virginia capitol

The Virginia Capitol in Richmond. 

RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly that convenes here Wednesday will look different from any other in the body's 401-year history, with diverse Democratic leadership aiming to set a new course after a quarter-century of Republican dominance.

Last November's elections, marked by huge turnout in the state's cities and suburbs, empowered Democrats to launch an ambitious agenda of gun control, social equity and big investments in public education and the environment.

But the new blue majorities in both the House of Delegates and state Senate will face challenges in holding onto power. Young, progressive lawmakers are impatient to tack harder left. Rural, red parts of the state feel more disconnected than ever.

New leadership — with women and minorities reaching several historic firsts — will have to reconfigure every committee and set out arcane but crucial rules of operation. They have 60 days to craft a two-year state budget and tackle a generation's worth of hot-button issues.

"This is going to be an exciting couple of months," Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said Monday.

Volatile debates on guns, abortion and LGBT rights have been at a standoff for six years, with Republicans in control of the General Assembly and Democrats in the Executive Mansion since 2014.

Now Democrats have the muscle to make gains in all of those areas. That includes rolling back abortion restrictions passed under Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Republican, whose 2009 election was the GOP's last statewide win. Among the targeted laws is one that requires a woman to undergo an abdominal ultrasound before an abortion, and another that imposes hospital-style building codes on abortion clinics.

Bills to outlaw anti-LGBT discrimination in housing and government employment, expand the hate-crime law to include gay and transgender people and repeal the state's now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage are likely to pass with bipartisan support.

Even last year, enough Republicans lined up with Democrats to guarantee passage of those measures on the floor — but the bills died in committee.

Perhaps no other issue hangs over the opening day of session with quite the weight of gun control. After a gunman killed 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building last May, Northam called a special session of the legislature to consider passing firearms restrictions. Republican leaders adjourned after 90 minutes without debating any bills.

With Democratic control, Northam is advocating a package of eight bills, including measures to ban assault-style weapons, high-capacity magazines, bump stocks and silencers; require background checks on all firearms sales and transfers; cap handgun purchases at one per month; and create a "red flag law" to temporarily remove guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.

In response, more than 110 Virginia counties, cities and towns have passed some type of "Second Amendment sanctuary" resolution, promising to defy "unconstitutional" gun restrictions. Activists promise to bring thousands of armed resisters to Richmond later this month amid online threats and false accusations.

"This is a discussion that's emotional, I understand that," Northam said Monday after an event previewing legislative priorities. "I would just hope we're able to have a civil dialogue and that everybody can be heard."

The pace of lawmaking will be set by a new slate of leaders in the House, where Democrats have been out of power so long that few members recall what it's like to be in charge.

The Democratic caucus chose Del. Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax as their speaker-designee, making her the first woman and first Jewish person to hold that position. Her election by the full House will be one of the first orders of business Wednesday.

The caucus also chose Del. Charniele Herring of Alexandria as House majority leader, making her the first woman and first African American in that role. And Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, will become the first black lawmaker to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

In addition, the caucus has selected the first-ever female clerk of the House: Suzette Denslow, who had been Northam's deputy chief of staff. The longtime clerk of the Senate is also a woman, Susan Clarke Schaar.

Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, is to become Senate majority leader, a position he has held before as majorities changed in that chamber.

Other top legislative issues before the General Assembly include:

  • Budget: Northam has proposed a two-year, $135 billion state budget that includes money to improve the maternal mortality rate for minorities, expand early-childhood education, give teachers a 3% raise, clean up the Chesapeake Bay and make community college tuition-free for low- and middle-income people training for certain high-demand fields. The plan calls for new taxes on tobacco and gasoline and would eliminate state-mandated yearly vehicle inspections.
  • Redistricting and voter access: Republicans last year passed a proposed constitutional amendment establishing a nonpartisan panel to draw new legislative districts after the 2020 Census. Though it had Democratic support, members of the Black Caucus opposed the plan, partly because it directed that disputes be resolved by the state Supreme Court, which they view as Republican-friendly.

Any proposed amendment has to be approved in identical form for two successive years, so efforts to change the plan this year would prevent it from going into effect for next year's mandated redistricting.

Northam, who doesn't have a role in the amendment, threw his weight behind two bills to expand voter access. One would allow no-excuse early voting. The other would make Election Day a state holiday, replacing the holiday honoring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

  • Criminal justice: Northam is backing a package of bills intended to root out racial disparities in the law, combat mass incarceration and ease reentry for ex-prisoners. His bills call for decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana, creating a $50 civil penalty, doubling the felony threshold for larceny to $1,000, boosting public defender's offices and ending the practice of suspending driver's licenses for unpaid court fines and fees.
  • Business: Expect a boost to the state's minimum wage from the federally mandated $7.25 an hour. The most aggressive bill would push it to $15 an hour by 2022. Some Democrats will push to repeal the state's right-to-work law, which prohibits union membership as a condition of employment. But Northam and some business-friendly Democrats in the legislature are opposed.
  • ERA: Democrats intend to pass the federal Equal Rights Amendment prohibiting sex-based discrimination. Virginia would the 38th — and arguably final — state needed for ratification of the amendment, although critics say the federal deadline for passage expired long ago.
  • Confederate monuments: Northam and other Democrats want to give localities the power to remove Confederate monuments from their public spaces.

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