Friday, March 17, 2023
Redistricting, Retirements, and the 2023 Election
It’s mathematically certain that at least 30 or close to a full third of the 100 member House of Delegates will be brand new members when they take the oath in January of 2024.
Why such a major shift? Some of it is just timing. Saslaw and Plum are both in their 80s, plus Senate Finance Chair Janet Howell had always planned for this to be her final term. A much larger portion of the turnover is a result of the redistricting fiasco brought on by the ill-considered Constitutional Amendment which left the task to a bi-partisan, bi-cameral hybrid legislative/citizen commission.
Despite my every effort to offer a palatable compromise to the GOP members, the Commission deadlocked, meaning the Supreme Court of Virginia and their two special masters took over. The Special Masters looked at the General Assembly’s legal criteria establishing guidelines for drafting their new map and did not find any authority to consider incumbent addresses or to avoid incumbent pairs when creating new districts.
As a result, nearly half the House and Senate members initially found themselves paired with another incumbent. Some of those pairings resolved themselves when one incumbent moved to an adjacent district. Others involved members of the House running for Senate, either to avoid an incumbent pairing or because the newly created Senate Districts appear more favorable than their new House Districts. In some cases, a paired incumbent elected not to run at all.
Some people may not be bothered by the massive loss of experience and institutional knowledge this round of redistricting has wrought. I can understand those who might argue that turnover and fresh faces are a feature rather than a bug of redistricting reform.
However, we’re often told that the real goal of redistricting reform is to reduce the political polarization plaguing state houses caused by gerrymandering — the practice of drawing odd shaped and seemingly illogical districts crossing various city and county lines, dividing communities of interest in order to gain political advantage for the party in charge. If you banned the practice, we were promised, the districts would naturally be less partisan and politicians running in them would once again be incentivized to tailor a message to appeal to centrist voters.
Only that’s not what happened.
Even if you think the large amount of turnover is a good thing, the new faces will almost all be coming from even more politically polarized districts than the ones these experienced legislators are vacating.
By packing us all into nice, geometrically pretty districts, we’ve created 46 or 47 safely Democratic districts where you can win without a single Republican or independent vote, and about 42 or 43 on the Republican side. This leaves maybe 10 -12 competitive seats up for grabs in November.
Senator Howell said in an interview with the Richmond Times Dispatch that she “does not look back on her 32-year legislative career with many regrets, but one of them was her vote on the 2021 redistricting.” She goes on to say she “didn’t see the long-term implications” and that she “never bought the idea that incumbency doesn’t mean anything.”
One thing is clear. Those of us that return will have a much heavier load than usual to carry. In addition to having to work with the political neophyte who currently occupies the Governor’s mansion, we’ll have 30+ brand new Delegates with differing levels of experience and knowledge of the legislative process.
We will need our delegates and senators to not be afraid to be a bit partisan, to fight for our shared progressive values that got us the majority in 2019 and hopefully again later this year. That’s what won those elections and enabled us to pass legislation that made the Commonwealth more inclusive, our communities safer, voting more accessible, and criminal justice more attainable. We best represent our districts when we speak out against injustices and lift up policies that truly make a difference in our constituents’ lives.
Friday, February 17, 2023
2023 State Budget
As the 2023 short session winds down, the most significant legislation we have left to work on are the two budget bills amending the two-year state budget plan we adopted last year.
As the saying goes, a budget is a reflection of one's priorities, and the House and Senate budgets released last week underscore the stark contrast in priorities between the two chambers and the two parties. With a staggering $1 billion difference between them, the Democrats and Republicans in Richmond clearly have very different visions for Virginia's future.
The GOP's House Budget
Unfortunately, the House budget, crafted by Republicans, falls short in meeting the needs of hardworking Virginians. At the heart of the budget are over $350 million in corporate tax breaks, which disproportionately benefit big businesses rather than the average Virginian. This, in turn, puts critical services like our schools, roads, and healthcare in jeopardy. It is evident that the Republican party is more concerned with appeasing their corporate donors and extremist base than ensuring that middle-class Virginians have the resources they need to succeed.
