Thursday, December 19, 2019

Getting the words right

I know I can’t be the only one who finds myself shouting back at the radio or television these days. Usually it’s at the news, so I was a little surprised to find myself shouting at the radio this weekend, since I was listening to an all sports station.

In my car on the way back from Richmond, I heard someone describing what happened at the beginning of the Dallas Cowboys football game. Apparently, quarterback Dak Prescott, after winning the coin toss, simply said, “we’ll kick.” In this age of analytics, every team has figured out your statistically more likely to win if you start the second half on offense, so Prescott told the referee- “we’ll kick,” thinking his team would kick off in the first half, and receive the kick and start the game on offense in the second half.

The problem is, that’s not what the rules say. The rule is actually that each team gets to take a turn deciding whether to start on offense or defense. The winner of the coin toss gets to decide first, but they are also allowed to defer that decision and decide whether to start on offense or defense during the second half. According the referee, he heard “we’ll kick” to mean the Cowboys electing to start on Defense in the first half, which meant the Rams would still be able to decide whether to start on offense or defense in the second half. What Prescott should have said, was “we defer the decision to the 2nd half, our opponent can make the election for the 1st half.”

So, what was I yelling at the radio?

“He should have talked to his Parliamentarian!”

I couldn’t help thinking it was such a great example of the importance of understanding the rules and picking your words with precision to make sure the rules worked to your advantage.

As it turns out, the referee had a little trouble hearing (I know we often accuse the refs of having problems with their vision). After a video review of the conversation at the coin toss, it was determined that Prescott did in fact use the magic words “we defer to the second half” followed by “we’ll kick” so thanks to instant replay the Cowboys got the ball at the start of the 3rd quarter and went on to win the game.

In the Virginia House of Delegates, we have a lot of arcane procedural rules, and as a member of the minority caucus, I took great pride in listening closely and looking for opportunities to take advantage when the other side used words in a way that might allow us to gain an advantage, the equivalent of making the other team kickoff to start both halves of the game on defense.

Now that we are in the majority, it’s incumbent on us to make sure we choose our words carefully. With 55 votes to the other side’s 45, we should be able to win every vote, but that only helps if we know what we’re voting to do - and I know the other side will be listening carefully, and we don’t yet have instant replay on the floor of the House of Delegates.

Now that my party is in the majority, we have an awesome responsibility to govern, and to legislate knowing that the bills we propose in January are likely to become laws this July. We owe it to our constituents and all Virginians to choose our words carefully and make sure the words we use effect the policies and produce the outcomes we actually intend.

That’s why I’ve only pre-filed one bill so far, a bill that I’ve introduced and word-smithed for the last 3 years. It requires student loan servicing companies to be licensed to do business in Virginia and adhere to a student borrower’s bill of rights - a list of consumer protection standards - in order to retain that license. They’ll be subject to regulation and oversight by Virginia regulators, so borrowers don’t have to make a literal federal case of it every time their servicer does something wrong.

We will make big strides forward this year on gun violence prevention, moving toward a living wage, providing more funding for education, and increasing the use and affordability of renewable energy. We’ll increase women’s bodily autonomy in Virginia, and reform a criminal justice system that too often treats people of color more harshly than others. Some things just can’t wait.

Getting the words right and choosing them carefully also means that we may not get to all our priorities immediately. So be patient with us. There are more great things to come.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Virginia's Blue Wave

The Blue Wave. A Blue Tsunami. These are the metaphors we’ve heard bandied about to describe the remarkable transformation of Virginia’s electoral landscape since 2017. If we are going to stick with water analogies, perhaps it’s more apt to describe what’s happened in the Commonwealth as political sea change.

Waves, even Tsunamis, are sudden, singular events that crash and transform the landscape, but then quickly recede. Climate change, actual or political, is more incremental and more permanent - occasionally reaching certain tipping points where changes become more sudden and undeniable.

It’s tempting to look back only as far as the surprise election of Donald Trump as president in 2016 as the beginning of this change, but the truth is, it started long before that.

