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2018 Capital News Service

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CApital News Service Returns for 2018

Now that the General Assembly is back in session, the VCU Capital News ServiceThe Capital News Service allows Emporia News readers to follow the highlights of the Virginia General Assembly.

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South. This year there are 28 Student Journalists and new advisors.

CNS operates as a three-credit course (formally listed as MASC 475) during spring semesters, when the General Assembly is in session. Each CNS student is assigned to serve one or more clients. Students must devote substantial time outside class to CNS — at least 10 hours a week. The students in MASC 475 meet twice a week to discuss and plan stories and work on reporting and writing skills.

During the fall semesters, the CNS system occasionally is used to distribute stories students do for other courses, such as MASC 404 (Specialized/Projects Reporting). Throughout the year, CNS can help newspaper editors find VCU students who can do freelance stories, internships and other assignments.

Wilma Wirt, who has since retired from the mass comm faculty, established CNS in 1994 for two reasons:

  • To give VCU’s journalism students an opportunity to actively cover and write about the Virginia General Assembly.
  • To give the state’s weekly, twice-weekly and thrice-weekly newspapers better access to the legislature — something Wirt deemed important in the everyday lives of all Virginians.

All stories sent by CNS will be published by Emporia News, but not all will be promoted to the front page. To read the stories that do not make the front page, click on the Capital News Service link in the top menu.

Democrats Roll Out Voting Rights Agenda

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Democratic legislators are pushing for a package of bills to make it easier for Virginians to vote, including proposals to let people register on Election Day and to cast an absentee ballot for any reason.

Del. Debra Rodman of Henrico County has introduced House Bill 449, which would repeal the deadline for registering to vote before an election. Instead, eligible voters could register at any time, including the day of the election.

“I am critically proud for this opportunity, all of these opportunities, that will allow Virginians true access to the ballot,” Rodman said. “Knowledge and access are imperative to the evolution of our democracy.”

So far, Democrats in the House and Senate have filed about 45 bills and a half-dozen constitutional amendments to expand voting rights. They include:

  • HB 835, introduced by Del. Lamont Bagby of Henrico County. It would eliminate the requirement to state a reason in order to vote absentee in person. A registered voter still would have to provide a qualified excuse, such as illness or a long work schedule, to vote absentee by mail.
  • HB 1079, by Del. Delores McQuinn of Richmond. It would repeal the requirement that voters show a photo identification at the polls to get a ballot. Democrats say that requirement is an obstacle for low-income, elderly and minority voters.
  • HB 944, by Del. Alfonso Lopez of Arlington. It would let 16- and 17-year-olds pre-register to vote. “Helping young Virginians and Americans register to vote increases the odds that they will make a lifelong habit of electoral participation,” Lopez said.

House Joint Resolution 33, a constitutional amendment proposed by Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke. It would let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in local elections.

On some voting-related issues, Democrats and Republicans share common ground. Members of both parties, for example, want to make it easier for members of the U.S. military to vote.

Del. Steven Landes, a Republican from Augusta County, has introduced HB 1139, which would create a pilot program for military personnel who are registered to vote in Virginia and are deployed overseas to cast an electronic ballot.

Del. Kathy Tran, a Democrat from Fairfax, has a similar measure – HB 1058.

“This is a very valuable and worthwhile investment for the people on the frontlines defending our values and right to vote,” said Tran, whose brother, David, serves in the U.S. Marine Corps.

But generally, Republicans are more focused on ballot security and voting integrity. Many Republican lawmakers believe that voter fraud is a serious problem.

Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg is sponsoring Senate Bill 523, which would require the state to create electronic poll books with photos of registered voters. Poll workers would use those books to verify who can vote. The General Assembly passed such a bill last year, but then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed it.

Moreover, Sen. Ben Chafin of Russell County has filed SB 834, which would require the Virginia Department of Elections to identify people who are registered to vote not only in Virginia but also in another state.

Democrats may face an uphill battle advancing their agenda in the General Assembly, where Republicans hold a majority in both chambers.

On Tuesday, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee killed several Democratic proposals.

On a party-line vote, the committee spiked SB 452, an attempt by Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, to rescind the requirement to show a photo ID at the polling place. All eight Republicans on the panel voted to shelve the bill; all six Democrats voted to keep it alive.

Also, the committee killed two proposed constitutional amendments to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons who have served their time. One of the amendments was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth; the other was by Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County.

After a Paws, Delegate Is Back With Pet Protection Bill

By Katrina Tilbury and DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As temperatures across Virginia plunged to the single digits, many pets no doubt have been left in the cold.

The frigid weather in recent weeks prompted Assistant Attorney General Michelle Welch to send a memo instructing animal control officers how to respond to calls regarding animals left outside. Pet owners have three options: They can bring the animal inside the house, surrender it to the animal control officer indefinitely or let the officer take temporary custody of the animal.

“They don’t get to let their dogs freeze to death,” Welch said in the memo.

Del. John Bell, D-Fairfax, has introduced a bill to clarify when pet owners could tie up an animal outside. His legislation would prohibit tethering pets outdoors when the temperature drops to 32 degrees or below or rises to 85 degrees or above. The restrictions would not apply to farm animals.

Bell, a dog owner whose wife, Margaret, is an avid animal rescuer, said he worked with more than 20 groups, including agricultural and farm bureaus, to find a solution that works for everyone, including farmers, who traditionally keep their working animals outside. The result was House Bill 646, which he filed on Jan. 9.

Last year, Bell introduced a similar bill that was shot down in the General Assembly for being too strict. Planning for this session’s bill began last April when animal advocate Gary Sweeney started a petition on Change.org to introduce a bill that would specify when the weather is considered too extreme for dogs to be left outside.

Sweeney launched the petition after he reported a short-haired dog left outside in Henrico County and was told by Henrico County Animal Control that the pet owner was not breaking the law.

“I went back and read the existing laws thoroughly; I realized that there was nothing in place in Virginia’s law that had anything to do with extreme weather,” Sweeney said. “It does have an adequate shelter provision – but it doesn’t specify by what type of (dog) house is adequate enough.”

The Humane Society of the United States caught wind of Sweeney’s petition after tens of thousands of supporters quickly signed it. The Humane Society worked with Sweeney and Bell to draft something similar to the delegate’s 2017 bill.

Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said this bill is a measured approach to a subject that has long troubled animal welfare advocates.

“It is, I think, impossible to disagree with the idea that people should not tether dogs outside in severe weather conditions,” she said.

Midlothian resident Jamie Ericksen’s neighbors know to call her when they encounter an animal in need. Recently, she reunited a family with their cat that had been missing for two years. Currently, she said she is trying to help a dog that is left outside at all hours in a small pen.

“I just hope that this bill gets passed because I know that the animals suffer,” Ericksen said. “It’s hard to understand how someone can leave their animal outside in extreme temperatures and think that they’re OK or they enjoy it.”

HB 646 has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources – the same panel that killed Bell’s legislation last year. The committee is also considering HB 889, introduced by Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline. Instead of establishing a statewide law, Orrock’s bill would empower local governments to restrict tethering dogs outside.

The subcommittee is scheduled to meet Monday afternoon.

Tangier Island Recovers From Icy Grip

By Sophia Belletti and Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As temperatures on the Chesapeake Bay dropped as low as 9 degrees early this month, a barricade of ice up to 10 inches thick formed around Tangier Island, preventing boats from bringing groceries, medicine and other supplies to the 722 residents on that speck of Virginia off the Eastern Shore.

Fortunately,  a variety of agencies came to the rescue —  the U.S Coast Guard out of Maryland, the Virginia National Guard and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources organized emergency ice-breaking operations to free Tangier Island.

Nearly two weeks after the snowstorm, regular activity on the waters around Tangier resumed Wednesday, and the mail delivery ferry went out to Tangier’s residents for the first time Thursday morning.

“We’re happy to help with what is really life-saving work,” said Gregg Bortz, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Tangier is located in the Chesapeake Bay and consists of three villages — Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point. The island depends on boats for mail and shipments, and single-digit temperatures and thick ice made that impossible.

Tangier Island falls within the Coast Guard’s 5th District, which includes Maryland and Virginia.

“The Coast Guard has a history of providing assistance to Tangier,”  said Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Hodges. “The organizations that responded to Tangier Island were based on the availability of assets with ice-breaking capabilities.”

Then the Virginia National Guard flew in from Richmond, making two trips to deliver additional food.

Island officials sought assistance from the Coast Guard, which sent the cutter Chock on Jan. 3. The ship conducted ice breaking and supply delivery until Jan. 5, Hodges said.

“The Chock had to be redirected to break ice in another area, and second request was submitted to the Coast Guard by Tangier for assistance,” Hodges said. “The Coast Guard was unable to facilitate the request, and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management took over relief duties.”

According to Bortz, a 100-foot Maryland icebreaker, the J. Millard-Tawes, was brought in from Crisfield, Maryland, 13 1/2 miles from Tangier.

Clearing a path, he said, was “the primary goal.”

The Maryland DNR was called to the island last in 2015. Bortz said the U.S. Coast Guard primarily responds to Tangier while Maryland DNR focuses on helping nearby Smith Island, Maryland.

