Capital News Service

Virginia 10th State to Pass Domestic Worker Protections

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed multiple bills providing protections and benefits for the state’s domestic workers.

 House Bill 2032, introduced by Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, extends employee protection laws to domestic service workers that allows them to file complaints regarding workplace safety. The Commission of Labor and Industry would investigate such claims.

Domestic worker is defined as an individual paid either directly or indirectly for services of a household nature performed in or about a private home. This includes jobs such as “companions, cooks, waiters, butlers, maids, valets and chauffeurs.” The bill states that domestic work does not include jobs that are irregular or uncertain. 

This bill will affect around 60,000 workers in Virginia, according to Erica Sklar, a national organizer for Hand In Hand, a national network of employers of domestic workers pushing for better working conditions. Lawmakers said 90% of the workers are women and half are women of color.

“Virginia is the 10th state to pass legislation like this,” Sklar said. “There's also two cities that have passed this legislation, Seattle and Philadelphia.”

Domestic workers were exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which outlined protections such as a 40-hour maximum workweek and minimum wage requirements. Political scholars say that Southern Democrats joined with Republicans in opposition to the FLSA. A Congressional bill introduced in 2019 sought to repeal the exemption and also expand coverage to domestic workers under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against discrimination in employment.

Alexsis Rodgers, the Virginia state director of the advocacy group Care in Action, said she wants people to understand the challenges of being a domestic worker. Care in Action is a nonprofit that advocates for millions of domestic workers in the nation. Domestic workers are excluded from workplace protection policies, which many lawmakers had not previously considered, Rodgers said.

“Sometimes it’s having a new idea or concept introduced and taking a little more time to educate lawmakers,” Rodgers said. “We’ve certainly seen progress along the way.”

The original bill would have covered domestic workers under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act, but that portion of the bill was removed, Rodgers said. She hopes the act will eventually include domestic workers.

Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, also introduced a bill this session advocating for domestic workers’ rights. The General Assembly passed HB 1864, which expands the definition of employer in the Virginia Human Rights Act to protect domestic workers from workplace discrimination. The act prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and other factors. 

 Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, carried Senate Bill 1310, which includes domestic workers in employee protection laws, including laws regarding the payment of wages. The bill also extends protection to domestic workers from workplace discrimination.

"These were jobs that were originally done for free under slavery and then were limited jobs available to African American women,” McClellan said when introducing her bill. “As part of Jim Crow they were excluded from minimum wage, workers’ comp, the Human Rights Act, our OSHA laws, our unemployment comp laws—not just here in Virginia, but throughout the South and at the federal level." 

McClellan said she is passionate about fighting for domestic workers’ rights.

“I understand from my own family experience how important domestic work is,” McClellan said. “We trust domestic workers to care for our loved ones in our homes, and their work allows other people to work.”

Opponents of Gooditis’ measure worried over the protocol that allows for a residence to be inspected when a domestic worker files a complaint. Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said before the bill’s passage that he worried “the government will now be able to enter an employer's house without a search warrant if this conference report is agreed to.”

“My concern about this is that now we’re setting up a system where if you have someone who performs childcare in your home or cleans at your home, now the government is going to be able to come in to inspect that residence,” McDougle said.

McClellan said that in order to conduct an inspection officials will need permission from the owners of the residence or workplace. 

“No one would be able to come in without a warrant in the scenario that the senator from Hanover just described,” she said. “Again, there will be no inspections without the consent of the owner, operator of the workplace.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Two Bills Advance to Facilitate COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia House and Senate have unanimously advanced separate bills to facilitate administration of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

House Bill 2333, introduced by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond, intends to strengthen the state’s vaccine distribution efforts and also bolster data collection.

The measure removes barriers on health care providers’ eligibility to conduct vaccination. Any person licensed or certified by the appropriate health regulatory board, who is in good standing within the past 10 years, can volunteer to vaccinate. This includes nurse practitioners, physician assistants and pharmacy technicians. The bill also allows anyone to volunteer whose license was in good standing within 10 years before it lapsed.

Health profession students enrolled in statewide accredited programs who have been properly trained in vaccine administration will also be allowed to volunteer. 

The bill directs the Virginia Department of Health to establish a program where eligible individuals may volunteer and complete training. 

Institutions such as hospitals, medical care facilities and universities would be able to volunteer their facilities as vaccine administration sites.

The bill also requires the collection of race and ethnicity data of people receiving the vaccine. Bagby said during the House meeting that this will ensure a more equitable vaccination rollout. The bill also allows higher education institutions to assist VDH with data processing and analytics.

“(This emergency legislation) is essential to making Virginia safely and efficiently distribute the COVID-19 vaccine supply we will receive from the federal government,” Bagby said.

VDH does not mandate reporting data based on race and ethnicity, but vaccine providers are asked to enter such data, states the organization’s website. Over 300,000 vaccines have been administered without data collection of race or ethnicity, according to the department’s vaccine dashboard.

A similar bill cleared the Senate unanimously last week. That measure, introduced by Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant, R-Henrico, does not require data collection on race and ethnicities. Dunnavant’s bill, Senate Bill 1445, allows anyone licensed or certified by the Department of Health Professions with good standing to volunteer, including those whose licenses were in good standing within five years prior to lapsing due to retiring. 

Del. Israel D. O’Quinn, R-Bristol, chief-co patron of the House bill, said during the meeting that despite the two bills he “has no doubt that we can work through those differences expeditiously.” 

The bill’s House passage on Tuesday came hours after President Joe Biden announced efforts to increase the country’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines by 200 million by the end of summer.

The Biden Administration plans to distribute weekly a minimum of 10 million doses to states, tribes and territories. The move would add 1.4 million doses per week than what’s currently being distributed. Biden’s administration said it will try to maintain the distribution for at least the next three weeks.

Roughly more than half a million Virginians have been vaccinated as of Wednesday with at least one dose. That means nearly 67% of the available first doses Virginia received were administered, according to the VDH vaccine dashboard. Over 488,000 total COVID-19 cases have been reported in Virginia as of Wednesday. The 7-day positivity rate is over 12% throughout the state.

 "People want to help," O'Quinn said. "I think we can put a lot of people to work utilizing their skills that have been honed in our communities."

The bills now head to the other chambers.

Lawmakers Advance Voting Rights Act of Virginia

By Cierra Parks, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- On the first day of Black History Month, legislators advanced a bill to help ensure voter protection for Virginia citizens. 

House Bill 1890, also known as the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, cleared the House in a 55-45 vote. 

Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, modeled the bill after the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Price’s bill aims to eliminate voter suppression, intimidation and discrimination through changes in voting laws and practices by election officials. 

“Though the original Voting Rights Act was passed on the federal level in 1965, there are still attacks on voting rights today that can result in voter suppression, discrimination and intimidation,” Price said during the bill’s hearing. “We need to be clear that this is not welcome in our great commonwealth.”

 The bill prohibits localities from influencing the results of elections by “diluting or abridging the rights of voters who are from a protected class.” The measure defines the protected class as a group of citizens protected from discrimination based on race, color, or membership in a language minority group. 

The bill also requires voting materials to be made in languages other than English if certain criteria are met. 

“HB 1890 requires that changes to voting laws and regulations be advertised in advance for public comment and evaluated for impact on Black, Indigenous and people of color communities,” Price said while speaking about the bill. 

The bill allows the attorney general to sue if a locality or official violates election laws. Fees or fines that are won in the lawsuit will go to a Voter Education and Outreach Fund established pursuant to the bill’s passage. The fine for a first offense can not exceed $50,000 and fines for a second offense can not exceed $100,000.

Barbara Tabb, president of the Virginia Electoral Board Association, believes that attaching fines to the bill has the potential to scare off election officers.

“This will result in definitely a much harder time in recruiting our election officials,” Tabb said. "That’s my concern about it.”

Price said this bill is important because the attack on the Voting Rights Act has not stopped since 1965. She said the landmark law was “gutted” on the federal level with the Shelby County v. Holder case in 2013.

“What this [HB 1890] will do is restore some of those protections and allow for Virginia to say, ‘We believe in the full Voting Rights Act and we know that it’s needed,’” Price said 

Legislators have passed a number of recent laws to make voting easier, including making Election Day a holiday, allowing early, in-person voting and permitting no-excuse absentee voting. 

Price said she compiled examples of voter suppression ranging from moving polling places off public transit lines, or from a community center to a sheriff’s office.

“Voter suppression doesn't always look like taking a box of ballots and throwing it out,” she said. “It can be implicit, it can be unintentional.”

Price said she worked with several groups to ensure the bill ends discrimination and voter suppression. In addition to community advocates, she consulted with lawyers currently representing impacted voters, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Advancement Project and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Senate Bill 1395, the sister bill in the Senate, was introduced by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. The bill has been referred to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee. 

Delegate Tries Again to Advance Paid Sick Leave Bill

By Zachary Klosko, Capital News Service

RICHMOND,Va. -- A Virginia House of Delegates committee advanced a measure into appropriations that would provide some essential workers with paid sick leave.

House Bill 2137, introduced by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, reported out of the House Labor and Commerce committee Thursday in a 13-8 vote along party lines. 

This is Guzman’s latest effort to pass a paid sick leave bill. Guzman’s previous legislation died in a Senate committee during the Virginia General Assembly special session held last year.

Employees would earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, according to the bill. Businesses would be required to allow employees to start earning paid sick hours immediately upon hiring. Paid sick leave can be carried over to the following year.

Employees eligible for paid sick leave include first responders, educators and retail workers. 

Supporters and opponents continue to share similar praises and concerns they had with Guzman’s previous paid sick leave bill. The delegate said she made the bill broader this session based on feedback she received from legislators.

Representatives from the Virginia Poultry and Virginia Retail federations cited concerns of additional business regulation and costs. Concerns were also raised about the broad terms of the bill’s hardship waiver, which would allow businesses to opt-out of offering paid sick leave to employees if they can prove doing so would jeopardize business.

“It's difficult to say at this time if the hardship waiver would be beneficial for an employer since it leaves broad direction to the department and the standing offices,” Jodi Roth, a lobbyist with the Virginia Retail Federation, said during the bill’s hearing.

Guzman said she intends for the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, or DOLI, to provide more specific guidelines for opting-out once the bill is passed. The bill requires businesses to provide “evidence demonstrating that providing paid sick leave threatens the financial viability of the employer” in order to opt-out.

Last year the General Assembly voted to incrementally increase Virginia’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026. The first minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour will occur on May 1.

The bill would cost DOLI roughly $420,000 for the 2022 fiscal year, and then roughly $320,000 per year onward, according to the bill’s impact statement.

Kim Bobo, the executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center of Public Policy, said during the subcommittee hearing that the organization remains in favor of the bill.

“It will allow us over time to demonstrate that a paid sick day standard is not a hardship for business, but rather an essential benefit that should be available to all workers,” Bobo said.

The organization is a non-partisan coalition of all faiths that is focused on justice reform, according to its website. The organization strongly supported Guzman’s previous paid sick day bill during the 2020 special session.

“Certainly, we in Virginia want to say, ‘paid sick day is a standard,’” Bobo said.

This is the fourth paid leave bill Guzman has brought before the House since 2018, according to legislative records.

“This is a priority for the House Democratic Caucus,” Guzman said. “We definitely have 55 or 54 votes.”

Guzman’s bill was referred to a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

Central Virginia food bank provides hunger relief during pandemic

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – When COVID-19 was declared a national emergency at the beginning of March, Feed More, a hunger-relief organization serving Central Virginians, was serving roughly 161,000 food-insecure individuals. 

Fast forward to early June, Feed More was assisting more than 241,000 food-insecure individuals, according to Doug Pick, CEO and president of Feed More. 

“It (the pandemic) increased the number of folks that weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from by about 50%,” Pick said.

That 50% increase, he said, was largely from those who were newly unemployed as a result of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity throughout Virginia and across the country. With 2020 coming to a close, food insecurity is lingering in many Virginia households as hunger-relief organizations and local officials scramble to curb one of the pandemics’ consequences.

Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as limited or uncertain availability or accessibility to nutritionally adequate food. Nearly 10% of all Virginians -- or almost 843,000 people -- are struggling with hunger, according to Feeding America, a nationwide hunger-relief organization.

An additional 447,000 Virginians will experience food insecurity because of the coronavirus pandemic, Feeding America estimates. Across the country, millions of Americans have lined up in their cars or by foot for miles at food banks awaiting their next meal.

Nationwide, food banks also have to grapple with the dilemma of increased demand while maintaining their agencies network. In 2019, Feed More distributed about 32 million pounds of food, Pick said. This year, he estimates the organization will distribute between 40 to 44 million pounds of food. The nonprofit distributes food with the help of agencies, including churches, emergency shelters, rehab centers, soup kitchens and other organizations. 

“We worried about that network collapsing because most of those agencies are run by volunteers, and a lot of them are seniors,” Pick said. At one point this year, Feed More lost 13% of its 270 agencies.

Feed More did not witness the phenomenon of long lines other regions experienced and was able to meet the community’s food crisis, Pick said. 

“We put out some guiding principles early on that said: stick with our infrastructure, never abandon the infrastructure you built unless you have to,” Pick said. “So, we didn't panic.”

Those guiding principles upheld Feed More’s mission while adhering to COVID-19 safety precautions. 

Feed More’s Meals on Wheels program usually serves meals daily, but it is now delivering these meals frozen, once a week. The organization’s community kitchen that preps approximately 20,000 meals a week now is divided into two kitchen spaces – a prepping kitchen and a cooking kitchen – in two separate buildings, according to Pick.

Recent research found that the number of families who experienced food insecurity increased by 20% in the United States as a result of the pandemic. The study was co-authored by Elizabeth Adams, a postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center. 

“We all know (the pandemic) had so many profound effects across so many aspects of people’s lives and has gone on for a long time,” Adams said.

The study methodology surveyed households across the country in late April and May with different food security levels – high food security, low food security and very low food security – about food consumption during the pandemic.

The survey saw a 73% increase in home cooking across all food security levels. The amount of in-home food availability increased 56% for food-secure families but decreased 53% for low food-secure families.

“For very low food-security families, we saw an increase in pressure to eat,” Adams said, “which means that parents are pressuring their children to eat more.”

Adams said she hopes the government takes notice of the data on how widespread food insecurity is across the country, which she said disproportionately affects low-income Black and Hispanic families. 

While bringing awareness to the importance of government assistance programs and other food assistance initiatives, Adams called for these programs to “really up the benefit that they are providing at this time, because we see that a lot more people likely need them.”

Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, saw an increase in enrollment during the initial months of the pandemic’s spread in the United States, reported the New York Times. According to data collected by the New York Times, SNAP grew 17% from February to May, three times faster than any prior three-month period.

In March, 687,984 Virginians were enrolled on food stamps. That number jumped to 746,608 the following month, an 8.5% increase, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Since March, eligible Virginians have been granted SNAP emergency benefits during the pandemic, according to The Virginia Department of Social Services. The agency recently expanded these benefits through December, with more than 245,000 households eligible for emergency benefits.