I was first elected to the General Assembly in 2013, sharing a ballot with Terry McAuliffe, Ralph Northam, and Mark Herring. Coming one year after Tim Kaine’s 2012 election to the U.S. Senate, the 2013 election marked the first time in decades that Democrats held all 5 statewide elected offices. This was despite the glitch-plagued rollout of the website.

In 2015, an off-off year election, in spite of very low turnout (only 29% of registered voters), the Virginia House of Delegates picked up a seat in a cycle where we’d become accustomed to losing ground to the GOP. In 2016, Hillary Clinton easily won Virginia’s 13 electoral votes.

So, in 2017, when even the most optimistic of us thought we might pick up 7 or 8 seats and we picked up 15, it certainly did look like a wave. Or even a tsunami, triggered by the earthquake that was Donald Trump’s election.

Virginia has been getting bluer and bluer, though. We’ve known since the 2008 Presidential election that there are enough Democratic voters across the Commonwealth to give us control of the General Assembly. As the state has grown, it has grown more diverse, and become less rural, with its growth mostly in suburban communities.

The election of Donald Trump, in spite of his losing Virginia, was the event that grabbed the attention of those voters that weren’t attuned to politics except for once every four years. It showed them that there really is a difference between the two political parties, and how much their participation in the process matters.

In 2017, we had nearly 48% turnout for a Governor’s race with 100 House of Delegates races on the ballot at the same time. Had this been a wave, that crashed and receded, we might have contented ourselves with near parity in the General Assembly that enabled us to expand health care to nearly 400,000 Virginians.

But that was just the beginning. Voters are now awakened to what they can accomplish when they vote. And the fact that control of the House was decided by a random drawing of a name from a bowl just drove home the point that every vote counts.

Last night we saw the blue tide continue to rise, reaching a new tipping point. Democrats took a 2-seat majority in the State Senate, and a healthy 10-seat advantage in the House of Delegates (55-45 pending the outcome of two very close races). With Democrats now in control of both houses of the legislature and the Governor’s mansion, Virginia will finally have state government policies that reflect the new reality of who we are as a Commonwealth.

Gun Violence prevention legislation will be enacted into law, rather than being dismissed after 90 minutes of political theater.

Virginia will continue to be the best state in which to do business, but without being the worst place to be a worker, as we work to provide everyone with a living wage and affordable healthcare, and to remove impediments to workers’ ability to organize their workplaces where and when they so choose.

Women won’t be subject to medically-unnecessary medical procedures and have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to access healthcare services, asserting their right to control their own bodies without government interference.

Virginia will contribute to slowing (non-political) climate change, by moving swiftly towards becoming carbon-free and transitioning to clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar, creating new job opportunities in these innovative industries.

Bottom line - we finally have an opportunity to enact substantive, progressive policies, because Virginians yesterday voted in a legislature that finally looks like and shares the values of the Commonwealth it represents.

It won’t all happen overnight, but yesterday’s election results are both the start and the continuation of something very big, very impactful, and in the case of this particular political climate change, something very good for all Virginians.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Ain't Baseball Great?

Ain’t baseball great?

I’ve had the privilege to attend one game from each round of the National League Playoffs, including the Wild Card Round. It’s been so good for my soul to spend three hours surrounded by like-minded folks all pulling for the same thing (with the exception of the stray Brewer or Dodger or Cardinal fan here and there) at the same time, in the same place.

Everyone wearing their lucky outfit, the one that they haven’t washed since Juan Soto broke the game open in the bottom of the 8th against Milwaukee. Some of us imagine that our superstitious rituals have a real influence on the outcome of the game. We cheer and wave our towels together. We stand as one when the pitch count reaches two strikes. We pat each other on the back when the other team gets the better of us that night.

Rarely do we ask each other “Where were you born?” “What language do you speak at home?” “Is that your friend you brought to the ball park with you, or your ‘friend’?” “Who are you voting for?”

We are all there for the same reasons. To enjoy America’s favorite pastime and perhaps get a break from the daily grind. This is probably why I also like the Nationals current popular HashTag or team motto, “Stay in the fight,” so much.

