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Virginia government shifts with Democrats dominating Election Day

Virginia Democrats take control over the chambers, flipping both the Senate and the House of Delegates blue. The last time Virginia Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governorship was in the mid-1990s. This trifecta could make it easier for the party to pass its agenda.

Capital News Service

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By Rodney Robinson

Democrats have taken control of the Virginia General Assembly, flipping both the Senate and House blue.

“Tonight, the ground has shifted in Virginia government,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a press release late Tuesday. “The voters have spoken, and they have elected landmark Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House of Delegates.”

Key House Victories

Democrats grabbed six additional seats, giving them a 55-45 lead in the House.

In House District 94, Democrat Shelly Simonds defeated Republican incumbent David Yancey in a rematch from 2017. Simonds garnered 58% of the votes for the district, while Yancey earned 40%, according to unofficial election results.

In House District 76, Democratic candidate Clint Jenkins defeated Republican incumbent Chris Jones. Jenkins tallied 56% of the vote, while Jones gathered 44%.

Democrat Martha Mugler won House District 91, an open seat previously held by Republican Gordon Helsel since 2011. Mugler garnered 55% of the vote in the district and Republican Colleen Holcomb won 45% of the vote.

In House District 40, Republican incumbent Tim Hugo lost to Democratic challenger Dan Helmer. Helmer accumulated 53% of the vote to Hugo’s 47%.

In House District 28, Democrat Joshua Cole defeated Republican Paul Milde in an open seat. Cole amassed 52% of the vote, while Milde won 48%.

Democrat Nancy Guy won House District 83, defeating Republican incumbent Chris Stolle. Guy garnered 49.95% percent of the vote, while Stolle earned 49.87%.

Key Senate Victories

In the Senate, Democrats gained two seats previously held by Republicans. They will now lead the chamber 21-19.

In Senate District 13, Democratic candidate John Bell defeated Republican candidate Geary Higgins. Bell garnered 55% of the vote in the district, while Higgins gathered 45%.

Democratic challenger Ghazala Hashmi defeated Republican incumbent Glen Sturtevant to flip Senate District 10. It was a tight race throughout, but Hashmi garnered 54% of the vote in the District.

Though the Democrats celebrated many wins, they fell short of flipping some competitive districts. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, fought off Democratic challenger Sheila Bynum-Coleman, despite redistricting which left House District 66 more Democratic. In a competitive race not called until well after midnight, Republican Siobhan Dunnavant maintained her seat in Senate District 12, in a tight race against Debra Rodman.

The last time Virginia Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governorship was in the mid-1990s. This trifecta could make it easier for the party to pass its agenda.

“Since I took office two years ago, we have made historic progress as a Commonwealth,” Northam said. “Tonight, Virginians made it clear they want us to continue building on that progress.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Democratic lawmakers reflect on historic General Assembly session

Virginia lawmakers passed over 1,200 new laws in two months, a variety of them in the final days of the 2020 session, which expanded into Sunday evening to accommodate the backlog of legislation.

Capital News Service

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By Chip Lauterbach

Virginia lawmakers passed over 1,200 new laws in two months, a variety of them in the final days of the 2020 session, which expanded into Sunday evening to accommodate the backlog of legislation.

This session has been the first time since 1994 that the Democrats have controlled both chambers of the General Assembly along with the governor’s office. The House passed 746 of 1,732 bills introduced, while the Senate passed 543 of 1,096 bills introduced, excluding resolutions, according to the Legislative Information System. The number of bills sponsored in the House led to long sessions in both chambers and left the Senate grappling with an approaching deadline.

In eight weeks, starting with a vote to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, Democrats worked to overturn close to 30 years of Republican dominance over issues such as gun control, reproductive rights and voter rights.

They also passed new measures such as empowering localities with the authority to remove or contextualize war memorials and adding LGBTQ protections from discrimination in housing and employment, as well as a ban on conversion therapy for minors, becoming the first Southern state to pass such legisation.