The state recently launched the Virginia Roadmap to End Hunger initiative that seeks to end hunger by developing policies, programs and partnerships.

Feed More and its partners had a stable food supply and community support because of government assistance, Pick said. Such assistance includes the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Food banks, such as Feed More, and other nonprofits were able to give out family-sized boxes of produce and meat products that the department purchased from farmers and distributors affected by the closure of restaurants and other food-service businesses.

Northam also announced in November $7 million in Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act funding. The funding will be allocated to the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, which Feed More is a member.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the already serious problem of food insecurity in Virginia and across the country,” Northam stated in a press release. “This funding will help Virginia food banks and other food assistance programs meet the increased demand for their services and ensure every Virginian has continued access to nutritious food during these challenging times.”

Feed More will use its allocated $1 million to provide refrigeration, freezer, racking and vehicles to its partner agencies.

However, Pick said he is concerned for the following year as the pandemic continues. He said there needs to be long-term government policies to address food insecurities beyond food banks’ control. 

“The food banks have always been here for emergency purposes. When people get to a tight bind,” he said. 

For now, Pick said Feed More will continue its best to provide food assistance to Central Virginians.

“The need is out there,” Pick said. “The jobs are not coming back overnight, and this (food insecurity) is just going to continue on.”

Alternate: Advocates, inmates want more from DOC as COVID-19 spikes

 

By Joseph Whitney Smith and Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va -- Prisons are divided into “zones.” Inmates have been given personal protective equipment. Visitation is canceled. Testing has ramped up. Still, the positive COVID-19 cases continue to climb within Virginia prisons.

The Virginia Department of Corrections reported on Dec. 10 that there are 593 active cases among inmates and 227 among staff, which includes employees and contractors. There have been over 5,200 positive COVID-19 cases and 35 deaths reported among inmates since late March. More than 1,250 staff cases have been confirmed since the spring.

The recent spike in cases came after a dip in October and November, which followed a flurry of positive cases in September. Outside of prisons, COVID-19 is rippling through the state with a new high daily record reported this week. 

Advocates question the safety of inmates and why the virus has spread so quickly in prisons that are removed from day-to-day activities that contribute to spread. 

Eden Heilman, the legal director of the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, said that Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper County has received multiple complaints from inmates regarding the facility’s handling of the virus. Almost 600 inmates at Coffeewood have tested positive for COVID-19—the prison ranks third in the state with the most cases. 

“I know the department is working really hard and the state is working really hard to address these issues,” Heilman said. “That being said, I think that there are a lot of problems with the way that the Department of Corrections and the state have handled the spread of COVID-19.”

Keith Hill, an inmate at Buckingham Correctional Center located outside of Dillwyn, informed the Coalition for Justice that there have been issues with proper isolation within cells and that individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 have not been properly isolated from inmates who haven’t contracted the virus. The Coalition for Justice is a Virginia-based nonprofit that seeks to drive positive social change. 

However, VADOC said prisoners with COVID-19 are separated from others. Offenders who test positive are placed in medical isolation so they don't infect others and treatment follows the department's COVID-19 medical guidelines, according to Lisa Kinney, VADOC spokesperson. 

Prisons are divided into three “zones” to help mitigate the spread of the virus, according to VADOC spokesperson Greg Carter. The red zones are COVID-19 areas, yellow zones are quarantined areas or busy areas with undifferentiated patients, and green zones are low traffic areas and places with no known COVID-19 cases and no symptomatic offenders. 

Christopher Wright, an inmate of over five years at Coffeewood, contacted a Capital News Service reporter by phone. He said the facility was doing a good job until they took in transfer prisoners from Buckingham Correctional at the end of September. Wright said he tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 4.

Wright said that in order to create more social distancing at Buckingham, inmates were sent to Coffeewood. There are three active COVID-19 cases currently at Coffeewood. The facility has reported a combined 590 positive cases among inmates. Buckingham currently has 118 positive cases on site and reported a total of 345 positive cases. Both facilities rank within the top five for most combined cases among inmates.

VADOC suspended facility-to-facility transfers in March. Carter said that transfers remain suspended except “under special circumstance,” warranted by medical or security issues. He did not have information on which transfers have been completed. 

VADOC provides inmates with masks, gloves, gowns and face shields, Kinney said in an email. Inmates and employees are required to wear personal protective equipment at all times, Kinney said. The department also provides oxygen on-site and inmates are transported to hospitals if necessary, she said.

Kinney said VADOC spent approximately $2.7 million through June 30 on PPE, hand sanitizer and cleaning and sanitation supplies. The department anticipates it will spend an additional $2.5 million from July 1 through Dec. 31.

VADOC is also manufacturing masks for use by staff and inmates at its four apparel plants. The agency said in March that they hoped to produce 15,000 masks per day. 

Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said during a Nov. 15 press conference that close to 50,000 tests had been administered in prisons. Moran said that roughly 3,812 inmates recovered from the virus. In November, VADOC said it began weekly testing of infirmary staff.

Bryan Lewis, an epidemiology expert at the University of Virginia, said although he doesn’t closely follow the number of cases or distribution of protective equipment within prisons, that “clearly there have been sizable outbreaks in the prison system.”

 “So one could conclude that perhaps the current levels of PPE and the stringency of infection control measures have not been sufficient to keep disease at bay,” Lewis wrote in an email. “In some ways this is an impossible situation, either you have to cut off visitors and institute very strict screening etc. on employees, and even if you do, eventually the disease will get in somehow.”

VADOC did not respond to an inquiry asking how effective the zones are given the spikes in new cases. VADOC was asked to elaborate on what could be contributing to the increase in cases, and if it was planning to change anything about its procedures, such as the zone management of inmates. 

VADOC has issued guidance on food service for inmates and staff throughout the pandemic.

Margaret Breslau, a chair of the Coalition for Justice, said she has received multiple letters containing complaints by inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“They’re shutting kitchens down, so they developed an emergency menu,” Breslau said.

VADOC created an emergency two-week menu in March to be used in the event of reduced staff. The menu consisted of items such as boiled eggs, hotdogs or chicken patties for lunch, served with chips and MoonPies or a fruit snack. Whether or not it was implemented, Breslau said, “no one in the administration is saying so, but given what is being reported, it sure seems to be the case.” Breslau said that in some places this menu has lasted for a long time.

VADOC did not respond to two CNS inquiries asking if the emergency menu was still in place, or if food service was operating as normal.

Multiple prisons within the state have reported outbreaks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Five prisons with the most confirmed total cases and deaths include: Deerfield (835 cases), Greensville (690), Coffeewood (590), Dillwyn (350) and Buckingham (345). Deerfield has the state’s largest population of older inmates, and an assisted living unit on site. Many have physical disabilities or medical issues, according to VADOC.

VADOC reports daily the cases from 40 state prisons. Jails in Virginia are run locally and overseen by the Board of Local and Regional Jails. More than 230 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Chesapeake Correctional Center in Chesapeake County as of November, according to a news release. 

The Virginia General Assembly approved a measure earlier this year that allows VADOC to release inmates with less than one year left to serve in their sentence while the COVID-19 emergency declaration is in effect, according to a press release. Offenders convicted of a Class 1 felony or a sexually violent offense are not eligible for consideration. The exact number of individuals eligible for early release consideration will change depending on the length of the emergency declaration order. Part of the criteria considered for early release also includes that the inmate has a low recidivism risk ranking and an approved home plan, according to VADOC’s website

Regarding early release for inmates with COVID-19, VADOC is moving incredibly slow and is tied up in a “bureaucratic review process,” Heilman said. As of Dec. 8, 786 inmates had been issued early release, according to VADOC. Almost 430 inmates have been released from local jails whose cases fell under VADOC jurisdiction.

Wright, who said he is serving an 8.5-year sentence for robbery that ends in three years, is frustrated by the pandemic and the lack of attention to issues in the prisons. He said “nobody really cares about us.”

“We're the bottom of society,” he said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Women in academia report increased gender gap amid COVID-19

By Katharine DeRosa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – Political science professor Deirdre Condit put up a sheet as a makeshift door for her home office to maintain privacy when she started teaching from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Condit, who has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond since 1994, knows what it’s like to juggle work and home life. She said that while the house is often thought of as a woman’s space, women tend to have less places designated for productivity. “Man caves” have existed in family life, Condit said, and women are beginning to claim spaces such as “she shacks” to cultivate home territory.

“It’s harder to build that separation,” Condit said.

Women in academia are publishing less than they were before COVID-19. Gender gaps have long existed in the workplace, but the pandemic appears to be exacerbating them, according to a recent review authored by Merin Oleschuk, a sociology professor at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada.

Oleschuk tracked the gender gap with research publications. She found that reports about international studies, political science, economics, medicine and philosophy have increased in number, but these reports are being authored by women at lower rates.

In heterosexual partnerships, women tend to bear more childcare labor, according to Oleschuk’s study, which focuses on gender inequities in academia. Oleschuk’s study also pointed out that studies about childcare burden and gender equity often assume heterosexual, nuclear families, which leaves out large demographics of women without children; women with nonmale partners and single women.

Condit said that women in queer nuclear families face the same situation as heterosexual families, since “somebody has to pick and choose” who will watch the children. She added that queer nuclear families are already at a disadvantage since women on average make less money than men. 

U.S. men’s median weekly earnings were $1,104 in the third quarter of 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women’s median weekly earnings totaled $902 during that time period, or 81.7% of men’s earnings. Women face career interruptions in the workplace due to motherhood more often than men do due to fatherhood, according to the Pew Research Center. Reduced hours, taking time off, quitting jobs and refusing promotions all contribute to more career interruptions for mothers.

“The really tough situation is for single parents or single elder care providers, since you have no one else you can hand off every part of it to,” Condit said.

Kimberly Brown, an associate professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at VCU, said that as a professor, her performance is based most heavily on research. 

Research is one of the three criteria considered for VCU faculty seeking tenure, an indefinite academic appointment. The other two are teaching and service, according to VCU’s website

Brown said that in addition to racism in the workplace, women of color disproportionately bear the emotional labor of students which can contribute to a lack of productivity. She said Black students were coming to her in increasing numbers this summer due to “dealing with overt racism, overt images of police brutality being often put in their face on social media.”

“I was trained to be a literature professor, not a psychologist,” Brown said.

Brown described emotional labor as emotional support without compensation and said that as a Black woman the labor is exhausting. 

“I’m feeling the same sort of ways,” Brown said.

Brown suggested that student evaluations of professors be reconsidered during this time, since many professors haven’t been trained in online teaching. She said that students should be more lenient with professors if professors are expected to be more lenient with students in the face of online learning.

In light of the pandemic, teaching faculty in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences will receive a default “excellent” rating on evaluations, according to an email Jennifer Malat, the college’s dean, sent to faculty. 

However, faculty who don’t perform their duties will not receive “excellent” ratings, Malat said. Evaluations include “multiple dimensions,” Malat said in a statement to Capital News Service. Faculty will receive feedback on their performance as well as recommendations for how they can improve their research, teaching and service in the future.

“A strategy for evaluations during the pandemic was challenging,” Malat said to CNS. “Many faculty, like students and staff, faced challenges in their work and personal lives. The committee recommended reducing stress on the particular rating of the evaluations and focusing on comments that will help improve performance in the future.”

Brown also suggested that universities extend the amount of time between promotions, colloquially known as tenure clocks, to allow professors more time to research. 

There have been more than 50 requests for tenure clock extensions by junior faculty on the Monroe Park campus at VCU, according to Mary Kate Brogan, public relations specialist at VCU.

Oleschuk’s publication created 10 suggestions for universities navigating tenure promotions, including providing a one-year extension to tenure track faculty, taking teacher evaluations out of consideration during the COVID-19 pandemic and excusing nonessential service requirements for those with caregiving demands.

“I don't think that it's fair to evaluate a person for a situation nobody predicted was going to happen,” Brown said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virtual learning a mixed bag for special education students, teachers

Marjorie Loya and a Softball team with Special Olympics. Photo Credit: Marjorie Loya

By Hunter Britt and India Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Sebastian and Gabriel Saxon wake up at the same time every day and log into online classes. Sebastian has Cerebral palsy and is diagnosed with autism. Gabriel has hearing loss and wears hearing aids. 

The twins’ mother, Judi Saxon, said that Google Meet, the platform used to conduct online classes, has worked well for her sons, who are freshmen in high school this year. 

“They're both rule followers,” Saxon said. “They like a routine.” 

Saxon said she is involved in her sons’ education and the special needs community. Her husband, Michael Saxon, sits on the Board of Directors of Special Olympics Virginia. She said that switching to all virtual learning was an adjustment, but it had a positive effect on her teenage sons.

“Our family is pretty low key, and our boys are not super sports fans, and they don’t have a lot of extra curricular activities,” she said. “So they weren't really missing out on that. And they are homebodies, so they really enjoyed it.” 

The COVID-19 era has restructured education for everyone, especially students with disabilities. The lack of peer interaction has negatively impacted some students with disabilities, while allowing others to thrive in the digital classroom, according to parents and educators.

The Virginia Department of Education reported a decrease in fall term enrollment for all students, including students with disabilities. Enrollment for students without and with disabilities declined by 3% and 4% respectively from the 2019 to 2020 academic years, according to VDOE.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced guidelines in June for phased reopening of pre-K through 12th grade schools for the 2020-2021 academic year. The announcement prioritised special education students to return to in-person education before other groups. 

But many school districts, including Richmond, opted to remain remote since the beginning of the school year. Some districts are allowing only students with disabilities to return to in-person learning. VDOE Assistant Superintendent of Special Education Samantha Hollins said that for students with disabilities, the virtual learning environment may be more of a challenge.

State and public agencies are required to provide early intervention, special education and related services nationally to more than 6.5 million people with disabilities, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The VDOE oversees special education for children and youth with disabilities between ages 3 to 21. 

“It has become more challenging of course, but the students’ rights remain,” said VDOE spokesman Charles B. Pyle. “The services that are required to be provided to those students do not go on holiday because of the pandemic.”

Local school divisions offer special programs and resources for students with disabilities, but remote education may be inaccessible during the pandemic for such students who rely on hands-on education, according to Hollins. There are almost 168,000 students with disabilities in Virginia public schools, according to VDOE’s latest enrollment numbers. Disabilities range from intellectual and emotional to hearing and visual impairments, including the deaf and blind, Hollins said. 

“Certain populations of students are more at-risk and not able to access virtual learning or remote education as easily as other students, for example, students with disabilities,” Hollins said. “When you talk about students with disabilities, there is a pretty wide group of those students.” 

Students are often required to attend multiple courses per day via Zoom or Google Meet, including out-of-class assignments. Hollins said her department has provided a lot of information on assistive technology. For example, virtual education may be accessible to a hearing impaired student with screen reader software. 

“Students who have a visual disability, or blind, or a hearing impairment, or deaf, will require special tools to be loaded onto their Chromebook,” Hollins said.

The VDOE sponsors training and technical assistance centers across the state to provide support to teachers test-driving new technology, Hollins said. Public and private special education schools have a collaborative approach to improve educational services for students during COVID-19. According to VDOE, technology provided to public schools is accessible to private educational facilities. 

