By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The Democratic primary race to determine who will represent the party in the newly drawn 18th Senate District is heating up like the spring weather.
It is a contest between Sen. Louise Lucas and Sen. Lionell Spruill, two of the most powerful and effective members of the Senate, that still has about two months to play out before voters go to the polls on June 20th
As a result of redistricting in the Commonwealth after the 2020 census, both Senators were place in the same newly created 18th Senate District for the June 20th Democratic Primary to determine which of them will face opposition from the GOP come the General Election in November.
As the June 20th Primary election nears, the candidates are busy in Chesapeake and Portsmouth courting voters to go to the polls and support their cause.
New Journal and Guide sat down with both candidates to allow each an opportunity to speak for themselves. The April 6, 2023 issue of the Guide carried the interview with Sen. Lucas. This issue carries the Interview with Sen. Spruill.
Sen. Spruill has spent 29 years in the General Assembly, beginning in 1994 in the House of Delegates for 22 years and the past 7 years in the Senate. His opponent has served in the General Assembly for 31 years, as a Senator.
Currently, he serves as chair of the Virginia Senate’s powerful Privileges and Elections (P/E) Committee which deals with elections, voting and judicial appointments, and related matters.
Across the street from the Capitol building is conservative Republican Glenn Youngkin in the Governor’s Mansion whose GOP allies control the House of Delegates.
While Democrats say GOP-backed legislation “comes to the Senate to die,” House Republicans are eager to return the favor on Democratic-supported and progressive bills passed in the Senate.
Democrats with a slender majority in the Senate
are not eager to give the GOP any pathways to victories to limit abortion, civil rights, voting, and political rights for minorities and the poor.
Spruill says he is willing to give voice to Republican lawmakers and advocates who support legislation that does not erode the progress of Virginia but expands them.
However, he rejects “politically” motivated GOP legislation restricting the ways people can vote early, abolishing the number of ballots drop boxes, and restoration of voting rights.
Recently Spruill called for a reversal of Governor Youngkin’s order modifying the restrictive executive policy restoring the rights of non-violent felons once they have served time and paid their fines.
It was a policy started by Republican Governor Robert McDonnell and continued by Democrats Tim Kaine and Ralph Northam, which impacted some 173,000 individuals.
Spruill pointed out that many of them were poor and African American.
Sen. Spruill is also a member of other powerful Senate panels, including Commerce and Labor, Local Government, Rehabilitation and Social Services, Transportation and Rules.
These panels deal with a broad range of issues.
Spruill said that he believes in the “people before party” concept of dealing with “political motives, issues and legislation that would do nothing to improve the lives of people, but the political culture war warriors.”
“While some committee chairs at times won’t give a Republican lawmaker or advocate on issues the time to speak before a committee, I welcome them,” he said.
“If they need clean water, money for schools, healthcare, or helping the poor. I am willing to allow them to come and make their case.”
Spruill said the “legislative log jam” that pits the Democrats against the Republicans can be broken if elements of both parties are willing to negotiate on legislation for the people and not just to placate their respective bases.
“They call me Mr. Statewide,” said Spruill, a title he proudly accepts.
“I have tried to reach out to advocates from all over the state who want to support legislation for all people. But if it hurts the freedoms of Virginians or is against my party’s policy, I won’t support it.”
Spruill has had some significant legislative victories and failures during the past legislative session.
When the conservative House of Delegates refused to pass legislation to bolster funding for mental health treatment, especially in public schools, Spruill was not deterred from sponsoring that legislation in the Senate.
Also, there was funding he sought to provide training for teachers to intervene more skillfully with disruptive students.
Sen. Spruill believes that the rash of urban violence committed between adults and disruptive students’ behavior is linked to the low levels of mental health access for Virginians.
Also, there were provisions in the bill that would make the parents more accountable for disruptive and abusive actions toward school staff and teachers.
And to address the problems of students carrying firearms into schools or using them off campus, parents would be held more accountable, as well.
Spruill may have a wide swath of Virginia voters on his side about shining a bright light on improving mental health access. A wide majority of voters support using the state’s surplus to increase funding for mental health services, with 90 percent in favor and only 8 percent against.
Nearly the same share says the surplus should go toward increased spending for schools, with 87 percent in favor and 11 percent against, both findings are according to a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll.
These interests are bills he will reintroduce if he is reelected to the Senate. He hopes with bi-partisan support, he will get some traction in both houses of the General Assembly.
Violence and threats to school personnel, Spruill said, are not issues that affect just people represented by Democrats.
“Teachers don’t feel safe at work… so they can’t do their jobs,” he said. “They spend the first month of the school year instructing students on how to behave in the classroom, rather than teaching the lesson plans.”
He continued, “Unfortunately, this issue is caused by babies having babies… young single or married parents who are not properly reared themselves. They can’t teach their children about discipline if they don’t know it themselves.”
Spruill has sponsored legislation that keeps people from tinting their headlights on cars, motorcycles or motorbikes to project shades of blue on them. Many people, said Spruill, have mistaken cars with these blue lights as police cars and pulled over at night or encountered other issues.
Spruill sponsored legislation and fought to increase the fee given to people when they are summoned for jury duty. For years, individuals received only $20 per day for their services.
“Many working people lose money during long trials,” said Spruill. “I put in a bill to increase it to $100. In a conference with fellow lawmakers, it was whittled down to $50. But that is more than it was.”
Spruill also sponsored a bill intended to protect election-day poll workers. First, it prohibits anyone from harassing or abusing them while they are on duty when the polls are open on election day.
After the polls close, it is now illegal for anyone to follow poll workers tasked with transporting ballot boxes to counting centers run by city election officials.
Spruill said he’s highly engaged in the June 20th primary battle with his Senate colleague and opponent.
“No, this is not a popularity contest or one to see who can be the loudest on social media,” he said. “It is about supporting legislation that helps people. It’s about believing in people first and not party not just in the 18th district but all of Virginia.”