Seven out of eight major gun control measures supported by Gov. Ralph Northam are on the way to the governor’s desk for his signature. The legislation includes bills that limit handgun purchases to one per month, a background check on all firearms sales, and extreme risk protection orders, also known as the red flag law.

Other legislation that passed in the home stretch included decriminalization of marijuana, but efforts to legalize marijuana were squashed to the dismay of advocates. The decriminalization bill does away with the criminal penalty for simple marijuana possession, instead instating a $25 civil penalty for a person caught with not more than 1 ounce of marijuana. The Senate amended the bill from the original amount of not more than a half-ounce.

“For far too long our approach to cannabis has needlessly saddled Virginians, especially African Americans and people of color, with criminal records,” Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement. “Those days are over.”

Herring, who pushed for the legislation, said there were 29,000 marijuana possession arrests in 2018. He also said decriminalization is an important first step toward legal, regulated adult use.

Lawmakers reached a compromise to increase the minimum wage, with a bill that gradually increases the wage to $9.50 in 2021, $11 in 2022 and up to $12 in 2023. Following these raises, the measure is to be brought before the General Assembly for a future vote that must pass by 2024 in order to guarantee that the wage can reach $15 by 2026.

Democrats also pushed through an amended bill that allows access to collective bargaining for public employees — such as teachers and firefighters — in localities where local governments choose to participate. Sens. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, and Amanda Chase R-Chesterfield, criticized these policies, which they said create hurdles for enterprises.

“We’ve just crushed the small business atmosphere,” DeSteph said in a video posted on Facebook. “CNBC had us as the No. 1 place to do business. We’re going to be in the 20s after this. It’s a very sad day for the commonwealth.”

Freshman Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, who defeated one-term incumbent Glen Sturtevant in November, reflected back on her first session.

“It’s been incredible, I have immersed myself in all the issues and critical pieces of legislation that we have had,” Hashmi said. “We have been able to pass some very important bills this year, for immigrant rights and for education, focusing on teachers and higher education, I’ve really enjoyed the work and am looking forward to coming back next year.”

In the House, Democrats held 55 seats to the Republican’s 45 seats. Democrats ushered changes that Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, felt will be instrumental in improving the lives of Virginians.

“With the partisan change in both chambers, the question coming down here was: ‘What kind of majority are we going to be?’” Carter said. “Whether we were going to be the type of majority that stood unequivocally for working people, against corporate interests and decided to make lives better for the people that desperately needed it, or if we were going to be a majority that was content to merely not be as bad as the Republicans.”

Carter said that he was happiest with the outcome of his bill that capped the price of insulin at $50 for a month’s worth.

“I introduced the bill with the cap at $30, the Senate put it at $50,” Carter said. “I’m hoping that the governor will put it back down to $30 or even lower, so we can get some relief to those people who have health insurance but their deductibles and copays are too high for them to be able to afford their insulin products.”

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, looked back on her third session in the General Assembly with pride, joking that she was able to pass 13 bills for the 13th District. Roem was pleased that her bill, HB 1024, which would establish a statewide cold case database, passed the Senate on the final day of this year’s session.

“This will allow reporters, as well the public in general, to look up every missing persons case, unidentified persons case, and every unsolved homicide in the state that is at least five years old,” Roem said. “This is a huge win for government accountability and transparency”

Some legislation that moved through the House met resistance in the Democrat-majority Senate, where moderate Democrats sided with Republicans. Three moderate Democrats tipped a Senate panel vote to continue HB 961 until the next session, the assault weapons ban sponsored by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria.

On Saturday, citing concerns of minority profiling, Senate Democrats helped vote down HB 1439, which would have made not wearing a seatbelt in any seat of the vehicle a primary offense.

Some Republicans also advanced legislative reform. Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, passed a measure that will remove the suspension of a driver’s license for nonpayment of fines. Stanley also supported a bill granting tenants the power to make repairs on their property and deduct the costs from their rent, with conditions.

Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn issued a statement saying that Democrats were celebrating a “historic, legislative session.”

