By Anya Sczerzenie
Democratic congresswoman Abigail Spanberger declared victory Wednesday over Republican Del. Nick Freitas in the tight 7th District U.S. House of Representatives race, though some absentee ballots remain uncounted.
The reporting of absentee ballots from Henrico and Spotsylvania counties late afternoon Wednesday pushed Spanberger into a slim lead. Spanberger had won 50.5% of votes, while Freitas secured 49.4% of votes, according to The Virginia Public Access Project. Spanberger was leading Freitas Wednesday evening by 5,134 votes and as many as 5,269 additional absentee ballots still could factor into the race.
Spanberger, who just hours earlier has released a video on social media calling for patience through the process, declared victory after the boost in votes. She said she looked forward to continuing her work in Congress.
“Tonight, the Seventh District affirmed its commitment to leadership in Congress that puts Central Virginia first, works for everyone, and focuses on expanding opportunity for the next generation of Virginians,” Spanberger said in the press release.
Freitas said his campaign will make an official statement Friday when all votes are tallied, out of respect for the race.
Spanberger addressed her district in a Facebook Live speech shortly after declaring victory, in which she underlined her commitment to several issues. She promised to work on lowering the cost of prescription drugs, extending broadband internet coverage to rural areas, and protecting Americans from foreign hacking.
“I said I would find common ground, and I said I would hold my ground if necessary,” Spanberger said, “and I believe I have done just that.”
This victory would clinch a second term in a district that only recently turned blue in 2018 when Spanberger, a former CIA agent, beat David Brat.
Freitas is an Army veteran and member of the Virginia House of Delegates representing Orange, Culpeper and Madison counties. He is seeking his first term in Congress. Freitas first won a House seat in 2015. He kept his seat in a write-in campaign in 2019 and then weeks later he announced his bid for the 7th District. Freitas’ campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The first issue Abigail Spanberger will work on is COVID-19,” said Connor Joseph, a spokesperson for Spanberger’s campaign. “Every issue is through the lens of COVID-19.”
Joseph said Spanberger plans to increase broadband internet access to rural communities, and emphasized the need for it during a pandemic where school and work often take place online.
The race was closely watched and predicted. Politico rated the race a “toss up” just before the election. The University of Virginia Center for Politics thought Spanberger might perform better than Biden in her district and said her two-years of experience might help.
Spanberger, who grew up in the same district she currently represents, is rated a moderate Democrat. She often touts a focus on bipartisanship. In October, Spanberger voted against the second HEROES Act—a coronavirus relief package endorsed by Democrats—and wrote in a press release that she found the bill too partisan. She is a member of the “March to Common Ground” caucus, which is working to draft a bipartisan COVID-19 relief plan.
Freitas is a conservative Republican who supports gun rights. He has been described as having a “conservative voting record and a libertarian streak” by the Associated Press. Freitas sponsored a resolution during the pandemic that would have allowed the legislature to vote on any state of emergency declarations made by the governor that last longer than seven days, but the measure didn’t advance. Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in March, and it remains in place.
The 7th District now leans more Democrat with the 2016 removal of Hanover County, home to primarily Republican voters. It encompasses both suburban and more rural precincts, including Henrico and Chesterfield counties and also Spotsylvania and Louisa counties. The voter profile is 72% white and 19% Black, according to VPAP.
The race injected more cash into broadcast and cable TV advertising than the presidential race, a significant amount of money for a two-year seat. Around $15 million was spent on TV attack ads, according to VPAP. Spanberger spent more than the Freitas campaign. Spanberger ads mostly focused on Freitas voting records, while Freitas ads delved into Spanberger’s CIA past and attempted to make a negative association with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The final count of remaining absentee ballots will be announced Friday at the earliest. Pundits often note that absentee ballots are often cast by Democrats, while Election Day returns lean more Republican.
Delegate celebrates Senate passage of limited paid leave bill
The Virginia Senate passed an amended version of a bill by Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Woodbridge, mandating paid sick leave. The substitute bill, which now only extends to some in-home health care workers, heads back to the House where the initial bill passed on a 54-46 vote. Guzmán said she will encourage delegates to approve the substitute and send the amended bill to Gov. Ralph Northam.
By Zachary Klosko
After four years and multiple bills, Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Woodbridge, is on the cusp of being able to secure paid leave for some Virginia workers.
“It feels really good,” Guzmán said. “I think about the amount of people who are going to get this benefit and how they will have peace of mind to stay home and take care of family members if they are unwell.”
The Virginia Senate passed an amended version of the delegate’s legislation that mandates paid sick leave for some in-home health care workers. The substitute bill heads back to the House, where the initial bill passed on a 54-46 vote. Guzmán said she will encourage delegates to approve the substitute and send the amended bill to Gov. Ralph Northam.
Guzmán took to Twitter after the Senate’s 21-18 vote to express her excitement.
“Thank you!!” Guzmán wrote on Twitter. “We did it!!”
House Bill 2137 originally offered the benefit to many essential workers, including first responders, retail workers, cleaning workers, teachers, jail and prison employees and transportation workers.
The bill advanced from the House with an amendment for small businesses; it did not apply to retail businesses with fewer than 25 employees. The Senate later amended the bill to only offer the benefit to in-home health care workers who serve patients with Medicaid coverage.
The substitute still requires employers to set aside one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked. Employees must work at least an average of 20 hours per week or 90 hours per month to qualify. Once covered, workers will be allowed paid leave if they are sick or if they need to care for a sick family member. Unused sick leave can be carried over to the year after it was earned.
The amended bill will protect 25,000 workers, according to a press release by Guzmán.
Guzmán says her work is not done.
