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Your Polling Place About Virginia Elections 2

VA onAir – Streaming Highlights

Schar Power Lunch - US-Middle East Relations
January 15, 2021 – 12:00 pm to 1:15 pm (ET)

The Schar School’s Power Lunch event series gathers some of the world’s top political leaders, journalists, and experts to discuss the prospects for the next four years of US public policy.  Each week, influential thinkers address some of the most pressing issues facing the United States and the world. All events will stream live on the Schar School’s YouTube channel.

https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=qieP8n6ej08

 

Featured Guest(s):

  • Max Baucus, former US Ambassador to China

  • Shibani Mahtani, Washington Post

  • H.R. McMaster, former National Security Advisor

Livestream: YouTube Live

Date: January 15, 2021
Time: 12:00 pm – 1:15 pm

Host:

  • Justin Gest, Associate Professor of Policy and Government

Virginia State Senate sessions and hearings
January 15, 2021 – 8:00 am (ET)

Today’s livestreams:

Rehabilitation and Social Services:  8:30

Health Professions Subcommittee: 8:30

Livestream: State Senate streaming site

Date: January 15, 2021
Time: 8:00 am

Virginia House of Delegate sessions and hearings
January 15, 2021 – 9:00 am to 4:00 pm (ET)

Today’s livestreams:

Public Safety: 9:23 AM – 11:23 AM

Civil Subcommittee:  11:00 AM – 1:00 PM

Criminal Subcommittee: 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM

Transportation and Public Safety Subcommittee: 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM

Appropriations: 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM

Livestream: House of Delegates streaming site

Date: January 15, 2021
Time: 9:00 am – 4:00 pm

Talk with - Your State Representatives
January 26, 2021 – 8:00 pm to 9:00 pm (ET)

Virginia onAir is providing current state representatives and their staffs with organizational and technical support to livestreamed Zoom conversations with their constituents. These conversations will also be livestreamed.

Any onAir member can be part of the audience and participate – it’s free (limit to 30 on first come, first serve basis). Representative’s constituents will be given priority.

These talks can be discovered and viewed on this Hub’s home page. A recording of this livestream will be recorded in this post, in the Virginia onAir YouTube channel, and in representatives websites and social media.

Moderator:

  • Contact mackenzie.gross@onair.cc to host one of these shows

Lead Sponsor:  Democracy onAir

Date: January 26, 2021
Time: 8:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Archival Locations: Virginia onAir Hub , YouTube Channel

Open Discussion - House General Laws Committee
January 26, 2021 – 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm (ET)

This open discussion will be focused on the “House General Laws Committee” with members of the committee.

Any onAir member can be part of the audience and participate – it’s free (limit to 30 on first come, first serve basis)

This open discussion will also be livestreamed (see link below). A recording of this livestream will be recorded in this post and in our Virginia onAir YouTube channel.

Here is a Trailer for this series of onAir shows.

Lead Sponsor:  Democracy onAir

Date: January 26, 2021
Time: 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Host:

  • Mackenzie Gross, onAir Curator

Producer:

  • Shuaib Ahmed

Archival Locations: YouTube Channel

About the US onAir Network
Democracy onAirOctober 19, 2020 (02:00)
Schar Power Lunch - US-Middle East Relations
January 8, 2021 – 12:00 pm to 1:15 pm (ET)

The Schar School’s Power Lunch event series gathers some of the world’s top political leaders, journalists, and experts to discuss the prospects for the next four years of US public policy.  Each week, influential thinkers address some of the most pressing issues facing the United States and the world. All events will stream live on the Schar School’s YouTube channel.

Featured Guest(s):

  • Ben Hubbard, New York Times

  • Vali Nasr, formerly State Department

  • Robin Wright,, The New Yorker

Livestream: YouTube Live

Date: January 8, 2021
Time: 12:00 pm – 1:15 pm

Host:

  • Justin Gest, Associate Professor of Policy and Government

Archival Locations: Schar YouTube Channel

Schar Power Lunch - US-Euro Relations
December 18, 2020 – 12:00 pm (ET)

The Schar School’s Power Lunch event series gathers some of the world’s top political leaders, journalists, and experts to discuss the prospects for the next four years of US public policy.  Each week, influential thinkers address some of the most pressing issues facing the United States and the world. All events will stream live on the Schar School’s YouTube channel.

Featured Guest(s):

  • Heather Conley, CSIS

  • Edward Luce, Financial Times

  • Celeste Wallander, formerly National Security Council

Livestream: YouTube Live

Date: December 18, 2020
Time: 12:00 pm

Host:

  • Justin Gest, , Associate Professor of Policy and Government, Schar School

Archival Locations: Schar YouTube Channel

Schar Power Lunch - Climate Change
December 11, 2020 – 12:01 pm (ET)

The Schar School’s Power Lunch event series gathers some of the world’s top political leaders, journalists, and experts to discuss the prospects for the next four years of US public policy.  Each week, influential thinkers address some of the most pressing issues facing the United States and the world. All events will stream live on the Schar School’s YouTube channel.

Panel:

  • Jainey Bavishi, City of New York

  • Andrew Light, formerly State Department

  • Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic.

Livestream: YouTube Live

Date: December 11, 2020
Time: 12:01 pm

Host:

  • Justin Gest, Associate Professor of Policy and Government, Schar School

Archival Locations: Schar YouTube Channel

Schar Power Lunch - Immigration Policy
December 4, 2020 – 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm (ET)

Panel:

  • Caitlin Dickerson, New York Times

  • Senator Jeff Flake, former US Senator (R-AZ)

  • Krishanti Vignarajah, LIRS

Livestream
Register for Email Alert

Lead Sponsor: Schar School of Policy and Government

Date: December 4, 2020
Time: 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm

Host:

  • Justin Gest, Associate Professor of Policy and Government, Schar School

Archival Locations: Schar YouTube Channel

Schar Power Lunch - Economic Policy
November 20, 2020 – 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm (ET)

The Schar School’s Power Lunch event series gathers some of the world’s top political leaders, journalists, and experts to discuss the prospects for the next four years of US public policy.  Each week, influential thinkers address some of the most pressing issues facing the United States and the world. All events will stream live on the Schar School’s YouTube channel.

Webpage: https://schar.gmu.edu/powerlunch

Moderator:

  • Justin Gest, Associate Professor of Policy and Government

Panel:

  • Annie Lowrey, The Atlantic

  • Steve Pearlstein, Washington Post

  • Betsey Stevenson, formerly Council of Economic Advisers

Livestream
Register for Email Alert

Lead Sponsor: Schar School of Policy and Government

Date: November 20, 2020
Time: 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm
Archival Locations: Schar YouTube Channel

Power Lunch - 2020 Election Roundtable
GMU Schar School, M Ball, J Capehart, T EdsallOctober 30, 2020 (01:29:00)
Power Lunch - Health Care Policy
November 13, 2020 – 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm (ET)

The Schar School’s Power Lunch event series gathers some of the world’s top political leaders, journalists, and experts to discuss the prospects for the next four years of US public policy.  Each week, influential thinkers address some of the most pressing issues facing the United States and the world. All events will stream live on the Schar School’s YouTube channel.

