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2018 Capital News Service

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.”

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Official Portrait Unveiled

By Scott Malone, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Look closely at Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s official portrait and you’ll spot an alligator.

The new painting that will hang in the state Capitol carries a subtle reference to a part of the governor’s colorful political history.

“As far as I know, Gov. McAuliffe is the only American governor who has ever wrestled an alligator,” Gavin Glakas, who painted the portrait, said when it was unveiled Wednesday at the Executive Mansion.  “So you have to be looking for it, but there’s a little alligator.”

The portrait will be displayed among those of McAuliffe’s predecessors on the third floor of the state Capitol.

Glakas, who paints and teaches at the Yellow Barn Studio in Glen Echo, Maryland, spoke before a crowd that included Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. Glakas said he began painting the portrait in April, working off and on until he finished on Friday.

As to the alligator, it’s a reference to a fund-raising stunt by the governor when he worked for President Jimmy Carter’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in 1980.

When it came to the overall setting of the portrait, however, McAuliffe went traditional -- he wanted the painting to show him at work, Glakas said.

“We could’ve set (the portrait) at Monticello, with the setting sun in the background,” said Glakas, whose paintings also hang in the U.S. Capitol and other prestigious locations. “But the governor wanted to talk about work—he wanted to be at work. So I knew we had to set it in his office.”

In the portrait, McAuliffe stands behind his desk with his right hand over documents on “the restoration of rights,” Glakas said. During his term as governor, McAuliffe restored the voting rights of about 170,000 felons who had served their prison time

 “I did get sued twice by the Virginia General Assembly for my restoration of rights,” McAuliffe joked, turning to Northam. “I’m the first governor to get sued for contempt of court. I’m not sure, but I’m hopeful you will, because you’re leaning in on those issues.”

Glakas described the governor’s expression as “relaxed and in charge.” However, it might also be seen as slightly stiff. “This is not something, if you know my personality, that I’m really into,” McAuliffe said. “A portrait, really?”

Incoming and Outgoing Governors Outline Priorities

Gov.-elect Ralph Northam

Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (CNS photo by Lia Tabackman)

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As a priority for the legislative session that begins Wednesday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Gov.-elect Ralph Northam are calling for universal background checks for gun sales.

“These measures are crucial for the safety of our communities,” McAuliffe said, citing a 51- percent increase in gun homicides in Virginia over the past five years.

Currently, only federally licensed firearms dealers must administer background checks. Under the proposed legislation, the background check requirement would be expanded to all dealers, including gun shows and private sales.

The Democrats held a joint press conference Tuesday to outline their priorities for the 2018 session of the General Assembly, in which Republicans have a narrow majority in both chambers.

Northam, who will be inaugurated as governor on Saturday, urged lawmakers to approve “no excuse” absentee voting. Under the proposed legislation, any registered voter could cast an absentee ballot, in-person, within 21 days of Election Day.

“Why would we make it more difficult for people to vote on Election Day?” McAuliffe asked. He called the proposal non-partisan and said it would simplify the voting process and decrease lines and waiting times on Election Day.

Northam and McAuliffe also advocated expanding access to Medicaid for 400,000 Virginians currently without health coverage. The two officials expressed support for language in the 2018-20 budget to provide Medicaid to Virginians who make too much to qualify under the program’s current income limits but can’t afford private health care.

During the 60-day legislative session, Northam also plans to pursue proposals to:

  • Ensure that campaign contribution funds donated to candidates and elected officials cannot be spent for personal use.
  • Raise the threshold for felony larceny from $200 to $1,000.
  • Implement a Borrower’s Bill of Rights and create a state ombudsman for student loans.
  • Have Virginia join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a market-based program to reduce carbon emissions. Virginia would be the first Southern state to join RGGI.

Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, called the RGGI proposal “historic.”

“This announcement is likely the boldest single legislative commitment ever made by a Southern governor in the fight to reduce global warming pollution,” Tidwell said. “It marks a new era for Virginia and the nation. Even as federal efforts tragically shrink on climate change, state efforts are heroically growing – and Ralph Northam is now proof of that.”

Senate Democrats Announce Legislative Plans

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Senate Democrats said Tuesday they are excited to work with Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and continue Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s progress in this year’s General Assembly session.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Mamie Locke of Hampton said Virginia generated more than 200,000 new jobs and has enjoyed a “thriving economy” under McAuliffe.

“Virginians want economic security,” Locke said. “We must keep trends moving in the right direction. It is incumbent upon us to ensure no Virginian is left behind.”

She spoke at a telephone press conference during which the caucus outlined its agenda for the 2018 legislative session, which begins Wednesday. The agenda’s theme is “building safe, secure communities.”

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, said the Democrats plan to continue to push to expand Medicaid, the health care program for low-income people funded by the federal and state governments.