It’s relevant to this year’s team that started the season playing poorly and enduring bad breaks. Yet they never did quit or stop believing in themselves and each other. They stuck with what they knew was right and trusted that the results would follow. Stay In The Fight describes the team well.

I also really like the hashtag/motto from years ago. One pursuit. That’s a motto that I think still applies to those of us that fill the stands each night, clad in red jerseys featuring our favorite player’s name and number. WE are all there pulling for the same thing, all of us in our own way. I think by now you might see where I am going with this.

Besides having World Series Playoff fever, I think my Nationals fandom may hold some hints for how to cure what ails us as a nation. We need to recognize that all of us really are rooting for the same things. We all want to live in a Country, a Commonwealth and a Community where we can feel safe and welcome, where we have opportunities to prosper, and build a world where our children can be better off and have an easier time than we did.

Of course, the best way to achieve that is subject of some debate. You can debate whether Davey should have brought in a left-handed relief pitcher or not. Fervent fans can have heated disagreements about that. The beautiful thing about baseball is that everyone is judged on their results.

Some of us believe the best path to prosperity is to create an economy where no one is left behind, and no one is excluded because of who they are, where they came from, how they got here, or who they love. We can all have a bigger slice of pie if we all throw in some more ingredients - or some of us can have a whole pie by taking it home and eating it ourselves.

(Wait, that’s a food analogy, not baseball. I must be hungry!)

This is my last column before the November 5th election. I’ve written previously about what’s at stake and what policies are likely to be enacted if my “team” wins control of the legislature. I’ve also seen the letters to the editor decrying the policies I’ve called for, suggesting they’ll be destructive and impede us in our pursuit of that shared vision of prosperity and opportunity and safety for all.

I hope that once the outcome is known, we’ll remember that we are all on the same team. We all want the same thing for ourselves and our loved ones, and we will root for whomever wins to be successful.

My hope for 2020 is that when I leave the baseball game and tune the radio form the sports station to the news, all my positive feelings that come from being amongst a community working together, playing together, even many of us praying together in our own ways - that all those positive feelings don’t evaporate when I hear the latest quotes from our national leaders.

So, let’s root for the home team and for a post-election season that moves us forward. Let’s play ball!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Show me your budget

Last month I devoted my column to bills that the Virginia General Assembly could pass to improve life for our residents and make Virginia a better, more affordable place to work, live and safely raise a family. Passing new laws are an important part of what we do. The most important bill we consider, and the one to which the most time and resources are devoted is the State Budget.

The Commonwealth of Virginia operates on a biennial budget proposed by the Governor and adopted by the General Assembly every other year during our “long” 60-day session.  Since our Governors are term-limited to a single 4-year stint, they are generally sworn in a day after their predecessor introduces a new State Budget.

This January, though, the Governor will have his one and only opportunity to introduce his own budget, developed with the input of his staff members, agency heads and the Cabinet Members he appointed at the beginning of his term.  He’ll also be able to shepherd it through the legislative process while he continues to have the leverage of his Veto pen in hand.

This is the opportunity the Governor has to craft a budget that is a statement of his values and priorities, hopefully with the support of a like-minded General Assembly.

This is an opportunity for the Governor to invest in Higher Education, Transportation Infrastructure, Affordable Housing and other important priorities.

One area of the budget that doesn’t get as much attention is one where a relatively modest increase in funding could do immeasurable good for one of my priority issues, Criminal Justice Reform.

Earlier this month, I met with local Public Defenders and officials from the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission.  During the meeting, they told me the most impactful criminal justice reform the General Assembly could take in the upcoming session is to adequately fund indigent defense in Virginia.

The Virginia Indigent Defense Commission (VIDC) is the state agency tasked with protecting the most vulnerable members of our community, those accused of a criminal offense and who are unable to afford counsel.

The VIDC operates 25 Public Defender (PD) offices across the Commonwealth in furtherance of their mission to protect and defend “the rights and dignity of their clients through zealous, compassionate, high-quality legal advocacy.” Each office has a Chief Public Defender, a Deputy Public Defender, and Assistant Public Defenders. The number of Assistant Public Defenders depends on the size of the jurisdiction.