Webpagehttps://schar.gmu.edu/powerlunch

Moderator:

  • Justin Gest, Associate Professor of Policy and Government, connect at jgest@gmu.edu

Panel:

  • Tom Daschle, connect at former US Senator (D-SD)

  • Zeke Emanuel, connect at Center for American Progress

  • Sarah Kliff, connect at New York Times

Livestream: YouTube
Register for Email Alert

Lead Sponsor: Schar School of Policy and Government

Date: November 13, 2020
Time: 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm

Host:

  • Justin Gest, Moderator

General Laws Committee

Meets on: Tuesday and Thursday at 1/2 hour after adjournment in House Room 3

MembersDavid Bulova (Chair) – Dawn Adams – Lashrecse Aird – Emily Brewer – Betsy Carr – Mark Cole – Buddy Fowler – Kelly Fowler – Chris Hurst – Barry Knight – Paul Krizek – Jay Leftwich – Jason Miyares – Will Morefield – Kathleen Murphy – Marcia Price – Marcus Simon – Luke Torian – Kathy Tran –  Schuyler VanValkenburg – Will Wampler  – Tommy Wright

13 Democrats and 9 Republicans

Subcommittees:

  • ABC/Gaming
  • Housing/Consumer Protection
  • Open Government/Procurement
  • Professions/Occupations and Administrative Process

David Bulova

Current Position: State Delegate for District 37 since 2007
Affiliation: Democrat

David Bulova was first elected to the General Assembly in November 2005.  He currently serves on the General Laws, Education, and Agriculture, Chesapeake, and Natural Resources committees.

David is passionate about community service. He is currently on the Board of Trustees of Brain Injury Services, which provides support to survivors of brain injuries and their families, the Board of the City of Fairfax Band, and the Board of Advisors for the William and Mary Public Policy Program.

Featured video: This interview was conducted by Tim O’Shea in David Bulova’s Fairfax City office in July, 2019. Original interview recording has not been edited in any way.

Counties, Cities & Towns Committee

Meets on:  Friday at 9:00 a.m. in Shared Committee Room

Members: Kaye Kory (Chair) – Alex Askew  – Jeff Campbell  – Lee Carter  – Carrie Coyner  – Wendy Gooditis  – Nancy Guy  – Steve Heretick  – Keith Hodges  – Clint Jenkins – Jay Jones – Dave LaRock  – Jay Leftwich – Joe McNamara –  Will Morefield – Martha Mugler – Kathleen Murphy  – Charles Poindexter – Danica Roem  – Ibraheem Samirah  – Suhas Subramanyam  –  Scott Wyatt

13 Democrats and 9 Republicans

Subcommittees:

  • Ad Hoc
  • Charters
  • Land Use

Kaye Kory

Current Position: State Delegate for District 38 since 2010
Affiliation: Democrat

Kaye and her husband Ross have lived in Fairfax County for over 35 years. Kaye has her B.A. degree in English from the Miami University of Ohio and has done graduate work in public policy at the University of Iowa and George Mason University.

Kaye has represented District 38 since 2010. Though Kaye has achieved prominence in Education, her “activist” roots run broad and deep. Kaye has served on numerous boards and committees in her 30 years in Fairfax County.

VA News & Events

Northam directs school divisions to start making plans for reopening
Virginia Mercury, Kate MastersJanuary 15, 2021 (Medium)
Children head to school in Goochland County. (NBC12 via Goochland County Public Schools)

Gov. Ralph Northam’s latest message to local school systems is to start thinking about reopening — and soon.

“In the short term, all of our school divisions need to be making plans for how to reopen,” he said at a news briefing on Thursday. “It’s not going to happen next week. But I want our schools to come from this starting point: how do we get schools open safely?”

Some division leaders said the new directive — accompanied by interim guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and Department of Education — represented a significant departure from the state’s earlier messaging on in-person instruction. Virginia’s initial guidance, released in July, emphasized that the final decision on reopening laid “squarely in the hands of local school boards” amid uncertain evidence on the role of children in COVID-19 transmission.

But a new letter from Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane and state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver assured superintendents, school leadership and local health departments that “data increasingly suggest that school reopenings are unlikely to contribute significantly to community transmission when rates of community transmission are low and schools have infection prevention measures in place.”

The accompanying guidance includes a decision-making matrix that elevates individual mitigation measures over levels of community transmission. In a separate briefing later on Thursday, Lane said many divisions have been basing their reopening decisions primarily on top indicators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advise schools to consider community case rates and the percentage of positive tests over the last two weeks.

New guidance from the Virginia Department of Education urges schools to consider individual COVID-19 mitigation measures over community transmission when making decisions on reopening.

But Lane said heavier consideration should go to the ability of local schools to implement mitigation measures such as mask usage, sanitation and social distancing. Other main considerations include whether there’s evidence of spread within school buildings themselves, as well as the impact that school closures have had on the surrounding community.

“Even if they’re in the highest category of community transmission — and even more so for low and moderate — we recommend that they maximize in-person learning as much as possible,” Lane said.

The recommendations also call on schools to prioritize instruction for more vulnerable students, including young learners, students with disabilities and English language learners. And instead of making district-wide and long-term decisions — opting for remote learning over an entire quarter or semester, for example — officials say schools should have the flexibility to phase out decisions after a few weeks.

“If there’s low absenteeism, there’s no case transmission in buildings, your staff capacity isn’t strained — that school should have some in-person options,” Lane said. “If there’s an outbreak in a school, certainly think of closing for some time. But if there are no outbreaks and no transmission in the school community, we’re saying you should open as long as you can do mitigation strategies.”

However, as contact tracing resources have grown increasingly strained, most local health departments are prioritizing outbreaks and other cases that pose a significant public health risk. If multiple students or staff members test positive after close contact or sharing a potential exposure, health officials will likely investigate to determine if there was in-school transmission. But there’s little data on how most individual cases were contracted, and many local health officials have warned it’s become increasingly difficult to catch infected students or staff before they enter school buildings.

Reopening decisions have sparked fierce debate in local communities since Northam first announced a framework to bring students back to the classroom — four months after becoming one of the first governors in the country to close schools for the remainder of the spring semester.

Lane emphasized that the state never required schools to adopt remote instruction after releasing its first round of guidance in July. But those guidelines heavily emphasized CDC recommendations and asked schools to notify VDOE if they planned to deviate from the state’s framework.

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By early September, the majority of local school divisions — 67 in total — had chosen to begin the fall semester remotely. As of Thursday, that number had dropped to 52. But Keith Perrigan, the superintendent for Bristol Public Schools in Southwest Virginia, said much of the ongoing caution stemmed from the original guidance, which took a more incremental approach to bringing students back to the classroom.

“This is a huge change,” he said. “The previous phase guidance, it was probably more of a recommendation to be cautious. And I think the new guidance is to try your very best to reopen. If you can mitigate appropriately, you ought to do what you can to get back in school.”