Barker said that under Medicaid expansion, Virginia’s savings would outweigh the state’s share of the cost.

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, emphasized the Democrats’ commitment to improving conditions for working women and families by fighting to close the gender pay gap and achieve paid family leave.

“Parents should never have to choose between caring for a sick child and earning a day’s wages,” Ebbin said. “Access to paid family leave is not only the right thing to do – it makes good business sense.”

Sens. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth and Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg highlighted issues like ensuring quality education and voting rights and decreasing the incarceration recidivism rate. Lucas emphasized the achievement gap for students of color and disabled students. The Democrats said they plan to fight for universal pre-K and 21st-century job training, giving more Virginia students the opportunity to succeed.

Dance said the Democrats will continue McAuliffe’s efforts to restore voting rights to released inmates who served their sentences. She also mentioned implementing “no excuse” absentee voting, especially for the elderly.

“Every Virginian should have an opportunity to succeed, regardless of mistakes they have made in the past,” Dancesaid. “These people need to know their votes matter. Voters should choose their politicians, not the other way around.”

The senators also discussed plans to reform mental health and substance abuse treatment, citing long wait times. Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, said Virginia must reform the system and ensure quality, affordable services for those who need help.

“We have to do these things this year, and I am confident we will,” Barker said.

New Immigrant Rights Legislation Aims to Protect Undocumented Virginians

IMG_3346

Margie Del Castillo, associate director of community mobilization at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. (CNS photo by Adam Hamza)

 

By Caitlin Barbieri and Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights called on the General Assembly Tuesday to pass legislation to provide driver's licenses and in-state college tuition to certain undocumented immigrants

Coalition members and student supporters spoke at a news conference advocating for legislation that would improve the lives of undocumented immigrants. Del. Jennifer Boysko, D-Herndon, attended to show her support.

“While Virginia cannot create a path to citizenship for undocumented students, Virginia does have the power to create opportunities for them,” Boysco said. 

Boysco plans to propose legislation that will give undocumented immigrants access to a state driver’s license. Virginia resident Gustavo Angels spoke at the meeting to express his support for such a bill.

“Drivers will be more likely to stay at the scene of an accident, aid police or other emergency workers and exchange insurance information with other drivers,” he said. “It would allow many community members to feel more comfortable reporting a crime or involving the police when they need help.”

Jung Bin Cho is a recent Virginia Tech graduate and registered as an undocumented immigrant through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2012. Because of DACA, he was able to work and go to school as an undocumented immigrant. Cho said his own access to a driver's license allowed him greater access to jobs. 

“It’s important [to have a driver's license] in Virginia because, I think, you need that to be successful,” Cho said.

Boysco has proposed HB 343, which expands eligibility for in-state tuition to students who have applied for legal residence or intend to apply.

“All Virginians benefit when each of our young people fulfill their greatest potential,” Boysko said.

“There are thousands of unfilled jobs in Virginia that require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. We need an educated workforce to continue to build a new Virginia economy. These students are our neighbors, our friends, our coworkers, and family. I believe in building a more just and inclusive Commonwealth.”

When asked about the obstacles to the bill, Boysko said, “Some members of the House of Delegates believe that undocumented immigrants should not benefit from in-state tuition.  Clearly there are those at the federal level of government who hold those views.

“I hope that in Virginia we can do better.  The economic benefits of an educated workforce and the moral imperative of treating all of our young people fairly is the right choice for Virginia.”

Women’s Equality Coalition Releases Legislative Agenda

By Sarah Danial and Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Women’s Equality Coalition is supporting  a legislative agenda focusing on issues  ranging from Medicaid expansion and birth control to redistricting and no-excuse absentee voting.

Coalition representatives from Progress Virginia, Community Mobilization for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and their supporters called on lawmakers to advance rights and programs for women and families. 

Coalition members said they are focusing on three umbrella issues in legislation they hoped to see filed and considered this session -- women’s health, economic justice and democratic participation.

In addition to Medicaid expansion, no-cost birth control and ensuring a right to abortion, the group supports workplace and economic reforms. It backs legislation to raise  the minimum wage in Virginia to $15 an hour, establish pay equity  and combat employment discrimination. The group additionally wants improvements in paid family and medical leave.

The coalition also supports the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

At its news conference Monday, the group also called for non-partisan redistricting reform and no-excuse absentee voting.

‘“Every citizen has the right to make their voice heard, but in too many parts of Virginia, women don’t have a say in choosing their representatives because the election outcome has already been rigged,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia.

 “Non-partisan redistricting reform and no-excuse absentee voting would allow women to more fully participate in our democracy and give responsible Virginians across the Commonwealth the ability to have their voice heard, even if they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day.”

