“No pipeline.” “Climate action now.” “That awkward moment when you burn your own planet.” On December 6, a crowd of about 70 sign-carrying protesters gathered at Charlottesville’s Free Speech wall to demand the city and state government take immediate action against climate change. Carrying their handmade posters, musical instruments, and reusable water bottles, the activists took turns delivering passionate calls to action.
Then Sally Hudson stepped on stage. “For the next three months, turn your eyes to Richmond,” said Charlottesville’s newly elected member of the Virginia House of Delegates. “We have such a special opportunity here, in the year 2020, to finally make progress on climate change.”
Hudson is a member of the Democratic Party’s brand-new “trifecta” government. After the November 2019 elections, the Democrats have a 21-19 majority in the State Senate, a 55-45 majority in the House of Delegates, and a blue—if embattled—governor still in place. The election saw record voter turnout across the state, and handed the Democrats their first trifecta in nearly 30 years.
“All the energy’s on the Democratic side right now,” says David Toscano, the recently-retired House of Delegates minority leader and Hudson’s predecessor as the representative for Virginia’s 57th district.
The Republicans are “discouraged and despondent,” says Toscano, while the Democrats are “really fired up.”
“They have a chance to do some really good things,” the veteran lawmaker says. “Hopefully they’ll avail themselves of that chance.”
Climate change is only one item on the Democrats’ long to-do list. The new lawmakers campaigned on a host of issues including gun reform, voting rights, and—in Charlottesville especially—Confederate statue removal. But even with total control of the government, Democrats and their supporters can take nothing for granted during this 2020 legislative session, which began on January 8.
In front of the enraptured crowd at the climate rally, Hudson echoed Toscano’s message.
“The turnover in the majority makes some real progress possible,” Hudson said. “Possible, but by no means guaranteed.”
A brave new party
Democrats last held all three branches of Virginia government in 1993—and the party has changed greatly since then. Creigh Deeds, the veteran state senator who represents Charlottesville and a swath of rural area northwest of town, has been a member of the assembly since 1992. This year, he’ll become the only sitting member to have served in a majority and a minority in both the House and Senate.
“When I first got there…there were a lot of rural Democrats, there were a lot more conservative Democrats,” he says.
Today, the party is more liberal than ever before. That last trifecta was “such a different membership,” says George Gilliam, a UVA history professor and a veteran of Virginia politics. Gilliam served on Charlottesville City Council and ran for Congress in the ’70s. Even up through the ’90s, Gilliam says, the party was organized through “that good ol’ boy network.”
“The progression was, you serve on the PTA or on the school board, then you serve in the local government, then you move up to state government,” Gilliam says. “That was pretty rigorously observed.”
“Most of the members of the General Assembly were elite white males,” Gilliam says. “Overwhelmingly lawyers. That pattern has been pretty well broken. We’re seeing a much larger number of women, much larger number of people who are not lawyers, and a generally more diverse membership.”
The Democrats elected Eileen Filler-Corn as speaker of the House of Delegates. She is the first woman and first Jewish person to hold the office in the history of the assembly. Charniele Herring is the first woman and the first black person to serve as House majority leader. The new legislature includes Virginia’s first two Indian American legislators and first Muslim senator.
Tim Kaine’s 2005 gubernatorial campaign marked a shift for the party, according to Deeds. Kaine focused less on rural areas than northern Virginia and the Richmond suburbs, where he performed well. That success reflected the changing demographics and priorities of the party.
In some cases, the shift is literally generational. Deeds fondly recalls serving with Jerrauld Jones, a Norfolk Democrat, in the 1990s. Jones left the House in 2002, but in 2017, his son Jay Jones won the race for his dad’s old seat.
Charlottesville’s delegation is a proxy for the wide range of voices in the majority. Deeds is a career politician who speaks with a Southern twang, and Hudson is a 31-year-old economist with no previous political experience.
“Sally Hudson is going to be an articulate spokesperson for the more liberal side of the Democratic party,” says Gilliam. “Creigh Deeds, I think, presents excellent balance.”