Despite much higher attorney workloads as a result of an increase in the number and needs of seriously mentally ill clients, greater travel due to the increased use of remote regional detention centers, and voluminous (often electronic or forensic) evidence, including body worn cameras (BWC), the General Assembly has not authorized any new attorney positions for these public defender offices in over a decade.

The Brennan Center for Justice recently released a report documenting the impact of underfunding indigent defense on the criminal justice system including mass incarceration that noted “the fiscal cost of indigent defense reform is not nearly as high when one accounts for the savings it can bring. Issues exacerbated by defender resource disparity - pretrial incarceration, overly long sentences, wrongful convictions - are extremely expensive.”

Of course, these issues affect prosecutors’ offices as well.  The difference is, we’ve been increasing attorney staffing in the Commonwealth Attorney’s office substantially over the last ten years. As a result, it’s not uncommon for a local Public Defender Office to have half the number attorneys as the local prosecutor. Just since 2016, there have been ten new prosecutor positions added in Fairfax County to address the issues described above. Again, no new attorney positions in Public Defender offices.

This disparity is another driver of increases in workload for Public Defenders, as many of those new prosecutor positions come with the expectation that there will be increased prosecution of a particular type of case or area.

Increasing funding for indigent defense will improve outcomes for the wrongfully accused, those suffering from mental illness, and for offenders working to re-enter society and return to their communities as productive and contributing citizens. This enhances public safety for everyone, while reducing so many of the ill effects of mass incarceration.

To that end, I look forward to receiving the Governor’s budget this winter and working with him to enhance the quality of life for all Virginians.

Friday, August 16, 2019

What if Democrats controlled the GA?

Earlier this month I wrote a news story for the FCNP about some of the new laws that went into effect on July 1, 2019 across the Commonwealth of Virginia, on topics ranging from public safety to transportation, health care and the environment, to education and taxation.

Writing that story go me thinking- great, now restaurants can advertise Happy Hour specials including discounted drink prices, and sure some new funding is available for amateur bee-keepers, which is nice. But imagine what next year’s July 1 new law story could be if progressive Democrats control both chambers in the General Assembly for the first time since…maybe ever.

I mean, we just need to pick up two more seats in each chamber. So, let’s indulge in a little bit of time travel. Come with me, to July 1, 2020, in a world where control of the General Assembly has flipped…

One of our first orders of business when we returned to Richmond for the 2020 Session was to pass common sense reforms related to gun purchases and ownership. Beginning July 1, every firearms transaction in the Commonwealth is subject to a background check available on a website operated by the Virginia State Police. Falls Church City and Fairfax County owned buildings are not only tobacco free, but local governments have voted to make them gun free zones as well. It’s no longer legal to buy bump stocks and assault weapons in Virginia.

Voting in the upcoming 2020 election is expected to break records for voter participation, not just because it’s a presidential election year, but because Virginia residents are now automatically registered to vote when they go to re-register their cars, apply for government benefits, or have any other interaction with state government. For those who aren’t automatically registered on Election Day, they will be able to register on the spot, and voting will begin early for anyone who wishes to cast a ballot, no reason need be provided.

Virginia is now part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and is committed to reducing our emissions while funding renewable energy programs and promoting green jobs. Expect to see rooftop solar panels dotting the landscape as the General Assembly removed regulatory barriers and added financial incentives for residential and community solar installation.

Many Virginians will begin to see a more money in their paychecks each week as we begin the first step in a gradual increase in the minimum wage, which is on its way to $15 an hour. Those struggling with crippling student loan debt have new options to consolidate and refinance their loans, and those who suspect they’ve been overpaying can complain to the Virginia Bureau of Financial Institutions which now has oversight authority and will be enforcing a Student Borrower Bill of Rights in Virginia.

Simple possession of Marijuana is no longer a criminal offense, but it is illegal to discriminate in housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Virginia passed the Equal Rights Amendment, becoming the last state needed to add it to the US Constitution.

We firmly established that the government has no business interfering in women’s healthcare and reproductive rights.

