Virginia Republicans go berserk with far-right bills

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia progressives are going to have to work overtime to prevent this state, which went for Obama in 2008, from becoming another Wisconsin on labor issues, another Arizona on immigrant rights, another Indiana on voting rights, and another Mississippi on women’s reproductive rights.

In last November’s elections, the Republican Party gained an effective majority in the Virginia State Senate, adding this to their existing overwhelming majority in the House of Delegates (the lower house of the General Assembly) as well as the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. The party breakdown in the Senate is 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats, but Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling has declared that he has the tiebreaking vote except on appropriations matters.

The Republicans have hit the ground running, with an extremist program of anti-labor, anti-immigrant and anti-choice bills.

Here is a sample of the bills:

*HB 33 and SB 242, based on a model promoted nationwide by Koch Brothers Industries and their spinoff organization ALEC, would reinforce Virginia’s existing “right to work” laws by prohibiting state agencies from giving preference to unionized contractors. Despite strenuous union opposition, this bill has passed House and Senate. In the Senate it passed with a tiebreaking vote by Lt. Gov. Bolling.

*HB 567 would have stripped public school teachers of tenure protections, bringing their individual work contracts up for review every three years, at which point their supervisors could fire them for any cause, or no cause at all. This passed the House of Delegates but was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 20 to 18, when two Republican senators refrained from voting on the measure. However, labor activists warn that the bill could be revived.

*HB 1060 and HB 958 would begin the process of turning Virginia into another Arizona or Alabama by deputizing police officers to become immigration enforcement agents. Police would be required to inquire into the citizenship status of everybody they detain, even if the person is not jailed. Bail could be refused if there is “probable cause” to think that the person is not in the United States legally. This approach was already pioneered by Prince William County, a Washington exurb. Although Prince William’s anti-immigrant policies, directed at the many working class migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and other places who have settled there, have not gone uncontested, the Republican right in Richmond would like to see these policies implemented statewide. This bill passed the House.

*SB 1 and HB 9 would change voting procedures so that a person who shows up to vote without adequate identification could vote on an affidavit, but this vote would not be counted unless the voter came back with adequate ID. Prior to this, it was not required that the voter return to have the vote counted. Passed both House and Senate.

*HB 1 would have defined “personhood” as beginning at conception, in line with the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy and some other religious groups. This is the first step toward entirely prohibiting abortion, but cannot be followed up fully unless Roe v. Wade is overturned at the federal level. Opponents warned that this law could affect some legal forms of birth control, and the use of fetal stem cells, not just abortion.

It passed the House, but stalled in the Senate after women’s and pro-choice groups and their allies mobilized massively in opposition, and after some people in government realized that the term “person” is mentioned hundreds of times in Virginia laws, and that defining blastocysts (the first stage of fetal development) as “persons” might have much wider implications than originally thought. The Democratic and Republican leadership in the Senate agreed to defer action on the bill until 2013, so as to permit “further study.”

*HB 462 and SB 484 would have forced all women seeking abortions to undergo ultrasound imaging probes, to show the imagery of the fetus with the purpose of unnerving the women and getting them to forgo the procedure. This would include abortions at the very beginning of a pregnancy, no exceptions. This bill passed both House and Senate, but a huge outcry that included lampooning of the bill on TV comedy and talk shows forced a concession. Now, instead of the ultrasound including a vaginal probe, it will just involve an abdominal scan. This was changed in the bill after the first vote, apparently after Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has vice-presidential aspirations, realized that the vaginal probe requirement sounded like a kind of rape. The bill went through without that requirement.

* HB 62 would refuse public funding for abortions. It is a bill targeted at lower income women who have to rely on public sources for all their medical needs. The rationale is, of course, that people who disagree in principle with abortions “should not have to pay for them” for other people, an echo of the current national debate. The bill passed the House.

Each house had until the end of last week to act on legislation introduced in its own house. Now the focus will shift on action on bills already passed in the other house – the Senate considering bills passed in the House, and vice versa. All this legislation passed by the General Assembly will probably be approved by Gov. McDonnell, judging from his past statements and actions.

Many organizations in Virginia, from the Virginia AFL-CIO to local community organizations, have moved into action against some or all of these bills. The defection of the two Republican senators from their party’s line on teacher tenure can be seen as the product of this mobilization, as was the abandonment of the personhood bill and the modification of the ultrasound bill.

Photo: On Wednesday, Virginia’s Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, backed down on his support for a House bill mandating vaginal ultrasound before a woman has an abortion. Later that day the Senate version was withdrawn by its sponsor. Both moves are seen as the direct results of a mass outcry and mobilization by women, seen here in protest at the sate capital. Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.