“It would be unfair to say the people I served with weren’t progressive, they certainly were,” Deeds says, but times have changed. “We’ve got a new generation of leaders and a different sort of Democratic party.”
The above maps show the Virginia Senate makeup in 2020 and in 1993, the last time Democrats had a trifecta. With the exception of a few long-standing rural members, Virginia Democrats won their 2020 majority by dominating in northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads. By contrast, the Democratic majority of the ’90s was a much more rural party, with control in southwestern areas that have since become deep red. Dramatic population growth in northern Virginia over the last decade has helped facilitate this change.
The maps also show the shifting sands of redistricting–the borders of these senate districts have moved meaningfully in the last 30 years, and will continue to move as redistricting gets underway following the 2020 census.
“The first question out of the box will be, ‘How do Democrats want to conduct themselves?’” Toscano says. In his mind, they have two options: pass everything they’ve been denied for the last decade, or focus on a narrower set of more moderate reforms.
“Some people got elected because of Trump, and no other reason,” Toscano says. “Too far, too fast” remains a concern for the party, even though many Democratic voters are hungry for change. Voters who came to the polls to sound off on Washington might be alienated if the party moves left, says the longtime lawmaker.
“People don’t always march in lockstep,” Toscano says. “There will be push and pull within the Democratic party.”
In addition to wrangling their own party, Democrats will also have to contend with a savvy group of opponents.
“The Republicans have the advantage at this point, even though they’re in the minority, because they’ve got legislative leadership experience,” Deeds says. “They can set traps, because they’ve been in charge for 20 years.”
That experience gap could prove especially significant in the House, says Deeds. “Mistakes can happen. They’re smart, they’ve got good leadership, it’s just going to take a little while.”
Democrats will have just 60 days to figure all of this out. The session convened on January 8 and ends March 7.
“The process itself is kind of a barrier,” says Deeds, “You have to move the legislation forward, balance the budget, get it all done in the span of eight and a half weeks.”
Hudson, though she represents the party’s new guard, seems to understand the challenges of the process of lawmaking.
“The number one constraint is time,” she says. “We’re a little bit less empowered than other trifectas might be. The General Assembly is not like Congress, it’s not a slow deliberative body.”
“If the bill of your dreams doesn’t pass by mid-March, it doesn’t mean that we forgot about it,” Hudson says.
In the minority
Rob Bell has represented Fluvanna, Greene, and northern Albemarle as a Republican since 2002. This will be his first session in the minority.
“You end up with the same tools you always have,” Bell says of his new role. “A surprising amount is: Can you craft policy that everybody agrees is a good idea?”
Often, upwards of 600 bills are passed in a session, and Bell emphasizes that the vast majority of those are bipartisan bills that have been vetted by commissions and panels year-round.
“There’s nothing glamorous about most of the work we do,” Bell says. For example, these days he’s working on a project to bring school bus drivers in his district out of retirement, to make up for some shortages.
Every now and then, a high-profile bill comes along. But after the discussion, “everyone in the room empties out, except for the committee,” Bell says, “and then the committee goes, ‘Alright, so now we’ve got 15 more bills to look at today.’”
Even so, the new majority means uncertainty for Bell and his Republican colleagues. Bell says his group isn’t despondent so much as unsure what to expect. “I don’t even know what my committees are going to be,” he said before the session. (Bell wound up on Courts of Justice, where he’s served in the past, though he will no longer be the committee’s chair.)
In the Virginia House of Delegates, committee assignments matter a lot. Bills must pass through a committee before making it to the House or Senate floor, where the whole chamber can then vote. Speaker Filler-Corn will determine the composition of committees and also determine which committees vote on which bills.
“In many ways, Speaker Filler-Corn has more power than the Governor over what gets out of the next session,” Hudson says.
“Most bills that are supported by a committee then pass the floor,” Bell says. “Where [Filler-Corn] assigns the bills will impact the reception they receive.”
Matt Fariss and Chris Runion, the two other Republican delegates whose districts include pieces of Albemarle County, did not respond to request for comment.