There’s still no mandate for school divisions to follow the state’s revised guidance. Lane said Thursday that the Virginia Constitution left the final decision with local school boards. But education officials also faced heavy criticism from some superintendents earlier this year for allowing local divisions to deviate from the original plan.

State Superintendent James Lane in 2016, when he was named superintendent for Chesterfield Public Schools. (NBC12)

Some school systems have already made the decision to stay closed until at least the early spring — something Lane said he’d recommend reconsidering in light of the new guidance and the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. But there are also continued debates even in districts that have prioritized in-person learning. In Chesterfield County, which announced plans to bring back elementary students next month, parents launched a petition calling on the school system to reverse the decision and keep schools mostly closed until teachers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Both Northam and Lane faced significant questioning over the timing of the new guidelines, given that many schools have already announced reopening decisions for the spring. Virginia is also experiencing an ongoing surge of COVID-19 which some models suggest could continue until February. Rates of community transmission are consistently higher across Virginia than they’ve been at any other point during the pandemic. Daily new cases have risen in all five geographic regions throughout the early days of January, and hospitalizations are at an all-time high. Many health systems have voluntarily canceled elective surgeries or announced new surge plans to boost capacity for an ongoing influx of cases.

Lane said announcing the new guidance would give school districts the opportunity to prepare their plans in the coming weeks — even as Virginia contemplates longer-term changes such as year-round instruction to make up for learning loss during the pandemic. Northam also touted the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines as an important step in returning students safely to the classroom.

“While getting everyone vaccinated isn’t necessary to reopening schools, it will make it a lot easier,” he said. Eleven local health districts have begun vaccinating educators — or plan to start soon — after moving into Phase 1b of the state’s vaccine campaign.

Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks. Chesterfield returned to all virtual learning after Thanksgiving. (Chesterfield County Public Schools)

But the timeline for the rest of the state remains unclear. As of Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Virginia in the low bottom third of all U.S. states when it came to immunizing residents. The same day, VDH’s vaccine reporting dashboard showed that only about 25 percent of shots distributed across the state had made their way into patients’ arms.

And throughout November and December, some health districts advised in-person schools to again close their buildings, warning that the surging cases made it impossible for them to trace and investigate new infections. In Bristol, Perrigan said it was the first dose of vaccines — administered by the local health department earlier this week — that helped reassure teachers more than anything else.

“That’s what had the biggest impact — the availability of vaccines,” he said. “I think a lot of pressure was released once our staff was able to get that first round.”

State of the Commonwealth 2021
VPMJanuary 14, 2021 (58:16)
Democrats eye vehicles as the next target for cutting carbon emissions
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongJanuary 14, 2021 (Short)
An electric vehicle charges at a public station in Henrico County, July 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

While Virginia Democrats’ big environmental push of 2020 was the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a sweeping omnibus measure designed to eliminate carbon emissions from the state’s power grid by 2050, during the 2021 session they’re setting their sights on a tougher and more diffuse source of carbon: transportation.

According to 2017 figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, almost half of Virginia’s carbon emissions  48 percent  come from transportation. Electric power, by contrast, accounts for almost a third, at 29 percent.

But while power grid emissions come largely from a few dozen generating plants fueled by coal, gas and oil, transportation emissions come from literally millions of sources. More than 8.4 million vehicles are registered in the commonwealth, according to 2020 data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The vast majority of those are powered by gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines, with electric vehicles numbering just shy of 150,000, most of them hybrids.

“The transportation sector is where we can have the most gains now in terms of getting carbon out of the atmosphere,” said Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who is sponsoring two bills that aim to encourage electric vehicle use.

Replacing Virginians’ gas-powered vehicles with electric ones will be a daunting lift. Unlike many other states, Virginia currently has no incentives in place for electric vehicle adoption, and price tags for proposals to both incentivize such purchases and build up the infrastructure to support their expansion are large. One recent study conducted by a working group through the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy found that a proposed rebate program would require $43 million in funding to cover rebates for approximately 13,000 electric vehicles.

Still, many Democrats, who control the legislature and the governor’s office, argue that with climate change accelerating and increased flooding due to sea level rise in the low-lying Hampton Roads region, action is needed.

“We’re now in the position where the public, I believe, is driving the legislators to say, number one, we’ve got to do something about the environment, but number two, there’s options now that we’ve never had before” said Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, during a virtual town hall about electric vehicles this December. “We need to get on board.”

Looking to California — and Maryland — for new emissions standards

Among environmentalists, this session’s top-line legislation is a bill being carried by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, that would allow the State Air Pollution Control Board to adopt low-emission and zero-emission vehicle standards set by California beginning no earlier than 2023 and no later than 2025.

The Clean Air Act of 1970, the nation’s preeminent air quality law, prohibits any state from setting its own emissions standards for new vehicles but provides a waiver of that restriction for California, which already had standards on its books at the time of the law’s passage and was suffering from widespread smog and other pollution. Other states that wish to set emissions standards more stringent than federal ones are allowed to adopt California’s  a road taken by 15 jurisdictions, including Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C. (Three other states are in the process of considering adoption.)

Bagby’s legislation, House Bill 1965, would put Virginia on a path toward adopting not only these low-emission vehicle, or LEV, standards but zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, standards mandating that a certain percentage of all cars sold by manufacturers in Virginia be electric. Under the Clean Air Act, neither can go into effect for at least two years after approval by the federal government.

Advocates say the measures, collectively known as the Advanced Clean Cars Program, are essential for carbon reduction goals.

“It’s really important that we pass this bill this year, because once the regulation is finalized, there’s a mandatory two-year wait before manufacturers need to comply,” said Lena Lewis, energy and climate policy manager for the Nature Conservancy, which along with groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club Virginia and the Virginia Conservation Network is supporting the bill. “Given the urgency and the pace at which climate change is happening, we need to react to it with the seriousness which this problem demands.”

Auto dealers, though, have balked. The Virginia Automobile Dealers Association opposed a similar measure in 2020 and this December sent a letter to the chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committees asking that a stakeholder group be convened to study electric vehicle deployment and that consideration of a “comprehensive plan to decrease vehicle emissions” be brought forward in 2022.

“Virginia dealers support the adoption of EVs. They have adapted to changes in their industry for generations, and electric vehicles represent just the latest in a long line of advancements,” said Don Hall, president and CEO of the association, in an email. But he said the zero-emission vehicle standard would require dealers to carry “vehicles that may be too expensive or not in demand by consumers” on their lot.

“Virginia should only consider ZEV mandates in conjunction with the necessary commitment of resources to assure successful implementation of the regulations without unfair impact on any party, including dealers,” he said.

In its letter to the committee chairs, VADA emphasized the need for more infrastructure investment prior to the creation of any new mandate.

“If Virginia wants to emulate California, then the Commonwealth must also match California’s investment,” the association wrote.

Bagby called the request to delay action until 2022 “unfortunate.”