“We’ve had countless meetings with public schools during these difficult times,” said Sarah Ulmer, principal of Grafton School in Midlothian.

Grafton Integrated Health Network is a nonprofit with group homes and schools serving students with autism, intellectual disabilities and mental health challenges, according to its website. Seventy-four students are enrolled on the Midlothian campus, Ulmer said. During the COVID-19 mandated closure, students with disabilities received in-person instruction from their residential group homes, while teachers provided virtual instruction to students who do not live on-campus.

Although Grafton School reopened its community day school to in-person instruction five days a week, many parents have not sent their children to school, Ulmer said. 

“Our students benefit from learning with hands-on activities,” Ulmer said. “The teachers and clinicians have worked hard to create work activities that are sent home to our students to complete with their families.”

Distance learning plans at the school include individualized sessions throughout the week with the student’s teacher and assigned therapists.

Many educators as well as parents have differing views on online platforms being used for virtual education. Some also question how effective online education is as a whole and said it is a struggle for teachers and students. 

Donna Marshall, a special education teacher at Lakeside Elementary in Henrico County, said that both she and many of her students have had issues with the online format.

“It was very difficult for them at first,” Marshall said. “This is such a change for them. Many of them need different things like the sensory breaks, and it's really hard for them to just sit in front of a computer.”

The primary platform Marshall and her students use is Microsoft Teams. She said that while it works well in business settings, she believes that it is less effective in a classroom setting due to audio issues.

Marshall said that some of her students have done well with virtual education, but the format has had a negative impact on other students.

“I have seen several kids majorly regress because they don't have the in-person connection,” she said. 

Marjorie Loya, a Special Olympics coach and a retired special education teacher from Chesterfield County who is now a substitute teacher, said the biggest concern she has for the children learning virtually is the lack of interaction with peers.

“They just don't see the other kids, which is the shame,” she said. “That's the big piece that I see that they're missing. They're interacting with adults, but they're not interacting with their peers.”

Loya said she believes that online education in the special needs community is ineffective, especially in the long run.

“I don't think it's very good at all, because there's so many things, so many aspects that you can’t deliver services for,” she said. “Virtually, you just can't do it. One of the biggest issues that people with autism have is interacting with other people, and now we're taking almost all of that away and putting a computer between them.”

Anteal Gargiulo, a special education teacher at Goochland High School in Goochland, said that while some students she teaches have adapted well, others are struggling with the lack of structure and in-person interaction.

“My autistic kids that I thought were going to have the biggest issues actually have been more outgoing and verbal because they are on the computer, by themselves, and in their own space,” she said. “For other kids, the lack of structure has really thrown them.”

As a whole, virtual learning “has not been the best thing” for the special needs community because many students are used to teachers being physically present to help them, Gargiulo said.

“On a case-by-case basis, it’s been good for a couple of our autistic kids. As far as the rest of the kids, it has been a struggle because they don’t have the teachers right there with them.”

New Virginia laws seek to close ‘school-to-prison pipeline’

By Brandon Shillingford and Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va.-- The near future of in-person schooling is uncertain due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Virginia students will return to a system where several penalties for misbehavior have been taken off the table. 

Two new laws seek to stop criminal punishments in elementary, middle and secondary schools. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, sponsored two measures that passed the Virginia General Assembly earlier this year. The bills went into effect in July but have not yet been widely implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Senate Bill 3 prevents students from being charged with disorderly conduct during school, on buses, or at school-sponsored events. SB 729 removes a requirement that school principals report student acts that constitute a misdemeanor to law enforcement. These are acts that may be considered misdemeanors, such as assault on school property, including on a bus or at a school-sponsored event. 

McClellan’s bills are a victory, said Valerie Slater, executive director of RISE For Youth, a group that seeks to end youth incarceration in Virginia. 

“It gives the control back to principals in their own schools about what actions have to be taken further,” versus which actions can be handled within the school, Slater said.

Suspension and expulsion are used disproportionately against Black students, other students of color and those with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Those punishments, along with arrests at school, often lead to students having a criminal record, according to the NAACP. The trend is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

McClellan said she was compelled to introduce these bills after looking at data released by the Center for Public Integrity in 2015 and seeing that Virginia led the nation in nearly three times the rate of referral of students to law enforcement. She then worked with the Legal Aid Justice Center to find trends in what kind of behaviors were being punished and whether there were discrepancies involving which students were being charged. 

“When we started sort of digging into some of the cases that they had had, one of the biggest things kids were referred for was disorderly conduct,” McClellan said. “It was things like a kid on a bus in Henrico County was charged for singing a rap song and a kid in Lynchburg was sent to the principal's office and kicked this trash can on the way out of class.”

McClellan was the co-patron of bills in 2016 which addressed these issues, including a failed bill which would prevent students from being found guilty of disorderly conduct if the action occurred on school property, school bus or at a school-sponsored activity.

 Lawmakers also passed McClellan’s measure that relieved school resource officers from the obligation to enforce school board rules and codes of student conduct as a condition of their employment. Now that the Virginia General Assembly has a Democratic majority, House Democrats felt that they could pass other legislation to curb the school-to-prison pipeline, according to McClellan.

“The thing that happened in between is we had started making progress on the discipline side with things like suspensions and expulsions,” McClellan said. “And once you saw we could make progress on that, that gave us the confidence to try again with a new Democratic majority.”

A statewide analysis by Virginia Commonwealth University Capital News Service found that Norfolk City Public Schools in the Tidewater district had the most out-of-school suspensions in the state over the past five school years. This includes short-term and long-term suspensions. The data is from the Virginia Department of Education. A student is not allowed to attend school for up to 10 days during a short-term suspension, according to Virginia law. Long-term suspensions last 11 to 45 school days. Virginia students suspended from school are more likely to fail academically, drop out of school and become involved in the justice system, said a 2018 Legal Aid Justice Center report. 

Norfolk’s school district issued 21,223 out-of-school suspensions in the past five years. Norfolk school officials did not respond to a request for a statement by the time of publication. Richmond City Public Schools was the second-highest district with the most out-of-school suspensions (19,768). Virginia Beach, Newport News and Fairfax County public schools were also in the top five. The majority of students in Norfolk, Richmond and Newport News public schools are Black, according to VDOE 2020 fall enrollment data. Almost half of students in Virginia Beach are white and about a quarter are Black. Nearly 40% of students in Fairfax County Public Schools are white and almost 30% are Hispanic. Black students face out-of-school suspension at higher rates at a higher rate than white students in schools throughout the Central Virginia region. Even in districts such as Henrico and New Kent counties that are a majority white student population, often Black students were issued suspensions at a higher rate. Black students in Henrico faced out-of-school suspension almost five times the rate of white students in the 2015-2016 school year. Such racial disparity was presented to the Henrico County School Board as far back as 2012, in a published report analyzing the disproportionate suspension rate. 

Aside from incidents involving weapons, Slater said that instances of misbehavior in school should not be handled by law enforcement.

 “We should not be so quick to involve children in the justice system,” Slater said. “We know that after that first contact, the likelihood that there will be continued engagement exponentially goes up. Once a child has been engaged with the juvenile justice system, they’re more likely to be involved with the adult justice system.”

Slater praised McClellan’s legislation for taking away schools’ ability to charge students with disorderly conduct, saying that the criteria for being charged with that crime is too vague. 

“It basically says that ‘you have caused a disruption.’” Slater said. “Is wiggling in my seat causing a disruption? Is asking to go to the restroom, repeatedly, causing a disruption? Is clicking my pen a disruption? It’s so vague that it’s become a catchall for whatever a particular officer wants to say a student has done.”

David Coogan, a Virginia Commonwealth University English professor and author of the book “Writing Our Way Out,” teaches a writing workshop at the Richmond City Justice Center He said he has worked closely with incarcerated people whose criminal records stemmed from childhood. 

“Most broadly, it starts in the structure of society, before you even get to school,” Coogan said. 

Coogan said that he sees a pattern in the people he works with at the jail. Children who grow up with few resources and who experience trauma and violence in the school setting later develop addictions or become incarcerated—often both. 

“We all do stupid things as kids, as teenagers,” Coogan said. “When you’re Black and traumatized and living in poverty, the stupid thing you do, to fight back at a school resource officer, is going to land you in a juvenile detention center and it’s not fair.”

Though Coogan says McClellan’s bills are steps in the right direction, he believes that more still needs to be done. 

“If you think about all the money and time spent on school resource officers—who are like cops—we need to stop thinking about having cops in school,” Coogan said. “What if we had five times as many guidance counselors -- people with training to intervene? What if we had five times as many programs to keep kids engaged after school?”

McClellan agreed with Coogan, and said it starts with how adults in school treat kids. She pointed to cases in which kids with autism or other disabilities are treated unfairly or disciplined by adults who have no idea how to interact with them. 

“Everyone in the school building that interacts with kids, but especially school resource officers and school board members who ultimately make decisions about the code of conduct and discipline, need to have basic training on child brain development,” McClellan said.

Bakeries Overcome Challenges to Sell Sweet Treats

By Aaron Royce, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Local bakeries are rising to meet obstacles and setbacks produced by the coronavirus pandemic.

The year was marked with numerous restaurant closures, but most local bakeries remained open due to customers’ affection for sweets and through some strategic reinvention.

When Gov. Ralph Northam issued a lockdown in March, events were canceled and many businesses had to reduce operating hours.

One bakery that depends on events was hit hard but quickly adapted. Sweet Fix, located in Richmond, was threatened with massive financial losses when COVID-19 reached the U.S. Advance payments were postponed or gone entirely as customers downsized or canceled large event orders. The losses totaled over $40,000, Sweet Fix owner Amanda Robinson said.

Robsinson said five employees were laid off. She said non-refundable deposits helped keep Sweet Fix in business. The bakery implemented a policy requiring a 50% deposit for each order up front to help maintain revenue while facing a decline in orders.

“Trying to run a business with one person was a nightmare,” Robinson said. 

She worked 14-hour days and counseled couples whose wedding cakes she would have been designing.

“One of the challenges was trying to coordinate a date change with dozens of vendors who are also trying to coordinate date changes with dozens (if not hundreds) of their clients all eagerly seeking new dates,” Robinson said. “Some clients lost vendors who they were excited to work with as it was impossible to reschedule everyone on the same date.”

Robinson was able to bring some staff back in part-time roles. Without the typical flow of spring wedding orders, she began more curbside sales for birthdays and other events. As lockdown restrictions lifted, a steady flow of business—including weddings— returned to Sweet Fix.

“Oddly enough, the wedding inquiries are just as high as they’ve been,” Robinson said. “It’s hard for me because I know where we are still in the midst of this pandemic, so to think that people are just moving along as usual, like nothing’s going on, expecting 2021 to be absolutely normal,” Robinson said. She said she is concerned for a second coronavirus wave.

Whisk, in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom, is still providing customers with cakes, cookies and various sugary treats. Owner Morgan Botwinick said there were minimal employee losses despite the initial lockdown, and the bakery stayed open with reduced hours and customers. 

Botwinick believes Whisk operates by bringing customers positivity through food. She said it is “helpful for morale to be able to treat yourself, or treat someone else.”

“It brings a little bit of joy to their day,” Botwinick said.“You know, pastry is not something you have to eat, obviously, but it is—it’s a treat.”

Whisk also got a boost through online ordering, which Botwinick didn’t use before the pandemic. Now, it’s become a convenient way for bakeries like hers to more safely serve customers.

“I think the online ordering has really been the biggest new innovation that I see almost everyone doing,” Botwinick said. 

Reinvention has helped bakeries stay open with menu changes, revised hours and adapted business plans. Sugar & Salt, in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, opened its storefront in February. Owner Sara Ayyash said a lack of staff and supplies posed a strong threat to the new business. Despite those obstacles, Ayyash added new products. She started selling at-home baking kits with help from her brother and husband. 

“So, it was more of a, let’s try and think of new items with what we have to work with, and sell those,” Ayyash said.

One innovation came from a yeast shortage near the beginning of the pandemic. Ayyash replaced her menu’s donuts and cinnamon rolls with coffee cake and quiche—now Sugar & Salt staples.

Another adversary to the bakery business is that people are baking more at home during quarantine. Despite this, consumers have favored specific sweets that can’t be easily homemade. They appreciate “having the ability to just pick something up when they’re in need,” Ayyash said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Legal state marijuana sales could overtake illegal trade by year four

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia’s commercial marijuana market could yield between $30 million to $60 million in tax revenue in the first year, according to a new report by the state’s legislative watchdog agency.

The Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission released a report this month that explores how the commonwealth could legalize marijuana. The agency, however, did not give its take on legalization. Shortly after the report was released Gov. Ralph Northam announced that “it’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia.”

The state’s tax revenue could grow to between $150 million to more than $300 million by the fifth year of sales, according to JLARC. The revenue depends on the tax and demand of marijuana products. 

 Most states with commercial marijuana markets tax the product between 20%-30% percent of the retail sales value, JLARC said. Colorado, one of the most mature and successful U.S. marijuana markets, currently has a tax rate close to 30%, showing that while the tax may be high, the market could still be successful, said Justin Brown, senior associate director at JLARC. 

“But in reality, there's no magic rate that you have to use, and I think that's one thing that the other states' experience shows,” Brown said. 

Virginia decriminalized marijuana possession earlier this year. The substance is still not legal, but possessing up to an ounce results in a $25 civil penalty and no jail time. In the past, possessing up to half an ounce could lead to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. 

If the Old Dominion makes marijuana legal, it will follow in the footsteps of 15 states.

The legal marijuana market should overtake the illegal market in marijuana sales by the fourth year of legalization, JLARC said. The legal market could likely have two-thirds of sales by the fifth year of legalization. JLARC looked at the reported use rates compared to the use rates of other states to determine this figure, Brown said. 

“In the first year the minority of sales will be through the legal commercial market,” Brown said. “But then over time, particularly if supply and demand works out, you'll capture at least the majority of the full market through the legal market.”

JLARC said that if the General Assembly legalizes marijuana, the total sales tax would come out to around 25%-30%. This figure also came from the analysis of other states and how they taxed marijuana. 

The industry also could create over several years between 11,000 to more than 18,000 jobs, JLARC said. Most positions would pay below Virginia’s median wage. 

The revenue would cover the cost of establishing a market by year three, according to JLARC.

Northam said in a press release last week that his administration is working with lawmakers to finalize related legislation in preparation for the upcoming Virginia General Assembly session, which starts Jan. 13. 

Racial equity obstacles in Virginia’s push to legalizing marijuana

By Brandon Shillingford, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Could legalizing marijuana in Virginia help address social disparities and inequities? That’s one of the topics the state’s legislative watchdog agency explores in a new report examining how the commonwealth could legalize marijuana. 

The Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission report was published shortly before Gov. Ralph Northam announced he will support legislation to legalize marijuana in the Old Dominion.

Virginia decriminalized marijuana possession earlier this year and reduced possession penalties to a $25 civil penalty and no jail time for amounts up to an ounce. In the past, possessing up to half an ounce could lead to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. 