Toscano knows a thing or two about serving in the minority—he was House minority leader from 2011 to 2018.
The Republicans “really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Toscano says, which might be a humbling change. “They’re actually going to have to go to Democrats to get anything passed. In the past they didn’t have to do that at all.”
“I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been,” Hudson says of her colleagues who spent so long in the minority. “Imagine you’re a hard-working, talented legislator going back to Richmond every year and seeing good ideas die. That’s gotta be heart wrenching.”
“It’s a little bittersweet not being there,” Toscano says. “At the same time, I’ll be able to watch my colleagues and know that I played a role in helping a lot of these folks get elected, to make the change that I think ought to be made.”
Taking the lead
Eileen Filler-Corn – Speaker of the House of Delegates
Filler-Corn has represented Fairfax in the House since 2010, and now she’ll have a chance to guide the whole caucus. Filler-Corn, a D.C.-insider lobbyist and consultant, won the internal election for speaker against Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, who represented the more progressive wing of the party.
Charniele Herring – House Majority Leader
In 2009, Herring became the first African American woman from northern Virginia to be elected to the General Assembly, and she’ll now be the first African American and first woman majority leader. Herring has advocated for expanding voting rights and access to abortion while remaining more moderate on economic matters.
Todd Gilbert – House Minority Leader
Gilbert took over as House majority leader in 2018, but now he’ll be in the minority. The experienced Shenandoah Valley delegate has a reputation as a GOP hardliner, and has taken strong stances against reproductive rights and Medicaid expansion.
On the agenda
As the scene at the climate rally shows, voters are eager to see environmental reform and legislators are eager to work on it. This new crop of lawmakers campaigned on climate. Cassady Craighill, the communications director at energy nonprofit Clean Virginia, points out that every flipped seat went to a candidate endorsed by her group.
Hudson identifies joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an interstate coalition to limit CO2 emissions, and preparing infrastructure to meet Northam’s emissions targets as short- and medium-term climate priorities.
In Virginia, making change in the energy sector means doing battle with our powerful energy overlord, Dominion Energy. Craighill says her group is excited about bills like the Fair Energy Act, which would help regulate the amount that Dominion can charge customers, and the Virginia Energy Reform Act, which would seek to regulate the monopoly system on a broader level.
“Every year we have this major problem, where we have Dominion giving way too much money,” Craighill says. The energy company donated $1.8 million to a variety of candidates during the 2019 state election cycle and has long been among the highest-spending donors in the state, giving large sums to both parties. Hudson was among a spate of candidates who refused to accept contributions from Dominion during her campaign. Deeds has received more than $100,000 from Dominion since 2001, but stopped accepting the corporation’s donations in 2016.
Governor Northam still has deep ties to the energy giant. He’s accepted more than a quarter million from the energy company over the course of his career, and recently hired a former Dominion public relations director as his communications chief.
Dominion’s dominance is bad for the planet and for Virginians’ pocketbooks, Craighill says. “Not only is there a climate crisis nationally, but in Virginia there’s also an energy burden crisis,” she says. “Our electricity bills are too high, and we pay the seventh highest in the country…Even large retail customers are really limited, both for cost and for clean energy.”
Legislation like the Virginia Energy Reform Act, which has sponsors from both parties, seeks to curb Dominion’s influence. “The General Assembly has allowed Dominion to write their own regulatory process in the last few years,” Craighill says. “These bills are a response to that.”
Legislators looking to bolster renewable resources will have limited resources to work with.
“One of the challenges to confronting climate change at a state and local level is the revenue required for serious infrastructure upgrades,” says Hudson. The Virginia General Assembly is constitutionally required to balance the budget each year, which hampers its ability to make moves that environmentalists might hope for, like an overhaul of the public transportation system.
Still, there’s reason for optimism in a state with a poor environmental record. “Among the 50 states, we’re 49th in per capita expenditure on natural resources,” Deeds says. “We have an opportunity to change our whole focus with respect to environmental policy.”
