By Bob Gibson

By flipping control of both chambers of the General Assembly from red to blue, Virginia voters have set up a topsy-turvy time for the state legislature from January through March.

Progressive Democrats with a new crop of leaders from Northern Virginia have an opportunity to pass bills that year after year had been routinely defeated by three or four Republicans in small subcommittees.

Past leaders of the state’s progressive movement — from Norfolk’s Henry Howell to Fredericksburg’s George Rawlings and Arlington’s Ira Lechner in the 1970s and ‘80’s — would marvel at the newfound clout of liberal Democrats and the rapid diminishment of GOP power, which evaporated from 66 seats in the House of Delegates to 45 seats in the space of two years.

A Democratic governor considered a moderate and a more moderate blue-tinged Senate with a 21-19 Democratic majority are the new most powerful limiting factors on progressive Democrats.

Since it is much easier to throw bricks than to catch them, as a veteran Democratic legislator likes to say, Republicans will assume the easier political task of throwing them.

Democrats will have to trade their experience of throwing bricks for their newer role of governing.

The new Democratic House majority of 55 hails overwhelmingly from Northern Virginia. Their list of progressive measures to line up and pass is a long one.

Within the first few days or weeks, the House will vote to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, a list of popular gun-safety measures, bills to end the rollbacks on women’s reproductive rights and probably some sort of minimum wage increase.

Other measures are far less likely to become law, thanks to the more moderate Senate and governor, including measures to end Virginia’s pro-business right-to-work law.

No one knows how far the first year of a new majority will go with Democratic measures to expand voting rights, attack climate change, place Roe vs. Wade abortion rights into state law to guard against federal court erosion of those rights and safeguard and expand workers’ rights.

Minimum wage increases and workers’ rights bills once snuffed out by Republicans may go fairly far in the legislative process this winter until they are scaled back or delayed by moderately supportive senators and a cautious governor who balances progressive rhetoric with his business-friendly instincts.

Gun-control legislation that was shelved this year by GOP leaders, who invited the NRA to operate in leadership offices with them, will be advanced, and some of those measures will pass.

The way Virginia shows off its history may also be changing. Delegate-elect Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, is taking up sponsorship of Delegate David Toscano’s effort to allow the state’s localities to decide whether to remove some of the army of Confederate monuments that occupy prominent positions next to courthouses and along avenues.

One of the most noticeable changes coming in January is the Assembly’s new majority party leadership that includes women at the top and many more in the ranks.

Democratic women provided the energy to take over the legislature and transform their party leadership to a wider coalition that more resembles the demography of Virginia.

The new second-most-powerful politician in Richmond is likely to be House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn of Springfield, the first woman and the first Jew in 400 years of Virginia government set to wield the Speaker’s gavel and power.

Del. Charniele Herring of Alexandria will become the first woman and the first African American to serve as House majority leader when Democrats take control in January.

Virginia’s suburbs, where Democrats rolled up wins Nov. 5, are generally younger, wealthier and newer to Virginia, coming not only from other parts of this country but also from abroad. These suburban voters also have higher educational attainment in terms of one or more college degrees.

The state’s demographic changes and polling support the notion that voters are ready for gun safety laws, climate change and clean energy policies and health care for all.

Virginia’s demographics show it is no longer a Southern state but a Mid-Atlantic economic engine of growing suburbs and cities ready to adopt changes.

Change can come quickly, even surprisingly so. In the 1990s, few Virginians believed the state with a four-century strong relationship to tobacco would soon ban smoking in all restaurants, yet by 2009 cigarette butts on tables in eateries were gone.

In the 1990s, most Virginia legislators favored denying people the right to same-sex marriage and backed measures to deny recognition of those rights granted in other states.

Yet in the past five years since same-sex marriage has been legal in all 50 states, tens of thousands of Virginians have successfully tied the knot in such marriages with widespread acceptance of their rights to pursuit of wedded happiness.

Also likely in the wind is more weed. Medical marijuana, the right to farm hemp and soon no penalty for smoking weed are riding strong breezes.

Virginia has undergone significant social and political change since 1993, which was the last year that Democrats held the governorship plus control of both chambers of the General Assembly.

In January, when legislators convene to consider what progressive measures might pass in Virginia, one of the biggest decisions will be what to do about gerrymandering.

Will Democrats abandon their past decade of efforts to create a commission to replace the reapportionment spoils system of having the majority draw partisan district lines to protect itself?

Republicans lately have flocked to adopt the bipartisan commission idea. A bit late to the cause of redistricting reform in the House of Delegates, the GOP lost six seats this month, four of them in judicially-mandated new districts to correct 11 racially-gerrymandered majority black districts.

If new majority Democrats abandon the commission proposals they advanced while in the minority, they will be telling voters much about the value of their words.

The Senate, which will not be up for re-election again until November of 2023, could succumb to the desires of some partisan Democratic leaders there to claim the full spoils of drawing new district lines to suit themselves.

That would allow Democratic gerrymandering while leading to even more voter cynicism about not being able to trust any party that talks about reform.

Gibson is communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Cooper Center.

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