“We have acknowledged that this can’t start immediately and we can’t expect those cars to show up on the lots overnight,” he said. But, he added, the Advanced Clean Car standards would put “a timeline in place,” with an expected start of 2025.

“It’s time to get the wheels in motion,” he said.

Feeding supply, fueling demand

While Hall said electric vehicles “are still far outpaced by demand and registrations for gas-powered vehicles in Virginia,” advocates say the Advanced Clean Cars Program could increase adoption by increasing the commonwealth’s supply of electric vehicles.

If adopted, the ZEV standard would require roughly 8 percent of all vehicles manufacturers sold statewide to be electric by 2025.

The demand is there, say these advocates. One survey conducted by pro-electric vehicle group Generation180 found that while over half of Virginians surveyed were likely to consider an electric vehicle for their next car, inventory was 44 to 54 percent lower in Virginia cities than in comparable Maryland cities, with certain popular models seven to 10 times more available in the latter. Many respondents reported having to travel to Maryland to buy an electric car.

Availability isn’t the only barrier to electric vehicle adoption, however. While costs have dropped in recent years  experts believe they’ll reach price parity with gas-powered vehicles by 2025, or even sooner  the technology remains more expensive than traditional models.

bill put forward by Reid aims to offset that price premium through a two-tiered rebate program that would offer buyers or lessees of electric vehicles rebates of up to $2,500 or $4,500, depending on their income. Dealers would also receive a $50 incentive payment for each car they sold.

The program design hews closely to that put forward by the working group that estimated it would cost $43 million, although Reid said his bill proposes a more scaled-down version. That group, which included not only environmental organizations but auto dealers and state agencies, determined such a program was “feasible and similar to programs that currently operate in other states.”

“We wanted to make it so it’s as simple as possible for the salesperson to use, because we wanted to remove all the barriers or impediments that are either perceived or actual,” said Reid.

Another major barrier, infrastructure, will also be on lawmakers’ agenda in a bill from Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, that would require an analysis of electric vehicle charging infrastructure as part of the state’s energy plan. Currently, as the Automobile Dealers Association pointed out in their December letter, Virginia only has about 2,000 charging stations, a fraction of those found in California. Many of those are clustered in the state’s more populous regions and become more sparse in rural areas.

“It’s going to be very difficult for you to find a great charging station in Bath County,” admitted Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, during the December electric vehicle town hall.

A study of readiness conducted by the Virginia Department of Transportation and recently released to lawmakers “found that we in Virginia, like pretty much everywhere else in the country, are not ready for mass deployment of vehicles,” said Boysko.

“We have a long way to go to get to full capacity and this will get us on track for that,” she said.

The cost conundrum

The biggest question mark in the electric vehicle debate remains cost.

Charging stations offer opportunity for businesses, and a special docket to consider electric vehicles established by the State Corporation Commission this summer revealed an appetite for growth. Electric vehicle proponents also emphasize the job creation potential the market poses, with factories like the Volvo plant in Dublin planning to begin manufacturing new models, while businesses have begun to tout the lifetime savings costs they expect from electrification.

But other efforts, like rebate programs, and the desire to ensure that infrastructure is developed equitably, including in rural areas that might not attract much competition, are likely to require deep pockets  complicated by the hit on the global economy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As far as the $43 million working group estimate for the rebate program, Reid said that “in today’s environment, I don’t think that money is available.”

“It may be we have to put the program in place this year and then find funding,” he said. “We’re not sure right now how much money is going to come back to the state budget.”

The DMME working group in its final report put forward a range of funding options, including transportation-related taxes and fees, congestion pricing and the highway usage fee.

One potential revenue source is the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a cap-and-invest market similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that would require fuel suppliers to purchase emissions allowances in an auction and then redistribute the proceeds to participating states for reinvestment in clean transportation.

Virginia, however, has hesitated to join TCI. While Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island formally committed to the program this December, Virginia and seven other states merely pledged their ongoing collaboration in efforts to develop the new initiative. At the time, Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, said Northam hadn’t ruled out the possibility of full commitment in the future. Clean energy advocates expect the program to come before the General Assembly in 2022, but any such proposal is likely to face fierce resistance from some Republicans and industry groups.

Related bills

Related proposals before the General Assembly this session include:

  • House Bill 2118 from Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, which would create the Electric Vehicle Grant Program to issue competitive grants to school boards to replace diesel school buses with electric ones by 2031, put in place charging infrastructure for the buses and set up educational and workforce development programs to encourage industry growth. The program would be funded with a tax on dyed diesel fuel, a type of diesel identified for nonroad use.
  • House Joint Resolution 542 from Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, to request the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to study transit equity and modernization. Most plans for reducing transportation emissions rely on a dual strategy of converting gas-powered vehicles to electric ones while also reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled through more robust public transit infrastructure.
Northam unveils proposal to begin legal marijuana sales in 2023
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverJanuary 13, 2021 (Medium)
(Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Retail sales of recreational marijuana would begin in Virginia on Jan. 1, 2023, under legislation authored by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, which in addition to ending the state’s prohibition on the drug would expunge many past criminal convictions and create a state fund to help people arrested for marijuana crimes start legal businesses.

Northam came out in favor of legalization late last year and his bill, first made public Wednesday, represents a starting point for what’s expected to be a long debate during the legislative session that begins this week.

“Marijuana prohibition has historically been based in discrimination and the impact of criminalization laws have disproportionately harmed minorities in low income communities as a result,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who is carrying the legislation in the Senate with Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria. “We’re focused on undoing those harms.”

Timeline

When Northam announced his support for legalization, he said he did not plan to rush the process, citing the experience of regulators in other states. True to his word, his legislation lays out a two-year timetable in which officials would begin drafting regulations and issuing licenses to marijuana businesses before retail sales would begin in 2023.

“We’ve done the research and we can do this the right way,” he said during his State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night.

Until then, most of the state’s current laws governing the drug would remain in place and the drug, while currently decriminalized, would remain illegal and subject to existing criminal and civil penalties.

The decision is likely to disappoint criminal justice advocates, who have argued for an immediate end to the state’s prohibition, enforcement of which has disproportionately targeted Black Virginians.

Likewise, operators of Virginia’s tightly-controlled medical cannabis dispensaries, have been lobbying for permission to begin recreational sales this year to serve as a stop gap while regulators establish rules and begin a broader licensing process.

However, legislative analysts who studied the issue last year recommended against that approach, arguing early access to the retail market would give medical producers an unfair competitive advantage and, in any case, would be unlikely to meet anticipated demand for the drug.

Taxes and oversight

Northam proposes handing regulatory control of the new marketplace to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, which would be renamed the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control Authority.

But unlike the state’s monopoly on the sales of liquor, in which sales are restricted to state-run retail stores, the authority’s role in the marijuana industry would be limited to developing and enforcing regulations and licensing producers, processers and retailers.

Northam proposed a 21 percent tax rate on retail sales, which, combined with the existing state sales tax and optional three-percent local tax would bring the total potential levy to nearly 30 percent, which the state’s Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission (JLARC) estimates would bring in $37 million in new tax revenue the first-year sales are legalized, rising to an estimated $183 million in year five.