Northam said legislation should address five principles including public health and social, racial and economic equity.

The report addresses the establishment of a commercial marijuana industry that protects minors, prosecutes illegal sellers and maintains the state’s medical marijuana program. JLARC director Hal Greer said the study also examines ways legalization could benefit individuals and communities disproportionately impacted by past enforcement of marijuana laws. 

“As a first step in that effort, we analyzed data on marijuana arrests across the state in the last decade,” Greer said. “The data revealed a deeply troubling finding that Black individuals are being arrested for marijuana offenses at a much higher rate than others.”

The commission found that from 2010 to 2019 the average arrest rate of Black Virginians for marijuana possession was more than three times higher than that of white residents for the same crime—6.3 per 1,000 Black individuals and 1.8 per white people. This is despite the fact that Black Virginians use marijuana at similar rates as white residents. The conviction rate was also higher for Black individuals with marijuana possession charges. 

Over the last decade, Virginia has made about 20,000 to 30,000 arrests each year for marijuana-related offenses. Legalization and decriminalization would reduce marijuana related arrests by 84%, according to JLARC. Civil possession offenses would no longer occur if marijuana was legalized. Arrests would only take place if large amounts were illegally distributed, said Justin Brown, senior associate director at JLARC.

Legalization would eliminate some marijuana laws and create new ones, which would decrease some aspects of police work and increase others, the report said. 

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, a nonprofit pushing for the legalization of marijuana in Virginia, wants laws to allow the expungement of marijuana convictions.

 “Our platform is really to be a line of defense between Black communities as we legalize marijuana,” Higgs Wise said. 

Higgs Wise said Marijuana Justice seeks to repeal prohibition of marijuana, repair or expunge criminal records of Black Virginians who have been arrested for possession and begin the process of paying reparations to Black communities. 

Higgs Wise said she grew up watching family members such as her father suffer the consequences of unjust drug laws. Higgs Wise’s father was in and out of prison for non-violent drug offenses, she said. 

“I’ve been a child watching my family just having to struggle with housing, employment,” Higgs Wise said. “My siblings and I are first-generation college students trying to do better for our own legacy and family legacy.” 

Proponents of social equity argue that communities most affected by marijuana law enforcement should benefit from the commercial market if it were legalized, the JLARC report said. These communities would likely be composed of mostly Black Virginians since they have been arrested and convicted at the highest rates for marijuana related offenses, according to Greer. 

Social equity initiatives could include community reinvestment programs, providing business assistance programs to individuals in these communities, and promoting entrepreneurship and employment in the industry. 

“It looks like legalization is more on the minds of people but I will tell you that folks are looking at marijuana legalization as a way to fill gaps within our budget rather than really working to divert the revenue of cannabis that will be coming back into the communities that truly deserve it,” Higgs Wise said.

Virginia could not legally set aside business licenses for minorities, according to the report. 

“The main challenge for preference programs is ensuring that preferences flow to the intended parties,” said Mark Gribbin, JLARC chief legislative analyst. “Race cannot legally be used as a criterion.”

Individuals with a marijuana criminal record could be given preference for business loans, discounts or other assistance, but that may include unintended beneficiaries such as wealthy college students arrested for marijuana possession, the report said. Business assistance programs also can target individuals based on residence, but that includes new residents that have moved to a gentrified area. 

Another option is to provide business assistance and support based on an individual’s residence and marijuana criminal record. However, that method excludes people indirectly affected by marijuana law enforcement, such as an “eviction because of marijuana-related conviction of an immediate family member.” 

Brown said that some of the ideas in the report such as promoting entrepreneurship among the Black community were based on programs that have been implemented in other states. 

“I think what we've seen from other states is, you probably need to do more than that so we had some assistance programs that could be paired with that,” Brown said. 

Mentorships programs could partner startups with larger businesses so they can share administrative services and work space. 

“The idea is to set up some more experienced business owners so they could mentor less experienced business owners and try to help them compete in the marketplace,” Brown said. “We had to have options related to the licensing component as well as the assistance component for those people who get licenses.”

A 2019 report from the Portland City Auditor revealed that nearly 80% of recreational marijuana tax revenue went to public safety, which included money for police and transportation programs. The auditor concluded that the city needed to improve the transparency of tax allocation decisions and results. 

“I’m not confident that the General Assembly is truly thinking about a racial equity model, rather than just a way to bring in more revenue and that's something the people are going to have to bring forward,” Higgs Wise said. 

Northam said that in addition to undoing harm caused by racial discrimination, upcoming legislation should also include substance abuse prevention efforts in schools and communities. The governor said that any legislation must include protections for Virginia’s youth, including age limits and mandatory ID checks. Northam also said that legislation should ensure the state collects appropriate and ongoing information on safety, health and equity.

Once the General Assembly begins in January, there may be another formal presentation to legislators who may draft legislation related to legalization. 

“Our goal was to basically give them a menu of things they could do, and they could do all of these things or they could do some of them or they could do none of them,” Brown said. “Hopefully we gave them enough information to at least help them understand the various trade offs there across all those options.”

CNS reporter Ada Romano contributed to this story. 

Traditional Thanksgiving off the table for many

By India Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Many Americans are grappling with ways to make one of the nation's most celebrated holidays safe amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Richmond resident Caroline Kaschak will feast at home to protect at-risk elders in her family. 

“It is just going to be my husband and I,” Kaschak said. “We are going to order in fancy takeout instead.”

Colleges like Virginia Commonwealth University are offering COVID-19 exit testing to students before they return home for the holidays. Some Americans still have scheduled traditional Thanksgiving gatherings with their families. 

“I plan on going to my grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving,” said VCU student Rickaya Sykes. “They live in the same town as me, and we are very close. If I am not at home, I am at their house spending time with them.”

The Centers for Disease Control recently issued guidance for gatherings over the Thanksgiving holiday. The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is at home with people who live in the same household, the CDC said. Gatherings with family and friends who live outside of the home can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu. 

The agency recommends that hosts limit the number of guests, disinfect surfaces and keep windows open to decrease coronavirus risk. For attendees, guidance includes bringing and eating food from home with their own utensils and staying out of the kitchen. 

COVID-19 cases and deaths have sharply risen in the past two weeks across the nation and in Virginia, according to the New York Times. Over the past week, there has been an average of 2,262 new cases per day in Virginia, an increase of 62% from the average two weeks earlier, according to the Times.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced a coronavirus mandate in Virginia to limit private gatherings and some public events to 25 people. The restrictions took effect Nov. 15, less than two weeks before the Thanksgiving holiday. 

The CDC urged Americans to consider alternative Thanksgiving Day activities such as virtual celebrations, eating meals outdoors, post-holiday shopping online and using curbside pickup. 

Virginia State Parks is encouraging families to gather at its 39 parks— which have remained open during the pandemic—over the Thanksgiving holiday. The “Opt Outside” promotion will be celebrated throughout the holiday weekend from Nov. 26 to Nov. 29. Visitors have a chance to win a $500 Virginia State Parks gift certificate if they submit up to five photos of their trip and enter it into the annual photo contest. The Virginia State Parks promotion started 10 years ago as “Green Friday'' to motivate families to visit the park instead of post-Thanksgiving shopping on “Black Friday.”

“Since the promotion started, we have seen more people visiting parks over the holidays,” said Tim Shrader, the eastern region field operations manager for Virginia State Parks. “You have all this family coming in, you probably need to get outside and enjoy each other’s company outside for physical and mental health.”

AAA released its annual Thanksgiving travel forecast, which anticipated at least a 10% drop in travel. The agency said that is the largest one-year decrease since the Great Recession in 2008. In mid-October, AAA expected up to 50 million Americans to travel for the holiday. Now they say it could be lower given the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and health notices.

The nation’s airports saw an uptick in travelers over the weekend, despite the CDC advisory to avoid traveling. The Transportation Security Administration reported almost 4 million travelers from Nov. 19 to Nov. 22, but the rate of travelers was still much lower than at the same time last year.

Virginia leaders seek input on Lee statue replacement in U.S. Capitol

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- State leaders are seeking public input on what individual should replace a statue of former Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee located in the U.S. Capitol. 

A commission appointed by the state legislature will hold a virtual public hearing Tuesday to help determine a replacement. The Lee statue is one of two that represent Virginia in the Capitol. The other is a statue of the nation’s first president and also a Virginian, George Washington. 

The Lee statue is one out of 13 in a section of the Capitol known as the Crypt. Each of the original 13 colonies is represented by a statue. Legislators passed a bill in the spring allowing a committee to determine if the statue should be removed and recommend a replacement. The commission decided in the summer to remove the statue and will recommend a replacement in December or when the commission concludes its work. A date has not been set to remove the statue, said Randy Jones, public information officer for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. 

The statue must honor an individual that is dead and is a notable historical figure or known for civic or military service, according to VDH. The person must be a U.S. citizen but exceptions will be made for Indigenous people who lived in the nation before it was formed. 

For years there has been an increasing call to remove Confederate statues, which accelerated amid demonstrations after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Floyd died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for almost 8 minutes, while Taylor died after police opened fire while serving a warrant. A legal battle is pending over the removal of the Lee statue in Richmond. It is one of the last memorials in Richmond honoring Confederate leaders after protesters knocked some down, and others were removed by the city. 

Virginia’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have called for the removal of the Lee statue in the Capitol. 

“The Lee statue in the Capitol should be replaced,” Kaine said in a statement. “There are many compelling candidates for a replacement statue and [I] have full confidence the commission will pick someone representative of our history.”

 Citizens have already suggested possible replacements for the Lee statue in the Capitol that can be viewed on the DHR website. Suggested substitutions include former Virginians, such as:

  • James Armistead Lafayette, a former slave from Virginia that later became a spy for the Continental Army in the American Revolution. 

  • Dr. Robert Russa Moton, second president of Tuskegee University following the death of Booker T. Washington. The Moton Museum, a National Historical Landmark in Farmville, is named after him.

  •  Maggie L. Walker, a former educator and businesswoman who advocated against racism and sexism. She was the first African American woman to create a bank. 

  • Roger Arliner Young, the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in zoology. 

  • Pocahontas, An Indigenous Virginian and daughter of Chief Powhatan.

A number of people have nominated former Secretary of Defense and Gen. George C. Marshall. Marshall was not born in Virginia but graduated from the Virginia Military Institute. 

 Jennifer Oh, a Virginia resident who leads Capitol tours said in a letter that she opposes a statue honoring Marshall. She said the understanding behind the removal of the Lee statue is to have a “Virginia representative that symbolizes a life of inclusion.” Oh wrote that Marshall’s career does not reflect inclusion or support of minorities. 

The commission will also appoint a sculptor to create the statue with preference given to a Virginia-based sculptor. Eight members serve on the commission: Edward Ayers, a professor at the University of Richmond; Colita Fairfax, a professor at Norfolk State University, Sen. Louise Lucas D-Portsmouth; Fred Motley, a storyteller and performer; Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock Tribe; Margaret Vanderhye, a former delegate who previously led the Virginia Commission for the Arts; and Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton. Julia Langan, DHR director, will serve as a non-voting member. 

The public hearing will take place from 9 a.m. to noon. Participants can register to attend or speak at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources website. People can also email suggestions to USCapitolCommission@DHR.virginia.gov until Nov. 27.

Candidates and groups drop over $12 million on Facebook ad spending

 

By Noah Fleischman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- In an election forecasted to have record voter turnout, political campaigns have deployed a multiplatform media blitz. 

Facebook is for more than likes these days, with the platform getting its share of Virginia political and issue spending to the tune of over $12.7 million in a recent three-month period, according to the social media platform. 

Tobe Berkovitz, an advertising professor at Boston University who has worked as a political media consultant on election campaigns, said campaigns advertise on social media for the same reasons that consumer advertising is used. 

“It’s where a lot of either voters or consumers are getting their information,” Berkovitz said. “You can specifically develop messages for individuals and smaller groups and you can very tightly target who it is that you want to reach.”

Democratic groups or candidates dominated the top 10 when ranking the largest political Facebook ad spending in Virginia. Those organizations spent a combined amount over $2.4 million. That’s excluding the money Facebook and Instagram have put into political advertising.

Facebook tracks advertising spending on issues, elections and politics in its Ad Library. The data show that over a recent 90-day period, about 2,700 groups or candidates, including Facebook and Instagram, spent over $12.7 million on Facebook ads in Virginia. During a comparable period before the election last year, Facebook ad spending totaled $5.5 million, according to a previous Capital News Service report. 

The most spending from Aug. 2 to Oct. 30 went toward candidates at the top of the ballot. Over $2.2 million was spent by the two fundraising committees associated with President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Biden’s campaign fundraising arm The Biden Victory Fund invested more than Trump’s fundraising committee. The Biden Victory Fund spent more than $1.1 million between the pages of Biden, Kamala Harris and the Democratic Party. Over $1 million was spent on candidate Biden. 

Trump’s fundraising committee The Trump Make America Great Again Committee closely trailed the Biden camp. Trump’s campaign spent just shy of $1.1 million over eight Facebook pages, including the pages of Black Voices for Trump, Mike Pence and Women for Trump. Over $750,000 of that total went to Trump’s re-election campaign. 

Berkovitz said social media advertising is becoming more popular because of the analytics that are available to the campaigns.

“It provides a lot of information about the people you’re trying to reach, the people you do reach, how your message is working, what types of messages do work for them and you just have a lot more data to go on,” Berkovitz said. “We’re in a world where everything is data driven now.”

Over $1.2 million was spent on contested Virginia Congressional races and a South Carolina Senate race. Democratic incumbent in the 2nd District U.S. House race, Elaine Luria’s campaign spent more than $207,000. That lands her in the No. 4 spot. Her opponent Scott Taylor’s fundraising committee spent just shy of $62,000. Taylor previously held the seat and the election is a rematch between the two candidates. 

The 7th District U.S. House race accounts for more than $15.5 million spent on all media advertising during the election season, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the Democratic incumbent, spent almost $193,000 on Facebook advertising in the last 90 days. Nick Freitas, Spanberger’s Republican opponent, spent just shy of $24,000 in the same time span. Most of the money for this closely watched race has been spent on broadcast and cable TV advertising. 

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner’s fundraising committee spent over $186,000 in the effort to keep his 1st District U.S. Senate seat. Daniel Gade, his Republican challenger, spent significantly less through his campaign arm, investing just under $42,000. 

A South Carolina Senate race between Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and his Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison landed in the No. 8 and No. 9 slots, spending a combined amount of over $310,000. Jaime Harrison for U.S. Senate spent over $156,000. Team Graham Inc. spent just shy of $154,000. 

Advocacy groups turn to the platform for the same reason as politicians. Stop Republicans, a self-described accountability campaign of the Progressive Turnout Project, made the No. 3 spot with just under $230,000 spent targeting Virginians through Facebook. The Progressive Turnout Project ranks No. 7 with $164,000 spent during the last 90 days.

