Penney ante: The General Assembly session gets weird

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First off, here’s a newsflash for you: Neither Jim Gilmore nor Jim Webb is going to be president of the United States. With Gilmore finally dropping his embarrassing (and largely invisible) quest for the Republican nomination, and Webb recently announcing that he will not mount an independent presidential bid, our dreams of an all-Virginian Jim/Jim unity ticket have been tragically shattered.

And for now, that’s all we have to say about the presidential race. Even as the stakes get ever higher (with the unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia throwing fuel on an already-raging fire), we are going to take a brief respite before Virginia’s March 1 primary to turn our gaze toward Richmond.

Because, believe us, the drama that’s been playing out in our bucolic capital rivals anything that’s been happening on the campaign trail.

Of course, as with any General Assembly session, there’s the normal parade of legislative horribles, such as SB41, which would allow the commonwealth’s sanctioned marriage officiants to refuse their duty by invoking a “sincerely held religious belief” (passed by the Senate on a party-line vote), or HB781, which proposes to fine transgender youth $50 for using a bathroom that doesn’t match their “biological sex” (thankfully tabled by the House General Laws Committee), as well as the normal amount of head-scratchers (a bill banning the use of bullhooks on elephants was defeated, while a proposed fine for motorists who open a car door without first checking for traffic was opposed by 16 apparently bicyclist-hating senators), but the real fireworks came during an ongoing fight over State Supreme Court Justice Jane Roush.

Twice named to the court by Governor Terry McAuliffe using his interim appointment powers, Roush has been adamantly opposed by assembly Republicans for reasons that have never been particularly clear, except that they really don’t like McAuliffe. Still, despite the GOP majority’s best efforts to replace Roush with its chosen candidate, the Republicans have not been able to muster the necessary votes over many months of trying.

Until last week, that is, when—for a brief, shining moment—Republican leadership managed to get Democratic Senator L. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth to vote its way in committee, seemingly sealing Roush’s fate. But wait! After a hastily arranged meeting with Governor McAuliffe, Lucas abruptly returned to the Democratic fold, leaving Republicans fuming.

Even better, Lucas then went on to give an immensely entertaining interview to the Washington Post in which she excoriated the leadership of both parties, unloaded on Democratic Minority Leader Dick Saslaw for failing to support her in battles with Republican Majority Leader Tommy Norment and vividly recalled an argument with Norment where she told him to “keep your little, narrow white ass, little J.C. Penney-little-boys’-department-wearing-suits out of my [expletive] face.” (Norment is both quite diminutive and a bit of a dandy.)

The GA being the GA, the entire incident was soon turned into a smug and annoying inside joke, with Franklin’s Republican Senator Bill Stanley delivering a nudge-nudge-wink-wink floor speech honoring “one of the great American merchants of the 20th century,” while waving a J.C. Penney coupon around.

But still, with her unprecedented airing of the assembly’s dirty laundry and lacerating condemnation of the institution’s casually corrupt and dismissive good ol’ boys’ network, Senator Lucas has done us all a service. And that, friends, is no laughing matter.

Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, twice-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.