JLARC found 30 percent is on the high-end of tax rates assessed in other legal states, comparable to Colorado and Illinois but still less than the 36 percent and 47 percent charged in California and Washington, respectively.

The revenue would be divided four ways, with 40 percent going to pre-K programs for low-income families, 30 percent going to social equity programs, 25 percent going to substance abuse prevention and treatment programs and five percent going to public health programs.

The decision to charge the state’s alcohol control authority with overseeing the new marketplace was not a given. JLARC said the upside of such an approach is faster implementation of new regulations with a lower operating costs. The commission said the downside is that creating a new, dedicated state agency would have more flexibility and a greater focus on equity programs lawmakers have emphasized as they pursue legalization.

The liquor authority would be advised by a new Cannabis Control Advisory Board, which would be tasked with making recommendations as regulations are developed governing cultivation, security, quality testing, advertising and other restrictions and rules.

Equity

Northam proposes an array of equity programs aimed at making sure Black residents, who bore the brunt of criminal enforcement under prohibition but have struggled to gain a foothold in other states’ legal marketplaces, have an opportunity to profit from the drug’s legalization in Virginia.

“It’s important that people who have been damaged by the war on marijuana not be denied opportunity,” said Ebbin, the bill’s co-patron in the Senate.

The legislation would grant social equity licenses for businesses that are owned by people who were arrested or convicted of a marijuana offense or are the family member of someone who was, people who have lived for at least three years in a place the state determines was disproportionately policed for marijuana crimes or is determined to be economically depressed. Alternatively, businesses that aren’t owned by people who meet that criteria could still be eligible if they employ at least 10 full time employees who do.

The proposed qualifications were recommended by JLARC as an alternative to race-based criteria, which the commission said is generally only allowed by courts in instances where there is already a documented history of race-based exclusion.

Social equity licensees would be given a six-month head start to apply for licenses to operate marijuana businesses as well as technical support from the state and, potentially, lower application fees.

The legislation also proposes offering state-financed, low-interest business loans to help applicants start their businesses — an effort to address the difficulty of raising capital in an industry where most banks are still either unable or unwilling to issue loans.

The loan program would be financed by a new Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund, to which Northam proposes dedicating 30 percent of new tax revenue from marijuana sales.

The new fund would be controlled by a new board, the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board, which would more broadly be tasked with financing initiatives aimed at “making whole again families and communities historically and disproportionately targeted and affected by drug enforcement.” The proposed legislation specifically references scholarships, grants and contributions to the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, which oversees legal representation of poor criminal defendants.

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which endorsed the legislation Wednesday morning, called the provisions essential.

“I think Virginia has an opportunity to make sure that African Americans — Blacks in the commonwealth — get their fair share,” said the caucus’ leader, Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico. “That is our focus.”

(Getty Images)

Expungement and resentencing

Northam proposes a multi-pronged approach to addressing old marijuana convictions.

All past misdemeanor marijuana charges and convictions would be automatically expunged by July 1, 2022, sealing the vast majority of criminal records related to the drugs. The legislation includes the caveat that all fines, court fees and restitution related to the charges must paid before they are cleared.

For more serious convictions, such as possession of large amounts or distribution, the legislation would allow a person to individually petition a judge to have their records expunged in light of the drug’s legalization.

And people currently serving jail or prison sentences related to marijuana charges would be entitled to have their sentences reconsidered by a judge as long as they were not convicted of possessing more than five pounds of the drug, convicted of a third felony offense or convicted of distributing the drug to minors.

“We’re going to have a multi-billion industry that we’re about to hopefully pass, so we want the folks in our communities that have been harmed and penalized by that not to still be in prison for something that’s hopefully going to be legal,” said Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth.

Possession limits, home grows and driving

Northam proposes limiting adults to possessing no more than one ounce of the drug, which is in line with the limits set in most other states, according to JLARC.

His legislation would also allow home cultivation, but only four plants per household, and only two of the plants could be “mature.” The legislation would require the plants not be visible from the street and “reasonable precautions” to prevent underaged access. Northam also proposes requiring each plant be tagged with the owner’s name, driver’s license number and a notation that it’s being grown for personal use.

With the drug’s legalization, criminal penalties would remain for unlicensed distribution, albeit with significantly reduced penalties.

Possessing more than an ounce but less than five pounds would result in a $25 civil fine, the current penalty for people caught with small amounts marijuana under decriminalization legislation that last passed last year.

People caught with five pounds or more would face felony charges punishable by between one and five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

The punishment for a first-time charge of possession with intent to distribute would drop to a class 2 misdemeanor.

People under 21 caught with the drug would face a $250 civil penalty. Juveniles would face a maximum $200 fine. However, the legislation would allow judges to offer alternative sentencing programs that include drug treatment or education.

The legislation aims to address driving while under the influence of marijuana — which, unlike alcohol, can’t be reliably proved with a breath or blood test — by allowing a judge to infer guilt if there is an open container of marijuana in the passenger area and the accused appeared through conduct, speech and appearance to be intoxicated. (Last year lawmakers banned searches based on a police officer detecting the odor of marijuana).

Local control, referendums

Northam proposes giving local governments the authority to authorize or ban retail marijuana sales within their borders and set hours of operation.

But the legislation would also give local residents a say, allowing citizens to force a referendum that, if adopted, would open the jurisdiction to marijuana sales and, if rejected, end legal sales even if the municipality’s board has already approved them.

Local governments and residents would have less authority when it comes to manufacturing, processing and other non-public-facing marijuana businesses, though the siting of such businesses would be subject to local zoning rules.

Proposed business locations would be approved as part of the state’s licensing process, which include an opportunity for local residents and government officials to weigh in.

The legislation proposes some limits on where marijuana businesses can locate, specifically refencing locations that would disrupt churches, schools, hospitals and playgrounds. In residential neighborhoods, the licensing board could also consider arguments that a business would adversely affect real estate values.

The legislation also sets density limits, preventing any marijuana business from operating within 1,000 feet of another. And more broadly, regulators would be tasked with determining an appropriate number of licenses for a given area and respond if the number of licenses in a given area becomes “detrimental to the interest, morals, safety, or welfare of the public.”

The outside world intrudes on Virginia politics — again
Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jeff SchapiroJanuary 13, 2021 (Short)

Defining issues for Democrats are those on which there are deep divisions within the majority party. That will become clear as the General Assembly lurches toward adjournment in late February, relying on a parliamentary sleight of hand to bypass one by Republicans that threatened to squeeze the session to 30 days from the usual 46.

These issues include taxes, marijuana, paid sick leave, police reform, civil and voting rights, campaign finance, gambling and reopening public schools during the pandemic. Differences on policy are exacerbated by differences in personality, especially House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, both of Fairfax.

Virginians got a taste of both during the interminable special session that, over nearly 85 days, pivoted from repairs to the COVID-19-wracked budget and post-George Floyd police reform to an all-you-can-eat legislative buffet that restyled the General Assembly as a mini-Congress.