The Service Employees International Union Committee on Political Education rounded out the top 10, spending just over $151,000. SEIU is a labor union representing workers in the healthcare industry, public sector and property services. The organization spent millions nationwide this election cycle to get out the vote, target infrequent voters and promote progressive candidates. 

The political advertising total in Virginia is lower compared to Florida, where almost $85 million was spent in the same 90-day period. In swing state Pennsylvania just over $57 million was spent. Over $45.2 million was spent in targeted Facebook advertising in neighboring North Carolina. 

Facebook isn’t oblivious to the influence its platform has. The company recently imposed a ban on new political ads from being placed leading up to Election Day. 

Judi Crenshaw, who teaches public relations at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Facebook’s ban was “an effort to put the brakes on this influence and this disinformation leading up to the election.”

“I don’t know what else to call it except for an attempt,” Crenshaw said. “It’s a last minute attempt and it certainly is a very limited attempt when ads that were placed before this period of time are still allowed to run.”

What will we know and when will we know it on Tuesday? (Or later?)

By KAANITA IYER, Capital News Service

With record voter turnout, including a high volume of mail-in ballots, and mail delays expected, it is unclear whether we will know who the next president is on election night, experts say.

“I’ve been expecting the unexpected,” said Michael Hanmer, research director at the Center for American Politics and Citizenship, a nonpartisan research center at the University of Maryland, College Park. “I think that’s the best way to work through this because there’s so many different possibilities.”

However, Hanmer told Capital News Service it’s “pretty safe to say” that Democratic nominee Joe Biden is headed for a significant popular vote margin over President Donald Trump. But, similar to 2016, determining the next occupant of the Oval Office is going to come down to the Electoral College - and it's possible this year that may not be settled until some days after Tuesday.

As of Friday morning, nearly 83.5 million early votes were already cast, of which nearly 54 million, or 64.6%, were mailed, according to the University of Florida’s United States Elections Project.

But in many states, including four of eight battleground states — Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — ballots are not allowed to be counted until Election Day.

Twenty-one states, plus the District of Columbia, accept ballots up to 17 days after Election Day. Of these, two are battleground states: Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

New York and Alaska, which accept mail-in ballots 7 and 10 days after Election Day, respectively, have said that they will not report “any mail votes on election night,” according to the New York Times.

In the battleground state of Michigan, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has estimated her count may be completed by Nov. 6, three days after Election Day. Pennsylvania, another battleground, may get the bulk of its votes tallied within a couple of days, according to Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar.

But the nation might not have to wait too long because “we’ll have a lot of information about a couple of really key states (on election night),” particularly Florida and Arizona, where mail-in ballots must be received by Election Day, Hanmer said.

“That might allow us to project forward what’s going to happen in a definitive way,” he said.

“I think really the only state that (Hilary) Clinton won (in 2016) that (Donald) Trump has a shot at is Nevada and it’s a relatively small number of electoral votes, so I don’t think Trump can win without Florida,” Hanmer he said.

While a Biden win in Florida would suggest that he’s going to win in both popular and electoral votes, turning Arizona blue would not make results as clear, according to Hanmer. If Biden gets Arizona, it can foreshadow a national victory by a huge margin or a close race determined by few electoral votes for either candidate, he said.

However, FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast predicts that if Biden wins Florida or Arizona, he has a 99% and 98% chance, respectively, for an Electoral College win.

Hanmer, who also is a government and politics professor at Maryland and an expert for MIT’s Election Data & Science Lab, expects that “we should know a good bit” about Georgia, which has an Election Day deadline for mail-in ballots, and North Carolina, as well.

While North Carolina accepts ballots after Election Day, the state has seen a high volume of early voting. FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver reported that “it’s expected that as much as 80% of the vote there can be announced shortly after polls close.”

If those go to Biden, Hanmer predicts that the country won’t “have to worry as much about what the count is going to be in some of the states that are processing late because I think that will largely solidify things in terms of us having a clear winner."

If Biden wins Georgia, his chances for an electoral win is 99%, while grabbing North Carolina, pushes the probability over 99%, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast.

In the case that Georgia and North Carolina do not go to Biden, Hanmer said “we might just have to wait until all the counting is done." Then the results can “really hinge” on Pennsylvania, where “we’re just not going to have solid information on what the result is...for a while because they can’t count or process their ballots until very late," he said.

Trump has repeatedly called for final results to be called on election night, in part due to his distrust in mail-in voting - even though he did it himself this year.

“Big problems and discrepancies with Mail In Ballots all over the USA. Must have final total on November 3rd,” he tweeted Monday night.

That kind of rhetoric is inappropriate, warned the National Council on Election Integrity, a bipartisan group of former elected officials.

“Our Constitution and our state election laws require us to count every vote, including legally cast absentee votes,” the council said in a statement Wednesday. “Because of an unprecedented number of absentee ballots this year, counting every vote is not likely to be concluded on election night. In some states, thorough vote counting can last weeks, even in the best of times.”

Almost half of returned mail ballots in 19 states that report party registration data, including Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, were from registered Democrats, according to the Elections Project. On the other hand, 60% of Trump supporters told the Pew Research Center in late summer that they would rather vote in person on Election Day.

On election night, this could mean that in states that report mail-in ballots first, initial results may favor Biden. In places that report in-person, day-of votes first, such as most parts of Virginia, Trump may seem to have the lead.

While this pattern in which ballots received post-election favor Democrats is well-established, Walter Shapiro, in an analysis for the Brennan Center for Justice, warns that the pandemic may disrupt this trend “since different demographic groups may be voting by mail.”

In key states, the Republican Party wants to prevent this “blue shift” while Democrats are relying on it. However, research reported by MIT News shows that historically, even “some of the biggest post-Election Day shifts” — the largest being 6.9% in 1968 towards George Wallace in Georgia — have not tipped the outcome of the election.

Yet both parties have fought over mail-in ballot deadlines in the Supreme Court, and such legal back-and-forth, which may continue after Election Day, could further delay results in critical states.

Last week, the Supreme Court denied the Pennsylvania Republican Party’s request to reject ballots if received after Election Day. In a 4-4 decision, the court ruled that the battleground state can accept ballots if received within three days after Election Day. After the party asked the court to reconsider the decision, the justices let their earlier ruling stand.

Also on Wednesday, the Supreme Court backed a lower-court ruling and similarly allowed North Carolina to accept mail-in ballots up to nine days after Election Day, extending the deadline to Nov. 12.

However, an attempt by Wisconsin Democrats to also extend the mail-in ballot deadline by three days to Nov. 6 was first accepted by a federal district court, but then blocked by an appeals court. The Supreme Court voted 5 to 3 on Monday to uphold the appeals court.

Another blow to Democrats came on Thursday when a federal appeals court struck down Minnesota’s plan to accept mail-in ballots up to seven days after election. The key state will now only be able to accept ballots received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

While states can continue contesting mail-in ballot deadlines and bring them to the Supreme Court — which Hanmer told CNS wouldn’t be surprising — “the court sent a pretty strong signal that changing things now, given how deep we are into the process, is unlikely,” he said.

He predicts that legal challenges after the election are “more likely,” and so are anger, disbelief and protests from supporters on both sides.

“It seems very odd to say that about a presidential election in the United States, but there’s a lot of signals that suggests that large portions are not going to accept well the outcome either way,” Hanmer said.

“What people do about that, I think, is a big unknown,” he said. “But it’s something we have to prepare for.”

The National Council on Election Integrity counseled patience and trust: “Every ballot cast in accordance with applicable laws must be counted — that’s the American way. All Americans, including the presidential candidates themselves, have a patriotic duty to be patient as election officials count the votes. Both candidates have a responsibility to remind the country that November 3 is the last day for votes to be cast — not the last day for votes to be counted.”

Halloween’s blue moon is rare and perfect for the moment

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- This year has brought a pandemic, major election and now a rare, blue moon on Halloween.

A blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month and appears every 2.5 years, according to NASA. A full moon occurs on Halloween every 19 years. A Halloween full moon hasn’t appeared in all time zones since 1944, states the Farmer’s Almanac. 

The blue moon isn’t blue; the term refers to the moon’s timing, not color, NASA said. The blue moon is also known as the hunter’s moon because it provided enough light for hunters to gather food. 

Kali Fillhart, a tarot reader and astrologist, said in a Facebook message that the astrology of 2020 is more “wonky” than just a blue moon on Halloween. There is also a Mercury retrograde that ends on Election Day and a Mars retrograde that ends on Nov. 13. A retrograde describes how a planet can sometimes appear to be traveling backward through the sky, states the Farmer’s Almanac. A Mercury retrograde has a common cultural association with anxiety around miscommunication and blunders. 

“All that to say, astrologers have been talking about the astrology of 2020 for years,” Fillhart said. “We knew it was going to be intense.”

She also said this full blue moon could bring “unwanted reactions” for people, especially since Halloween is a time when “spiritual veils fall.” 

Halloween traces back to the Celtric tradition of Samhain, a festival to celebrate harvest and usher in the coming darker months. The Celts believed the “veil” between the living and the dead was at its thinnest around this time, and they celebrated their deceased ancestors, a tradition also seen in Dia de los Muertos.

Adding to the alignment of a blue moon, Halloween and astrological events, will be Daylight Saving Time on Sunday, when many Americans set their clocks back an hour and it’s darker out earlier. 

While October may have started and ended with a bright, full moon, many Americans have anxiety around the upcoming election and facing winter in a pandemic. The share of voters who expect it will be difficult to vote has more than tripled since 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. Eighty-three percent of voters said this election matters. Fifty percent of voters shared that sentiment in 2000. One in three Americans reported psychological distress during extended periods of social distancing, Pew reported in May. 

Kashaf Ali, a marketing communications and analytics major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said in an email that Halloween won’t be any different for her this year, but she acknowledged that the blue moon feels ominous.

“I’ve been social distancing since March and I doubt it’ll be any different this weekend for me,”Ali said. “It’s definitely something to think about how everything’s happening so close together.”

Deneen Tyler, a spiritual wellness practitioner in Richmond, said that the people will be dealing with the energy the blue moon brings this Halloween.

“Full moons are a time of completion,” Tyler said. “It’s a time of releasing, letting go, making peace, honoring what we’ve been through, and saying goodbye in order to close that chapter and let in something new.”

Tyler said that this full blue moon will be in the astrological sign of Taurus on Halloween, and that many people might be wrestling with saying goodbye to different habits and routines, and that could apply to Election Day.

“We’re all collectively dealing with the change, hence the election, the change in the authority of our society,” Tyler said. “We’re resisting change and these alignments are really showing us where we need to release the resistance.”

Fillhart also believes that this Halloween is a time of change and personal reflection.

What does our dark side look like?” she said. “Halloween is all about confronting monsters. What monsters are we constantly fighting everyday?”

While the moon will be in Taurus on Halloween, it will be in Gemini on the night of the election, opening up new possibilities. Tyler said that, depending on the choices individuals make in dealing with the outcome of the election, people could feel “very confused” or “very inspired.” Ultimately she said people will have to choose how to direct that emotion.

“It is our choice which way we fuel,” Tyler said. “You can fuel the confusion and create more of it, or you can fuel the inspiration.”

The last blue moon on Halloween in all time zones ushered in the victory of a blue candidate. Incumbent Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican Thomas E. Dewey, going on to win a historic fourth term in the 1944 election.

Tyler said that unlike astronomy that people can witness, astrology occurs within. Different factors pertaining to celestial bodies can influence people in different ways, but individuals have to choose how they react and “the seeds they plant” on their own.

“This moon this weekend and all of these high energy, highly spiritual days, all they’re doing is opening the road for us to make a choice of which way to go,” she said. “It doesn’t dictate to us what will happen; it doesn’t dictate to us what we need to do.”

Virginia localities take precautions to protect voters, workers

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia localities are taking a number of precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at polling places even though masks will not be required. 

Saturday marked the last day to cast early, in-person ballots before Election Day, but voters can still cast in-person ballots on Nov. 3. They also can mail or return absentee ballots by that day. Election officials have been working to keep voters and workers safe during an election that has yielded a record number of early votes.

More than 5.9 million Virginians were registered to vote as of Oct. 1, with the cut off date in late October. Early voting commenced 45 days before Election Day, due to a new law. Legislators also recently changed laws to allow no-excuse absentee voting and made Election Day a state holiday. More than 2.7 million Virginians had voted as of Nov. 1, with around 1.8 million individuals voting or casting an absentee ballot in-person, according to the Virginia Department of Elections website. More than 886,000 voters have cast absentee ballots by mail and nearly 1.1 million mail-in ballots have been requested. 

Voters are encouraged to wear a mask, and will be offered one, Andrea Gaines, director of community relations at the Virginia Department of Elections, said in an email. They will also be offered the opportunity to vote without leaving their vehicles.

“Ultimately, a voter will not be turned away if they are not wearing a mask but the Department strongly encourages them to do so to keep themselves and others around them safe,” Gaines said. 

Even though there is a state mandate requiring individuals to wear masks when in close proximity with others, it’s against state law to “to hinder or delay a qualified voter in entering or leaving a polling place,” regardless of whether they have on a mask, Gaines said.

Poll workers and voters will be buffered with a number of measures. Such precautions include enforcing social distancing as well as placing plexiglass between voters and poll workers, according to Gary Scott, general registrar and director of the Fairfax County Office of Elections. Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers will assist at polling places to ensure social distancing and sanitization measures are followed, according to Gov. Ralph Northam’s office.

Fairfax County workers will also have shields, gloves and masks, which will be replaced throughout the day, Scott said. To avoid the chance of voters sharing pens, Fairfax County will provide voters with “I voted” pens that they can use to fill out their ballots and keep instead of offering stickers.

The Virginia Department of Elections distributed $9 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding that could be used to help secure personal protective equipment needed by local election offices, Gaines said.

In Charlottesville, poll workers will have sanitizing wipes and ponchos to help provide an extra layer of protection, said Taylor Yowell, the city's deputy general registrar.

“We have plenty of sanitizing wipes and the sterilizing spray and paper towels in order to wipe down each polling booth after every voter throughout the day,” Yowell said. 

Danville poll workers checking identification will be buffered by the use of a shower curtain placed on PVC pipe, said David Torborg, a chief poll worker at one of the city’s 16 precincts. 

Torborg, who has been an election worker for about 20 years, decided to serve as an election worker again this year because he believes the precautions in place are good and will be enough to protect workers and voters from the coronavirus.

“I’m aware of COVID, I’m cautious as I can be,” Torborg said. “I’m not freaking out over it.”

Others, like former Danville poll worker JoAnn Howard, have decided against working at the polls this election to mitigate the chance of contracting the coronavirus.

“I was given the option and I did feel guilty because I’ve been working the polls for 10 years, and I really enjoy it,” Howard said. “Something could go wrong, I just didn’t want to take a risk.”

Election workers in Fairfax County are trained every three years or when laws impacting election workers or voters change, Scott said. The county has been training election workers since July on how to follow and implement social distancing measures. In Charlottesville, training sessions for new election officers were kept small to stay within Centers for Disease Control guidelines. 

