By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Two years ago, when the party took over the General Assembly, and the state house, the Democrats opened a legislative progressive window.
That breeze pushed the Blue unto the shore of conservative Virginia, as Democrats expanded healthcare protecting abortion rights; legalized small amounts of marijuana; and, introduced criminal justice and voting rights reforms.
In January, when Virginia Republicans take over the three top state offices and the House of Delegates, progressive lawmakers and advocates have reason to fear that window will be closed.
Less than a week after the election, conservative Virginia Republican lawmakers were calling for Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin to stop vaccination and mask mandates imposed by the Democratic administration.
Democrats in the House of Delegates say they are anticipating GOP-sponsored legislation calling for an end to the gas and grocery tax, ending mask and vaccination mandates, and eroding other progressive measures.
The election outcome in one House of Delegates election—the 85th—because of the closeness is being recounted.
If the outcome falls in the GOP’s favor, the party could have a 52-48 majority.
The Democrats still have a slender 21-19 majority in the State Senate until the 40 members of that chamber stand for election in 2023.
That small majority will be a legislative firewall against GOP legislation that may pass the House.
Winsome Sears, the first Black woman elected to statewide office will be the new Republican Lt. Governor and she will preside over the Senate.
She will break tie votes in the Senate, but not on the Budget and Constitutional issues, a saving grace for the Democrats.
State Senator Lionell Spruill said the Democrats’ 21-19 majority gives them little room to maneuver to beat back regressive GOP bills.
There are two Senate Democrats, he said, who worry the Democrats about their voting with the Republicans—Joe Morrisey, who is now pro-life, and Champ Peterson, who is interested in education issues specifically
Spruill said legislation similar to ones passed in Texas and Mississippi are being considered by House Republicans, which would deter abortions if there is a fetal heartbeat.
Spruill said it may get passed in the House, “but will not get to first base in the Senate, if the Democratic caucus holds together.”
Plans to reign in Democrats who may side with the GOP are being devised by party leaders in the Senate to deter them from betraying Senate Democrats.
Spruill sponsored a bill to move all municipal elections from May to November to increase voter turnout. He heard Republicans are thinking about reversing it. But since he is head of the Senate Privileges and Elections committee, it may die a quiet death.
Mary Bauer is the Executive Director of the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which is non-partisan.
Months before the elections she scoffed at the claim that Virginia was one vote away from being Texas. Now she is not sure.
“Voting rights, police reforms, and criminal and social justice issues should be non-partisan; ones both parties should support,” she said. “There are Republicans who support such issues. We can’t say that we are not worried.”
She said the “heartbeat” anti-abortion bill could be considered by the House. The U.S. Supreme Court, she said, will hear positions on the Mississippi and Texas version of the bills before the Virginia legislative session begins.
She fears Roe vs. Wade could be killed and laws regarding abortion will fall in the laps of the states.
Recently Virginia Republicans have said that they would not consider rolling back the legalization of marijuana or how it can be sold and taxed. However, state lawmakers did not settle on the mechanisms for marketing and selling of the substance.
Another Democratic bill of concern would make it easier for some 250,000 felons to reclaim their voting and other rights. Further, the new State Voting Rights Bill passed in the last session is now a concern.
Ramin Fatehi was elected as Norfolk’s new Commonwealth’s Attorney (CA).
Earlier this year he helped form the Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice, which included Gregory Underwood, the man he will replace, and CAs in Hampton, Portsmouth and Newport News.
The group supports various measures including not prosecuting low drugs offenses, restoring parole and ending the death penalty.
Fatehi said he noted Attorney General-elect Republican Del. Jason S. Miyares said that he would ‘reign in” such progressive prosecutors, and ran ads calling for more incarceration of offenders.
Fatehi said that his group and even moderate CAs would push back against Miyares.
He also noted that Virginia’s Attorney General does not have any control over the Commonwealth’s Attorneys.
“He (Miyares ) will be the lawyer for the state,” said Fatehi. “We don’t answer to him. We are concerned about his pledges to go back to mass incarceration.”
Many Republican candidates who reclaimed seats won by Democrats two years ago, voiced a more conservative policy leading up to the November 2
“They are going to try to Texas, Virginia,” said State Senator Mamie Locke. “I am sure we are going to see bills on the three heartbeat abortion bills, voter I.D. and access bills, and CRT; and it is not even taught in Virginia. Republican moms who voted for Youngkin want little Johnny to know about the Civil War, but not the Civil Rights Movement.”
“All of the progressive legislation the Democrats have passed in two years, Republicans have been blocking for 20 years before,” said Locke. “All of those regressive policies we tried to turn back will be right back on the table.”
State Delegate Angelia Williams Graves represents the 90th House District in Norfolk starting in January 2021. She served one session in a Democratically-controlled House of Delegates.
Like most state lawmakers, public safety is a key issue for her, especially in the urban district she represents.
But she said she intermixes fighting crime, with the dangers posed by COVID-19.
She fears Governor-elect Youngkin and a GOP House majority could roll back masks and vaccination mandates supported by most Virginia Democrats and put in place by the current administration.
“Public safety is key,” she said. “Everybody has a right to safe communities. But COVID-19 has been extremely unkind to the Black community. I am concerned about the mandates. You have your rights… but you do not have the right to kill me.”
“Providing access to healthcare and vaccinations is paramount,” she continued. “People are worried about mandates on the economy, but what if people are not there to enjoy it. We will have to work together on all of these issues and we must work harder to assure we continue the past two years of progress.”
State Delegate Don Scott who represents the 80th District in Portsmouth, said he is concerned about Republicans weakening sales and the social justice provision of the marijuana legalization bill.
He said during the 2021 campaign, Republicans were running ads calling for “locking more people up” which would impact notably the Black community.
“I am also worried about many Black leaders who represent our people who are supporting the Republican measures,” he said. “They could sell our people out. But I am not interested in going back. I am ready to fight to keep the last two years of progress going.”