The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Expungement

House Democrats say one of their top priorities is a hold over from the special session that hit a dead end in the Senate — legislation allowing the automatic expungement of many criminal convictions.

Supporters say lingering criminal records too often pose barriers to employment and housing, making it hard for people to rebuild their lives. The Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center says they’ve worked with clients who have been turned down for apartments by landlords who cited past charges for which the applicant was never convicted.

“This bill will give people a clean slate,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, who proposed the legislation. “If someone has turned their life around, they deserve a clean record.”

As proposed last year, Herring’s legislation would direct the state court system to automatically seal records for about 170 misdemeanor and felony offenses eight years after they complete their sentences, provided they don’t reoffend. Charges that don’t result in convictions would be automatically expunged soon after the case concludes.

Advocates call Virginia’s expungement laws some of the most restrictive in the country, noting the state is one of just seven that does not allow any criminal convictions to be expunged. Currently, defendants can only have charges for which they were not convicted removed from their records, and only if they file a petition with their local court and convince a judge to sign off.

The State Crime Commission endorsed the measure last year, but it was never seriously debated in the Senate, where Democrats said they opposed automating the process — an approach adopted by just a handful of states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan.

“If there’s anything the last 30 decades of criminal justice reform has taught us, it’s that automatic anything doesn’t work — or can be extremely dangerous,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. He also questioned how the Crime Commission, on which he sits, and House Democrats arrived at their list of 170 offenses that would be eligible. “There does not appear to be any policy rationale.”

Surovell says he plans to put forward legislation that expands expungement to a range of criminal convictions — likely Class 5 felonies or below with exceptions for crimes like DUI — but maintains requirements for individuals to initiate the process by petitioning the court in which they were convicted.

He acknowledged that the time and expense associated with individual petitions would pose a burden to some defendants, but argued his approach would open many more charges to potential expungement while providing a case-by-case review.

“The big picture is that the Senate supports a remedy that would give relief to tens of thousands more people in many more potential situations, but would require a petition and going in front of a judge,” he said.

Gov. Ralph Northam hasn’t weighed in on either approach but included $13 million in his proposed budget to cover the expected cost of establishing the programs.

Republican lawmakers have shown little appetite for either approach, though GOP lawmakers in the Senate have in the past supported far narrower bills limited to infractions for alcohol and drug possession by young people.

Marijuana

Last year, lawmakers decriminalized marijuana, reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of the drug to a $25 civil fine. But at the time, most Democratic leaders said they weren’t ready to begin seriously discussing legalizing recreational use of the drug.

That changed this year as the state completed two major studies of what a legal marketplace might look like in Virginia and Northam endorsed the concept, saying he’ll propose legislation that would establish a retail marketplace over the next two years.

Proponents have emphasized racial justice, noting Black Virginians have for decades born the brunt of enforcement, and Northam said he plans to put forward a bill that would seal records of past convictions and give minority communities harmed by past enforcement a leg up in the marketplace.

While lawmakers in the House say they believe they have the votes to pass the legislation, leaders in the Senate were more circumspect, giving it 50-50 odds. One Democratic senator, Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, put out a statement chastising his colleagues for making marijuana a focus of the legislative session in the midst of a pandemic that has shuttered schools.

The Northam-backed legislation has not yet been filed and the details are expected to generate significant debate. In the Senate, lawmakers are expected to establish a subcommittee dedicated exclusively to the topic.

Mandatory minimums

Heading into the special session, the State Crime Commission endorsed legislation that would eliminate all mandatory minimum sentences from the state code — a sweeping proposal that supporters say would restore sentencing discretion to judges and juries and end what one group of prosecutors called “irrationally lengthy prison sentences that fuel mass incarceration.”

Most of the mandatory minimum sentences on the books in Virginia address driving while intoxicated, narcotics, child pornography and weapon violations, according to the research undertaken by the Crime Commission, though researchers said the offenses make up a relatively small proportion of convictions in any given year, accounting for just 3 percent of convictions in the past five years.

The Crime Commission said studies about the effectiveness of mandatory minimums, most of which were adopted as part of tough-on-crime legislation that swept statehouses in the ‘80s and ‘90s, are inconclusive.

Republicans have assailed the proposals as “by far the most egregious ‘soft on crime’ proposal yet in the Democrats’ attempts to make life easier on criminals.”

The death penalty

Lawmakers in Virginia have debated the death penalty off and on for years, but even under Democratic control a repeal failed to make it to a full vote before the House or Senate, dying in committee or never getting a hearing.

Lawmakers agreed to revisit the issue, which remains timely with two people on death row, this year. As in years past, a repeal has strong support from faith leaders around the state.

Legislation patroned by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, in the House and Surovell in the Senate would change the sentences of the two people currently awaiting execution to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.

“The commonwealth shouldn’t be in the business of killing its citizens, plain and simple, and it is time we meet the moment and end this despicable practice once and for all,” Jones said in a statement.

Correctional officers stand at the entrance to the Greensville Correctional Center on Nov. 10, 2009, near Jarratt, Virginia. Greensville is home to the state’s execution chamber. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Private prisons

Virginia has just one private prison — Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Brunswick County — which opened in the late ‘90s as part of a pilot program.

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, is pushing to bring its operation back under state control. At Ebbin’s request, last year lawmakers asked the Department of Corrections to study the cost of assuming state control over the facility.

Prison officials reported last month that it would likely cost the state $9.3 million more per year to operate the facility than it is currently paying GEO Group, largely because the state pays its correctional officers and other prison staff more than the private contractor.

With the finding in hand, Ebbin has filed legislation that would prohibit the state from contracting out prison management, effectively ending the relationship with GEO.

“Putting cost cutting above all else can be antithetical to the pursuit of justice,” Ebbin said, saying staff at the prison are overworked and underpaid. “At the end of the day, studies show that Virginia is sacrificing basic standards of care at the expense of humane incarceration.”

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Felony penalties for drug possession

Some lawmakers are also pursuing legislation they hope will eventually lead the state to reduce penalties for drug possession beyond marijuana, arguing the criminal records they create impose burdens that only make recovery from addiction more difficult.

Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, filed a bill that asks the Crime Commission to study the effectiveness and alternatives to the state’s criminal rules governing possession of drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine.

“Nothing about the way we’re approaching drug convictions (is) rooted in medical science,” Hudson said during a forum this week hosted by Justice Forward. “If you’ve got a felony conviction on your record, there’s a whole suite of career options that are now closed to you.”

Facial recognition, body camera footage and probation violations

Democratic lawmakers have also filed bills that would:

  • Require local governments to sign off on the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement. (HB 2031, authored by Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg)
  • Begin tracking data about how bail and other forms of pre-trial supervision and detention are used. (HB 1945, authored by Del. Clint Jenkins, D-Chesapeake.)
  • Impose limits on when and for how long people can be put back in prison for technical probation violations. (HB 2038, authored by Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth)
  • Require police departments to release video or audio recordings that capture officers discharging firearms, stun guns or chemical weapons. (HB 1941, authored by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke.)

Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers, who have largely opposed reforms enacted to date by Democrats, have filed legislation that would roll back limits on police stops advocates say lead to racial profiling. They’ve also brought back legislation filed last year aimed at increasing transparency of the state’s parole board and strengthening victim notification requirements.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, right, listens as House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, back to camera, objects to a procedural resolution on conducting the session as the Virginia House of Delegates conducts their special session inside the Siegel Center in Richmond, VA Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

Democratic leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates have stripped three Republicans of some committee assignments after they signed a letter casting doubt on the results of the presidential election and urging Vice President Mike Pence to block the lopsided Democratic victory in Virginia.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, stripped Dels. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge and Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, of one committee assignment each. They were not booted from all their committee seats.

LaRock was booted from the Transportation Committee, Cole was removed from the Privileges and Elections Committee and Campbell lost his spot on the Courts of Justice Committee.

“By seeking to disenfranchise millions of Virginians and undercut faith in our democratic institutions, Delegate Dave LaRock, Delegate Mark Cole and Delegate Ronnie Campbell showed exceedingly poor judgment and conducted themselves in a manner unbecoming of their office,” said Kunal Atit, a spokesman for Filler-Corn. “Their attempt to cast doubt on our elections process in order to impede the peaceful transfer of power between one president and another is an affront to our democracy and violates the public trust.”

Prior to last week’s rally in D.C. that culminated in a deadly mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, LaRock spearheaded a letter addressed to Pence that asked him to block some Electoral College votes for President-elect Joe Biden.

“Should you, as Vice President, announce a winner based on a tally of unconstitutionally and fraudulently elected Presidential Electors, it would create a rent in the fabric of the nation,” the delegates said in the letter, which was on LaRock’s letterhead and co-signed by Cole and Campbell.

LaRock in particular is facing mounting calls to resign after he offered a defense of last week’s event and used an outdated racial term by saying his detractors should “focus on the needs of the colored community.”

LaRock appears undaunted, telling constituents in a recent message he isn’t going anywhere.

“I have stayed loyal to the president even now as RINOs are jumping ship and that won’t end,” he said. “Democrat Trump haters want to humiliate our president and they want to intimidate me and make me unelectable.”

Sunday hunting bill stopped in its tracks
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong January 13, 2021 (Short)
A squirrel sits outside Virginia’s General Assembly. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A bill to allow Sunday hunting on public lands was dealt a swift death on the first day of the 2021 session by the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.

The proposal, which was carried by Del. James Edmunds, R-Halifax, failed 16-6, with both Democratic and Republican committee members split on the issue.

This is the second year Edmunds has championed the expansion of Sunday hunting in Virginia to public as well as private lands. He had argued that not allowing hunters to use public lands often paid for using the proceeds from hunting license sales is unfair.

The issue has long been a bone of contention in Virginia, which is one of only five states to maintain such a ban on its books. The General Assembly lifted the prohibition on Sunday hunting on private lands in 2014.

While committee chair Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, said about 50 people had turned out to provide virtual testimony on the bill, only one speaker in favor of the measure and one against were allowed to testify due to time constraints.

Via text, Edmunds said he was “disappointed that hunters contribute the most to the purchase of many public lands but are the only user groups not allowed to use it.”

“I think it is very hypocritical,” he said. “I really believe that many of those who voted against it voted against hunting more than they voted against Sunday hunting.”

Edmunds said he plans to reintroduce the bill in 2022.

Terry McAuliffe is running for governor again. Can anyone beat him?
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw January 9, 2020 (Medium)
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe gives a
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe gives a “thumbs up” as he headed to a press conference to announce he’s running for governor again. McAuliffe was joined by several backers, including Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, center, and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, right. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

He’s baaaaack.

On Wednesday, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe officially announced he’s running for a second term, launching a rare comeback bid pundits and political strategists say will be difficult, but not impossible, for other gubernatorial hopefuls to stop.

“Certainly he comes into the race in a very formidable position,” said veteran political commentator Bob Holsworth. “He’s a popular former governor. He has tons of resources. And he loves to campaign. At the same time, the open question in this campaign is whether he is the person for the moment.”

Long an open secret in state politics, McAuliffe made his 2021 campaign official in an appearance at a Richmond elementary school, where he was joined by a group of Black leaders. Among them were Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who will serve as co-chairs of McAuliffe’s campaign.

It appeared to be a nod to the complicated racial and gender dynamics of the 2021 Democratic field, which already includes Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, both of whom have the potential to be the first woman elected governor in Virginia and the first Black woman elected governor of any state. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the only Black person currently elected to statewide office, is also seeking the Democratic nomination.

Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said he thinks it’s accurate to call McAuliffe the presumptive frontrunner in the Democratic primary, partly because McAuliffe’s been “shaping the behavior” of the other candidates for months. But the other candidates getting in early, Kidd said, may sharpen the question of whether McAuliffe, last elected in 2013, is the right candidate for 2021.

“This is the era of George Floyd, the era of Black Lives Matter, the era of people of color being able to express their voice and sort of take their place in society,” Kidd said. “I think he gets that’s sort of conceptually his big challenge.”

As a former Democratic National Committee chairman and close ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe has a national profile and prodigious fundraising abilities.

Running as a quasi-incumbent who already did the job for four years, McAuliffe brings a level of statewide name recognition the other candidates lack, a challenge they’ll have to overcome by introducing themselves to rank-and-file Democrats who aren’t close followers of the state legislature.

“Terry is almost universally known by Democratic voters,” said a Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the race. “His base is in Northern Virginia. It’s going to be extremely tough, especially in a COVID world, to campaign and try to break through.”

Current Gov. Ralph Northam, who, with the help of a Democratic-led General Assembly, has signed reams of progressive legislation that would’ve been unthinkable in the McAuliffe era when Republicans held the legislature, cannot run for re-election due to Virginia’s term limits.

At his announcement, McAuliffe highlighted education as a top policy priority, promising the “biggest, boldest investment in education in Virginia history.” Specifically, he said he’s planning to put an extra $2 billion a year into education to fund teacher pay raises, address segregation in schools and end racial achievement gaps, expand preschool availability for at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds, provide every student with internet access and improve workforce development programs.

“The one thing we cannot afford to do is to keep Black and Brown and rural children from being able to access what they need to get a quality education,” McAuliffe said. “We need to make sure that every child is prepared for 21st-century jobs. Virginians are desperately ready for this.”

McAuliffe said he’s running on an agenda of “thinking big and being bold” as he announced his campaign at a Richmond elementary school. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch)
McAuliffe said he’s running on an agenda of “thinking big and being bold” as he announced his campaign at a Richmond elementary school. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Both Democrats and Republicans have recently worked to increase education funding and raise teacher pay, but many of those efforts were put on hold earlier this year amid pandemic-related uncertainty over the health of the state budget. McAuliffe’s campaign explained that he’d consider new revenue from legalized marijuana sales and casinos to boost education funding.