Political candidates can no longer use campaign funds for personal use – the highlight of several meaningful campaign finance reforms we passed earlier this year to limit the influence of money in politics that will impact the next state election cycle. Many localities will launch pilot programs to provide public financing to campaigns that pledge to forego corporate contributions and accept caps on the amount any individual can donate.

And tolling hours on I-66 are restored to the original HOV hours and a whole slate of new transportation improvements are in the works as we’ve made the decision to prioritize funding these projects with gas tax revenues.

That’s the column I’d like to write in 2020.

Although I don’t have an opponent on the ballot in the 53rd district this year, I’ll be spending as much time as possible between now and November working to make sure we elect candidates around the state who share that vision.

What new headlines would you like to see in 2020?

Friday, July 19, 2019

2019 Special Session

If you are wondering how seriously Republicans in the General Assembly took Governor Northam’s special session call to address gun violence here in the Commonwealth, you can start watching the Lion King on Netflix. By the time the closing credits wrap on this movie designed not to exceed the attention span of the typical 4-year-old, you will have spent as much time as it took Republicans to adjourn.

Had I known that was going to be “their play” as Senator Amanda Chase described it on the radio recently, I probably wouldn’t have headed to Richmond on Monday night to review the eight bills the Governor had proposed.

While I was working with bill patrons to restore Virginia’s one handgun a month purchase limit and working on a procedural resolution that would have required these bills to come before the full House for a vote, the NRA was huddled in the Speaker’s Conference Room in the General Assembly, mobilizing the opponents of these popular, common-sense gun violence prevention bills.

On the Capitol grounds, hundreds of Virginians associated with Moms Demand Action, Everytown, Giffords, Brady, and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence rallied to support the intent of the special session – to finally address gun safety, all unaware that the script had already been written and the play had already been called.

By the time we gaveled into session that day, more than 60 bills had been introduced. Most of them we had seen before – requiring universal background checks, establishing a red flag law, instituting an assault weapons ban, increasing penalties for recklessly leaving loaded firearms within reach of children, and banning weapons in government buildings – to name a few.

First order of business was to vote on the procedural rules that would govern the special session. Not surprisingly, my Republican colleagues introduced a very broad resolution that simply said legislation related to “public safety.”

As the Parliamentarian, I submitted an alternative procedural resolution on behalf of House Democrats establishing a timeline for the introduction of bills, a deadline for committees to act on those bills, and requiring each house to reconvene on a date certain to vote on the committee recommendations even if it meant we had to vote to discharge the bills from committee.

The resolution also included specific language, stating that we would only consider legislation related to firearms safety. Adopting this resolution would have meant that we had a clear, concise agenda for moving forward and for ensuring that we completed the work we were tasked to do all by July 30th.

Unfortunately, my version failed to pass and the Republican procedural resolution which contained no timeline for action was adopted. I spoke against the resolution, pointing out that if we passed it we might adjourn today and never come back.

As it turned out, we only stayed in session for a slightly extend morning hour, during which several of my colleagues offered heartfelt speeches as to why it is past time that we address gun violence prevention. I highly recommend that you watch them – the video archive can be accessed via

Quite abruptly, the Speaker called for us to adjourn until November 18th for a lame duck session after November’s elections.

Then an announcement - House Militia, Police, & Public Safety (MPPS) Committee would meet 45 minutes after adjournment and the House Courts of Justice Committee immediately upon adjournment of House MPPS. I happen to serve on both committees, so I held out some hope that the bill patrons would at least have an opportunity to present their bills and we could have some discussion of next steps.

MPPS met first. No sooner had we begun than the committee chair announced that all the referred legislation would be sent to the Virginia Crime Commission for review per a letter from the Speaker of the House. The motion was quickly moved and seconded. There was no discussion.

Moving to House Courts, the same script was read. Everything is going to the Commission, which has announced that it will meet on August 20th in Richmond.

As reported in some news stories, the 90-minute special session cost taxpayers nearly $45,000 in per diem and mileage reimbursement for all 140 legislators. This does not include projected overtime costs for Capitol Police or having additional officers on hand during regular shifts.