Capt. Eddie Somers of the J. Millard-Tawes was part of the rescue team that met trucks of supplies at the city docks in Crisfield and took the two-hour journey to Tangier.

Besides the Tawes, the Maryland DNR has three ice-breaking vessels -- the  John C. Widener in Annapolis, A.V. Sandusky in Kent Narrows and Big Lou on the Choptank River.

Tangier Mayor James Eskridge said the island hasn’t experienced ice like this in many  years. The community, he added, always pulls together.

“Some 40 years ago, folks would have bonfires and go ice skating,” he said. “This was the closest to an ice storm we’ve had since then.”

Virginia House End Secrecy in Committee Votes

By Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Advocates for government transparency are applauding the Virginia House of Delegates for ending its practice of allowing committees and subcommittees to kill legislation on unrecorded voice votes.

In adopting rules for the legislative session that began Wednesday, the House voted unanimously to require panels to record who votes how.

“A recorded vote of members of a committee or subcommittee shall be taken and the name and number of those voting for, against, or abstaining shall be taken upon each measure,” according to the chamber’s new rules, introduced by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

In addition to recorded votes, the new rules provide for more proportional representation on committees and require live-streaming and archiving of committee hearings.

In the past, many bills were approved or rejected at the committee and subcommittee level on voice votes alone. This made it was impossible to know which delegates voted against or for a particular bill.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, who founded the Virginia Transparency Caucus, praised the rule change as a major step forward for Virginia.

“This is a victory for transparency and open government for the people of the commonwealth,” Chase said. Levine agreed.

“By having these votes recorded, members will now be responsible for all legislative actions they take. No more will bills be killed in secret without any accountability,” he said.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, commended the move. After the change was announced, Rhyne wrote in an email: “Good work from the House leadership!”

Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, echoed that sentiment. “Everyone needs to know how decisions are made,” she said.

Democrats blamed Republicans for the past secrecy.

“For years, House Republicans have killed critical pieces of progressive legislation through unrecorded voice votes,” House Democratic Leader David Toscano of Charlottesville and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring of Alexandria said in a joint statement. “That era is over, and we welcome a new era of accountability and governance that is more reflective of last year’s election results.”

Democrats picked up 15 House seats in November. As a result, Republicans have only a 51-to-49 majority in that chamber.

Republican leaders acknowledged that the makeup of the House was a factor in changing the rules.

Gilbert said the new rules “reflect the new composition of the House chamber, as well as several new transparency initiatives we are proud to champion.”

Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, said he is proud that the House changed the rules.

“The work we do as public servants should always be open and accessible to an informed citizenry,” he said. “I have always advocated for recorded votes.”

Last year, Cline sponsored a bill to require recorded votes in committees and subcommittees. It died in the House Rules Committee – on an unrecorded vote.

Activists Protest Gov. Northam’s Position on Pipelines

By Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – About 25 environmental activists demonstrated at Gov. Ralph Northam’s inauguration Saturday to protest his refusal to oppose two natural gas pipelines that energy companies want to build across Virginia.

The demonstrators unveiled a banner saying “our water > pipelines” and waved other signs as they chanted “water is life” through megaphones.

The protesters were with Virginia River Healers and a coalition called “Water is Life. Protect it.” They were demonstrating against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would cut across the western part of the state.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline would run more than 300 miles from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. Dominion Energy and other companies that have proposed the pipelines say they are important for meeting the region’s energy needs and will create jobs.

Tom Burkett, the lead organizer of Saturday’s protest, complained that the pipelines would carry gas extracted from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The technique involves injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals into the ground – a process that opponents say damages the environment.

“In doing this, there is a lot of water contamination concerns because of the millions of gallons of chemicals that the process uses,” Burkett said. “There is also the concern that with these pipelines being constructed, the fracking companies will have a better infrastructure and will then get a business incentive to continue fracking even more.”

Burkett noted that Northam has accepted campaign contributions from Dominion Energy. He said he wished politicians would pledge to not accept money from energy companies that have a stake in pipelines.

Northam has given mixed signals on whether he approves of the pipeline projects.

During the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Northam avoided taking a firm stand for or against the pipelines – drawing criticism from his opponent, Tom Perriello, and environmentalists.

Northam has said he supports the pipelines if they can be constructed in an environmentally safe way and the rights of property owners are not violated. Last week, Northam said he supports U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine’s proposal that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reconsider its vote to approve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

About 10 of the demonstrators at Northam’s inauguration were immigrants’ rights supporters. Wearing their signature orange beanies, they were showing their support for undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, who were brought to the United States as children.

Dreamers had been protected against deportation by an Obama administration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. President Trump has indicated he may end that policy.

Cold Temperatures Fail to Deter Inauguration Crowd

By Logan Bogert and Caitlin Barbieri, Capital News Service

RICHMOND –  Virginians had a lot of reasons to endure biting cold temperatures Saturday to witness Ralph Northam's inauguration as governor. Some of the estimated 5,000 spectators came with a plea of help. Some wanted to witness democracy in action. And others had dedicated themselves to the Northam campaign.

“I’m here to celebrate our way ahead,” Christine Payne of Williamsburg said, referring to Northam’s inaugural theme. “I worked hard for him since his primary, and I am here to continue that support. I hope to see his campaign promises come to fruition, from the environment all to the economy.”

Sophin Sok, a Richmond resident from Cambodia, said she came to the inaugural ceremony in hopes of getting Northam’s attention to pardon her fiance, who has been detained for three months and faces deportation.  

“He  came here at the age of 3, and he’s the biological father to three of my kids.” Sok said. “About a decade ago, he plead guilty to a charge, but he served his time, paid his debt to society and he turned his life around and pretty much put his family as a priority.

“They didn’t prepare him for anything, they just took him. They didn’t allow us to prepare ourselves -- so now it’s kind of hard for me because he is the main provider also and he’s a great father,” Sok said.

Sok said she and her fiance have children ages 1, 2 and 6. They  want Northam to write a pardon letter so he can come home and get a second chance to stay in America.

For Kevin Miller of Danville, the inaugural parade brought a special family meaning. He came to watch his son perform with the George Washington High School marching band. “It’s a great honor for them and an opportunity for them to do something they don’t get to do very often,” Miller said.

The ceremony and parade showcased Virginia's diversity.

The day opened with the Pledge of Allegiance, led by Boy and Girl Scouts from the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center. And it closed with the blessing of the grounds by representatives of Virginia's Indian tribes.

Universities from across the state took part in the parade, as did such groups as Equality Virginia, the Cultural Center of India and the Charlottesville Cardinals Wheelchair Basketball Team.

Inauguration Attendees: ‘I’m Proud of My State’

 

 

 

 

 

By Adam Hamza and Christopher Wood, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Traveling from all parts of the state, thousands of Virginians came to watch Ralph Northam take the gubernatorial oath of office on Saturday. Many traveled to show their support for the new governor – and others to reflect on what the future holds.

‘I’m proud of my state’

Mark and Elizabeth Martin drove 85 miles from Stanardsville to see their son march in the parade with the Virginia Military Institute. Before Northam’s inaugural address, Mark Martin said he believed Virginia was regressing in its politics.

“In the 2016 election, we had the backlash of nationalism and small mindedness, and this was a move in the other direction,” he said.

Both Mark and Elizabeth said they believe Northam will have a progressive impact in Virginia.

“I’m proud of my state for doing the right thing,” Elizabeth Martin said. “Partisan politics aren’t the way to go; we need to look at each issue individually and see what’s best for everyone.”

 

First-time to attend an inauguration

Jaylen Green, a student at the University of Virginia, said she and a friend came to support other friends who had worked for Northam’s campaign. She said she has seen how politics affect people locally, and that she voted for Northam in the gubernatorial primary elections.

“Neither of us had been to an inauguration before,” Green said.

Jill Caiazzo of Arlington attended the inauguration for the first time as well.

“I’m just excited to see Ralph Northam inaugurated. I think he’s going to do great things for this state,” she said.

 

A supporter of women’s rights

Northam’s inaugural address covered a range of issues including Medicaid expansion, gun regulation, women’s rights and the need to end partisan politics.

Elizabeth Martin, a pro-choice supporter, said she thought it was important that the new governor specifically mentioned women’s rights.

 

 

“I’m so happy he hit on women’s rights and is stressing that, and rights for all people,” she said.

 

 

A focus on other issues

 

 

Some attended to voice their causes and gauge what Northam’s goals are. Sheba Williams is the executive director of Nolef Turns, a charity that helps men and women who have been convicted of a felony. She said she went to the inauguration to better understand the direction the administration is taking.

 

 

“We just want to see what the goals are for this administration, and see who they will be focusing on,” Williams said.

 

 

Sam Barker, a student at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, said he came to the inauguration to see a friend, Justin Fairfax, take the oath of office as the state’s lieutenant governor. He said he hopes Northam keeps a strong stand on his environmental policy.

 

 

In the past, Northam has worked to preserve water quality and management in the Chesapeake Bay. He has also rejected the idea that environmental regulation and economic growth are mutually exclusive.