McAuliffe also touted his efforts to bring businesses into the state and restore the voting rights of people convicted of felonies, a move he characterized as striking a blow against racist laws from Virginia’s past.

Asked what he’d say to Democratic voters who wish he had stayed out of the race and used his considerable resources to allow Virginia to make history by electing a Black woman as governor, McAuliffe said he’s “running on a big agenda of thinking big and being bold.”

He then deferred to Lucas, who said McAuliffe has “a track record of being responsive to Black and Brown communities.”

“We’re standing with him based on what he has done and what we know he can do,” Lucas said. “This has nothing to do with race.”

Some see it differently.

“If the narrative becomes Terry is just standing in the way of a qualified Black woman and that’s it, he could really be toast,” the Democratic strategist said. “And no amount of Louise Lucas quotes are going to pull his ass out of the fire on that one.”

On the Republican side, the contest is off to a chaotic start, with Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, threatening to run as an independent after the party chose to pick its nominee via convention instead of a more open primary. Former House Speaker Kirk Cox, the only other Republican currently in the field, has said Chase will “fade from relevance” if she follows through with her plan. But after more than a decade of losses in statewide races, even a small split in the Republican vote could wreck the GOP’s chances of winning back the Executive Mansion.

Chase has recently been encouraging her supporters to contact Republican officials to urge them to reconsider the convention decision.

McClellan, Carroll Foy and Fairfax all took slightly different tacks in welcoming McAuliffe to the race.

In a public strategy memo, the McClellan campaign argued that, for all the “bluster” of his announcement, McAuliffe underperformed in his first run for governor in 2009, when he lost a Democratic primary to Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who went on to lose to former GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell. In beating former GOP Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to win his first term in 2013, the campaign said, McAuliffe “barely won” a contest with low turnout compared to 1989, when former Gov. Doug Wilder made history by becoming America’s first elected Black governor.

Carroll Foy drew a contrast with her own personal story as someone who struggled growing up in the impoverished city of Petersburg, calling McAuliffe “emblematic of the status quo that has simply left too many people behind.”

Fairfax, who is still trying to move past the sexual assault allegations leveled against him in 2019, didn’t opine on McAuliffe directly, saying he’s proud of what Democrats have accomplished in the past three years, after McAuliffe’s term ended.

Holsworth said it’s fair to call McAuliffe the favorite, but “far too early to anoint him as the nominee given the quality of his challengers.”

“In conventional times you would think that McAuliffe would have the kind of advantage that people would not be able to overcome,” he said. “But this is an unconventional race for the Democrats in an enormously sort of challenging time for the state and the country.”

Retired judges pick eight citizen members for Virginia redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, raham Moomaw January 6, 2021 (Short)
The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A panel of retired judges on Wednesday picked the eight Virginia citizens who will serve on the state’s new redistricting commission, finalizing the group that will handle the important task of redrawing the state’s political maps when new U.S. Census data arrives.

The judges spent hours trying to solve the puzzle of winnowing more than 60 finalists down to eight people who, by law, were supposed to represent Virginia’s geographic, racial and gender diversity.

“We’ve got to check a number of boxes here,” said retired Judge Pamela Baskervill, who chaired the five-judge panel assembled to choose the citizen members.

More than 1,200 people applied for the eight seats late last year. But the judges could only pick from four lists of 16 finalists submitted by four legislative leaders in the General Assembly.

The judges picked six men and two women to fill the eight citizen seats on the 16-member commission.

Four of the chosen members are White (three non-Hispanic and one Hispanic), two are Black, one is Asian American and one is multi-racial.

Three of the members are from Northern Virginia and two are from the Richmond area. Southwest Virginia, Southside and Hampton Roads will each have one citizen representative on the commission.

The group includes four self-identified Democrats and four who identified as Republicans.

The selected citizen members are:

Nominees of Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth:

  • James Abrenio, 37, of Fairfax, a trial lawyer.
  • Sean S. Kumar, 41, of Alexandria, a strategic advisor and lawyer.

Nominees of House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax:

  • Brandon Christopher Hutchins, 39, of Virginia Beach, a military veteran and health care professional.
  • Greta J. Harris, 60, of Richmond, president and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition.

Nominees of Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City:

  • Marvin W. Gilliam Jr., 64, of Bristol, a retired coal mining executive.
  • Richard O. Harrell III, 74, of South Boston, a trucking executive.

Nominees of House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah:

  • Jose A. Feliciano Jr., 52, of Fredericksburg, a military veteran and federal agent with the FCC’s public safety bureau.
  • Mackenzie K. Babichenko, 36, of Mechanicsville, an assistant prosecutor in Hanover County.

(Note: Some applicants were nominated as finalists by multiple legislative leaders, but the judges had to pick two from each leader’s list.)

The other eight seats on the commission will be filled by sitting state legislators.

The commission, approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year, will soon get to work preparing to redraw Virginia’s legislative and congressional districts, a process previously handled wholly by the General Assembly. Because of uncertainty surrounding the 2020 Census data, the exact timeline for the commission’s work is unclear. New maps are supposed to be in place in time for House of Delegates elections this November, but Census delays may make it impossible to redraw the districts in time.

Whenever the state receives solid data on population shifts, the commission’s decisions could impact the partisan tilt of the statehouse and the congressional delegation for the next decade.

Critics of the commission proposal warned that it lacked adequate provisions to ensure a diverse group of people would be at the table for the next redistricting process. But diversity seemed to be a top priority for the judges, with their discussion centering more on whether they were achieving the right balance rather than the backgrounds and qualifications of specific applicants.

Comparing notes on which candidates stood out to them, the judges initially narrowed the finalists down to a group of 19. They then realized their shortlist lacked any Hispanic applicants and didn’t include anyone from the Eastern Shore/Northern Neck region. The panel made a point of adding at least one Hispanic applicant (Feliciano) after retired retired Judge Larry B. Kirksey said he was troubled by the lack of Hispanic representation. But several judges said it was nearly impossible to create a perfectly representative commission given their limited options for just eight slots.

“’We can only work with the list of folks that came to us from the members of the General Assembly,” said retired Judge Joanne F. Alper. “We didn’t have access to the whole 1,200.”

Alper said she felt it was important to include at least one member from the Southside and Southwest regions, even though their shortlist only included White men from those areas.

“You need somebody at least that has some knowledge of that region,” she said.

Some progressives had raised alarms that the pool of applicants was disproportionately White and wealthy, pointing to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project.

The application process was open to everyone willing to fill out the form and provide three reference letters, but the judges also grappled with strict, General Assembly-imposed limitations on who was eligible to serve.

To prevent cronyism, the legislature passed rules barring political aides, lobbyists, partisan operatives and family members of elected officials from serving on the commission. But those rules also forced the judges to reluctantly strike one applicant whose wife previously worked on Capitol Hill.

Several judges said they were impressed by both the quantity and quality of the applicants interested in serving on the commission.

“I’m just amazed by the diversity, the energy, the brilliance,” said Kirksey.  “Not just brightness. There is brilliance on this list.”