“I will continue to fight as lieutenant governor, I will continue to fight as a delegate,” Guzmán said. “Whichever role I’m in, I will continue to fight.”
Guzmán is running for lieutenant governor. Among others in the race, she is facing Del. Hala Ayala, another Democrat from Prince William County. If successful, Ayala or Guzmán would become the first Latina to serve in the role.
If signed into law, those covered will begin to accrue paid leave hours on July 1.
City hires former Richmond 300 project manager as the manager of new Office of Equitable Development
In her new position and in leading the new office, she will focus on working across city departments to plan for and facilitate the creation of the more sustainable, beautiful, and equitable city envisioned by Richmonders in the master plan.
Maritza Mercado Pechin will serve as a Deputy Director within the Planning & Development Review Department and will manage the city’s new Office of Equitable Development.
Pechin formerly served as the project manager for the city’s master plan, Richmond 300: A Guide for Growth. In her new position and in leading the new office, she will focus on working across city departments to plan for and facilitate the creation of the more sustainable, beautiful, and equitable city envisioned by Richmonders in the master plan.
“Richmond 300 is a roadmap for the Richmond we want to be after 300 years of tumultuous history,” said Mayor Stoney. “This office, under the leadership of a tested public servant and planning professional, will start us down that road.”
The office is housed under the Department of Planning and Development Review but will work laterally across the entire Planning and Economic and Community Development portfolio. This will allow office staff to coordinate and collaborate with staff citywide to realize the vision detailed in Richmond 300: A Guide for Growth.
Pechin will report directly to DCAO for Economic and Community Development Sharon Ebert and work closely with the Office of the CAO and Mayor.
“The process to create Richmond 300 was expansive and inclusive, and now, the fun of implementation begins. I am honored to join the city staff to execute the recommendations outlined in the plan so that Richmond 300 is truly a guide to creating a more equitable, sustainable, and beautiful Richmond, and not just a plan that sits on a shelf,” said Pechin.
“Richmond 300 set a new bar for community engagement,” said Acting CAO Lincoln Saunders. “Establishing this office will enable the administration to work across the department to build on that model, pursuing growth in an inclusive and equitable way.”
“I am delighted to be working with Maritza,” said DCAO Sharon Ebert. “Her expertise in planning, organizing and implementing inspired great confidence throughout the community engagement process for and writing of the Richmond 300 Plan.”
Virginia will join 22 states in abolishing the death penalty
Two bills to abolish the death penalty passed the Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates this week. As Governor Northam voiced his support for the measure earlier this month, Virginia will soon become the 23rd state to eliminate capital punishment.
By Christina Amano Dolan
Virginia will become the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty after two bills passed both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly on Monday.
In a release issued earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam said he looks forward to signing a legislation that outlaws the death penalty.
Under current state law, an offender convicted of a Class 1 felony who is at least 18 years of age at the time of the offense and without an intellectual disability faces a sentence of life imprisonment or death.
The identical House and Senate bills eliminate death from the list of possible punishments for a Class 1 felony. The bills do not allow the possibility of parole, good conduct allowance or earned sentence credits. The measures will also reclassify capital murders to aggravated murders.
The move will change the sentence for the two remaining inmates on death row to life imprisonment without eligibility of parole, good conduct allowance or earned sentence credits.
House Bill 2263, introduced by Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, passed the Senate Monday on a 22-16 vote following a lengthy floor debate. While both parties reached an agreement on eliminating the death penalty, Republicans argued for a proposed amendment to remove the possibility of a shortened life sentence.
Under current state law, judges are able to suspend part of life sentences, with the exception of the murder of a law enforcement officer. Neither bill will change this policy.
In Monday’s hearing, Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, argued for a floor substitute that would replace capital murder charges with a mandatory minimum life sentence. The government should not have the ability to sentence people to death due to the possibility of false convictions, but those who commit “heinous” crimes should never face the possibility of parole, he said.
“If you kill multiple people, or under the circumstances under our death penalty statute, you should not see the light of day,” Stanley said. “You should not taste liberty and freedom again.”
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the Senate bill that passed the House, said adopting Stanley’s amendment would introduce 14 new mandatory minimum life sentences.
“I think it’s awfully presumptuous for us to just decide that these 14 situations deserve this one and only punishment,” Surovell said.
Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Richmond, furthered the argument against the amendment by mentioning a Washington Post article on the recent release of Joe Ligon at age 83. Ligon was sentenced to life imprisonment at 15 years old, pleading guilty under the impression that he would be eligible for parole 10 years later, Morrissey said. He was released from prison after serving 68 years.
“That seems to be inconsistent,” Morrissey said, referring to Stanley’s argument that while juries can get it wrong, a convicted person sentenced to life imprisonment should never be able to seek parole. “If you get it wrong, and somebody is executed, you can also get it wrong when you sentence somebody to life in prison.”
Judges currently have the authority to ensure life sentences and will have the same authority with the bill’s passage, Surovell said.
The floor substitute by Stanley was rejected. The bill passed 57-43 with no amendments.
Concluding the hearing, Surovell offered final remarks on the importance of Virginia’s step to abolish the death penalty. He believes the new measure speaks to the commonwealth’s humility and value of human life.
“It says a lot about how our commonwealth is going to move past some of our darkest moments in terms of how this punishment was applied and who it was applied to,” Surovell said.
Surovell hopes that the measure’s passage will “send a message to the rest of the world that Virginia is back to leading on criminal justice.”
Northam; House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw issued a joint statement regarding the legislations’ passages.
“Thanks to the vote of lawmakers in both chambers, Virginia will join 22 other states that have ended use of the death penalty. This is an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all.”