 

 

“I just really hope he puts a stop to offshore drilling in Virginia,” Barker said, referring to a recent action by President Trump. “Trump has reinstated offshore drilling on the East Coast, which has been banned since at least the ’70s.”

Virginia Swears In Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A new voice formally joined Virginia’s government Saturday afternoon as Justin Fairfax was sworn in as lieutenant governor, and a familiar figure, Mark Herring, took the oath of office to continue his role as attorney general.

The two, alongside newly instated Gov. Ralph Northam, headlined an inaugural ceremony attended by approving guests.

Rita Williams, who had worked with Fairfax’s campaign when he lost the Democratic nomination for attorney general to Herring in 2013, said she was proud of his accomplishments.

“He is a very, very intelligent young man, a gifted young man, and he will make an excellent lieutenant governor,” she said.

Fairfax is the second African-American elected to a Virginia state position, following Douglas Wilder as governor in 1989. He was sworn in by former U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee. Before retiring, Lee oversaw a number of high profile cases, including the convictions of Brian Patrick Regan for espionage and Ahmed Omar Abu Ali for conspiracy to assassinate then-President George W. Bush.

Thomas Horne, a former judge and commonwealth’s attorney from Loudoun County, returned to administer the oath of office for Herring as he had done four years ago. Herring spent his previous career as a lawyer in Horne’s Loudoun County courtroom.

Mia Masten, director of advocacy and professional relations for Pfizer in Washington, D.C., attended the event. She said she was unfamiliar with the two politicians but was enthusiastic about Virginia’s future with “the new influx of new energy, new blood, new excitement.”

Charles Cockrell, communication and business director at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, was also optimistic.

“I think we have great leadership in Virginia,” he said.“We see a lot of progress in technology and what we’ve done to foster economic growth in the Commonwealth. We look forward to seeing that continue in the next administration.”

Northam inaugural ball showcases Virginia regions

By Siona Peterous and DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Temperatures in the 20s didn’t deter a steady stream of hundreds of people dressed in fine suits and glamorous gowns from arriving at Main Street Station for Gov. Ralph Northam’s inaugural ball.

The ball opened its doors at 8 p.m. Saturday and was the first event held in the station’s newly renovated 47,000 square-foot and 500-foot long train shed.

“I’m happy to see the renovations are done and this is such a great, exciting event. It makes politics a little more fun, you know,” said Margaret Clark, a Henrico resident who teaches high school and works with a local non-profit.

The ball featured a Motown-influenced funk band, Mo’ Sol, whose high-energy twists on classics by Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and dozens more helped create a lively crowd that danced in the 90 minutes between when doors opened and the governor and first lady of Virginia, Pamela Northam, appeared on stage for their first dance.

In keeping with the theme of the Motown glory days, the couple’s first dance was to Otis Redding’s, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Foods and drinks distinct to the Commonwealth's regions were featured at tables set against the hall’s massive glass windows. Diners could sample coastal Virginia’s raw bar, pot pie from the Blue Ridge, charcuterie from Northern Virginia and an apple dessert from the Shenandoah Valley.

The ball’s open bar included a specially made beer, Inaugural-ALE from the  Ashland-based Center of the Universe Brewing Company.

“By brewing this beer with 100-percent Virginia grown ingredients, we hope to show the synergy between the Virginia craft beer manufacturers and our Virginia agricultural partners,” company founder Chris Ray said in a news release.

According to Laura Bryant, who campaigned with Northam, the focus on Virginia’s agriculture is  in line with the new governor’s promise to continue former Gov. Terry McAuliffe's work on showcasing regions outside of the economic powerhouses of Northern Virginia.

“As you can see there is a celebration of areas outside of NOVA -- Southwest Virginia, Blue Ridge Virginia and Richmond,” Bryant said. “I’m just excited because there are voices represented that would usually not be present in an inaugural setting.”

Bills Seek to Disrupt ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Ryan Turk was an eighth-grader in Prince William County when a misunderstanding with a school resource officer over a 65-cent carton of milk escalated to theft charges.

The incident happened in May 2016 when Turk said he forgot his carton of milk that came with his school-issued free lunch. The police said Turk tried to “conceal” the carton of milk. When Turk separated himself from the resource officer, the incident ended with a suspension from school and a summons to juvenile court.

A year ago, the charges against Turk were dropped, but he remains a prime example of what critics call the “school-to-prison pipeline” – a trend to charge students as criminals for what might once have been detention-worthy transgressions. According to a 2015 study by the Center for Public Integrity, Virginia charges students more often than any other state.

This trend has triggered a push in the General Assembly to reform criminal justice across the board. One of the latest and most vocal opponents of the pipeline is Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge.

Carroll Foy, who won an open House seat in November, spoke about the problem at an NAACP reception in Richmond last week.

“We send more students from the classroom to the courtroom than any other state in the country,” Carroll Foy said. “Now we lock them up early, and we lock them up at large.”

Carroll Foy plans to sponsor more than 10 criminal justice reform bills this legislative session. They include House Bill113, which would increase the threshold for grand larceny in Virginia from $200 to $1,000.

Virginia’s threshold for that felony crime is one of the lowest in the country and hasn’t changed since 1980. As a result, someone accused of stealing a cellphone or bicycle can be charged with a felony.

Increasing the threshold might protect children who make bad decisions and prevent them from becoming convicted felons, Carroll Foy told the NAACP leadership.

“The punishment should fit the crime,” she said. “Felonies should be reserved for some of the most egregious crimes in the commonwealth of Virginia, and that’s not happening.”

Carroll Foy is carrying legislation that might address cases like that of Ryan Turk, who initially was charged with a misdemeanor after the altercation at Graham Park Middle School in the town of Triangle in Prince William County. Carroll Foy’s district includes parts of Prince William and Stafford counties.

She has introduced HB 445, which would eliminate the requirement for principals to report certain misdemeanor incidents to police. Carroll Foy is not the only one concerned about the “school-to-prison pipeline.” So is the advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children.

Allison Gilbreath, the organization’s policy analyst, said other bills before the General Assembly seek to disrupt the pipeline.

For example, HB 296, sponsored by Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, and Senate Bill170, by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, would prohibit suspending or expelling students in preschool through third grade except for drug offenses, firearm offenses or certain criminal acts.

“One in five kids who are suspended in our public schools are pre-K through fifth grade,” Gilbreath said. “We want to really focus on the underlying problems that they’re experiencing.”

Proposals Seek to End Gerrymandering in Virginia

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – An assortment of bills designed to revise standards for drawing Virginia’s electoral districts could be the beginning of the end for gerrymandering in the commonwealth, according to redistricting reform proponents.

Gerrymandering, the practice of politicians redrawing electoral districts to gain an advantage, has drawn attention and disdain in recent years. North Carolina’s congressional map was declared unconstitutional last week by a panel of federal judges, who ruled legislators had drawn it with “invidious partisan intent.”

House Bill 276, proposed by Democratic Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, would create a Virginia Redistricting Commission. The commission would determine the criteria for remedial redistricting plans if a court declares any congressional or legislative district unlawful. Under the current system, the legislators themselves determine the criteria for redrawing these lines.

District lines are redrawn every 10 years in accordance with the U.S. census, but a number of federal court cases have the potential to require immediate redistricting in certain Virginia localities.

“I think it favors both parties to be able to make sure that we have the body and the rules available by which we would be able to draw lines should a court case come down a certain way,” Rasoul said. “I look forward to being able to work with Republicans and Democrats to get this done.”

Rasoul said redistricting reform hinges upon a “fundamental question of fairness” that he believes the majority of Virginians agree upon, regardless of party affiliation.

So far this session, legislators – both Democrats and Republicans – have introduced about 20 bills that would affect how political districts are drawn. They include:

  • HB 205, which would establish criteria for remedial redistricting.
  • HB 158, which would authorize the General Assembly to make technical adjustments to existing redistricting standards.
  • Senate Bill 106, which would create a size limit for congressional and state legislative districts.

Additionally, lawmakers have proposed eight constitutional amendments. The amendments – which require approval from the General Assembly this year and next, then approval by voters – would fully prohibit gerrymandering.

But this session, legislators must craft the state budget for the next two years, and it’s not realistic for them to approve a constitutional amendment as well, according to advocates of redistricting reform such as Brian Cannon of OneVirginia2021.

However, Cannon is optimistic that measures such as Rasoul’s proposed commission can be steps toward ending gerrymandering. Cannon said support for the initiative is widespread, suggesting “70-some” percent of Virginians desire redistricting reform.

“This could be a dry run for setting up a commission, letting them do their work under good rules and a transparent process,” Cannon said. “By this time next year, if the process is good, we can adopt it; if it needs tweaks, we can do that, too.”

Cannon believes the election of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and an influx of new Virginia legislators reflect a “good-government wave.” Cannon said the political climate is not conducive to incumbent protection schemes like gerrymandering.

“There’s definitely reason for optimism. This is not a nerdy little issue anymore. This is the ethical issue in politics,” Cannon said. “The overall goal here is a constitutional amendment for Virginia so that we can take it out of the hands of the politicians, have good clear rules about keeping communities together and have transparency in the process.”