Maybe we all should have gone to the movies instead.

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Primary is over

I can’t tell you all how glad I am to have the primary election behind us. Picking amongst my fellow Democrats is almost like asking me to pick a favorite family member. On any given day I may have a preference, but I never want THEM to know that.

This year, though, I did make my preferences known, and as readers of the FCNP know, it put me at odds with some of my best political friends here in Falls Church. Now that the nominees are decided, we can all put that unpleasantness behind us and work together toward or shared goals.

That said, it’s a little easier to be magnanimous when all of your favorites win. I’m proud of the great campaigns run by Dalia Palchik for Providence District Supervisor, Jeff McKay for Fairfax County Board Chairman, and Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Steve Descano for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Arlington/Falls Church and Fairfax respectively.

With the Commonwealth’s Attorney (CA) races being perhaps the most contentious, with some aspersions cast (unwarranted in my view) about how these races were funded, I hope supporters of all the candidates share my excitement about what comes next.

Both Mr. Descano and Ms. Tafti have promised to implement evidence based best practices in their offices to ensure their policies will actually reduce crime and incarceration rates. For instance, both have pledged to stop asking for cash bail. Cash bail unfairly discriminates against low-income people. In localities where Commonwealth’s Attorneys that stopped asking for this, there has not been any significant impact on public safety or court appearances.

Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring appears to have been paying attention to our local races as well. He recently announced that he now agrees that prosecuting marijuana possession is a waste of time and resources, an issue on which both successful candidates campaigned. Voters chose the candidates that agreed to use their discretion not to prosecute these misdemeanors. There are people serving jail time for marijuana possession after the first offense or even for first time offenses if they constitute probation violations.

I look forward to watching both Ms. Tafti and Mr. Descano work to reshape the legislative agenda of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorney (VACA), which lobbies the General Assembly. A more progressive VACA membership means they may drop their opposition to marijuana decriminalization, embrace a prohibition on the death penalty for the seriously mentally ill, and support new trials for people sentenced with junk science.

Some folks have lamented the role of money spent on behalf of the challengers in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s races.

As a champion of campaign finance reform since my first term, I have introduced legislation to prohibit using campaign funds for personal use, to strengthen our ethics laws, to require online political ads to be regulated like newspaper and TV ads, and to give localities the option to publicly finance campaigns – just to name a few.

The concerns about money in politics I hear from constituents generally have to do with the role of business interests influencing those who are supposed to be their watchdogs. They feel like the systems is rigged against ordinary people – a system where big business buys influence and pays off politicians in exchange for favorable rules, regulations, and laws. For instance- allowing bail bond companies to contribute to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s who oppose ending cash bail. Or Defense Attorney’s feeling obligated to pitch in to these races.

Transparency is also a concern. Dark money is money that comes from organizations that don’t disclose their donors’ identities for the purpose of influencing elections. Unlike a political action committee (PAC), these organizations are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

That said, the race for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Fairfax and Falls Church-Arlington was about a need for a more progressive approach to our criminal justice system that was sorely lacking. The voters of Falls Church, Fairfax and Arlington County won because they ran good campaigns and connected with voters (and some local elected officials) who share their values.

As for campaign finance reform, we can still do better. I’ll keep introducing legislation to increase transparency and hold elected officials accountable in how they receive (and spend) their campaign funds. And we owe it to our constituents to do so.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Got a legislative idea?

The Virginia House of Delegates will celebrate it’s 400th birthday this year. It met for the first time, as the House of Burgesses, in Jamestown, in July of 1619. In a few months, we’ll have a special commemorative session, in which it is my great honor to participate.

While many things about the way the body functions have changed, many more remain almost the same. Members of various communities around Virginia assemble in the same place and work collectively to look for solutions to the common problems that confront their families and neighbors across the Commonwealth.

In the early 1600s, they might have worried about how to resolve land disputes, provide rules for allowing each other to cross one another’s land to get from place to pace efficiently and avoid time consuming detours - in other words, traffic.

