergency custody order and one that calls for a psychiatric bed registry for real-time information on availability.
Mental health is a major issue for the session, “based largely on the Creigh Deeds tragedy,” said Delegate Rob Bell, who has two bills that deal with the involuntary commitment process and one that requires high school students and their parents to attend a presentation on mental health services before graduation.
Bell—who won an unopposed seventh term in the House of Delegates after an unsuccessful bid last year for the Republican nomination for attorney general—has several other bills stemming from local scandals. He acknowledges his bill that makes the malicious dissemination of nude photos—popularly known as “revenge porn”—a Class 1 misdemeanor was inspired by what happened to Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford at the hands of a jilted lover, but said the proposed law didn’t come at Lunsford’s request. “I never talked to her about it,” Bell said.
It’s not that easy to remove an elected official from office, as citizens learned last year after former Albemarle Supervisor Chris Dumler pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery, but refused to resign from office for months. The existing law pretty much targeted marijuana use as the worst crime an elected official could commit. “That’s a statute many of us had not looked at before,” Bell said. “I was surprised sexual battery was not covered.” Nor were attempted sexual battery, consensual intercourse with a child 15 years of age or older, indecent exposure, and peeping, crimes he wants to add as offenses for that would oust officials.
Bell was not aware that “graduation rapist” Jeffrey Theodore Kitze had changed his name to Jeffrey Ted Miller in a Buckingham court when he started working on a bill that requires judges to look long and hard at registered sex offenders’ name change applications. Bell said a similar Culpeper case was the impetus.
He’s also filed his perennial bills: the “Tebow” bill to allow home-schooled students to play in public school sports is back for the sixth time, and his bill to require drug testing for public assistance recipients makes its fifth appearance.
Delegate Steve Landes, a Republican who’s serving his 10th term in the House and whose district includes much of Albemarle west of the city limits, has enough seniority that he’s chair of the education committee and vice chair of the powerful appropriations committee.
Landes thinks there may be too many SOL tests, and he’s carrying a bill to look at reducing the assessments, as is Deeds.
And after last year’s debacle by ABC officers who arrested a water-toting UVA student, both Landes and Deeds have legislation to study reorganizing state law-enforcement entities under the Virginia State Police.
Toscano does see three areas of sharp divergence in the House of Delegates upcoming budget debate: Medicaid expansion to cover additional people in Virginia, which new Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe wants and House Speaker William Howell doesn’t; education funding, and funding for mental health—as much as everyone wants to see reform there.
But State Senator Bryce Reeves, a Republican who represents eastern Albemarle, says the General Assembly is different from the paralyzed-by-partisanship U.S. Congress. “There is the Virginia way,” explains Reeves. “There’s collegiality and a good sense of working across the aisle. There’s more than a few of us who will get the job done.”—Lisa Provence