Joyce Barnes,  a home health care worker and a member of the Service Employees International Union, spoke in support of the coalition.

“I work for minimum wage, and I currently have two jobs. I don’t get home until 10 p.m.and I miss time with my family and friends. I never get a vacation or time off  because I have to put food on my table and pay my rent,” she said. “We need to pass these bills so that women like me can live like everyone else and get the compensation they deserve.”

Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, noted that Virginia is one  of 19 states that has not expanded Medicaid. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam has said that Medicaid expansion will be a priority in the coming legislative session.

Keene said legislation that would confirm abortion as a fundamental right and prioritize birth control said it is “a common sense bill which makes Virginia lives better.”

Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Virginia General Assembly. A spokesman for the Senate Republican Caucus declined to comment on the coalition’s goals. Requests for comment to the Family Foundation, which seeks to “empower families in Virginia by applying a biblical worldview” to public policy. were not returned.

More information about the Women’s Equality Coalition and its legislative agenda is at vawomensequalitycoalition.org.

Transportation Secretary Defends Tolls on I-66

By Ryan Persaud and Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A month after the fury over what many drivers considered excessive tolls on Interstate 66, Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne defended the tolls, saying they are necessary for increasing the flow of traffic on the highway in Northern Virginia.

The tolls, which vary based on demand and amount of traffic, have reached as high as $44 for a 10-mile drive since they were implemented on Dec. 4.

“I would’ve anticipated that happening a lot lower than the $44, but it did not,” Layne said. “People chose to pay it, but it was a choice. Our other option is we could just limit the road when it reaches a certain level [to] HOV users. The issue with that is that we’re taking away that choice for the people who want to pay it.”

Layne spoke Tuesday to the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Transportation Accountability. His report came a month after Del. Tim Hugo of Fairfax, who chairs the House Republican Caucus, called the I-66 tolls “exorbitant” and “unacceptable.”

The tolling is in effect weekdays only, during rush hours and in the peak direction, on about 10 miles of I-66, from Route 29 in Rosslyn to Interstate 495.

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, said the high tolls are a result of a lack of state funding for road projects.

“This is all symptomatic of not having enough money to begin with to build the highways,” Wagner said. “We’re having to do these unique types of programs to build these highways.”

Del.-elect Danica Roem, a Democrat from Manassas, told Layne about constituents hit hard by the tolls. They included a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who must drive by himself as a part of his treatment. The constituent said that avoiding the tolls added 45 minutes to his commute.

Layne insisted that commuters can take alternate routes such as Route 50 and the George Washington Memorial Parkway. But another constituent Roem spoke to said he commutes from Manassas Park to Georgetown and cannot take any alternate pathways. The driver stated that he does not know how to budget his money due to the varying tolls.

“That’s the beast of the dynamic tolling process: You don’t know what it’s going to be each day until the time you get there because it’s basically volume control,” Roem said. “He [the constituent from Manassas Park] had a number of concerns with this.”

Layne said the revenue from the tolls goes toward funding other transportation projects.

“They will help pay for the road construction; they will help pay for multi-modal transportation and operation of the road,” Layne said.

After monitoring the corridors surrounding I-66 and alternative routes, Layne said that so far the data indicated no significant change in travel time on those routes.

“We need to continue to monitor this, and it may require that we do adjustments, but as of right now we do not see any significant impact to these parallel corridors,” Layne said.

Last month, Hugo released a statement criticizing Layne and Gov. Terry McAuliffe on the toll rates.

“Governor McAuliffe has gone on TV several times this week saying $40 toll prices are the way ‘it’s supposed to work.’ I could not disagree more,” Hugo said. “The hard-working people of Northern Virginia should not be forced to get a part-time job to be able to afford to drive to their full-time job.”

These are Layne’s final days as the commonwealth’s secretary of transportation. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam has appointed former Lynchburg lawmaker Shannon Valentine to the position.

Blizzard hits Hampton Roads; freezing temperatures across Va.

By Christopher Wood, Capital News Service

A “bomb cyclone” brought blizzard conditions to Hampton Roads and left frigid temperatures across Virginia on Thursday as it moved up the East Coast.

The storm dumped up to 12 inches of snow in southeastern Virginia localities, forced the closure of the Port of Virginia and cut power to more than 26,000 Dominion Virginia Power customers in the region. Service to all but a few thousand was restored late Thursday, the utility said on its website.

Snowfall amounts ranged from 4 to 8 inches in the Williamsburg area and 2 to 3 inches around Richmond, according to the National Weather Service.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency Wednesday afternoon in advance of the storm that struck a broad swath of eastern, central and Northern Virginia.

As the storm moved up the East Coast it brought blizzard conditions to New England. Boston appeared to record its highest tides in nearly 40 years.