Although advocates such as Cannon are enthusiastic about the prospects of redistricting reform in Virginia, political experts are more skeptical.

Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, noted that officials elected under the current redistricting system are not likely to support changes such as interim commissions, much less a constitutional amendment in 2019.

“Despite strong public opinion in favor of redistricting reform, the elected officials who benefited from the current system have so little enthusiasm to change it,” Rozell said.

“Further, not everyone is convinced that a reformed system will do any better than the one that we have now. Public opinion may be in favor (of redistricting reform), but this is not an issue that generates much citizen passion. With no strong public passion on the issue, there isn’t a lot of pressure on elected officials to push major reforms.”

Nevertheless, Rasoul believes there is bipartisan support for tackling gerrymandering in Virginia and establishing new ways to draw political districts.

“What we need is not Republicans or Democrats fighting as to who’s going to draw the unfair lines,” Rasoul said. “It’s once and for all creating rules and boundaries so that districts are drawn fairly given population, political boundaries, common communities of interest, the Voting Rights Act and a number of different criteria that need to be considered.”

Cannon is confident that the bills before the General Assembly can act as stepping stones toward the goal of eliminating gerrymandering in the commonwealth.

“We have a big opportunity this session to have this conversation in preparation for getting the final product ready to go this time next year,” Cannon said. “The reason they’ve been able to get away with this is it’s a dirty deed done once a decade that they think we all forget about. We’re not forgetting anymore.”

Virginians Disagree on Prohibiting Protests

By Alexandra Sosik, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginians are split almost down the middle about whether they would ban high school athletes from participating in protests during the national anthem, according to a poll released Tuesday by Virginia Commonwealth University.

The poll by VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs found that 50 percent of the respondents said they were against having a rule to forbid protests, while 45 percent said they would support such a rule. The others were undecided.

In 2016, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice and police brutality. That sparked a nationwide movement in which countless athletes have either kneeled or sat during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Robyn McDougle, director of the Wilder School’s Office of Public Policy Outreach, said no legislature or rule against protests during the national anthem has been suggested in Virginia. But such a rule would be contentious if proposed, the 2017-18 Winter Policy Poll indicates.

“The national debate on the issue led us to measure public opinion on the hypothetical question,” McDougle said. “And it shows that any such proposal would be controversial, especially in Northern Virginia and for nonwhite Virginians.”

The statewide poll involved a random sample of 788 adults. They were interviewed by landline and cellular phones between Dec. 8 and 26. The poll’s margin of error is about 3.5 percentage points.

Senate Panel Rejects Bill Banning Utility Campaign Donations

By George Copeland, Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A senator’s repeat attempt to prohibit campaign donations from Dominion Energy and other regulated monopolies was struck down by a Senate committee Tuesday.

Senate Bill 10 would have banned candidates from soliciting or accepting donations from any public service corporation, and any political action committees those corporations created and controlled.  The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee effectively killed the bill by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, on a 12-2 vote.  Sens. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, opposed.

Petersen’s bill, co-patroned by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, was nearly identical to legislation the Fairfax lawmaker filed last year.

 "Sen. Petersen will continue the fight to keep monopoly money out of Virginia politics," said Alex Parker, the senator’s political director.

In his statement to the committee, Petersen said he sought the ban because of the electricity-rate freeze approved by the General Assembly in 2015 that resulted in “transferring several hundred million dollars in wealth from rate-payers to the profits, the shareholders of these companies.” On Monday, Petersen's attempt to roll back the freeze, which applied to Dominion and Appalachian Power Co., also failed in committee -- though the issue could be pushed in legislation by other lawmakers this session.

 “I felt like one of the root causes why my legislation was not successful, why we passed these underlying bills, was money had corrupted the process,” Petersen said.

Petersen didn’t name any specific corporations during his statement, but the legislation’s largest impact would have been on the role of Dominion, the largest corporate donor to Republican and Democratic legislators, governors and other elected officials in Virginia.

Several committee members critiqued Petersen’s bill and its potential effects.  Petersen himself admitted the bill wasn’t perfect, and was resigned to its failure. But he also made clear that he believed the legislation had broad public support.  Recalling a 2017 town hall meeting where he discussed the bill, Petersen said, “It remains the only time that I’ve been in politics, 20 years, that I’ve gotten a standing ovation.”

He added, “Until you take the money from public service corporations out of this body, you will continue to get flawed legislation like the rate freeze.”

Immigrant-Rights Supporters Protest at Inaugural Ball

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- About a dozen immigrant-rights supporters protested outside Gov. Ralph Northam’s inaugural ball, calling on Virginia politicians to back federal legislation protecting many undocumented young adults from deportation.

The protesters urged U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner to support a bill to help immigrants who qualified for protection under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. President Trump has indicated he will end the DACA policy unless Congress acts.

The demonstrators shouted their pleas Saturday night outside Main Street Station, where Northam’s inaugural ball was being held.

The protests were organized by CASA in Action, a nonprofit organization operating in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The organization says it has more than 96,000 members and is the largest electoral organization focused on immigrant rights in the mid-Atlantic region.

The president of CASA in Action, Gustavo Torres, said that the protests focused on pressuring Kaine and Warner to require a “clean” DACA bill as part of congressional negotiations over the federal budget. Such a bill would allow DACA recipients, known as Dreamers, to stay in the United States.

The activists have been following Kaine and Warner at various events to protest their previous votes against putting the DACA law in the budget legislation. Congress must take budget action by Friday to avert a government shutdown.

The fate of DACA protections has become a critical issue in reaching a bipartisan deal on a federal budget. Many Democratic leaders have announced they will not support a budget without guaranteeing the security of DACA recipients, Torres said.

“We are still very optimistic based on people’s reactions against the deportation of DACA recipients,” Torres said. “But we have to do our homework. Doing our homework is knocking on doors; it's talking to people. They (Kaine and Warner) say they are our friends, but right now we need them to be our champions. There is a strong difference.”

Luis Aguilera, a DACA recipient and an immigrant rights activist, said it’s not surprising that DACA is under attack.

“Using immigrants is a convenient political tool; however it’s not just Trump,” Aguilera said. “So we are asking Sen. Kaine and Sen. Warner to back up their claims that they are supporters of DACA.”

Though the conversation about DACA is heavily focused on Latinos, Dreamers of other nationalities also are affected.

Esther Jeon, a DACA recipient, is an immigrant rights fellow with the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium.

“I don't think many people know how many Asian Americans are affected by DACA. One in six in our Korean-American community have DACA,” Jeong said.

 “We’re all here to let the government know how widespread the effects (of ending DACA protections) are -- because it’s not just Latinos, it’s Asians, and there is even a number of undocumented black immigrants in this country as well.”

As the protest was being held at the inaugural ball, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced some good news for DACA recipients: On Saturday evening, the department said it would continue to process DACA renewals in light of a ruling last week by a federal judge in San Francisco. However, that does not mean DACA is protected for the long term.

Senate Panel Votes to Ban Bump Stocks

By Aya Driouche, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A survivor of the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas helped persuade a Virginia Senate committee Monday to approve a bill outlawing bump stocks, a device that allows a rifle to mimic an automatic weapon.

After hearing from Henrico County resident Cortney Carroll, who was at the country music concert where 58 people were killed and 546 injured, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 11-4 for SB 1. It would prohibit Virginians from making, selling or possessing “any device used to increase the rate of fire of any semi-automatic firearm beyond the capability of an unaided person to operate the trigger mechanism of that firearm.”

Carroll, 40, recalled being at the Route 91 Harvest music festival when Stephen Paddock opened fire on 22,000 concertgoers. “The only way I could describe it is, it sounded like a machine gun,” she said. That’s because Paddock, who later killed himself, had fitted his rifles with bump stocks to fire at a rate of nearly 10 rounds per second.

“When I found out that just a regular person had changed a semi-automatic rifle into essentially a machine gun, it really hit me hard,” Carroll, who lives in Short Pump, said in an interview. “I had no idea that those things (bump stocks) even existed. So that’s when I knew that I needed to take a stand. I believe that I was saved for a reason, and I need to make a difference.”

Carroll, a mother of two, comes from a family of Republicans who enjoy hunting and support Second Amendment rights.

“I grew up in a household with hunters. My boyfriend’s a hunter. I have no problem with guns. I’m a Republican; I support gun rights,” she said. “Prior to this, I didn’t really know anything about bump stocks.”

Carroll said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety from the massacre. The first thing she does when she enters a room is to identify the exits – and ponder where she would hide if someone started shooting. Carroll said large crowds make her uncomfortable.

On the evening of Oct. 1, Carroll and her aunt were singing along to Jason Aldean when the first shots rang out. Everyone assured her they were fireworks. But seconds later, Carroll recalls hearing the rat-tat-tat sound of “machine gun fire you hear in movies.”

Carroll and her aunt crouched down and huddled closely, covered by other people who were attending the concert. Carroll recalls thinking, “This couldn’t happen to me – not now.”