“This General Assembly session has been historic in the extraordinary progress the House of Delegates has made for Virginians in every corner of the Commonwealth,” Filler-Corn said. “In November, voters called for swift, impactful action to make their communities safer and more prosperous. We have delivered on that mandate.”

Multiple House and Senate Republicans did not respond to a request for comment.

Lawmakers will return later in the week to tackle the state budget.

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Legislators grapple with changing bawdy place, prostitution laws

The General Assembly passed measures this session repealing restrictions on sex before marriage, swearing in public and being a “habitual drunkard,” but Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, said he is considering updating another “outdated” Virginia law next year.

Capital News Service

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By Conor Lobb

The General Assembly passed measures this session repealing restrictions on sex before marriage, swearing in public and being a “habitual drunkard,” but Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, said he is considering updating another “outdated” Virginia law next year.

He’s considering changing the statute for keeping, residing in, or frequenting a bawdy place. In Virginia, that means using a building for lewdness, assignation or prostitution. Violating this law is a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Levine takes issue with the words “lewdness,” meaning obscene or vulgar, and “assignation,” or, an appointment for a meeting, especially between lovers.

“I want to remove the lewdness part, remove the assignation part, but leave in the prostitution part because I don’t think Virginians today think being lewd should be a crime,” Levine said.

This year there have been six arrests in Henrico County for keeping or residing in a bawdy place, and one for prostitution.

A Freedom of Information Act request submitted to Henrico County Police by Capital News Service found that since 2010, 44% of prostitution arrests were for keeping, frequenting, or residing in a bawdy place. Five percent of arrests were for being a prostitute, while 23% were for soliciting a prostitute.

Mikki Alexander, an organizing member of the Richmond chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, said that the broad definition of bawdy place law heightens the risk that sex workers could be charged with prostitution crimes. Sex work, Alexander said, is an umbrella term that includes any sort of erotic or sexual services in exchange for money or goods, from lap dances at a strip club, to escorting, to modeling or performing in an adult video.

”If you have somebody who has a location that they work out of, their actual workplace, that could be considered a bawdy place,” Alexander said. “If you had somebody who is renting an apartment from somebody and it’s the place where they live and also work, then that could be considered a bawdy place.”

“So it really is this kind of broad definition that basically equates to, sex workers don’t have any place to live or work,” she added.

 Alexander said the Sex Workers Outreach Project supports full decriminalization of sex work and prostitution.

Levine was inspired to update bawdy place law after discussion that centered around House Bill 251, introduced this session by Del. Vivian E. Watts, D-Fairfax.

Watts’ bill would make it a Class 6 felony for an adult to bring a minor to a bawdy place. Her bill passed the House 96-1 last month, with Levine casting the lone opposing vote because of the bill’s inclusion of the bawdy place language.

Those two words prompted a Senate committee to carry over the bill into 2021. The committee had a 15-minute discussion about how a person could be criminalized for visiting a bawdy place.

Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Richmond, said that a couple could become felons for having a secret meeting in a seedy hotel.

“We know what you’re trying to get at, but here’s the problem: two lovers, 30 years old, go to a seedy motel for an assignation; they are now felons,” Morrissey said.

Watts pointed out that Morrissey’s example was already illegal under bawdy place law, and the purpose of the bill was to criminalize adults who visit known bawdy places with minors.

Of the arrests made in the past decade, Henrico County charged five juveniles with keeping a bawdy place, and one with frequenting a bawdy place. There were three juveniles charged in the past decade for prostitution.

Watts suggested a new law redefining bawdy places.

“I think another bill, another year might modernize this long-standing reference to bawdy place,” Watts said

Morrissey proposed an amendment that would remove the words lewdness and assignation from the bill, but this would require removing them from the bawdy place code.

Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, said that the amendment could impact existing case law.

Michael Feinmel, Henrico County deputy commonwealth’s attorney, said that repealing the bawdy place law could have a negative impact on law enforcement’s ability to provide victim services to sex workers, such as human trafficking residential programs.