The Virginia Department of Transportation reported that more than 630 roads were affected by storm and urged caution as wind-chill temperatures from zero to 5 below could make pavements dangerously slick. The National Weather Service issued a wind chill advisory for storm-stricken areas.

Motorists were urged to check www.511virginia.org or call 511 before traveling.

Virginia State Police in the Chesapeake and Richmond divisions responded to 356 crashes and 409 disabled vehicles. No fatalities or serious injuries were reported.

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management advised caution during the continuing cold weather. Before the storm there were at least three weather-related deaths in Virginia, the agency said.

Citizens in need of assistance were asked to call 211. Those with hearing impairments can call 711 for the Virginia Relay Center and then call 800-230-6977. Out-of-state or videophone users may also dial that number.

Governor Declares Emergency As Snowstorm Nears

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – State officials on Wednesday urged Virginians to prepare for a winter storm that could dump up to a foot of snow on parts of the commonwealth over the next few days.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency at 2:20 p.m. Wednesday, authorizing state agencies, including the National Guard and Virginia State Police, to assist local governments in responding to the storm, which may impact roads and bridges.

The sudden cold snap follows temperature drops across the Southeastern United States, including a rare snowfall in South Carolina. Parts of Eastern Virginia, including Hampton Roads, the Northern Neck and Eastern Shore, are expected to receive the most snowfall – up to 12 inches.

“With this forecast in mind, all Virginians should take the necessary precautions now to ensure they are prepared for the travel disruptions, power outages and other threats to health and safety that could arise during this significant weather event,” McAuliffe said in a press release.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is already at work, according to Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne.

“VDOT has already taken measures to pre-treat roads and preposition equipment, crews and materials to treat roads in advance of the storm and will work throughout the storm to plow roads,” Layne said. “Driving conditions during the storm are expected to be hazardous, and motorists are urged to stay off the roads until the storm passes.”

State officials encouraged residents to keep track of road conditions by accessing the 511virginia.org website, using the free VDOT 511 mobile app or calling 511. VDOT also has a Snow Plow Tracker that shows the location of most plows.

Other help and assistance during the storm can be reached by dialing 211 or #77 on mobile phones for vehicular emergencies. Virginians with hearing impairments can call 711 for the Virginia Relay Center and then 1-800-230-6977.

Virginians Urge Legislators to Expand Medicaid

By DeForrest Ballou and Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A procession of health-care advocates urged state legislators Wednesday to expand Medicaid and increase funding for Virginians with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

At a hearing on the state budget that the General Assembly must craft this spring, dozens of speakers expressed support for expanding Medicaid – an idea advocated by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and other Democrats but opposed by most Republican lawmakers.

The speakers included Nichole Wescott Hayes, a volunteer for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.

“ACS-CAN is part of a larger coalition of health-care-related agencies, Healthcare for All Virginians. And we are trying to expand Medicaid so that we can cover the gaps of the 300-some-thousand individuals who are without coverage at this time,” Hayes said.

“The whole ‘Virginia is for Lovers’ is not just about tourism; it’s about helping each other. That’s kind of the bedrock of what Virginia is about.”

Medicaid, which is funded by the federal and state governments, provides health care for low-income Americans. The federal Affordable Care Act encouraged states to expand Medicaid and promised that the federal government would pay for it. But most Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly fear that the state would be stuck with the bills if it expands Medicaid.

Health care was the dominant topic at the hearing. Of the 82 speakers, roughly half addressed that issue.

For instance, Kelly Brookes of Henrico County has a daughter with cerebral palsy. She advocated for more equitable education.

“My child should not have to prove that she is capable of learning, which she absolutely is,” Brookes said. “She should be able to receive the same education as other kids.”

Rachel Deane, who works for a nonprofit group called the Legal Aid Justice Center, said it’s important to attend events like hearings on the state budget.

“I think it’s always just a good opportunity for us to be at a budget hearing and to talk directly to members of the General Assembly about what funding we need for youth to be successful,” Deane said.

The center provides legal representation for low-income individuals. Deane is the legal director for the group’s program serving children.

Her goal at the hearing was to ask for funding of programs that could keep children out of the correctional system. She sat alongside a group wearing tan shirts with the words, “Guide us, don’t criminalize us.”

Mark Strandquist also addressed the legislative panel. Strandquist is the creative director for ART 180, another program run by the Legal Aid Justice Center. During his presentation, he played a recording of children who have been helped by ART 180.

“We literally view our role as being a megaphone for youth whose voices have been silenced. That’s why I literally played audio recordings made by the youth over the microphone,” Strandquist said.

The General Assembly will convene next Wednesday for a 60-day session. The major item on the agenda is to write the state budget for the next two years.

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