In the 1800s, they had to come up with laws to regulate an industrial economy, to solve problems brought about by the growth of the railroads. Prior to the early 20th century, there was no such thing as reckless driving. When did running a stop sign become a crime?

As we are about to enter the 3rd decade of the 21st century, ideas for legislation come across my desk literally and figuratively from a number of sources. Once I decide to pursue them, things actually still work quite a bit like the 1970s School House Rock cartoon on how a bill becomes a law.

Let me explain.

A few weeks before the 2019 Session began, I was sitting at my kitchen island with my smartphone when I got a notification that I had been tagged in a Facebook post. The post was a link to newspaper article on a new and growing method of harassment being used mostly in an effort to harm women.

Through the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning programs distributed on the internet, almost anyone can now use widely available software tools to create incredibly realistic images by superimposing their victim’s face onto an existing pornographic video. It’s then sent it to employers, family members or posted on social media as if it were real.

Something the 1619 Burgesses could hardly have imagined.

In 2014, I introduced legislation to address a similar problem, known as revenge pornography – when someone shares sexually explicit photos of an individual without their consent. There are even websites that post these photos and then charge individuals to have it removed. Fortunately, now there are legal repercussions for those that violate this law.

So, after reading the 2019 Facebook post I got to work with the attorneys at the Division of Legislative Services drafting an update to include artificially created images. Once we liked the words we’d come up with I submitted it to the Clerk of the House, who numbered it. The Speaker then assigned it to the House Courts of Justice Committee, where the Chairman assigned it to the Criminal Law Subcommittee.

In subcommittee the lawyer legislators worked to make sure we didn’t inadvertently capture cartoons, parody, or speech protected by the first amendment. After several meetings, the bill eventually passed the subcommittee, the full committee, and then the full House.

In the Senate, the bill maintained momentum - my senate colleagues further tweaked the bill and then passed it through committee and the full Senate. Because the bill was now different than when it left the House, it went to a conference committee of six legislators and I worked with my colleagues to put the bill in its best form.

Then boom. HB 2678 passed the House and Senate again in its final form and was signed by the Governor. It will become law on July 1st of this year.

So, what’s next?

As I said before, legislative ideas come from many places in many forms. And I’d love to hear from you. What are your priorities? Do you have a legislative idea that you’d like to share? If so, please reach out via email or phone – or (571) 327-0053.

My goal is always to represent my constituents to the best of my ability and hearing your legislative ideas is a great way to do that.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

2019 Reconvene Session

Earlier this month the Virginia General Assembly reconvened for one day to consider the legislation vetoed and amended by the Governor, including the budget bill.

This year the Governor was able to use language amendments in the budget to bypass House GOP leadership and accomplish some important bi-partisan policy objectives.

Legislation to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid court costs and fees passed the Senate in a bipartisan fashion during the regular session but was killed by 6 legislators on the Criminal Law subcommittee in the House of Delegates. Many advocates on both ends of the political spectrum agree that this practice puts many low-income Virginian’s in an untenable situation. Individuals are unable to get to work to earn the money to pay the fines they need to get their driving privileges restored so they can go to work to earn the money to pay the fines.

This year the Governor added language to the budget prohibiting this unfair practice for the rest of the biennium. We also added $4 million in additional support for the Virginia Affordable Housing Trust Fund to address homelessness. Another budget amendment that we passed creates a dedicated revenue source for transportation improvements throughout the state, including additional funding for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) to replace some of what Delegate Hugo’s bill diverted to Metro last session.

Those were the highlights. Unfortunately, there were more than a few of the Governor’s recommendations that the House GOP defeated on the floor. Some noteworthy efforts that failed to pass:

Efforts to tackle the growing problem of distracted driving and the growing public safety threat it poses were frustrated by a controversial procedural ruling made by Speaker Kirk Cox. Earlier this session both the House and Senate passed a bi-partisan hands-free law that would have simply made it illegal for anyone to hold a phone in their hand while operating a motor vehicle.