Since the November election, more than 110 localities across Virginia have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries.” Hundreds of people have attended town halls to express concern that the new Democratic legislature will mean harsh restrictions on gun ownership in the commonwealth.
Mike Fox is the legislative head for the Crozet chapter of Moms Demand Action, a nationwide organization advocating for common-sense gun reforms. “We certainly expect the reforms that have been stonewalled and blocked and rejected for so long to finally become the law of the land,” Fox says, especially given that many of the incoming legislators campaigned hard on tightening gun laws.
Moms Demand says its top legislative priorities are bills that expand background checks and enact “red flag laws,” which temporarily disarm those who might pose a threat to themselves or others.
Northam plans to reintroduce a package of gun legislation that failed in the last session. The reforms include limiting the purchase of handguns to one per month and a ban on the sale and possession of assault weapons. The bill does have a grandfather clause for existing firearms, stopping just short of Beto O’Rourke’s famous debate-stage promise that “hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15.”
“The background check legislation is, based on polling, the most popular legislation that the Democrats have on their agenda,” Fox says.
The gun debate shows the effect of subcommittee assignments on the legislature. Gun reform has been a central issue in Virginia since the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. But, for the last decade-plus, many of these popular, common-sense reforms have been nixed by subcommittees full of pro-NRA legislators. That dynamic has shifted, according to Fox.
“We have made it a winning issue,” Fox says. “I’m confident that, in this past session, if some of that legislation had made it to the house floor, it may have even passed. There was such a narrow majority for the Republicans.”
Moms Demand isn’t phased by the outpouring of feeling in the second amendment sanctuaries. “Our organization believes that every community in Virginia should be a sanctuary free from gun violence,” Fox says. “Even the folks who don’t agree with us.”
“From day one, my top priority has been election reform,” Hudson says. “I think that’s work that is actually destined to move in this session.”
How people vote, who gets to vote, and where people vote could all change in the next two years.
Deeds is the chief patron of three election law bills that were filed before the session even began—same-day voter registration, removal of the photo ID requirement at the polls, and restoring voting rights to felons. These measures were unthinkable under the previous majority. “We just didn’t have the numbers before. Even if we got things passed in the Senate, the House was a dead end,” Deeds says.
Everything is a process, though. Hudson says that Virginia’s election infrastructure isn’t strong enough to support these reforms right away. Allocating funds for things like improved ballot boxes and voting systems will make those reforms more feasible down the road. “Some of the more ambitious projects, like same-day registration, are going to have to wait for that IT upgrade,” Hudson says.
On the other hand, some election projects have a hard deadline. “I know we’re going to do redistricting reform in this session,” Hudson says. “The census is this year and the maps will be drawn in 2021, so that puts a clear clock on it.”
Every 10 years, following each census, Virginia’s voting districts at the state and federal level are redrawn.
“When redistricting went on in 2011, the Republicans really were in the driver’s seat in the majority of states,” says J. Miles Coleman, who writes about elections at UVA’s Center for Politics. “So on the Democratic side, non-partisan, fair redistricting became one of their biggest issues.”
Last June, the United States Supreme Court supported a lower court’s decision that the 2011 Republican maps included illegal racial gerrymanders in the Richmond suburbs. In the 2016 congressional elections, Republicans won seven of Virginia’s 11 congressional seats, despite losing the total popular vote across the state.
Now, Virginia Democrats will have a chance to draw their own maps. This leaves the caucus with an important question to answer. Dems could “stick with their principles and still talk about non-partisan redistricting,” Coleman says—but on the other hand, “There are some Democrats also who are like, ‘we have to fight fire with fire.’”
On the federal level, fighting fire with fire could mean a new congressional representative for Charlottesville. Coleman says the Democrats might move Charlottesville into the 7th district, where Abigail Spanberger won a narrow victory over a Republican incumbent in 2018. The switch would turn the 5th and 7th districts, which both historically lean red, into a solidly red and a solidly blue district, respectively. Election adjustments like that—as well as the reforms proposed by Hudson and Deeds—could shape the course of Virginia politics for the next decade.
