RICHMOND, VA – Democrats in Virginia are looking to advance a history-making agenda when the General Assembly convenes Wednesday that could change how Virginians vote, the type of guns they can buy and the crimes for which they can be jailed.
Quick action is expected on a number of high-profile issues that Republicans have thwarted for years in what could be the one of the most sweeping legislative sessions in decades.
“This is a new year in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and a lot of these things that we've been talking about for years are now going to become a reality,” Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday in announcing plans for a major overhaul of the state's criminal justice system that includes decriminalizing marijuana.
On Monday, Northam announced his backing of legislation to allow no-excuse absentee voting and to make Election Day a state holiday. As part of the plan the state would scrap Lee Jackson Day, a day honoring Confederate generals.
Other Democrat-sponsored initiatives involve prohibiting discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community and making Virginia the next state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The amendment, submitted to the states in the early 1970s, would ban any discrimination based on sex. Virginia could be the crucial 38th state to ratify it, though legal challenges are almost certain to follow.
Voter antipathy toward President Donald Trump, particularly in suburban areas, has helped dramatically reshape the General Assembly since the president took office. Democrats won control of both chambers of the legislature last year, and now, along with Northam, have an opportunity to pass priorities in a number of areas that Republicans have blocked for years.
“The length of the list of things for which people are expecting action is longer than I ever remember it being," said Democratic Del. Ken Plum, who was first elected in the late 1970s. “On the one hand it can be overwhelming, on the other hand it can be exciting. ... It's going to be a big one."
Republican Del. Todd Gilbert, who is set to be the next House minority leader, said Democrats should be cautious about claiming a broad mandate. He noted that House Republicans enjoyed a supermajority when President Barack Obama was in office and just a few thousand votes spread across a handful of districts made the difference in partisan control of the General Assembly last year.
"Anyone who thinks the pendulum can’t swing back just as quickly isn’t paying attention," Gilbert said.
Likely the most prominent debate this year will be on gun control, an area where Democrats have promised significant changes.
Democrats want to mandate universal background checks, ban assault weapons and pass a red flag law to allow the temporary removal of guns from someone who is deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.
Guns became a major issue in last year's legislative elections after a gunman killed a dozen people in Virginia Beach in May. A gun-control group backed by former New York City Mayor and 2020 presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg spent heavily to help Democrats win a majority.
Ahead of this session, gun-rights groups have pledged stiff defiance. The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a prominent pro-gun group, said it plans to have “enough citizens armed with handguns to take over a modern mid-sized country” at its annual “lobby day” later this month.
Other flash points this session could be between liberal and moderate Democrats, particularly on business-related issues such as Virginia's status as a “right to work” state that blocks mandatory union fees in workplaces and efforts to put new restrictions on the short-term, high-interest loan industry and Dominion Energy, the state's largest electric monopoly.
Lawmakers are likely to approve raising the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour from $7.25 an hour, but the details about possible exemptions and how fast to implement the new wage floor are also set for debate.