After five rounds of shooting, as Paddock was reloading his weapons, Carroll said she and her aunt got up and ran. As they tried to find a path to safety, they hit a dead end. At that moment, Carroll’s aunt was grazed by a bullet above her eye. Seeing her aunt’s face dripping with blood is something that Carroll said still haunts her today.

Carroll’s boyfriend attended the Senate committee meeting to offer his support. Carroll had a small orange ribbon pinned to her shirt, symbolizing mass shooting awareness.

All six Democrats on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, along with five Republican members, voted for SB 1. Four Republican senators voted against the bill.

SB 1, which was introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee defeated:

  • SB 2, which would have made it illegal to carry a loaded firearm while under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs.
  • SB 5, which would have required a background check for any firearm transfer. Currently, no checks are necessary for sales at gun shows and between private individuals.
  • SB 112, which would have added disability, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation to the state’s definition of a hate crime. Now, only offenses “motivated by racial, religious, or ethnic animosity” are considered hate crimes.

All six of the Democrats on the committee voted in favor of those bills, and all nine Republican members voted against it.

Afterward, Democratic senators criticized the Republican committee members for voting against background checks.

“We know that if we enact universal background checks, fewer law enforcement officers will be shot and killed, fewer intimate partners will be shot and killed, and there will be fewer gun-related suicides,” said Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun. “Gun violence is an epidemic, and the time has come to act if we are going to keep our communities safe.”

Dueling Gun Rallies Held at Virginia Capitol

By Christopher Wood and Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Demonstrators for and against gun control held rallies on the Capitol grounds Monday, highlighting an issue that has sharply divided Republicans and Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Dave Brat and several fellow Republicans held a rally in the morning in support of the Second Amendment and the expansion of gun rights.

“I’m not going to take away your Second Amendment rights,” said Dick Black, a state senator and Vietnam veteran from Loudoun County, “when I’m standing here alive because I had a rifle when I needed it.”

A few hours later, Democratic officials delivered a different message, advocating what they call “common-sense” gun control proposals.

“Over 1,000 individuals lose their lives each year in Virginia to gun violence and accidents – more than will die in motor vehicle accidents,” said newly inaugurated Gov. Ralph Northam. “Why don’t we all stand up and say ‘enough is enough?’”

Virginia Citizens Defense League rally

The Virginia Citizens Defense League started its rally at about 11 a.m. at the Bell Tower on Capitol Square. One of the attendees was Cesar Inong, Jr., a mortgage loan assistant from Springfield in Northern Virginia.

Inong said he thinks restrictions on guns should be loosened for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves from muggers and other attacks.

“Over years and years, gun laws have become stricter and stricter, but the issues that coincide with anti-gun laws are increasing – issues including shootings,” Inong said.

At the rally, several Republican politicians, including Del. Dave LaRock of Loudoun County, spoke in support of gun rights.

Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, criticized bills before the General Assembly that would restrict gun rights.

“There’s a bill that if somebody swore an oath that if you were a danger to yourself, before you go to court or anything they can come in your house and take your guns away for a couple of weeks,” Van Cleave said. “You’re guilty before you’re innocent.”

Speakers at the rally said restrictions on obtaining a concealed weapons permit hurt minorities and lower-income residents who may live in high-crime neighborhoods. Another vulnerable group is victims of domestic violence.

Elizabeth Baran, a nurse from Maryland, said she was nearly beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend.

“I called the police when he would break into my home. They could do really little other than writing a report,” Baran said. “After a failed suicide attempt on his part, he came to my home and broke in and decided that was the day I was going to die.”

She described being raped and beaten and having her head slammed repeatedly into the cement, leaving her with a brain injury that would end her career as an emergency room nurse.

“After a very long and difficult process in Maryland, I was able to obtain my unrestricted wear-and-carry permit in Maryland,” Baran said. “I want people to be able to understand that being able to own and carry a firearm can sometimes be truly a life-and-death situation.”

Virginia Center for Public Safety vigil

In the afternoon, the Virginia Center for Public Safety held a vigil for victims of gun violence and then met with legislators, urging them to support bills such as one requiring background checks before all gun purchases.

The center’s rally was held only hours after Republicans on a Senate committee killed that bill and 19 other proposals to restrict firearms.

At the vigil, Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring reaffirmed their commitment to gun safety laws. They were joined by religious leaders and activists to send one message: The fight is not over.

“This morning, the legislature had an opportunity to take some concrete steps to make our communities safer, to make our families safer, by passing better laws,” Herring said. “And what happened? They were all defeated partially, if not all of them, on a party-line vote.”

Herring left the crowd with a clear promise: “We’re not going to stop. We’re not going to give up.”

Fairfax echoed Herring’s commitment to continue fighting for gun control and reducing gun violence.

“We are not going to allow what happened today in the legislature deter us,” he said. “I promise you this … we will win this fight.”

Northam told the crowd that his concerns about the proliferation of firearms come from his experience as a physician in the Army.

“I served in Desert Storm. I saw firsthand what weapons of war do to human beings,” he said. “We do not need them on the streets. We do not need them in our society.”

Kris Gregory, 58, from Falls Church, attended the event. She organized a traveling vigil made of T-shirts representing the 32 victims killed at the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. She said she liked what the legislators had to say about the future of gun regulation in Virginia.

“[I’m] delighted to have strong advocacy for sensible gun laws,” Gregory said. “We knew it was not going to be easy. This is a marathon, not a sprint, but we have a great deal of hope and the country is with us.”

Governor Northam Emphasizes Democratic Priorities, Diversity

By Ryan Persaud, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In an address Monday night to members of the General Assembly, newly inaugurated Gov. Ralph Northam outlined his vision for the legislative session, calling on lawmakers to expand Medicaid, protect abortion rights, increase funding for education and pass gun control measures.

“If we take these steps, we will answer the charge our voters gave us to make Virginia work better for everyone – no matter who they are or where they are from,” Northam said.

The governor called attention to the diversity of his cabinet – which contains more women than men – and to the growing diversity of the House and Senate. Twelve women were elected to the House last fall.

“This cabinet is led by women,” Northam said. “And like this new General Assembly, it is also one of the most diverse in our history … When people say, ‘We can’t find enough women or enough diverse candidates for leadership roles,’ I say — you’re not looking hard enough.”

Northam also touched on expanding voting rights, such as no-excuse absentee voting, restoring the voting rights of felons who have served their time and raising the threshold for felony larceny.

“There is no excuse for the criminal act of theft,” Northam said. “But a teenager who steals one used iPhone or a pair of boots should not have her entire life defined by that one mistake.”

Democratic issues – such as Medicare expansion, abortion rights and gun control – were met with applause and standing ovations by Democrats, while Republicans largely remained seated and silent during the address.

Despite focusing on partisan issues for most of his speech, Northam cited the need for bipartisanship and for both parties to work together.

“Bipartisanship has been the watchword of the first few days of this session,” Northam said. “For that I am thankful.”

The Republican response to Northam’s address was delivered by newly elected Del. Emily Brewer of Suffolk and Sen. Glen Sturtevant of Chesterfield.

They emphasized the GOP’s priorities of crafting a balanced budget, fixing what they see as a broken health-care system, and improving education in the state.

“Virginia Republicans are committed to a cooperative and collaborative approach to considering legislation and passing a responsible budget,” Sturtevant said. “We will continue our long-standing emphasis on fiscally responsible, conservative budgeting, looking for cost savings and efficiencies to ensure your family gets the greatest possible value out of every tax dollar you send to Richmond.”

Brewer highlighted the need to deliver practical economic solutions to meet citizens’ needs.

“From measures that will protect and provide for the women and men who serve in law enforcement, to long-overdue changes that will grant family leave to state employees who adopt a child,” Brewer said, “we will be advancing changes that will make the commonwealth an even better place to live, to work and to raise a family.”

Gender Equality Film Coming to the Byrd

By Chelsea Jackson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Groups pushing for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution will screen a film Tuesday night at the Byrd Theatre about gender discrimination and its impact on American society.

The film, “Equal Means Equal,” is a documentary directed by Kamala Lopez, who has spent several years studying the topic. She heads an organization also called Equal Means Equal.

“I believe that the addition of a gender equality clause to the United States Constitution is not only the first necessary action to fix the problem, but the ONLY single action that will effectively begin to address what is a systemic and institutional crisis,” Lopez has written.

If added to the U.S. Constitution, the ERA would guarantee that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The screening of “Equal Means Equal” will take place at the Byrd Theatre, 2908 W. Cary St., at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets can be purchased in advance through Eventbrite.

The ERA has a long history. It was originally written by suffragist Alice Paul and introduced in the U.S. Congress in 1923. In 1972, Congress approved the amendment and sent it to the states.

A constitutional amendment requires ratification by 38 states. But only 35 approved the ERA before the deadline (originally 1979 and later extended to 1982).

However, ERA supporters say there’s a legal basis for waiving the deadline. The Nevada Legislature ratified the amendment last year, and groups like Women Matter hope Virginia will follow suit.

Katie Hornung from Women Matter said many people are unaware that the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee equal rights for women.

“With women just getting really engaged politically all of a sudden in ways they haven’t been, there has been a push for education about what rights are and aren’t in the Constitution,” Hornung said.