At a time when inflation is causing significant strain for many households, it is simply unacceptable that the House budget proposes middle-class Virginians pay a higher tax rate than our wealthiest corporations. As we delve deeper into the budget negotiations, we will be keeping a watchful eye on this discrepancy and advocating for the needs of all Virginians.
The House budget is a cause for concern on multiple fronts. Notably, it includes a provision for $50 million to be directed towards lab schools, which diverts much-needed attention and funding away from our public school system. Additionally, the House budget eliminates language that allows for state-funded abortions in certain fetal abnormality diagnoses - a critical access point that is currently allowed in state law. This, coupled with a $13.4 million reduction in the VA Cannabis Control Authority budget, presents a worrying picture of the House GOP's priorities.
The House budget also fails to allocate funds for important programs, such as the Firearm Violence & Prevention Center, the Safer Communities Program, and the Cover All Kids healthcare initiative. These are just a few of the more prominent disparities between the House and Senate budgets.
Working to Fix the Budget
As Deputy Floor Leader, I worked with Leader Don Scott to improve the House version of the budget. Together, we had amendments drafted and introduced that would have addressed real issues facing our communities - issues that Virginians care deeply about, such as school funding, abortion access, gun violence prevention, and protecting our democracy. It was our hope that these amendments would help bridge the gap between the House and Senate budgets, ultimately leading to a more equitable and just budget that serves all Virginians.
Specifically, our amendments would have kept the corporate tax rate at its current level and allocated the revenue to fully fund our school systems in Virginia. They also would have kept the top tax bracket the same as it is today and used the additional revenue to raise teacher pay to the national average - an 11% increase over what teachers in Virginia are paid today.
None of these amendments were adopted, but it gave us an opportunity to showcase our priorities while forcing a vote on these important issues. Although I voted against this version of the budget, the process is far from over. There is still time to make changes as the House and Senate budget conferees will have to come together to close the budget gap, giving both Chambers another opportunity to vote on a better budget (we hope!). Either way, the General Assembly is constitutionally bound to create a balanced budget, which always makes the last few weeks of session interesting.
Last weekend while I was back in the district for a few days, I hosted office hours at Northside Social and greeted dozens of constituents who stopped by to say hello, lobby me for budget and legislative priorities, or simply thank me for serving. I look forward to scheduling a number of in-person post-session events to update you all and get your feedback on how session went.
Finally, I wanted to take a moment to thank the Dranesville District Democratic Committee for hosting an amazing brunch and straw poll, which I was pleased to attend!
I’m proud to announce that I received more overall votes than any other candidate in any race in the mostly-just-for-fun straw poll and outpaced my likely primary opponent with over 98% of the vote.
Friday, January 20, 2023
The 2023 Session Begins
January 11th marked the start of my 10th General Assembly Session. The day before session, on January 10th, Holly Seibold and Aaron Rouse won in the 35th House District and the 7th Senate District seat, respectively. Aaron Rouse’s victory expands the Democratic majority in the Senate and assures a majority of Senators who favor protecting abortion access in the Commonwealth.
I’d love to be able to say session got off to a smooth and uneventful start, but reality was a bit different.
I started feeling badly last Monday and tested positive for Covid-19 on the Tuesday morning before session started. Fortunately, under the leadership of former Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, we established procedures for remote participation in the House of Delegates. I was able to use Zoom for opening day and didn’t miss any votes on the Floor or in committee.
Little Banned Book Library
While I was out, I missed the kerfuffle that occurred outside my office in the Pocahontas Building over my Little Banned Book Library.
In response to the growing and disturbing number of books being targeted by far-right MAGA activists around the Country and here in Virginia, I set up the library outside my office to give folks an opportunity to see and borrow some of the books that are being taken out of circulation and let them judge the books for themselves.
Although we've had a lot of positive feedback about the library, not everyone is a fan. One group of red-clad visitors was so upset by the library that they took to pulling books off the shelf, waving them around and pressing the books up against my administrative assistant’s plexiglass protector. Fortunately, things settled down before the Capitol Police had to get involved.