“All election officers do get trained on protection and making sure they’re wiping down, sanitizing,” Yowell said. “Our chiefs get trained more thoroughly with helping with de-escalation and sanitizing throughout the day.”

Virginia Department of Elections also provides training along with each locality’s specific training, Gaines said over email.

Around half of registered voters had voted in Fairfax and Charlottesville, according to Scott and Yowell. 

Around 9,000 people have voted in Charlottesville as of Oct. 28. Around 5,000 to 6,000 mail-in ballots were sent out, Yowell said. The number of in-person and absentee requests accounts for nearly half of the city’s 33,000 active registered voters.

“We've already gone over 50% of our anticipated turnout in five days of in-person voting,” Scott said. “We anticipate close to 60% of our voters will have voted prior to elections.”

Voters worry about voter suppression despite recent legislative changes

By Brandon Shillingford, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Despite the commonwealth recently passing a number of laws to make it easier to vote, some Virginians are concerned over voter suppression.

Michael Fauntroy, an associate professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, said political campaigns have a long history of trying to suppress Black voters.

“I think it happens in every election,” Fauntroy said. “The extent to how sophisticated an operation it is will depend on the sophistication of the campaign and the resources they have to go out and identify voters and try to discourage them from voting.” 

Carlette Bailey, a Richmond resident, said she fears ballots will be lost, stolen, or disappear before they have a chance to be counted.

“My main concern is the mail-in votes and making sure they're there on time,” Bailey said. “The votes have to come from our mailbox and be where they have to be on Election Day so they can be counted.”

The Democratic Party of Virginia recently sued the Richmond General Registrar, J. Kirk Showalter, over an effort to get a list of names whose absentee ballots  were rejected because of ballot errors. The organization said they wanted to inform voters of the ballot errors and that other localities had provided similar lists.

Tony Whitehead, another Richmond resident, said he is concerned about the possibility of ballots being stolen from mailboxes by groups who want the opposing party to win.

In early October six outdoor mailboxes were broken into in Henrico and Chesterfield counties and Richmond. The United States Postal Service and Virginia Department of Elections are currently investigating the incident, but it is unknown if the mailboxes contained ballots. 

“You can’t really point the finger as to who's doing it, but if my ballots are stolen, that's voter suppression right there,” Whitehead said. “That one vote that’s been suppressed could be the difference between who you want in office and who I want in office, and that's just not right.”

Bailey and Whitehead are not alone. A number of Americans are concerned about their votes being accurately counted this election. Democrats are more concerned than Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center. Forty-six percent of Democrats believe the election will be conducted fairly and accurately, while 75% of Republicans share the same sentiment. 

Fauntroy said Black voters in Virginia will be subjected to less suppression than Black voters in states such as Georgia and Florida with majority Republican leadership.

“The Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, and other leadership in Virginia have been drawing enough attention to this that voters will know what's at stake,” Fauntroy said.

The Virginia General Assembly has recently taken steps to make it easier to vote, including laws that allow no-excuse absentee voting, early voting that starts 45 days prior to an election and making Election Day a state holiday. 

Legislators also passed a bill that repeals a 2013 Republican-backed law requiring a photo ID to vote. The new law also makes additional forms of identification acceptable, such as a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, or other government document that shows the name and address of the voter. 

Fauntroy said that photo ID bills are an example of Black voter suppression.

Fauntroy said voter suppression has occurred more frequently since the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County V. Holder, which found part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. The decision struck down a formula that required certain states which had discriminatory laws, such as requiring tests to vote, to obtain federal approval before changing voting laws. 

Fauntroy said that almost immediately after the ruling North Carolina moved forward with voter ID laws that would not have passed if the preclearance provisions had remained. 

“In the 2014 elections, we saw a number of Republicans winning seats because of redrawn districts and voter ID laws that they would not have won,” he said.

Fauntroy said national voter suppression in this election will be a multifaceted effort coming from different levels. This could include litigation, reducing the amount of early voting locations, and moving or eliminating polling locations that could make it harder for people of color to vote. 

With no formula dictating which states obtain federal review, communities or individuals who feel they are being targeted by discriminatory voting laws must file lawsuits themselves or rely on ones filed by outside advocates or the Justice Department, according to an opinion piece in The Atlantic. This happens often after laws have been passed.

Federal legislators have introduced bills to establish new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions must obtain federal approval before changing voting laws, but the measures haven’t advanced. 

Local Majority, a progressive political action committee, said common voter suppression strategies include restricting absentee voting, reducing the number of polling places in a jurisdiction and disenfranchising citizens with past criminal records.

A joint resolution introduced in the 2019 General Assembly session that would allow felons to vote was continued until the 2021 session.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, noted that the challenges the country faces aren’t new. The fate of the country is on the line and with that, Black voters and voices matter now more than ever, McClellan said.

“When we have gained social, political, and economic power, there has always been a swift and violent backlash, but we cannot and have not been deterred,” McClellan said. “We owe it to our ancestors, our children, and their children, to vote and help shape the future of our country because democracy and our very existence are on the ballot.”

The issues guiding first-time Gen Z presidential voters

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- As Election Day draws near, people are on the edge of their seats, especially those voting in the presidential election for the first time. 

Generation Z makes up 10% of eligible voters in the 2020 election, according to the Pew Research Center. This percentage is expected to continue to rise at the same rate as more Gen Zers become eligible to vote. Some of the oldest members of this generation became eligible to vote in the 2016 election. Anyone born between 1997 and 2012 is considered a member of Gen Z, according to Pew

In addition to COVID-19, there are many issues motivating young voters to the polls. Gen Z voters say they’re concerned with police violence, prison reform, mental health issues, immigration and reproductive rights. 

Millennials and members of Gen Z tend to be more liberal, even those who identify as or lean Republican, according to a 2018 Pew survey. This survey also says that 43% of Gen Z Republicans are “more likely than older generations of Republicans to say blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the U.S. today.”

“Gen Zers are progressive and pro-government, most see the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as a good thing, and they’re less likely than older generations to see the United States as superior to other nations,” the survey found. 

Below are key concerns for Gen Z voters. 

THE ISSUES

Kendal Ferguson, a 20-year-old student studying criminology, law and society at George Mason University in Fairfax, cares about prison reform and combating police brutality. She wants all prisons to be government funded and said “private prisons are morally wrong” because they profit off people who break laws. 

“As for police brutality, there definitely needs to be more training for officers,” Ferguson said.

Selena Johnson, a 20-year-old student studying computer science at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is concerned with police violence, reproductive rights and climate change.

“I want to see some sort of regulation on the big companies that are contributing to like 70% of the world’s pollution,” she said. She believes that these companies should be “in the front of our minds” when combating climate change.

The recent confirmation of Amy Coney Barret as a Supreme Court justice has drawn concern from pro-choice advocates due to her past comments on abortion. Johnson said that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned and police officers “need to face consequences for their actions.”

Jessica Callahan, a 21-year-old Republican voter from Dinwiddie, said that Barrett is a “great fit” for her position on the Supreme Court due to her educational background at Notre Dame Law School. She also believes that more racial tension will inevitably come out of this election.

“It’s going to be a bunch of name-calling and finger pointing until some sort of civil unrest occurs,” Callahan said. 

Callahan is also worried about the future of healthcare in the U.S. if Democrats win the election, as well as Second Amendment rights. She thinks health care would “go down considerably” and that “they would push even harder for restrictions” on firearms. 

Ada Ezeaputa, a 20-year-old student majoring in business at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, is passionate about ensuring abortion access and ending police brutality.

“I don’t think the police need to be abolished, but I do think the whole system needs to be reformed,” she says. “When you look at countries like the U.K., their police officers don’t even carry weapons, so that already decreases the amount of incidents that happen all over the world.”

In addition to police reform, she is pro-choice and believes that women should have full autonomy over their bodies.

Alyssa Tyson, a 20-year-old recent graduate of Western Governors University in Salt Lake City, wants to protect personal freedoms and mental health care.

“Mental health care is something that doesn’t get addressed a lot,” she said. “I think a lot of the problems we’re trying to address as a nation start with dealing with mental health issues and providing affordable or even free mental health care to people who need it.” 

Tyson also said she is passionate about social justice issues, and that the government should not regulate reproductive rights or make laws that hinder LGBTQ rights.

Emily Wrenn, a 20-year-old student majoring in psychology at Sweet Briar College in Amherst County, considers her political views to be liberal. Wrenn describes herself as pro-choice, and said the main issues she cares about are women’s rights and dismantling racism.

“One of the biggest reasons why I am swaying more to the Democratic side is that I am very much in favor of women’s rights,” she said. “We need to make sure we are on the right track in seeing that women and men receive equal pay.”

Wrenn also said that this is “the most debate on the quality of our president that I’ve ever seen,” and that “this is one of the most significant elections we’ve had in a long time.”

THE IMPACT

Despite the encouragement to vote, first-time, Gen Z voters are divided on whether they can sway the election.

Johnson said she knows many people her age will vote third party or not at all because they are disinterested in either major presidential candidate, but she thinks the youngest generation of voters has a lot of power in this election.

“I believe that we have the most diverse population of eligible voters in America’s history,” she said. “I’m voting for who I view as ‘the lesser of two evils,’ but many people my age don’t want to vote at all because the lesser of two evils is still an evil.”

In 2016, young voters ages 18 to 29 were the only age group to report increased turnout compared to 2012, with a reported turnout increase of 1.1%, according to the U.S. Census. 

Ferguson, however, doesn’t believe that Gen Z has the power to sway this election.

“Our generation is still very apathetic about voting despite how vocal we are on social media and through other means,” Ferguson said. “I honestly think not a lot of people our age will bother to vote.”

Wrenn, however, believes that Gen Z could help secure a Democratic win.

“I think because we are so seemingly liberal that that will make a huge difference,” Wrenn said.

How Biden and Trump plan to face the COVID-19 pandemic

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va.-- Both major presidential candidates hope to convince voters they have plans in place to protect the health of Americans and the economy as COVID-19 cases rise nationally. 

As of Oct. 28, there have been almost 8.8 million total coronavirus cases in the United States and 176,754 in Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the past week, the country has reached a record high level of daily new cases, according to The New York Times.

Candidates addressed their plans to address the COVID-19 crisis during the final presidential debate held earlier this month. President Donald Trump criticized former Vice President Joe Biden for wanting to “shut down the country” and said that a vaccine will come soon. 

“I’m going to shut down the virus, not the country,” Biden responded, adding that there need to be “standards,” or response protocols, in place for when rates increase in a community. 

Below are more details on Trump and Biden’s plans for handling the pandemic. 

Trump’s Plan

Samantha Zager, Trump’s deputy national press secretary, said that the president’s administration will continue to respond to the virus as they have been.

“When reelected, the President will continue his work on developing a vaccine to achieve his vision of a return to normal life and a roaring, post-COVID economy where all Virginians can achieve their version of the American Dream,” Zager wrote in an email. 

Zager also criticized Biden’s proposed response to the virus.

“Joe Biden has actively demeaned a coronavirus vaccine for political purposes, and he would surrender to the virus, hurting Virginia’s small businesses and families with another draconian shutdown of our economy,” Zager said. 

Under Trump, Congress passed an over $2 trillion dollar coronavirus stimulus package—the CARES Act—that gave money to every eligible adult in the country, as well as small businesses and healthcare facilities. Legislators recently failed to advance another stimulus package. 

Trump has stated that the U.S. is the world leader in testing, having performed 100 million COVID-19 tests. The U.S. however, does not have the highest number of tests per capita, which some health experts say is a more useful metric, according to PolitiFact, a fact checking project run by the nonprofit Poynter Institute.

 Trump said the U.S. has led the “largest mobilization since World War II” to combat the coronavirus and that no American who needed a ventilator has gone without one. Additionally, his administration has launched “Operation Warp Speed” to fast-track vaccine production. In July, Trump hoped to have 300 million doses of vaccines available by early 2021. The administration announced agreements just weeks before the election with CVS and Walgreens to provide COVID-19 vaccines to residents of long-term care facilities with no out-of-pocket costs.

Trump has also stated that the U.S. will withdraw from the World Health Organization to hold the organization “accountable for mismanagement of the coronavirus.” 

Biden’s Plan

Biden's campaign did not answer direct questions but referred to the candidate’s website which outlines ways that Biden plans to fight the virus. If elected, his administration would “spend whatever it takes, without delay, to meet public health needs and deal with the mounting economic consequences.”

He has accused Trump of having “no comprehensive plan” to curtail the pandemic that has killed over 225,000 Americans. Biden also said he backs the accelerated development of a vaccine, something that has also been a priority for Trump’s administration. 

Biden promotes swift and aggressive action from the federal government to protect families, small businesses, first responders and caregivers. Biden said helping individuals and small businesses is essential. Corporations shouldn’t be bailed out. 

Biden states that if elected he will make COVID-19 tests “widely available and free” by establishing at least 10 mobile testing sites per state and expanding programs which offer tests to people who may not know how to ask for a test, such as nursing home residents. He also plans to amend the Public Health Service Act and the Social Security Act to make sure individuals aren’t charged for COVID-19 tests, treatment or vaccines. 

Biden has also called on every state governor, as well as local authorities like mayors, to pass a mask mandate.

The Biden administration plans to provide up to 12 weeks of paid sick leave for U.S. workers. Biden promotes the passage of an emergency paid leave program that would require 14 days of paid leave for individuals who get sick from the virus or have to quarantine. 

Biden’s plan also includes helping “vulnerable nations” treat coronavirus outbreaks. 

What should the next president do?

Dr. Bill Petri, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville, said that the next president needs to focus on finding a vaccine for the disease and producing those vaccines within the U.S.

“First, the federal government needs to support fundamental research on immunization and vaccines,” Petri said. “We should be leading the world in providing COVID-19 vaccines, we don’t want China or Russia doing that.”

Petri also said that the federal government should be more involved in coordinating the COVID-19 responses of individual states, which have differed depending on individual governors. 

“What one state does affects us all,” Petri said. 

Many Democratic state governors have criticized the federal government for providing a slow-paced COVID-19 response. Some state governors have coordinated their COVID-19 responses with other states. The governors of Virginia and Maryland, as well as the mayor of Washington D.C, have attempted regional cooperation in battling the pandemic. 

Petri said that the next president should continue to support the CDC as well as individual state departments of health, including the Virginia Department of Health. 

In a recent Pew Research poll, 57% of registered voters surveyed said they are “very or somewhat” confident in Biden’s ability to handle the impact of the coronavirus, while 40 percent say they are “very or somewhat” confident in Trump’s ability to do so.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Students Say Protests Motivating Them to the Polls

 

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Voters are more divided now than they were in the 2016 election, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. Many young Virginians believe the passion could translate to the polls on Election Day.

Rickia Sykes, a senior at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, said that her political views have grown stronger since protests erupted globally in late May. The death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis Police Department officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly 8 minutes, inspired months of protests.

Sykes said that her political views line up with her faith. She considers herself pro-life, believes in advocating for the working class, and supports law-enforcement.