The fight to ratify the ERA may have gained momentum with the national discourse about sexual harassment and gender equity and social media campaigns such as #metoo and #yesallwomen.

Three resolutions have been introduced before the 2018 General Assembly to have Virginia ratify the ERA:

A similar proposal by Surovell was killed in the Senate Rules Committee last year. His legislative assistant, Philip Scranage, said Surovell believes the amendment has a better chance this time around.

His optimism stems partly from the election of 12 additional women to the Virginia House of Delegates, bringing hopes of change for this legislative session.

Hundreds Celebrate Legacies of Dr. King, VUU

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and hundreds of other people gathered Friday morning for Virginia Union University’s 40th Annual Community Leaders Breakfast, praising the school’s mission and legacy while urging Virginians toward acts of public service.

Along with figures including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, the event also celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which has its 50th anniversary on Monday.

Despite the heavy rain outside the Marriott Hotel, guests were in high spirits about Virginia Union – founded in 1865 to serve newly freed slaves – and the future of the state in general. Corshai Williams, president of the VUU Student Government Association, was honored at the event, while the school’s choir performed.

“I think it’s an awesome reflection on the legacy of Martin Luther King,” said Joseph L. Lyons, associate director of career services for Virginia State University, a historically black school in Petersburg. “I think the fusion of educators and persons in the community, as well as students together will continue the dream.”

Pamela Tolson Turner, director of communications for VSU, agreed.

“I look forward to this event each year,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful opportunity to honor the legacy of such a great man, a man that stood for all.”

Former Varina High School teacher Reginald Bassette Sr. was enthusiastic about the state’s prospects in the coming year: “I think Virginia is moving forward in more ways than we know. The good things that are happening are generally overshadowed by the things that are not as positive as they could be.”

Less positive topics nonetheless found their way into the celebration through the speakers’ remarks. Among the topics was last year’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville.

Northam condemned the “white supremacists” responsible for the event, which led to the death of activist Heather Heyer and two Virginia State Police officers. Northam promised support for “inclusivity and diversity” throughout the state under his administration.

McEachin made repeated references to President Donald Trump’s administration when talking about King’s philosophies and the opposition he faced.

“The trouble that we have now is because we have leaders who do not keep the needs of the people holy,” McEachin said. He listed such developments as the failed attempts to expand Medicaid in Virginia, Congress’ failure to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and passage of a federal tax bill that many believe will hurt the poor.

McEachin summarized his thoughts on the current state of the country with: “Indeed, these are troubled times.”

But the speakers and guests made an effort to keep the breakfast centered on a more positive outlook.

Accepting an MLK Lifetime of Service award from the group he helped create, the Rev. Taylor C. Millner Sr. of Morning Star Holy Church said, “This breakfast is not just about Trump. This breakfast is also reminding you that when you go out of that door at 9 o’clock, you have to live the dream. You have to fight for justice. You have to make an opportunity for everyone else. Go after the gold, but also serve somebody!”

Mr. Lyons, when asked for his thoughts on Richmond and Virginia’s place in 2018, said “I think we are survivors, I think we persevere, I think we move forward. So regardless of the climate, regardless of the political outlook, I think we’re always going to move forward and be optimistic.”

Gov. Northam Delivers Message of Hope in Inaugural Address

By Deanna Davison and Sarah Danial, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Ralph Northam took office as Virginia’s 73rd governor on Saturday and urged citizens to maintain the strong “moral compass deep in our hearts” to help guide the state forward.

In his inaugural address to a crowd of about 5,000 outside the state Capitol on a day of stinging cold, Northam reflected first on his childhood on the Eastern Shore, the time he spent fishing and crabbing on the Chesapeake Bay and the advice he received from his father.

“If things get dark or foggy, if you can’t find your way,” his father said, “keep your eye on the compass. It’ll always bring you home safely.”

Northam, 58, said Virginians can likewise rely on their inner compass.

“We all have a moral compass deep in our hearts, and it’s time to summon it again, because we have a lot of work to do,” said the former lieutenant governor and state senator.

Northam also spoke about transparency and the need for government officials to bridge the political divides. His core policy platforms as governor, he said, are those he believes are nonpartisan: expanding health care, reducing gun violence and ensuring equal access to education.

“Virginians didn’t send us here to be Democrats or Republicans,” Northam said. “They sent us here to solve problems. The path to progress is marked by honest give and take among people who truly want to make life better for those around them.”

Northam was sworn in after fellow Democrats Justin Fairfax took the oath as lieutenant governor and Mark Herring was sworn in for a second term as attorney general.

The inauguration drew a pair of demonstrations: About two dozen people protested the controversial natural gas pipelines, shouting “water is life” during a moment of silence. A smaller group, United We Dream, demonstrated on behalf of immigrants.

Capitol Square officially opened to the public at 9:30 a.m., and by 11:30 a.m., the stands were full. Spectators came prepared with heavy coats and gloves to brave the cold. Hot apple cider was served in blue Northam cups that said, “The Way Ahead.”

After the swearing-in ceremonies, representatives of Virginia’s Indian tribes gave a “Blessing of the Ground” for the new administration. Then the inaugural parade began, featuring dozens of groups from across the commonwealth. Cadets from Northam’s alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, marched across the grounds, saluting the new governor.

Northam’s first executive order was signed immediately after the parade. It “prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, political affiliation, or against otherwise qualified persons with disabilities in Virginia state government.”

Among the parade participants with a connection to Northam was the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters. Northam served as a pediatric neurologist at the Norfolk hospital for 25 years. He said the lessons he learned there, including the importance of hope, will stay with him during his four years as governor.

“I have recognized the incredible power of hope and my responsibility to preserve it in the people I serve,” Northam said. “Hope is not just a source of comfort for the afflicted – it is a wellspring of energy to fight for a better tomorrow, no matter the odds. I am committed as your governor to fight every day for the hope that tomorrow will be better – for all of us, not just some of us.”

3 Legislators Call for Stricter Pipeline Standards

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Three Democratic legislators from western Virginia said Thursday they would fight for stricter environmental standards if authorities allow the construction of two natural gas pipelines across the state.

Dels. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke and Chris Hurst of Blacksburg joined Sen. John Edwards of Roanoke at a news conference to discuss their concerns about the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, which many environmentalists and rural Virginians oppose.

“We cannot authorize the building of pipelines, but we sure have the right to protect our water,” Rasoul said. He hopes the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will come out against the projects.

“To us it’s clear that we are going to be able to make the case to DEQ moving forward that these pipelines are not safe,” Rasoul said.

Hurst said the Atlantic Coast Pipelines and Mountain Valley Pipeline are not done deals.

“There are still several ways for these pipeline projects to be stalled, delayed or canceled altogether,” Hurst said. “My feeling all along has always been what we need is more rigorous data collection.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline would run 303 miles from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. The companies that have proposed the pipelines say they are important for meeting the region’s energy needs and will create jobs.

The Federal Environmental Regulatory Commission approved the pipeline projects in October, but opponents are continuing efforts to block them.

The Roanoke-area legislators expressed concerns over water-quality standards and procedures that FERC and DEQ applied to the proposed pipeline projects in Virginia.

Hurst has introduced HB 1188, which would require ground-water testing and monitoring of all pipelines of a certain size.

“It would apply to the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” Hurst said. “That means we’re going to need daily monitoring of these pipelines to make sure that if anything does go wrong, we can put a stop to the transmission of that gas until we fix things.”

The three legislators are optimistic that fellow Democrat Ralph Northam, who will be sworn in as governor on Saturday, will work with them to address concerns about the pipelines. Edwards called Northam an environmentalist who shares their stance on the issue.

“We call on Gov. Northam and the DEQ to immediately take and appreciate the full authority we have as a state to protect our water resources,” Rasoul said. “We think it is very clear, other states have done so, and we need to do the same.”

Rasoul said legislators can’t stop the construction of pipelines but they can erect a firewall of environmental standards to mitigate the potential impact of such projects in the commonwealth.

Hurst said the issue isn’t just about the collective environment but also about the property rights and safety of Virginia citizens.

“What we’re focused on is ensuring that landowners’ rights are protected, and what we can do to try and stave off any potential negative consequence or catastrophe that could happen if these pipelines are constructed.”

Religious Leaders Call for Expanding Health Care

By DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A statewide group of religious leaders urged the General Assembly on Thursday to expand Medicare and Medicaid.

Organized by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the team of multi-denominational and multi-religion officials represented 850 faith leaders from across Virginia. They said their goal is to bring health care to the 300,000 Virginians who would benefit from expansion of Medicare and Medicaid.

Expanding access to health care would help alleviate the opioid crisis and create 15,000 jobs in hospitals and clinics, the center said.

“It is not a matter of charity to extend health care to people who do not have access to health care. It is a basic moral law and act of human decency,” said Imam Ammar Amonette of the Islamic Center of Virginia.

Health care in the state has been a hot topic in recent weeks. During a public hearing on the proposed state budget for 2018-2020, over half of the more than 80 speakers supported expanding programs like Medicaid.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe urged the General Assembly to do so during his State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday. And Virginia House and Senate Democrats announced Thursday that Medicaid expansion is their top goal for this legislative session.