2023 Legislative Agenda
My 2023 legislative agenda is a combination of constituent requests, City of Falls Church agenda items, and bills to make Virginia a better and more just place to be a worker, a parent, a consumer, or just someone who wants to be free to be themselves.
My first bill prohibits candidates from raiding their campaign funds for personal use. I've introduced a version of this bill every year since I was first elected. Campaign finance reform is an important issue and I'll keep chipping away until this becomes law in Virginia.
I’ve also introduced a bill to amend the charter of the City of Falls Church at the request of Council to allow any resident over the age of 18 to participate on appointed boards and commissions.
Another bill requested by the City would allow public schools to provide childcare for students on non-instructional and early release days without having a separate license as a daycare provider.
Dyslexia is the most common of the language-based learning disabilities in the country. I've introduced a resolution designating October as Dyslexia Awareness Month at the request of a constituent who lives with Dyslexia and is an advocate for raising awareness. The resolution acknowledges educators specializing in effective teaching strategies and celebrates the many achievements of kids, students, and adults with dyslexia.
This summer, I was approached by a constituent with a familiar and frustrating problem. She was drowning in different health forms and digging for different bits of information to enroll her children in various summer programs. So, at her request, I have introduced a resolution directing the Department of Health and the Department of Education to study the medical forms and information collected by children's summer camps and similar programs in order to make the process more efficient.
Finally, two of my bills are “ripped from the headlines”, inspired by real newsworthy events here in the Commonwealth. The first repeals the Code Section that allowed a Virginia Beach resident to sue books for being alleged to be obscene in an effort to prevent their sale at private bookstores. The Court held the statute unconstitutional, and I agree. It’s time to take it out of our Code.
The second requires anyone who possesses a firearm in a residence, where children are present, to store it unloaded in a locked container and to store all ammunition in a separate locked container. This aims to prevent tragedies like the 6-year-old who recently took a gun to school in Newport News and shot his teacher.
My Budget Amendments
You may have read last month when the Governor introduced his budget that he included the money necessary to pay the costs of incarcerating women and their doctors for violating his proposed abortion ban. I’ve introduced a budget amendment to remove that language, and to assure that anyone who needs to terminate a pregnancy due to a severe fetal abnormality, but can’t afford it, can access Medicaid funds to do so.
And we’re just getting started!
Thursday, December 15, 2022
Running for Re-Election in 2023
Over the last decade, I have worked hard to be the best possible representative for the values and shared interests of our Falls Church community. I’ve been fortunate to be able to make a real and meaningful difference on some of the most pressing issues facing our Commonwealth, particularly in our two years in the majority with a Democratic Governor.
As a member of leadership in the House Democratic Caucus (Deputy Floor Leader), I recently participated in a panel for the Virginia Press Association on the issue of Education and parental rights. I had the opportunity to highlight the real issue behind recent headlines - a desire to undermine public education.
I am committed to protecting public education in our Commonwealth. I believe that every student should have access to a high-quality education that prepares them for success in college, career, and life. I have supported legislation to increase funding for public schools, reduce class sizes, and improve teacher pay and working conditions. I have also advocated for policies that expand access to early childhood education, support students with special needs, and provide opportunities for students to learn technical and vocational skills. I will continue to prioritize public education and ensure that every student has the support they need to succeed.
Gun Violence Prevention
I am proud of my strong record on gun violence prevention.
I will continue working to stop the tragic mass shootings that have devastated communities across our country. I have supported legislation to strengthen background checks, restore Virginia’s one handgun a month limit, give localities the ability to restrict firearms in public places, and budget items that invest in programs to prevent gun violence. I will continue to be a vocal advocate for common-sense gun laws that keep our community safe.
I have also been a steadfast supporter of protecting abortion access in Virginia, making us a sanctuary state in the south. I believe that every individual has the right to make their own reproductive choices, and I will never stop fighting to defend this fundamental right. I will continue to support legislation that ensures access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare services, including contraception and abortion.