“The protests have shown me we need to keep God first, but it has also shown me that good cops are important to help keep law and order,” Sykes said in a text message. “I do realize that there are bad cops, but in order to make a change, I believe we need to work together with the good cops.”

Sykes said that now she researches politicians more thoroughly before deciding which candidate gets her vote. She looks at voting records to see if they vote in a way that “will help us middle and lower-class families.”

Erik Haugen, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond who considers himself a Libertarian, said his political views haven’t changed much since the protests started.

“I just see the stronger push for equality, and I think it’s a good step in our nation so long as it proceeds peacefully,” Haugen said.

Equality is at the center of issues that student voters are concerned about this election. From racial injustice to prison reform to healthcare concerns, many students say they want to enact positive change.

Students have varying opinions on whether or not the importance of voting has become more significant in recent years. Sykes said that she has always found voting significant, but she believes the importance of it has grown for others. Haugen said that while his political views haven’t changed, he believes voting has become more important in general and especially for the younger generations as tension in the U.S. grows and protests become more prominent.

Sarah Dowless, a junior at William & Mary in Williamsburg, said that voting has always been important, but the protests have made voting more prominent, “like people encouraging folks to vote and making information about voting accessible, especially among young people." Dowless said the recent protests have reinforced her progressive beliefs. 

“If anything, the protests have only amplified my concern for racial injustice in America and my concern about police brutality,” she said. “It’s a fundamental issue about freedom and it calls into question the very principles on which this country was founded and continues to claim.”

The protests also influenced a host of legislation in the recent special legislative session of the General Assembly that ended last week. Virginia legislators passed numerous bills focused on police and criminal justice reform.

According to the United States Census Bureau, voter turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds jumped 15.7% between 2014 and 2018. This was the largest percentage point increase for any age group. Turnout is expected to be high this year as well, but there are no final numbers for age groups. Voter registration in Virginia set a record this year with almost 5.9 million voters  registering. During the last presidential election a little more than 5.5 million people registered to vote.

Sykes is also concerned about the economy and health care.  She wants a political leader who will increase the odds that people have a stable source of income to afford medical treatment. 

“As a graduating senior, I want and need a good paying/stable job for when I graduate,” she said. “I need someone who will make sure we have a strong and reliable economy.”

Dowless wants U.S. prisons, which she describes as currently being “more punitive than rehabilitative,” to undergo major reform. Haugen would like police academy programs to be longer and implement de-escalation training. 

“I first and foremost care about the safety of the American people,” Haugen said. 

Early voting and no-excuse absentee voting are currently underway throughout the state. The deadline to request to vote absentee by mail is Oct. 23. Early voting ends the Saturday before Election Day, or Oct. 31.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia lawmakers pass legislation to make Juneteenth a state holiday

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Juneteenth has officially become a state holiday after lawmakers unanimously approved legislation during the Virginia General Assembly special session. 

Juneteenth marks the day news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, which was the last state to abolish slavery. The companion bills were introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond. Gov. Ralph Northam signed the legislation on Oct. 13.

“Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States,” Northam said during a press conference held that day. “It’s time we elevate this, not just a celebration by and for some Virginia, but one acknowledged and celebrated by all of us.”

Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, introduced a bill in the legislative session earlier this year to recognize Juneteenth, but the proposal didn’t advance. 

Northam proposed making Juneteenth a state holiday in June during a press conference that included musician and Virginia-native Pharrell Williams. Northam signed an executive order that gave executive branch employees and state colleges the day off. Some Virginia localities, such as Richmond and several places in Hampton Roads, also observed the holiday this year.

“I think it is overdue that the Commonwealth formally honor and celebrate the emancipation and end of slavery,” Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, a co-patron of the bill, said in an email. “It was a step towards fulfilling the promise of equality contained in our founding documents.” 

The Elegba Folklore Society, a Richmond-based organization focused on promoting African culture, history and arts, is one of the groups that has been celebrating the holiday for decades. The celebration usually is a three-day weekend event that looks at the history of Juneteenth. A torch-lit walk down the Trail of Enslaved Africans in Richmond is also held, said Janine Bell, the society’s president and artistic director. 

“We take time to just say thank you to our ancestors, their contributions, their forfeitures, their trials and tribulations,” Bell said. “We invite people to Richmond’s African burial ground so that we can go there and pay homage from a perspective of African spirituality.”

Juneteenth should not be used as another holiday to look for bargains in stores, Bell said. It should be a time for reflection about liberty, as well as for celebration and family strengthening.

“It’s a time for optimism and joy,” Bell said. 

The Elegba Folklore Society broadcasted its Juneteenth event online this year due to the coronavirus. Although there were still around 7,000 views, Bell said that it is usually much larger and has international influence. 

Cries for police reform and social justice continue to increase, Bell said. More attention is being drawn to the racial disparities across America. With this, people have been changing their priorities concerning issues such as discrimination.

“This was a step towards equity,” Bell said about the bill. “A symbolic step, but a step nonetheless.”

State workers will be off during Juneteenth. If the job requires individuals to come in to work, then they will be compensated with overtime or extra pay, said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a patron for the bill. 

The General Assembly wrapped up the agenda last week for the special session that began Aug. 18. Northam called the session to update the state budget and to address criminal and social justice reform and issues related to COVID-19.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia legislators advance police and criminal justice reform measures

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly wrapped up the agenda this month for the special session that began Aug. 18. Legislators introduced over 50 police and criminal justice reform bills during the session. 

Gov. Ralph Northam called the session to update the state budget and to address criminal and social justice and issues related to COVID-19. The governor still has to approve the budget and make amendments or veto bills. 

Among the police and criminal justice reform measures were proposals that would change policing methods, impose new disciplinary actions for law enforcement and reduce penalties of certain crimes. Both parties introduced legislation that seemed to be inspired by months of protests across Virginia.

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the organization supports several criminal justice reform bills except the legislature’s approval of bills that make certain traffic violations secondary offences and the ban on no-knock search warrants.

“The way it was [the no-knock search warrant bill] delays the issuance of a search warrant that could lead to deaths, injuries and destruction of evidence,” Schrad wrote in an email. “We plan to seek [the] governor’s amendments to make final corrections to the bill to ensure the safety of officers and potential victims.”

Some Republican-backed bills aimed to increase penalties for certain crimes, including pointing a laser at a law-enforcement officer and for an assault on an officer, and to criminalize the act of cursing at an officer while on duty.

Below is a sample of the police and criminal justice related legislation that were approved by both chambers.

PASSED LEGISLATION

Mental health response. House Bill 5043, introduced by Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond, and Senate Bill 5038, introduced by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Dale City, establishes an alert system when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis. 

Marijuana charge prepay. SB 5013, introduced by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, gives people charged with marijuana possession the option to prepay a fee.

Crisis intervention. SB 5014, introduced by Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, requires the Department of Criminal Justice Services to establish standards and update policies for law enforcement concerning sensitivity and awareness of racism.

Civilian oversight. SB 5035, introduced by Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Midlothian, allows localities to establish a civilian oversight body for their police department. The civilian oversight body can investigate incidents involving law enforcement as well as complaints from citizens, and make binding disciplinary decisions, including termination, in the event that an officer breaches departmental and professional standards. 

Sentencing reform. Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, called his bill SB 5007 “the most transformative criminal justice reform legislation” to pass in two decades. The measure allows for defendants to be tried by a jury but sentenced by a judge.

“It has long been the practice in Virginia to be sentenced by a jury after selecting a jury trial, which has led to excessive sentences far beyond what sentencing guidelines state,” Morrissey posted online.

Conditional release. SB 5034, introduced by Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko, D-Fairfax, grants consideration for conditional release for certain qualifying terminally ill prisoners. 

Marijuana and certain traffic offenses. HB 5058, introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, prohibits an officer from stopping a motor vehicle for operating without a license plate, with defective equipment such as a brake light, window tinting materials, a loud exhaust system or hanging objects inside the vehicle. It also prohibits officers from searching a vehicle solely on the basis of the odor of marijuana.

Earned sentence credits. HB 5148, introduced by Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, establishes a four-level classification system for earned sentence credits. The system allows a range of 3.5 days to 15 days to be deducted from an inmate’s sentence for every 30 days served, with exceptions based on severity of crime. The bill directs the Department of Corrections to convene a work group by next July to study the impact of the sentence credit amendments and report its findings to the General Assembly by Dec. 1, 2022. Parts of the bill have a delayed effective date of Jan. 1, 2022.

Criminal justice board. HB 5108, introduced by Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Prince William, makes changes to the Criminal Justice Services Board and its Committee on Training. The board, currently made up exclusively of members with backgrounds in law enforcement and private security, will be required to add representatives from civil rights groups, mental health service providers and groups that advocate for the interests of minority communities. Guzmán said she got the idea for this bill while she was visiting the Criminal Justice Services Board with fellow legislators.

“We only have law enforcement voices at the table,” Guzmán said. “So, how can you learn about what is going on in the community if you don’t have their voice at the table?”

Guzmán said the bill will improve crisis intervention training and help police officers who may experience traumatic events while on the job. 

Misconduct and termination. HB 5051, introduced by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, requires a police department authority figure to notify the Criminal Justice Services Board if an officer is terminated for serious misconduct, as defined by the board, within 48 hours of the department becoming aware of it.

Disclosure of information. HB 5104, introduced by Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, requires sheriff, police chief or police department directors to disclose to a potential law enforcement or jail employer information regarding the arrest, prosecution or civil suit filed against their former officers seeking employment. The applicant would have to sign a waiver to allow that information to be disclosed. The bill also may require an officer to undergo a psychological evaluation before taking a job in a jail or police department. 

Ban no-knock warrants. HB 5099, introduced by Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, bans law enforcement officers from executing a search warrant without giving notice of their identity or purpose before entering a residence.

“The use of no-knock search warrants have long been a controversial practice, since the beginning of their use during the Nixon administration in the 70’s,” Aird said in an email. “The tragic loss of Breonna Taylor renewed the concern regarding the use of this search warrant, the risk to residents and officers and their disproportionate application in minority communities.” 

Unlawful use of excessive force. HB 5029, introduced by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, requires that a law enforcement officer intervene when witnessing another officer using excessive force while on duty. 

Carnal knowledge of detainees. HB 5045, introduced by Del. Karrie K. Delaney, D-Centreville, closes a loophole within the state law and makes it a Class 6 felony for a law enforcement officer to have sexual relations with a detainee, pre-arrest.

Prohibition of the use of neck restraints. HB 5069, introduced by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, prohibits a law enforcement officer to use a neck restraint or chokehold while on the job. New York has had a ban on chokeholds since 1993, but the effectiveness of the law was called into question in 2014 when Eric Garner died after an apparent chokehold was used during his arrest by a New York City Police officer. The officer involved was not indicted, but was later fired.

Guzmán said that even though some of these bills may not be perfect, it’s better to improve civil rights in Virginia one piece of legislation at a time rather than to be dismissive of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I would say that inaction is enabling, and if we don’t act, in a way we are saying we are OK with what is going on in today’s society,” Guzmán said. “We recognize the struggles, we recognize that there are problems, and we need to start tackling those issues and try to improve the lives of communities of color.” 

Below are some pieces of legislation that didn’t make it through the House or Senate.

ABANDONED OR KILLED BILLS

Record expungement. SB 5043, sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and HB 5146, sponsored by Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, sought to expand the current expungement process. Police and court records are currently only expunged if an individual is acquitted, a case is dismissed or abandoned. Legislators did not reach a compromise in the conference committee over proposed substitutes to the bills. 

“This is a very important issue,” Herring said at the close of Friday’s session. “It will change the lives of so many people who have served their time and have turned their lives around.”

Parole notification. SB 5050, Introduced by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, would require the Department of Corrections to release a paroled prisoner no sooner than 21 days after the date of notification by the Virginia Parole Board.

Qualified immunity. HB 5013, introduced by Bourne, would have ended qualified immunity for police officers. Guzmán, who voted for the bill, was disappointed it didn’t pass, but said she feels good about the House Democrats’ bills and is looking forward to the next General Assembly session in January.

Virginia led the way during the special session where others haven’t, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn said in a press release.

“Together with our colleagues in the Senate, Virginia is now a national leader in the effort to pass necessary improvements to policing and criminal justice,” Filler-Corn said. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

VCU announces spring semester changes as other colleges mull options

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia Commonwealth University announced Thursday that the spring semester will start one week later and spring break will be canceled to help mitigate the risk of COVID-19.

The start date will move from Jan. 19 to Jan. 25. After the conclusion of winter break the university will implement a phased re-opening similar to the fall semester. That means classes will be a combination of in-person, hybrid and online.

Spring break was removed from the university's academic calendar and two reading days were added on Feb. 23 and March 24. The last day of classes will now be on May 5 for the Monroe Park Campus and May 7 for the MCV Campus.

“Our public health response team, which includes medical and infectious disease

experts, recommended eliminating spring break to mitigate the risk of COVID-19,” VCU President Michael Rao said in a press release.

Rao said the university’s priority is to be able to conduct classes while maintaining the health and safety of students, faculty, staff and other members of the community.

“Flexibility remains critical in addressing evolving situations presented by COVID-19, including changes in the prevalence of infection in our community, as well as changes in requirements, guidelines and best practices,” Rao said.

Other university officials across the state are also exploring options in regard to the spring opening and semester.

Michael Stowe, spokesman at Virginia Tech, said in an email that he expects the school will announce plans about the spring semester by Monday. The spring semester starts at Virginia Tech on Jan. 19.

McGregor McCance, spokesman for the University of Virginia, said in an email that the university will announce any plans about its spring semester later this month. The spring semester is currently scheduled to begin at Virginia on Jan. 20.

Other Virginia universities have various start dates for the 2021 academic year. James Madison University is scheduled to start classes on Jan. 11. The University of Richmond will begin classes on Jan. 19. George Mason University begins the spring semester on Jan. 25.

Final examinations for VCU’s Monroe Park Campus will be held May 6-13, while the MCV Campus final examinations will be held May 10-14.

“We will update you soon on COVID-19 testing and other measures we will be taking as we conclude the fall semester and prepare for our return to campus for spring semester,” Rao said.

Delegate Plans To Reintroduce Quarantine Pay Bill Next Session

 

By Zachary Klosko, By Capital New Source

RICHMOND, Va. -- Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Woodbridge, said she is no stranger to the struggles of low-paying jobs. Guzmán said she immigrated to the United States from Peru as a single mother and worked multiple minimum wage jobs just to be able to pay rent and care for her daughter.

Guzmán has a mission to secure better financial benefits for minimum wage workers, but she said it’s not going as planned.

Guzmán’s House Bill 5116 was killed in a Senate committee during the Virginia General Assembly special session after being passed by the House. The General Assembly is currently meeting to tackle the state budget and other issues that have come up due to COVID-19.

The bill would have mandated quarantine pay for employees of businesses with more than 25 workers. It would require public and private employers to provide paid quarantine leave that could be immediately used by the employee, regardless of how long they had been employed. The paid quarantine leave could be used for the employee’s health care needs or for care of a family member with an illness or health condition related to COVID-19.

Guzmán said she’s frustrated, but she plans to introduce the bill again during the next legislative session. 

