Big opportunities for the Democrats in Virginia this year
Danica Roem, D-Va., was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. She has been at the forefront of the battle for progressive change since her election. | Steve Helber/AP

The new legislative session in the Virginia General Assembly (the state legislature) is now underway.  Although the Republicans have razor-thin majorities in both the State Senate and the House of Delegates (the lower house), the Democrats are feeling energized because there are also state legislative elections this year in which their prospects seem very good.  So they are pushing a whole series of progressive legislative vehicles that are likely to be popular with their own social base.

In the 2017 legislative elections for the 100 members of the House of Delegates, the Democrats nearly upended a seemingly impregnable Republican majority and ended up with 49 seats to the Republicans’ 51.   The group of new Democrats who were elected in 2017 includes mostly young people, especially women and minorities.

The group also includes the first transgender woman to serve and an openly declared socialist.  Several of the Republicans who were defeated were notorious for their extremist, bigoted right-wing views and voting records.   The Senate, which was not up for election in 2017, is now split, 21 Republicans to 19 Democrats.

The U.S. Supreme Court has just tentatively upheld a lower court ruling which mandates redistricting of the General Assembly in a way that is likely to help the Democrats, as the districts to be redrawn are in parts of Southeastern Virginia with large African-American populations. In 2017, in the popular vote, the Democrats got 1,306,384 votes to the Republicans’ 1,075,206, yet, due to gerrymandered legislative districts, the Republicans won the majority of seats.  So if the order for redistricting is not reversed on appeal, things look very good for the Democrats indeed.  The lower court had ruled that the new districts would have to be in place by March 28, well before the June 11 Virginia legislative primaries this year.

Another good augury for the Democrats happened on Tuesday, January 8 when Delegate Jennifer Boysko easily picked up the state Senate seat vacated by Jennifer Wexton, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in last year’s midterm.  Preliminary counts show Boysko as having trounced her Republican rival by as much as 70 percent of the vote.  Now Boysko’s delegate seat in Fairfax will, in turn, have to be filled by a special election, but will probably stay with the Democratic Party too.

Even though they do not yet have the majority in either house, the Democrats are forging ahead with an ambitious and largely progressive legislative program.

On the top of the pile of bills they are introducing is ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.  This amendment to the U.S. Constitution, originally introduced for action 96 years ago, was passed by both houses of Congress but fell short of the approval needed from three quarters of the state legislature for it to become the law of the land.  So it has lain dormant since the early 1970s.  But in 2017, Nevada ratified it and last year, Illinois also.  If Virginia ratifies it, the three quarters goal will have been reached. There will still be the question of whether it can be revived in Congress, however, and some state legislatures have tried to rescind their ratification, a measure whose legality has also been questioned. Whatever happens, if it is ratified by Virginia it will be an important milestone in the struggle for equal rights for women.

Another important piece of legislation is a change to the Virginia state constitution that will mandate that, after they have served their sentence, people convicted of felonies will automatically have their voting rights restored.  The bill to do this, SJ 261, simply removes language in the current Virginia Constitution which requires such people to petition individually to have their rights restored.

The chief sponsor of the bill in the House is Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy from Woodbridge, a young African-American woman elected in 2017,  who is playing a leading role in criminal justice reform in this state. This has been used by the Republican Party for vote suppression purposes in recent years.  The former Democratic Party Governor, Terry McAuliffe, had tried in 2016 to restore the ex-prisoners’ voting rights by executive action but was blocked by litigation, so he could only restore voting rights one individual at a time.

Should this legislation pass, it would be helpful for the Democrats in poor and minority communities who are incarcerated at a disproportionate level.  For this reason, grassroots organizations like Virginia New Majority have been pushing hard for this legislation.

In subsequent articles, we will cover other 2019 Virginia legislative initiatives and the progress of the state elections.


CONTRIBUTOR

Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.

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