I am committed to addressing the climate crisis and protecting our environment. I recognize that the health of our planet is at risk, and I have supported legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote renewable energy, and protect our natural resources. I will continue to prioritize the health of our planet and the well-being of future generations.
As Chairman of the Housing Subcommittee in 2020, I helped to pass the Virginia Values Act. I believe that every individual has the right to live their lives without fear of discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Virginia Values Act bans discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. I will continue to fight for the rights of LGBTQ individuals and for a society that is free from discrimination and prejudice.
Criminal Justice Reform
As a member of the Public Safety & Courts of Justice Committees, I have been committed to advocating for criminal justice reform. I believe that our justice system should be fair, equitable, and focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. I have supported legislation to reduce the prison population, improve conditions in correctional facilities, and provide support for individuals returning to their communities after serving their sentences. I have also advocated for better mental health resources for individuals involved in the justice system, as well as for programs to help them find employment and housing upon release. I will continue to work towards a criminal justice system that prioritizes justice and rehabilitation over punishment.
A Living Wage
Lastly, I am proud of my efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. This is a critical step to ensure that all workers in our community can earn a fair and livable wage. I have supported legislation to gradually increase the minimum wage, and I will continue to push for policies that support working families and reduce income inequality.
As I seek re-election, I am committed to continuing this work and addressing the challenges facing our community. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve, and I hope to earn your support and trust for another term.
Please note that the new districts don't take effect until after the November 2023 election. Until then, I'll be representing the current 53rd House District.
Thursday, November 17, 2022
Three Holidays in November
Virginians now celebrate three Holidays in November. Election Day (a State Holiday since 2021), Veterans Day, and next week, Thanksgiving.
First, a couple of quick take aways from last week’s election.
The modern electorate is nearly impossible to poll accurately, so it’s time we all spent less energy focusing on data models and polling averages and more time thinking about the issues.
Young people showed up and voted in record numbers across Virginia and the Country. Many of them are what I call “unpollable” because they don’t have landlines and don’t pick up the phone for unknown numbers. As any parent of young people can tell you, sometimes they don’t even pick up for mom & dad or even return our texts.
We also learned that voters are a lot smarter than some pundits give them credit for. They understand that inflation is a global phenomenon, they know when politicians are trying to divide them with provocative misleading allegations about social issues, and they know that an individual’s right to control their own body is now a legislative issue that they care deeply about.
As a result, the “red wave” election many expected never materialized. Democrats will continue to hold a majority in the US Senate and may even increase it.
Locally, Don Beyer, Gerry Connolly, Abigail Spanberger, and Jennifer Wexton all won re-election.
Across the country, the biggest wins may actually be at the state-level. Democrats held every state chamber they had, flipped the Michigan state legislature blue, plus the Minnesota Senate and Pennsylvania House. A series of state ballot measures aimed at banning abortion failed and ones that aimed to protect abortion access were successful.
And now let’s talk about the losers.
They usually reveal themselves by their finger pointing over whose fault it was.
That’s how you know the biggest losers of the 2022 Election are both Governor Youngkin, and former President Trump. Our Governor spent the last ten months campaigning across the country for extremist candidates, the vast majority of whom lost their elections.
In all three competitive congressional races here in Virginia, Democrats greatly increased their margins over 2021 results. Loudoun County, for instance, increased its Democratic performance fifty percent, going from D+10 to D+15. We saw similar gains for Democrats in Prince William and Virginia Beach.
Clearly with the benefit of a year of seeing the Governor in action, suburban voters in particular are disappointed in what they’ve seen. Voters who thought they were getting a nice guy in a goofy vest are abandoning GOP candidates and the Governor in droves because of his controversial policies to ban books, threaten our democracy by questioning the integrity of our elections, reduce abortion access, and use buzz words like “CRT” to weaken our education system or divisive tip-lines to harass our teachers.