“Most of the arguments that I heard was because businesses are hurting and it was not the right time,” Guzmán said. “I think it's like we hear a lot about businesses but we don't hear about the working class and who's going to be, you know, fighting for them.”

Guzmán introduced a bill in the spring session before the coronavirus to require employers to provide paid sick leave for employees. After the Committee on Appropriations killed that bill, Guzmán introduced her current bill as an effort to keep advocating for worker's rights.

Kim Bobo, executive director for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said her organization is in favor of Guzmán’s bill. Bobo said paid sick days and getting paid a minimum wage are basic standards employers should be able to provide for their employees without government assistance.

“We really don't believe that public funds should be used to subsidize employers providing such a basic core standard as paid sick days,” Bobo said. “We will not include anything like that in a bill going forward.”

Being able to take paid time off can have a larger impact on the community because workers don’t have to choose between their families’ well-being and a paycheck, Bobo said.

“They will stay home when their children are sick and they won't send their kids to school sick, which is what happens right now,” she said.

Bobo isn’t the only supporter of Guzmán’s bill. Eighty-three percent of Virginians support paid time off mandates, according to a recent YouGov poll commissioned in part by the Interfaith Center. 

Del. Chris Head, R-Roanoke, voiced his concerns during the bill’s third reading on Sept. 10. Head said Guzmán’s bill largely mirrors federal legislation. 

“This bill is going to cause businesses who might hire people to think twice about it,” Head said. “It's going to raise their expenses for hiring people, and it's going to end up hurting many of the very people that you're trying to help with this legislation.”

The Department of Labor and Industry estimated the bill would cost the department over $46,000 in 2021 and an additional $92,000 in 2022, according to the bill’s impact statement. The Department of Medical Assisted Services estimated the costs at $28.8 million for fiscal year 2021 and $29.8 million for fiscal year 2022. The bill would last until July 1, 2021, or until Gov. Ralph Northam’s state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic expires.

Guzmán said she isn’t deterred. After Northam and first lady Pamela Northam announced they tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 25, Guzmán said she needed to quarantine at home. She had visited a school with the first lady just a few days prior.

“Listen, there are 1.2 million Virginians out there that, if they were in the same situation that we are today, they would continue to go to work, because they don't have a dime,” Guzmán said firmly. “Please pass the message to the governor and the first lady.”

Virginia voter registration continues to climb as deadline looms

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The deadline to register to vote in Virginia is Tuesday, Oct. 13, and organizations and government officials continue to remind people to register by the deadline. 

Gov. Ralph Northam encouraged residents to register to vote before the deadline, and said in a statement Friday that it has never been easier to vote. The statement coincides with Virginia’s annual High School Student Voter Registration Week. 

This year over 1 million absentee ballots have been requested, Andrea Gaines, director of community relations at the Virginia Department of Elections, said in an email. Around 370,000 absentee ballots have been returned as of Thursday, Gaines said. 

Early, in-person voting has also yielded a large turnout. More than 420,000 people have voted in-person as of Oct. 8.

“It is the largest turnout we have seen at this time of year in Virginia,” Gaines said.

This is the first year there has been no-excuse absentee voting and a 45-day early voting period. The General Assembly recently passed a host of voting reform bills to allow for these changes. 

Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond is spreading the message to vote through VCU Votes, a class that coordinates voter engagement events and educates students and faculty members about voting.

“Our messages emphasize that registering to vote is easy,” Nicole O’Donnell, an assistant professor in public relations who teaches the class said in an email. “It should take less than five minutes of your time.”

VCU Votes has reached thousands of individuals through social media. Students are excited to vote, and they are well versed and knowledgeable about politics, O’Donnell said.

Getting students to register to vote has not been a problem at VCU, Jacqueline Smith-Mason, senior associate dean at VCU and co-chair of VCU Votes Advisory Council said in an email. However, she encourages people to check the Virginia Department of Elections website to ensure they’re registered to vote.

“It would be disappointing to think that you are registered to vote and later learn that your application was not processed,” Smith-Mason said.

Problems can arise if students renew or update their license with their home address, according to Adam Lockett, a VCU student who volunteers with Virginia21, which aims to drive civic engagement among college students. That updated information is sent to a registrar in the student’s home district, but the student may have planned to vote where their university is located.

Lockett said that students who renewed their driver's license in the past year should verify their address at the Department of Elections website before the registration deadline.

VCU Votes has arranged a number of events, including film screenings and registration drives. There are still two drives left. One will take place Oct. 12 at the Hunton Student Center on the MCV campus while the other will occur Oct. 13 at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.

Nationwide initiatives such as National Voter Registration Day, which occurred Sept. 22, broke new ground. An estimated 1.5 million people registered to vote nationally during the event this year, the largest number of registrations since the campaign started in 2012, according to the organization’s website. Celebrities got involved to help the cause trend on Twitter with #NationalVoterRegistrationDay. 

A record number of over 5.8 million Virginians have registered to vote as of Aug. 31, when looking at records that go back to 1976. Over 5.5 million voters were registered in the 2016 presidential election year, and turnout that year hit 72%. 

Individuals can register to vote through the state elections website or by mailing in a registration form, which must be postmarked by Oct. 13.

Other upcoming deadlines include Oct. 23 to request an absentee ballot by mail, or Oct. 31 to request an absentee ballot in person. All absentee ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received by noon on the third day after the election.

 

 

‘Black Space Matters’ Exhibit Transforms Asphalt Lot into Garden

The “Commonwealth” exhibit features work from 10 artists including an outdoor installation created by community farmer, Duron Chavis, who builds gardens throughout Richmond. The resiliency garden is installed in an asphalt lot next to the Institute for Contemporary Art and features 30 raised beds of fruits, vegetables and flowers. Photo by VCU CNS.

By India Espy-Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A local activist transformed a vacant lot outside the Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond to highlight issues of food security and the importance of Black and brown community spaces.

The “Commonwealth” exhibit at Virginia Commonwealth University’s ICA features work from 10 artists including an outdoor installation created by activist and community farmer Duron Chavis who builds gardens throughout Richmond. The full exhibit seeks to examine how common resources influence the wealth and well-being of communities.

Chavis proposed the resiliency garden exhibit in 2019 during a public forum at the ICA. The resiliency garden—food grown to weather the tough times and to have food independence— is installed in an asphalt lot at Grace and Belvidere streets next to the ICA and features 30 raised beds of fruits, vegetables and flowers.

An extension of the garden exhibit is the “Black Space Matters” mural by Southside artist Silly Genius. A wall in the lot is painted, with fruit making the word Black and beneath the garden in big, yellow letters is “Space Matters.” The garden beds have historic quotes from civil rights leaders Kwame Ture and Malcolm X, among other activists. 

“Black Space Matters means that Black people need space,” Chavis said. “We need space that is explicitly designed, planned, and implemented by Black and brown people.”

Chavis, along with a crew of volunteers, started building the garden on Aug. 10 while the ICA temporarily closed to install other exhibits.

“We invited him to think with us about how to activate a vacant lot next to the ICA,” said Stephanie Smith, ICA chief curator. “You could think about what it means to take a space and institutional resources, then give them over to an activist.”

Chavis seeks to address lack of food access through his activism. Food insecurity, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” is an issue in Richmond’s low-income neighborhoods. The city had over 35,000 food insecure people in 2018, according to Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks.

“In a conversation about food justice, Black people are predominately impacted by lack of food access,” Chavis said. “We need space to address that issue.”

Low income communities need access to resources and necessary skills to solve food wealth issues on their own, he said. 

“We do not need anybody to come into our community to drop off food,” Chavis said. 

He’s been doing work like this since 2012 and doesn’t have a hard count of how many garden beds have been built. 

“Dozens, oh God, it’s all across the city,” he said. 

Chavis amplified his efforts this year because of the pandemic. He fundraised and received a grant, according to a VPM report, to build over 200 resiliency gardens with the help of volunteers. 

Quilian Riano, an architect at New York studio DSGN AGNC, designed the concept drawing for the ICA garden, which was envisioned as a public space for conversation and lecture. The completed garden is near identical to the original design except with an added texture and dimension, Riano said.

 The “Commonwealth” exhibit will be open until Jan. 17, 2021. After the exhibit ends, the gardens’ supplies and plants will be redistributed to other resiliency garden project locations throughout Richmond. Chavis collaborates with other groups and people to help people grow their own food during the pandemic.

Tickets to the indoor exhibitions can be reserved on the ICA website. Exhibits include a video performance by indigenous artist Tanya Lukin Linklater, Carolina Caycedo’s “Distressed Debt” and a sculpture by Lukin Linklater and Tiffany Shaw-Collinge.

Civil Rights trail adds 12 new sites with focus on education struggle

By Noah Fleischman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The half-mile road leading to a park in Prince Edward County was packed with cars parked on one side and a park ranger directing traffic on the other side. This was a normal 1950s summer day at what was then the only state park for African Americans in Virginia.

Prince Edward State Park for Negroes, as it was then called, could draw up to a thousand African American visitors per day that could rent bathing suits and cabins overnight.

“It was a place for people to recreate and be—they didn’t have that opportunity in other places,” recounted Veronica Flick, Twin Lakes State Park manager.

Prince Edward State Park was adjacent to Goodwin Lake Recreational Area where only whites patrons were allowed. The two areas merged and were renamed Twin Lakes State Park in 1986, according to the park’s website.

Twin Lakes is one of 12 new sites added this fall to the Virginia’s Crossroads Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail spanning Central and Southern Virginia. The trail was established in 2004 and focuses on the struggle African Americans, Native Americans and women faced to receive an education in the commonwealth.

The parks were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program established by Congress to help men find work during the Great Depression. Twin Lakes was added to the trail because of the education the CCC provided to African Americans who helped build the park in the 1930s. The builders were taught framing and roofing skills, Flick said.

“In ‘those days,’ education was the most important and it was denied,” said Magi Van Eps, tourism coordinator for Prince Edward County. “If you were not a white male, you didn’t have access to an education.”

The impact of being on the trail brings more attention to Twin Lakes and its history, Flick said.

“For us to be a part of this trail, it not only brings more awareness to what the history of this park is, and its importance to so many people,” Flick said.

The park has added roadside historical markers, explaining the origins of Prince Edward State Park. One sign on the grounds of the park tells the story of Maceo Martin, who sued the state when he was denied access to Staunton River State Park. The lawsuit led Virginia to add the Prince Edward State Park for African American visitors to follow the “separate but equal” law at the time.

The trail also has added stops at Greensville County Training School in Emporia and Buckingham Training School in Dillwyn, according to Van Eps. The sites were Rosenwald schools, established by former Sears President Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington to help Southern, African American children and teenagers receive an education.

The expansion of the trail 16 years after its establishment was a result of additional funding. The trail was originally envisioned to have more than 60 sites, Van Eps said. Instead, the trail was only able to add 41 sites using a grant from the Virginia Department of Transportation.

“There were all these other sites that were still very important, but they were overlooked at that time just because there wasn’t enough funding to fund them all,” Van Eps said.

After receiving $70,000 in funding from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission in 2020 the trail was able to add a dozen more sites. Virginia’s Crossroads matched the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission funding.

The L.E. Coleman African-American Museum in Halifax and the Beneficial Benevolent Society of the Loving Sisters and Brothers of Hampden Sydney in Prince Edward County were also added to the trail during the expansion. Bobby Conner, who helped found James Solomon Russell-Saint Paul’s College Museum and Archives, another site on the trail that displays the history of the historically Black college that closed in 2013, said the additions couldn’t have happened at a better time.

“The expansion of it has come at a perfect time with everything that’s gone on this past spring,” Conner said, referring to the protests that took place in Virginia and around the country after George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minnesota.

“Anybody that goes along this trail will learn incredible amounts of history on what the struggle was from right after the Civil War all the way up until recently,” Conner said.

Spanberger, Freitas race outspends presidential campaign in Virginia

By Brandon Shillingford, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A closely contested congressional race has spent almost $1.7 million more on political advertisements in Virginia than the presidential campaign.

More than $11 million has been spent on ads for the Congressional 7th District race. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the incumbent Democrat, faces challenger Nick Freitas, a Republican state delegate. The district includes Culpeper, Chesterfield, Henrico and Nottoway counties. 

Meanwhile, more than $9 million has been spent in Virginia this year on ads for the presidential election between Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden. The data posted on the Virginia Public Access Project’s website includes money spent on broadcast TV, cable, radio, and internet ads. 

This is Spanberger’s first re-election campaign, after defeating two-term Republican incumbent Dave Brat in 2018. 

“The 7th District of Virginia is one of the marquee congressional elections in the country and is drawing very significant amounts of money,” said Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Fredericksburg-based University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies. “Virginia may not be getting the attention it received four or eight years ago, but the 7th District is one of three highly competitive congressional districts in Virginia.”

The Democrats have outspent more Republican candidates in both races. More than $6.6 million has been invested in ads that are either pro-Spanberger or anti-Freitas, while there has been $4.4 million invested in ads that promote Freitas or criticize Spanberger.

Biden and groups supporting him have spent more than $6 million on ads compared to nearly $3 million spent to promote Trump.

Farnsworth sees this as less of an anomaly but more of a continuing strategy in presidential campaigns.

“The nature of the way the state has changed over these last several election cycles, new donations to presidential campaigns would be better off being directed to states that are more competitive, like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or Ohio,” he said. “Polls have shown Virginia wouldn't be the best place to spend your presidential campaign dollars in 2020.”

Other closely contested congressional races are the 2nd District in Hampton Roads and the 5th District, which stretches from Fauquier County in Northern Virginia to Danville in Southern Virginia. Democrats have also outspent their opponents in these races.

“All three districts are winnable for the Democrats and Republicans, and this results in a very large amount of donations and large sums of money spent on advertisements,” Farnsworth said.

More than $8 million has been spent on ads in the 2nd Congressional District, while more than $4 million has been spent in the race for the 5th Congressional District.

The 5th District has also been in the headlines lately due to Republicans declining to re-nominate incumbent Rep. Denver Riggleman after he officiated a same-sex wedding in 2019. Republicans instead nominated Bob Good who won the primary and is running against Democrat Cameron Webb. 

However, the 7th District is unique because of the different segments of the electorate that live within it, making it an invaluable asset to candidates, Farnsworth said. 

“You have suburban voters in the Richmond area and suburban voters in the Fredericksburg area, then a number of more rural jurisdictions in between,” he said.

Farnsworth pointed out that the 7th District was originally drawn to help Republicans get elected, but has recently struggled to do so due to the lack of support from suburban voters during the Trump administration. Over $4 million was spent on broadcast ads to elect Spanberger in 2018, with spending for Brat’s campaign trailing behind at just over $3 million.

“One of the effects of the Trump presidency has been increasingly aggressive donations on the part of Democrats,” he said. “The 7th District is a highly competitive district, that’s why both Democrats and Republicans are investing very large sums of money in that contest.”

The most money in the 7th District race has been invested in broadcast ads, followed by cable, radio and Facebook, respectively, according to VPAP. 

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