In past years, Republicans have blocked the idea, fearing it would be a financial burden on state government. But this year may be different, said Kim Bobo, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

“We believe that Medicaid expansion is an opportunity and that we have a great chance to make it happen this year. The legislators on both sides of the aisle are interested in the issue. So we just need to get enough people to say yes,” Bobo said.

Her group has been working to achieve that goal – by circulating petitions, writing letters and meeting with legislators. The Interfaith Center will hold its annual advocacy day on Jan. 23.

“I’m a little worried that we are going to not be able to hold all of the people because so many people want to come and be a part of this,” Bobo said.

Higher Ed Advocates Lobby Legislators

By Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- College educators and students across Virginia took to the offices of state legislators Thursday to make their case on Higher Education Advocacy Day. Participants met with lawmakers to discuss the importance of higher education and the need for support from the General Assembly.

Justin Moore, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University studying chemical life sciences and engineering, was among the participants. He met with legislators to remind them to think of college students when they’re “making decisions on the floor.”

“I’ve spoken to representatives about the importance of continuing to finance state institutions to a degree in which it’s affordable for students to pursue higher education and degrees that come along with that,” Moore said.

Representatives came armed with statistics that they handed out to legislators. From 2008 to 2017, they said, spending per student in Virginia decreased by $1,069, putting a greater financial burden on students.

While the advocates generally support Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed budget regarding higher education, they are seeking a salary increase of at least 2 percent for faculty.

The citizen lobbyists argued that more benefits would attract and help maintain top faculty members. Participants urged lawmakers to support a bill by Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, to provide tuition waivers for dependent students of faculty members.

The event drew representatives from universities across the state, including Randolph-Macon College, George Mason University and VCU. They handed out position papers to senators, delegates and their assistants and spoke to them about the issues at hand. The students said they wanted to  put a face on the issue of funding higher education.

The Virginia General Assembly has just begun the 2018 session, so it was difficult for those lobbying to meet directly with a lawmaker. Advocacy Day participants often had to go through an aide or assistant to communicate their positions.

Jennifer Moon, legislative assistant to Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester, met with a group from VCU: Moore, Ph.D. biochemistry student Briana James and faculty members Sarah Golding and Joyce Lloyd. Lloyd is a professor in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics at VCU as well as the director of training programs for the Center of Health Disparities. She said having students in attendance helped the message get across.

“I want to make sure legislators are keeping in mind that higher education is suffering a little bit and that we need some attention at this moment,” she said.

Golding is a professor of biology and works for the Center of Health Disparities. She said  students have suffered because of VCU’s tight budget.

“We’re at a point where that cannot go on,” she said. “We need our students to be able to pay off their loans, and we also need to be able to retain our best faculty.”

Virginia Grocery Investment Fund Seeks to End ‘Food Deserts’

By Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A ​bipartisan group of public officials urged the General Assembly on Thursday to create a Virginia Grocery Investment Fund to help attract supermarkets to food deserts in the state.

Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe was joined by senators and delegates at a news conference in support of legislation to create the fund.

Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe included $7.5 million in his proposed 2018-20 budget to establish the grocery fund within the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, and Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, have joined to sponsor SB 37, which would provide funding to build or expand grocery stories in underserved communities.

“I have carried many bills,” Stanley said, “but not as important as this one.”

In the House, HB 85 is being sponsored by Dels. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, and Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond.

“It’s 2018, terms like ‘food desert’ should not be part of our vocabulary, but it is. We should not have hungry Virginians, but we do,” Bell said.

More than  1.7 million Virginians, including 480,000 children, live in low-income areas with limited supermarket access. These areas are often called food deserts -- communities where residents are unable to access fresh produce, lean meats and other nutritious food.

“It’s not a political issue, it’s a human issue,” Stanley said.

Through the fund, private-public partnerships leveraging state dollars with private money will be made to provide one-time, low-interest loans or small grants. The objective is to encourage such food retailers as grocery stores or innovative food retail projects to open or renovate  markets in underserved communities. Supporters say that would also provide new jobs.

The investment fund would have a goal of working with more than 15 healthy food retail projects, with an average of 40 new and retained jobs per grocery store.

New and existing businesses in at least 18 localities have confirmed interest in seeking low-interest loans and grants to expand and create new healthy food retail operations, supporters said.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a similar program in October that would bring new grocery options through the Neighborhood Prosperity Fund. The $3 million investment is to begin in September.

“We’ve worked for four years to expand food access across Virginia, and this legislation will move us forward,” Dorothy McAuliffe said on Twitter after the news  conference.

“It’s a right for all Virginians and Americans.”

Like Florida, Virginia Seeks Offshore Drilling Exemption

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov.-elect Ralph Northam asked Thursday that Virginia be exempt from the Trump administration’s plan to open almost all of America’s offshore waters to drilling.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Northam cited his childhood growing up on the Eastern Shore as testament to the region’s worth to Virginia and the country at large.

“The Chesapeake Bay and the Commonwealth’s ocean and coastal resources are every bit as ecologically and economically valuable as those of Florida,” Northam said.

Last week, Zinke proposed allowing offshore oil and gas drilling in nearly all coastal waters of the United States. But on Tuesday, following objections from Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Zinke said Florida would be exempt from the plan.

Northam’s letter asked “that the same exemption be made for the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

The letter follows Northam’s previous statement condemning the Trump administration’s drilling proposal. Governors of other East Coast states – including Maryland and North and South Carolina – have also voiced objections.

Northam said offshore drilling would pose financial risks to Virginia. He said he was concerned about military assets in Hampton Roads, which account for “nearly half” of the region’s economy, and about the tourism and seafood industries. Northam said Virginia is “the leading seafood producer on the East Coast, the third largest producer in the country, and the national leader in hard clam aquaculture.”

Zinke has called the drilling plan part of “a new path for energy dominance in America.” In a press release last week, he said oil and gas drilling would have vast financial benefits, providing “billions of dollars to fund the conservation of our coastlines, public lands and parks.”

The Trump administration will take public comment on its proposals from Jan. 16 through March 9.

Northam called on the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to hold public hearings in Hampton Roads and on the Eastern Shore. He noted that the bureau has scheduled a public meeting for the proposal in Richmond, “nearly 100 miles from the coastal communities that would most feel its impacts.”

Outgoing Governor Urges Lawmakers to ‘Work Together’

 By Chelsea Jackson and Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe delivered his farewell State of the Commonwealth Address on the opening day of the General Assembly’s 2018 session, making a final plea for legislators to expand Medicaid and saying the state is in good hands as he passes the baton to a fellow Democrat, Ralph Northam.

With a smile, McAuliffe took the podium Wednesday night before a joint session of the House and Senate as he announced his pleasure to address the General Assembly “one final time.” The Republican side of the chamber appeared silent while Democratic lawmakers stood, cheered and banged their desks in appreciation.

Once again, McAuliffe urged the General Assembly to expand Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for low-income Americans.

“The chief issue that demands your attention is making a clear statement that, in a new Virginia economy, health care is not a privilege for the few – it is a right for all,” McAuliffe said. “Put the politics aside. It’s time to expand Medicaid in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

In his address, McAuliffe said that at his inauguration, he promised to maintain the state’s reputation for strong fiscal management, to make Virginia the greatest place in the world for veterans, military service members and their families, and to be a brick wall to protect the rights of women and LGBT Virginians from discrimination.

“Four years later, we have kept those promises,” McAuliffe said. “And we are a Commonwealth of greater equality, justice and opportunity for all people as a result. That is a legacy we can all be proud of.”

McAuliffe spoke not just to legislators but to everyday Virginians as he recited progress the state had made during his term.

“In the coming years, I hope you will build on that foundation by using your voices and your votes to make Virginia more equal, more just and more prosperous for all people, no matter whom they are, where they live or whom they love,” McAuliffe said.

He took notice of political battles, such as Republicans suing him for contempt when he attempted to restore, in one fell swoop, the voting rights of about 200,000 felons who had completed their sentences.

McAuliffe established the record for the most bills vetoed during his time in office – a total of 120.

“I absolutely hated having to veto a record 120 bills – but those bills took Virginia in the wrong direction,” McAuliffe said. “They attacked women’s rights, equality for LGBT people and access to the voting booth. They hurt the environment, and they made Virginia less safe. I honestly wish they’d never made it to my desk.”

McAuliffe received several standing ovations during his address, but perhaps the loudest followed his statements regarding Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who was killed protesting a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville in August. Everyone on the floor took the moment to stand and applaud for the remarks about Heyer.

McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was elected governor in November 2013, defeating Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli.

During his term, Republicans had a two-thirds majority in the House of Delegates, making it difficult for McAuliffe to pass his key priorities, such as expanding Medicaid. But Democrats made big gains in last fall’s elections. As McAuliffe leaves office, the GOP holds a slim margin in both the House and Senate.

“Virginia is a different place than it was four years ago, and for that we should all be proud. But there is still more work to do,” McAuliffe said.