In the aftermath of their disappointing showing, some Virginia Republicans, including the Lieutenant Governor, have started distancing themselves from Trump, citing their losses as evidence that his time has passed and that perhaps his MAGA mantra isn’t such a winning strategy. Meanwhile, former President Trump has pushed back on Virginia’s statewide politicians on Truth Social.
You’ll forgive me if I smell like fresh popcorn next time you see me.
I was so pleased to be able to join members of the Falls Church City Council and community leaders at a special ceremony on Veteran’s Day to recognize our military residents in the Little City. We also revealed a new plaque honoring high school graduates who went on to serve their Country abroad and lost their lives in the process.
Thank you, Veterans, and all who currently serve in the armed forces. You are an important and integral part of our greater Falls Church Community, and it is my great honor to serve you in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Speaking of giving thanks, we have a lot of reasons to feel gratitude here in Greater Falls Church. This year I am particularly grateful for a renewed focus on the importance of state legislatures. Whether they meant to or not, the Supreme Court has motivated a new generation of voters to protect abortion access, increase gun violence prevention, expand voting rights, and enact climate change initiatives at the state and local level.
I am thankful to everyone who participated in our great Democracy, thankful that it seems to be resilient and lasting, and thankful to represent all of you in the House of Delegates.
Thursday, October 20, 2022
Just Say No to the Commanders Stadium
At the beginning of the year, it seemed inevitable that Virginia would pass legislation to create a special Stadium Authority, allowing the NFL and its Washington Franchise to issue debt to build a new stadium in one of the DC exurbs. Taxpayer money (albeit money generated arguably only because the stadium was there) would then be used to pay the debt back.
The only question was how sweet the deal would be for the owner, and how high the tab might be for Virginia taxpayers.
The Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Richard Saslaw carried the broader version of the bill in the State Senate. House Appropriations Chair, Republican Barry Knight of Virginia Beach carried a bill narrower version in the House of Delegates. The bill even got a nod of approval from newly elected Governor Youngkin in his inaugural and State of The Commonwealth addresses.
Having this momentum, the bill cruised through the committee process in the House (keeping in mind the Appropriations Chair was the sponsor) and landed on the House Floor a few weeks into session.
Meanwhile, I was getting nothing but negative constituent feedback about a taxpayer-funded stadium. There was no organized opposition, but plenty of e-mails, commentors at town halls, and people pulling me aside at the grocery store all saying the same thing:
“I’m against this.”
So, when the bill got to the floor, I was looking for ways to slow down the momentum of the train that was barreling down the tracks toward either Dumfries or Loudoun. I decided to throw up a signal light.
Some constituents I heard from were concerned about traffic implications and others about the rate of return on stadium investments. And still others thought it was a bad land use decision. Most of the complaints I heard were that the primary beneficiary of the plan would be someone who had shown himself to be wholly undeserving of it: Daniel Snyder.
Some disapproved of the way the team had performed during his tenure as owner, but most felt like he was (based on press accounts and investigations swirling around him) a bit of a creep. Certainly not someone they’d want to be in business with.
So that was my angle of attack. When the bill came up for a vote on the floor, I introduced an amendment that tied the creation of the Stadium Authority to the NFL and the Washington Franchise agreeing to release the results of attorney Beth Wilkinson’s investigation into the toxic team culture, including allegations of sexual harassment and assault by team employees. Unless and until that report was released, as the U.S. House Government Oversight Committee had requested, the Stadium Authority legislation would not take effect.
Although the amendment was rejected with all 52 House Republican’s votes, it changed the conversation about the bill and its trajectory.
Eventually both the House and Senate plans passed in different forms, but without language tying the release of the report to the creation of the Authority. The bill no longer seemed quite so inevitable.
The Senate version of the bill needed to be corrected to avoid giving the team access to billions in tax revenue related to all the business adjacent to the new hypothetical stadium. A Super bowl was played in February in a stadium funded entirely by its owner with no taxpayer help.
When the bill conferees working couldn’t come to an agreement on the size and scope, it became clear that there were no longer the votes for any bill. It was allowed die a quiet death.
