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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.

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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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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.

Downtown

Library of Virginia bringing Dopesick author Beth Macy to Richmond for the Carole Weinstein Author Series

Beth Macy is a Virginia-based journalist, the author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, and an executive producer and cowriter on Hulu’s Peabody Award–winning Dopesick series.

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The Library of Virginia continues its 2022 Carole Weinstein Author Series talks with New York Times best-selling author Beth Macy. Macy will discuss Raising Lazarus: Hope, Justice, and the Future of America’s Overdose Crisis, the much anticipated follow-up to her internationally acclaimed book and Amazon series Dopesick. Carole Weinstein Author Series talks are free and open to the public. Registration is required for in-person attendance. To register, click here.

The event takes place Tuesday, August 23rd from 6:00–7:30 p.m.at the Library of Virginia Lecture Hall. It will also be livestreamed.

Beth Macy is a Virginia-based journalist, the author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, and an executive producer and cowriter on Hulu’s Peabody Award–winning Dopesick series.

For more than 25 years, Macy has been reporting on stories from the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia—previously for the Roanoke Times and, more recently, in occasional essays for the New York Times. She has also written for magazines, radio, and online journals from locations ranging from a mobile home in Bassett, Virginia, to a crowded cholera ward in Limbe, Haiti.

Like the treatment innovators she profiles, Beth Macy meets the opioid crisis where it is—not where we think it should be or wish it was. Bearing witness with clear eyes, intrepid curiosity, and unfailing empathy, she brings us the crucial next installment in the story of the defining disaster of our era, one that touches every single one of us, whether directly or indirectly. A complex story of public health, big pharma, dark money, politics, race, and class that is by turns harrowing and heartening, infuriating and inspiring, Raising Lazarus is a must-read for all Americans.

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Downtown

Youngkin calls raid on Trump club a ‘stunning move’ by feds, raising speculation about presidential run

Youngkin’s statement didn’t reference Trump specifically, but it was an unusually direct show of support from a Republican figure who kept the ex-president at arm’s length en route to his close win last year in a purple state.

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By Graham Moomaw

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin called the federal raid on former President Donald Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago a “stunning move by the DOJ and FBI” and implied it could be politically motivated.

In a tweet posted Tuesday morning, Youngkin drew a connection between the news of the search in Florida and prior events in Virginia.

“This same DOJ labeled parents in Loudoun County as terrorists and failed to enforce federal law to protect Justices in their homes,” read the post from the governor’s political account. “Selective, politically motivated actions have no place in our democracy.”

The governor’s claim about the events in Loudoun has already been widely refuted by fact-checkers. A controversial letter from the National School Boards Association mentioned the arrest of a Loudoun father upset over his daughter’s sexual assault in a school as an example of aggressive behavior toward school boards that could be “the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism.” When Attorney General Merrick Garland responded by saying he would investigate and prosecute threats against school boards, he didn’t mention terrorism or Loudoun.

In response to protests over the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Youngkin, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan asked the Department of Justice to enforce a law that bars picketing outside justices’ houses in their states, but no federal prosecutions followed.

Youngkin’s statement didn’t reference Trump specifically, but it was an unusually direct show of support from a Republican figure who kept the ex-president at arm’s length en route to his close win last year in a purple state. Youngkin has been downplaying speculation about whether he might run for president in 2024, a move that could put him in competition with Trump for the GOP nomination.

Controversy over federal law enforcement agencies has particular resonance in Virginia due to the high numbers of federal employees who live in the state.

Facts have been scarce about why the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, what agents were looking for and what federal authorities believe Trump may have done. But Virginia Republicans didn’t hold back expressions of outrage over the move.

“The dangerous precedent the Democrats set yesterday by weaponizing the FBI should anger and frighten every American,” state Sen. Jen Kiggans, the Republican nominee in a close congressional race in the Hampton Roads area, said on Twitter. “All to settle old political scores and silence their political opponents – it’s corrupt, and it’s flat out unacceptable.”

Kiggans was responding to an earlier statement from her opponent, Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, a member of the congressional Jan. 6 committee who was pointing to Republican threats to investigate the Department of Justice if the GOP wins back control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“There is no way to defend Trump, only to deflect,” Luria said.

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Crime

Editorial: Dogwood Dell: a massacre foiled or a tale too good to be true?

“The story seemed almost too good to be true. Now, a month later, a city prosecutor has given us reason to believe it’s not true.”

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By Bob Lewis

If you don’t live near Richmond and get your news from its regional media market, the last time you probably heard of a place called Dogwood Dell was a little over a month ago when Virginia’s capital city made national news for boldly claiming to have foiled a mass shooting.

The claim by Richmond’s police chief and mayor came on the heels of atrocities in Uvalde and Buffalo. Just two days earlier, a rooftop gunman indiscriminately mowed down spectators lining a Fourth of July parade route on the streets of Highland Park, Illinois.

As Chief Gerald Smith and Mayor Levar Stoney explained to a phalanx of television cameras on July 6, a tip from a “hero citizen” allowed police to apprehend two Guatemalan men illegally in the United States and foil their plot to take high-powered firearms to Dogwood Dell, a bandshell and amphitheater in a city park, and unleash hell on hundreds attending an evening Independence Day concert and fireworks display.