“If our General Assembly cannot act now to remove these beacons of hate, I don’t know when we will have the courage to do so,” said former city councilor Wes Bellamy at a December 26 rally for Monumental Justice Virginia, a new campaign advocating for the removal of Confederate monuments across the state.
With a blue General Assembly in place, there’s now a glimmer of hope that Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues might finally come down. Hudson has promised to introduce a bill to give localities control over their own monuments, which would allow Charlottesville to move the statues, which are currently protected as “war memorials.”
Will the legislation actually pass? “That’s one of the more interesting questions of the whole session,” Toscano says.
“Even though the Democrats are in the majority,” Toscano says, “the polling data around the state indicate that a majority of Virginians don’t want to give the localities authority on statues.”
That means that Democrats in swing districts might not be able to support the controversial measure. “It’s got to be done in a very sensitive way,” Toscano says. “There’s going to be a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering.”
Republicans like Bell plan to stand firm. “I have voted against that,” Bell says of local control of statues. “I don’t support that measure. It’s going to go to a committee with a different makeup, and we’ll just have to see how the new members vote. It did not pass the last couple of years.”
Hudson thinks the success of the bill will depend on elevating the issue beyond its local significance. “My hope is that we see this as a statewide project, and not the hashtag-Charlottesville bill,” Hudson says. “There are patrons from the Hampton Roads area, and the Richmond area, hopefully from NoVa as well.”
“Our community lived through a particularly painful and acute conflict over the statues and everything they symbolize,” Hudson says, “But the public reckoning with our history is a broader Virginia project.”
Bills to watch
HB1: Absentee Voting
The first bill submitted in each session is understood to represent one of the top priorities for the new leadership. This session, the Democrats kicked things off with a bill that would “Permit any registered voter to vote by absentee ballot in any election in which he is qualified to vote,” with no exceptions. Currently, voting absentee requires submitting an application in advance with a justification of the need to vote absentee. Expanding ballot access has long been a priority of progressive groups around the country, and this bill represents a solid first step.
SJ1/HJ1: Equal Rights Amendment
The passage of this joint resolution would make Virginia the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, an addition to the U.S. Constitution that would formally outlaw discrimination on the basis of sex. Thirty-eight states makes an amendment official, but the legal history of this particular amendment is complicated, and the ERA will face a long legal battle even after Virginia’s ratification. The bill was passed through the Privileges and Elections Committee, chaired by Sen. Deeds, on the second day of the session.
SB2: Marijuana Decriminalization
This bill would decriminalize simple possession of marijuana, limit the fines for a civil offense to $50, and increase the amount of marijuana required for an “intent to distribute” arrest. Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have both spoken in favor of decriminalizing simple possession as well as expunging misdemeanors from existing criminal records. Virginia-based Altria, one of the world’s biggest tobacco companies, has been heavily investing in Canadian marijuana companies in anticipation of loosening rules in Virginia.
In it for the long haul
The Virginia General Assembly is entering its 401st year. It’s the oldest continuously operating lawmaking body in the Western Hemisphere. Virginia is a historic state with a historic government—and historic problems. Legislators agree that change doesn’t happen overnight. For all the excitement over the blue wave, the greatest challenge now may be tempering liberal voters’ expectations.
“There’s an awful lot of good we can do that will make a real difference in real people’s lives,” Hudson says. “I hope the people will get excited about that work, celebrate it, and come out of the session reinvigorated to invest in that work for the long haul.”
Winning the 2019 election was important. But the real work is just beginning.
Since its creation, Gilliam says, “the story of the Virginia General Assembly has been, not steady, but persistent growth towards a more liberal approach to solving problems. With the election this past November, we’re seeing another stage of that generally more liberal approach.”
This session will be a short chapter in a long story.
“Instant gratification is not going to cut it,” says Deeds. “You have to be invested in the long game.”
Correction: This article was corrected on 1/20 to reflect that Abigail Spanberger represents Virginia’s 7th district, not Elaine Luria.