“If you take away certain laws, prostitution and bawdy place laws, then that’s going to reduce our ability to connect people with services,” Feinmel said.

He said that a prostitution case cannot be made without a substantial act in furtherance.

“Something further has to happen, whether it’s opening up a condom, whether it’s taking off clothing, whether it’s touching somebody in a private part — something along those lines,” he said. “Something else has to happen rather than just the agreement.”

Feinmel said that rather than placing undercover police officers in a situation where a substantial act in furtherance would take place, Henrico County law enforcement uses the bawdy place law. He said that if law enforcement can prove someone is using a hotel room to perform sex acts for money, it is easier to initiate the criminal process

Feinmel was unaware of any cases in recent years where the lewdness and assignation terms in the bawdy place law were actively used to enforce the statute. He suggested that the bawdy place law could be fixed, but it would take a change to state prostitution law.

“If our prostitution code section was amended to say an agreement [verbal] for a sex act in exchange for money constitutes prostitution, then it would be unnecessary to have that bawdy place code section,” Feinmel said.

Levine said his interest in modernizing Virginia code is rooted in a personal philosophy about the government’s role in regulating the private affairs of its citizens.

“I think folks should be free to do what they want if they’re not harming anyone else. And if it’s truly consensual, it’s not any of the government’s business,” Levine said.

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Bill removing race requirement in marriage records passes

The General Assembly passed legislation eliminating the requirement that couples identify their race when filing marriage records to the state registrar.

Capital News Service

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By Zach Armstrong

When William Christiansen married his college sweetheart, he was disturbed that they had to disclose their race to the registrar, considering they are an interracial couple.

“It reminded me and my wife of a time when interracial couples were unable to get married,” said Christiansen. “It’s an unneeded reminder of the discriminatory practices that dominated the South during Jim Crow.”

Both chambers of the General Assembly passed legislation to eliminate the race requirement on the marriage license application. Under Senate Bill 62, married couples will not have to disclose their race when filing marriage records, divorce and annulment reports to the state registrar.

The bill was introduced by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke. The legislation moved through every committee and legislative chamber without opposition from any lawmaker.

“Asking for race seems completely unrelated to whether a state should recognize a marriage,” Christiansen said. “It sends a signal that those in charge of policy related to marriage applications care little about removing the legacy of discriminatory practices of their predecessors.”

Under current law, the race of the marrying parties along with other personal data is filed with the state registrar when a marriage is performed in the commonwealth.

A lawsuit filed in September 2019 sparked the bill after three Virginia couples refused to declare their race while applying for marriage. The lawsuit resulted in Attorney General Herring declaring that couples applying for marriages would not be forced to disclose their race to the registrar.

“This is another Jim Crow law that should have been out of the books and I’m so grateful that the younger generation isn’t judging people based on color of skin,” said Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake.

In October 2019, a federal judge struck down the race requirement as unconstitutional. Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. found that the law violated due process under the 14th Amendment. Alston said the law didn’t hold scrutiny against the U.S. Constitution.

“This new generation is much different,” Spruill said. “During my time, whites and blacks were thought of more differently.”

Other measures to repeal antiquated state laws were introduced during the 2020 General Assembly session. The General Assembly passed legislation that removes the crime of premarital sex, currently a Class 4 misdeameanor.

“We are looking at old laws created by an older white establishment and just removing those,” Spruill said. “It’s another step to say whites and blacks have the right to do what they want to do.”

Virginia is home to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia that overturned laws banning interracial marriage. In 1958, a judge sentenced Richard and Mildred Loving to a year in prison for marrying each other. He suspended the sentence for 25 years if the couple moved to the District of Columbia. After the Supreme Court of Virginia upheld their sentences, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their convictions. The court found that the law violated equal protection and due process under the 14th Amendment.

“This made both of us curious why questions like this were still on the application,” Christiansen said. “If people are of age, they should only need to identify them via Social Security number or something similar.”

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