The story made network evening newscasts, an upbeat counterpoint to the fresh horror from suburban Chicago. Smith did cable news interviews with outlets like CNN, spreading the word. The publicity was a perfect balm for a police department whose community relations had been strained mightily by its heavy-handed response in the summer of 2020 to demonstrations along Richmond’s Monument Avenue triggered by the broad-daylight police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Stoney was forced to fire the police chief at the time, William Smith (no relation to the current chief), after officers in riot gear teargassed, maced, cursed and kicked protesters gathered peacefully at the since-razed statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. It took the city two years, prodded by the settlement of a citizens’ lawsuit, to formally apologize for those police actions.

But this summer, in the first week of July, buoyed by national headlines of a police triumph and lives spared, the city seemed to have made notable strides toward restoring faith in its leadership.

The story seemed almost too good to be true. Now, a month later, a city prosecutor has given us reason to believe it’s not true.

Asked directly in open court by Richmond General District Court Judge David Hicks last week if there was any evidence of plans to attack Dogwood Dell on July Fourth, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Clint Seal gave a clear, unequivocal and crushing response: “No.”

But that moment wasn’t the first time cracks in the city’s story had appeared. Troubling questions began surfacing as early as the upbeat July 6 press conference itself.

Why, if there was a known threat of a mass shooting, were the Dogwood Dell festivities allowed to proceed as scheduled, particularly with one of the two suspects not yet in custody?

Why was one of the suspects – at a minimum, a person illegally in the country – granted a low $15,000 bond on the same day Smith and Stoney announced his arrest? Five days later, another judge thought better of it and revoked the man’s bond, meaning both suspects are now being held without bail.

Why, if the alleged plot was so ignominious and worthy of the bold assertions unambiguously trumpeted by the city’s top officials, has neither man been charged in connection with it? Why is it not mentioned, even obliquely, in any of the charges currently pending against them? (Both are being held on federal immigration and firearms charges and facing deportation.)

And why have city government and police officials steadfastly stiff-armed persistent media requests to answer those questions and elaborate on the case?

The response from the police chief and the mayor? Double down on their claim and insist that it’s valid, the prosecutor’s contradictory statement in court under pain of perjury notwithstanding.

The basis for the chief’s belief that the two men planned specifically to shoot up Dogwood Dell? Essentially, his gut. And probability.

It came “from the experience and knowledge that your police department has and dealing with situations every day; of studying what happens in mass shootings, mass casualty incidents,” Smith said after the court proceeding in an on-camera interview with WTVR-TV in Richmond. “It comes from just your police department knowing what it’s doing.”

“It’s Richmond. Fourth of July celebration. It’s at the Dogwood Dell,” he said.

There’s no paucity of Independence Day observations in Richmond, a city with its own significant contributions to the nation’s struggle for independence. Arguably better known than Dogwood Dell is the annual fireworks display after the final out of the Richmond Flying Squirrels game at The Diamond, a minor league ballpark at the opposite terminus of Arthur Ashe Boulevard from Dogwood Dell. The city’s suburbs have their own numerous public celebrations and pyrotechnics extravaganzas.

As it turns out, we’ve been shown no more evidence for a plot targeting Dogwood Dell than we have for any other potential venue, though we’ve been implored to believe the claim absent any publicly shared substantiation beyond a conversation overheard by an earnest citizen tipster.

None of this is to suggest that these suspects don’t need to be sent away. They do.

Rolman Alberto Balcarcel had been deported twice from the United States and had returned a third time when he was arrested last month. His housemate, Julio Alvarado-Dubon, is charged with illegal possession of a firearm by a person illegally in the country. He had purchased two assault-style rifles, a handgun and multiple high-capacity ammunition magazines at a yard sale near Fredericksburg.

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin last week asked the U.S. Department of Justice to take over prosecution of the men because they are “two illegal aliens with guns so we wanted them prosecuted at the highest level possible.” There was no reference to a mass shooting.

Did Balcarcel and Alvarado-Dubon plan to carry out a bloody assault on U.S. soil – perhaps Richmond soil? I don’t know. Clearly, they had an arsenal capable of it. The chief and the mayor say that was their intent, but nobody in authority has yet put one word of it in writing, made such a claim in a legal proceeding, or shared a shred of corroboration beyond because we say so!

We should not lose sight of the fact that law enforcement performed a great service by taking these two into custody based solely on the armaments seized and the wanton immigration violations alleged in court documents. They deserve our thanks.

The problems come not from the work officers did but from city leadership building so fantastical a narrative and announcing it so broadly yet sharing no proof to support it.

The press may not be the juggernaut it once was, but there are still a lot of journalists out there who are really good at skeptically listening to a claim, methodically vetting and finding holes in it, and asking those responsible to explain the discrepancies. When those officials can’t – or won’t – the whole thing unravels pretty fast, particularly after scenes like the one in Judge Hicks’s courtroom.

What, for a few weeks, seemed like a much-needed PR breakthrough for city leadership in general and the police in particular has instead put both on the defensive again as Smith’s and Stoney’s sensational account falters on the verge of collapse.

Chief Smith, Mayor Stoney – if you’ve got the goods that you say you do tying these two guys to a mass murder plot at Dogwood Dell (or any place else), it’s time to stop stonewalling legitimate inquiries and back your claim with some verifiable proof.

At stake is the public trust and confidence necessary to govern.

Will you help support independent, local journalism?

We need your help. RVAHub is a small, independent publication, and we depend on our readers to help us provide a vital community service. If you enjoy our content, would you consider a donation as small as $5? We would be immensely grateful! Interested in advertising your business, organization, or event? Get the details here.

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