He later added, “As I look across this room, I see many new faces. The people of Virginia, in their wisdom, have made significant changes to the composition of this General Assembly with a simple message in mind: work together to get things done.”

In their response to McAuliffe’s speech, Republicans took issue with his rosy assessment of the state’s economy. They said that Virginia has been eclipsed by other states and that McAuliffe has neglected rural areas, especially the coalfields of Southwest Virginia.

“With fierce competition between states to attract and retain businesses,” said Del. Benjamin L. Cline, R-Rockbridge. “Virginia simply cannot afford to stagnate. Our past achievements will not sustain a prosperous future.”

Sen. A. Benton Chafin, R-Russell, said McAuliffe put Virginia at a competitive disadvantage with other energy-rich states.

“The last four years has seen some very pitched and contentious battles here in Richmond,” Chafin said. “Gov. McAuliffe began his term by initiating and championing a nearly four-month-long budget stalemate. Now, he is concluding his term by advancing the very same proposals that nearly resulted in our first-ever government shutdown.”

A Last-Minute Guide to Governor’s Inauguration

By Christopher Wood and Irena Schunn, Capital News Service

Richmond is buzzing in anticipation of the gubernatorial inauguration that will take place Saturday at the Virginia Capitol.

The swearing-in of Ralph Northam as the commonwealth’s 73rd governor is a historic event with a turnout predicted in the thousands. Though tickets for special seating are no longer available, attending the inauguration is free and open to the public.

Here’s a guide to help you get in on the action or simply to better prepare for what the day might bring.

Schedule of Saturday’s events

9:30 a.m. – Gates open to the public at Capitol Square.

Noon – The inauguration ceremony begins on the South Portico of the Virginia State Capitol, as Northam takes the oath of office. Also, Justin Fairfax will be sworn in as lieutenant governor, and Mark Herring will take the oath of office for a second term as attorney general.

1 p.m.– The inaugural parade begins. The parade route will move east from Grace Street and will circumnavigate Capitol Square.

2-4 p.m. – Open House at the Executive Mansion. Pamela Northam said the first family is “looking forward to welcoming Virginians into our new home for the first time.”

8 p.m.– The inaugural ball will begin at Main Street Station (ticket required).

What to expect

About 4,000 people are expected to attend the inauguration and parade, according to the Northam Inaugural Committee. If you don’t plan on attending, stay away from the Capitol as several streets will be closed starting Friday.

For attendees, several portable toilets will be placed in various locations on the Capitol grounds.

Where to take in the action

The last chance to get tickets for the inauguration was Tuesday, but you can still get a good view of the event. Capitol Square – southeast of Ninth and Broad streets – will be open to the public. Two screens streaming the event will be set up on either side of the Capitol.

About the parade

The parade will feature organizations from across Virginia including NASA, SemperK9 Assistance Dogs, Virginia Teachers of the Year, Charlottesville Cardinals Wheelchair Basketball Team, the Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail Fiddlers and Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters (where Northam, a native of the Eastern Shore, is a pediatric neurologist).

The Corps of Cadets from Virginia Military Institute, the incoming governor’s alma mater, will march in the parade as well.

There’ll even be a national and international star: Deborah Pratt, Virginia’s fastest oyster shucker who again will represent the U.S. in the International Oyster Opening Championship in Ireland.

Weather

The bad news is that it’s supposed to rain on Saturday. The good news is that the National Weather Service predicts the rain will end by 8 a.m., giving way to partly sunny skies and highs in the mid-50s.

Security

When gearing up to go the Capitol, pack light. Security screenings will be set up at each of the two entrances to Capitol Square. Though most prohibited items come as no surprise, some banned objects, such as umbrellas or plastic bottles, are not so obvious.

Although it probably won’t rain during the event, if you want to come prepared for wet weather, opt for a raincoat – not an umbrella.

Here is a list from the inaugural committee’s websiteof items banned from the event: weapons of any type, hazardous materials, pepper spray or mace, umbrellas, glass or plastic bottles, coolers, laser pointers, tripods, sticks or poles, aerosol containers, air-horns, tools, scissors, needles, razor blades and fireworks.

Traffic, transportation and parking

Parking for the inauguration will be open to the public at the parking decks at 14th and Main streets, Seventh and Franklin streets, and Seventh and Marshall streets.

A complimentary shuttle service provided by the Northam Inaugural Committee will be available for public use. The shuttle will run from the Quirk, Omni and the Jefferson hotels directly to Eight and Broad streets. The shuttle will drop off passengers every 10 minutes between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. After the parade, the shuttle will reroute, taking passengers from the drop-off point back to the hotels.

Road closures might pose a problem for motorists trying to drive through downtown. Ninth Street and Bank Street bordering the Capitol grounds will be closed from 7 p.m. Friday through 6 p.m. Saturday. West of the Capitol, about 10 blocks will be closed from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. The closures include Grace and Franklin streets from Eighth Street to Adams Street.

Pastor Preaches Forgiveness at Legislative Breakfast

By Alexandra Sosik, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Eric Manning, pastor of the Charleston, S.C., church where white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine parishioners in 2015, delivered a message of reconciliation and unity Wednesday at the 52nd annual Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast.

Republican and Democratic legislators were joined by their families, lobbyists and constituents at the Greater Richmond Convention Center for a time of community and devotion to kick off the opening day of the 2018 General Assembly session.

Gov. Terry McAullife provided opening remarks and a prayer for Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, who will be sworn in Saturday.

“Thank you for the honor, privilege and support over the past four years,” McAullife said, adding that serving as governor was the “privilege of my life.”

Northam encouraged legislators to work together during the 2018 legislative season.

“We all have good intentions, and those are to serve our constituents and to serve this great commonwealth,” Northam said. “My prayer to all of you today is that we could root for each other, that we could work together and make Virginia a little bit better today than it was yesterday.”

Among public officials and community members who spoke were Attorney General Mark Herring, who said a prayer for the armed forces and safety personnel, and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who gave tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Local music group Urban Doxology also performed a rendition of “Be Thou My Vision.”

It was the Rev. Manning, however, who delivered the main message in which he emphasized forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation as the recipe for a successful General Assembly session.

“When you forgive, something happens,” Manning said. “No longer do you have animosity, no longer do you strive against that person, but you do the best you possibly can do to help that person along the way. Because when you begin to help someone, then you are making a difference.”

Manning urged the legislators to practice forgiveness with each other the same way parishioners of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were able to forgive Roof after he murdered nine people at a Bible study session on June 17, 2015. The church, often called Mother Emanuel, was founded in 1816 and is one of the oldest black congregations in the South.

During a court hearing shortly after the slayings, relatives of the murder victims told Roof they were praying for his soul. “I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, whose mother was killed by Roof. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Manning challenged the legislators to turn toward what binds them together rather than turning attention to their differences.

“My prayer would be that when they are discussing or debating, or whatever bills they’re working for, just pause for a moment,” Manning said. “In that most high point of the debate, let us learn how to walk together. Let us remember to walk together, to help someone along the way. Because when that happens I believe that the commonwealth becomes that place where God would have them walk together.”

Legislative Black Caucus aims to help disadvantaged

By George Copeland, Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus pledged their commitment Wednesday to legislation that would help underprivileged Virginians by bringing improvements in education, health care, the economy and the criminal justice system. 

Outlining their agenda on the first day of the 2018 General Assembly session, caucus members said at a news conference that increased Democratic representation in the House of Delegates and the election of Justin Fairfax as lieutenant governor were a boon for the group’s goals.

“We are in a great position to pass some legislation that will benefit all Virginians,” said Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance, D-Petersburg, who presented the caucus’ policies for health care.  “Not only is Medicaid expansion the right thing to do, but it will save Virginians money. Right now, we have the opportunity to be on the right side of history.”

Newly elected  Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge, announced 10 criminal justice bills stemming from her experience as  a public defender to ensure a state that was “smart on crime” rather than punitive.

Del. Delores L. McQuinn, D-Richmond, emphasized the importance of  healthy and affordable food for marginalized communities.She pledged the caucus’ support for the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund, which she said would also create jobs in the private sector.

“We know that it works; it has worked across the country,” said  McQuinn, “and we are pushing this as one of the ways of bringing economic prosperity and wellness to the various communities.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, summarized the caucus’ slate of education policies. She said caucus members “would fight any legislation that diverted public school funds to private schools.”

Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, said caucus-backed voting rights bills would make voting a constitutional right for non-violent felons and lower the voting age to 16 for local elections. The caucus is also supporting redistricting reform, and said that ballot confusion in the 28th District led to an “injustice” in the defeat of Democratic hopeful Joshua Cole.

“We want to ensure something like that doesn’t happen again, said Del. Rasoul.  “We firmly believe that voting is not a privilege, rather that it’s our due as Americans and Virginians.”

Near the start of the conference, new Caucus Chair Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, introduced Lt. Gov.-elect Fairfax as the “21st member” of the caucus.  Fairfax highlighted the caucus’ part in the November Democratic victories and described his future role in the Senate as “breaking ties in favor of progress.” Fairfax said he was looking forward “to working with every single one of these brave leaders.”

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