Last week, ESPN Magazine reported that Mr. Snyder’s inability to secure public financing for a new stadium, and his inability to take on the debt to build one without government help, was contributing to increasing noise that his fellow owners might force him to sell the team.
This goes to show that sometimes even when the numbers are stacked against you in the legislature, it’s worth putting an idea on the table and making people vote on it – making a statement even when it has no chance of passing.
My constituents didn’t want to pay for an NFL Stadium, they didn’t want it in Virginia, and they didn’t want Dan Snyder to reap the benefits of the deal.
I took their concerns to Richmond and made them heard.
If you’d like to share anything with me about the upcoming 2023 Session, the best way to reach me is via e-mail at email@example.com or at 571-327-0053.
Thursday, August 18, 2022
Abortion is Healthcare
That’s how I opened my May column, when we only had a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion indicating that, in spite of their assurances to the contrary, recently confirmed justices were prepared to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
Just a few weeks later, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Dobbs decision, overturning Roe v. Wade, stripping women of the constitutional right to an abortion, effectively giving each state legislature control over the future of abortion access.
Thirteen states already had “trigger bans” on the books, ready to kick in soon after Roe v. Wade became obsolete. Since the June 24th Dobbs v. Jackson decision, ten states have banned nearly all abortions, with little but mostly no exceptions for rape or incest. You can bet that in the coming months, there will be more attempts to limit or outright ban abortion access across the country, including in Virginia.
Although Virginia’s Governor was seemingly non-committal on the campaign trail about his stance on abortion, he gave a clear signal of his intentions earlier this summer, encouraging members of the Virginia GOP to legislate an abortion ban as soon as possible and announcing a small group of legislators had been tasked with drafting a bill.
With the General Assembly set to resume the 2022 Special Session 1 on September 7th, rumors are swirling that such a bill (or bills) will be introduced next month, in an effort to stir things up before the mid-term congressional election.
With the Republican Majority in the House and the Democrats’ thin hold on the Senate, things aren’t looking good. The Governor has made it clear that he will sign any bill restricting access to abortion that reaches his desk. He has said he is looking for a 15-week ban but will settle for a 20-week ban – and that he thinks he can get some Democrats to go along and make such a ban “bi-partisan.”
Given that we are in Special Session only, we are only scheduled to be back in Richmond for a day, the prospects for navigating the procedural hurdles necessary to pass such a bill this fall seem dim. Actually passing it may not be the goal, though.
The Governor may want the bill floating out there during the mid-terms to increase his personal profile and score him some hits on Fox News.
Regardless of whether he tries to pull such a stunt in September or not, or how much traction he gains from it, we can expect to see a wide variety of anti-abortion bills introduced and debated during the upcoming 2023 legislative session. Some may even pass the GOP controlled House of Delegates.
For our part, I expect Democrats to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to codify the right to an abortion during the 2023 Session. Given the makeup of the General Assembly and the Governor's push for a 15-week ban, it will be an uphill battle to get this passed in the House and the Senate. If it did pass, then it would have to pass the General Assembly again during the 2024 General Assembly Session. After passing this second time, then it would be on the ballot in November 2024, so that voters could decide if it would be included in the Virginia Constitution.
Recently, Kansas voters defeated a Constitutional Amendment that would have ended the right to an abortion in the state. And the margin wasn’t small either, in fact, 58% of voters voted “No” on the banning of abortions in Kansas. That is a whopping 165,000 more voters than the other side received.
I am hopeful that what happened in Kansas foreshadows how hard folks are willing to fight to protect their rights in other states, including Virginia. With states once again on the front line of this issue, I am even more committed to protecting abortion access in Virginia.
I am often asked what folks can do in the meantime. Voting for like-minded elected officials who support your shared values, including the right to abortion access, is crucial. But also talking with your friends, family, and neighbors about these issues goes a long way - we must have these honest conversations. Beyond this, donating and volunteering with organizations that promote or provide abortion access delivers direct aid to those who need it right here in Virginia. Aside from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, there is the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project, Blue Ridge Abortion Fund, Hampton Roads Reproductive Justice League, and the New River Abortion Access Fund.