This approach, the same one used in Maryland and Washington D.C., has the advantage of being able to be enforced objectively by the police, an issue of major concern to legislators concerned with the police using their discretion to disproportionately pull over African American drivers. That approach was rejected in a conference committee by 4 legislators who amended the bill that passed the House and Senate to create an exception for talking on the phone. Concerned that such an exception would force police to decide whether someone was holding their phone to talk on it or for an unlawful purpose, like texting or surfing the web, a majority of legislators voted against passage of the bill on the House Floor.

The effort to pass a truly hands-free law was revived when the Governor proposed amending a bill prohibiting the use of phones in work zones to apply everywhere. Unfortunately, the Speaker ruled the amendment out of order.

Regarding the budget, Republicans in the House & Senate defeated an amendment to include $1.5 million in the budget for census education and outreach to ensure a full and accurate census count. They also defeated an amendment to restore funding to the long acting reversible contraception pilot program to allow low income women access to this sort of contraception which is proven to reduce unintended pregnancies. An amendment restoring language (that already exists under current law) authorizing expenditures for abortion services that are necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant woman, provided that every possible measure is taken to preserve the life of the unborn fetus.

Finally, the House defeated the Governor’s amendment I argued for on the House Floor that would have prevented the creation of a special Amazon incentive slush fund in which to divert $40 million worth of new sales tax revenue generated by the Commonwealth’s ability to tax all e-commerce transactions, even when the seller doesn’t have a physical presence in the State. We’ve been told that the Amazon incentives are post-performance and will pay for themselves through additional income tax receipts. That said, I agreed with the Governor that we shouldn’t be taking money away from transportation and education to start squirreling it away to make payments to Amazon in the future.

As it is every year, the Reconvened session was a culmination of the regular session, allowing us to wrap up loose ends. Legislation that we passed and earned the Governor’s signature (including the state budget) will go into effect on July 1st.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Not all good things pass

In a future column I’ll talk about laws that passed during the 2019 Session that you’ll need to know about before they go into effect on July 1 of this year. This month, though, I need to share with you a rundown of the important legislation that failed to pass. As this is an election year here in Virginia, with all 140 seats in the General Assembly on the ballot, I think it’s important readers understand what’s at stake.

Gun Violence Prevention

Unlike the sure, swift action we are seeing parliament take in New Zealand after the tragic mass shooting at a Christchurch mosque, the Virginia General Assembly remains a steadfast obstacle to common-sense reforms to our firearm laws. For instance, Delegate Rip Sullivan’s bill to create substantial risk protective orders to allow removal of firearms from the homes of individuals who have been reported as posing a substantial risk of harm to themselves or others - a so-called Red Flag Law that is even supported in concept by the Trump Administration - died in subcommittee on a party line vote.

Other bills killed would have reinstated Virginia’s one handgun purchase per month law, banned the sale of bump stocks and high capacity magazines, and simply required proper storage for firearms in homes where daycare centers also operate.

Student Loan Debt

I’ve worked closely with Delegate Marcia Price of Newport News for several sessions on solutions to the growing student loan debt crisis in Virginia, where over 1 million people carry student loan debt totaling $30 billion. This year, our House Bill 1760, would have licensed student loan servicing companies operating in Virginia, empowering the State Corporation Commission to enforce a student borrower bill of rights. Deceptive and corrupt practices have led borrowers and attorneys general in several states to file dozens of lawsuits against companies like Navient, a prominent student loan servicing company headquartered in Fairfax County.

Working Families

With the help of Delegates like Ken Plum, we continue to work hard to improve the lives of working families here in Virginia. Even as our neighbors in Maryland, D.C. and even West Virginia are seeing increases in the minimum wage each year, our bills which would have very gradually raised the wage over the next 5 years, failed on a party line vote.

While the General Assembly agreed to provide paid family leave for our own employees, so that workers can care for chronically or seriously ill children or family and still be able to pay their rent, health insurance, and other bills, legislation to bring the same worker protections to the private sector continue to go nowhere in the General Assembly. Virginia’s lack of paid family leave affects the state economy and economic productivity.

Solar Freedom

I worked for months between the 2018 and 2019 sessions with Delegate Mark Keam, the Sierra Club, and other stakeholders on a bill (HB 2329) that would have removed legal barriers preventing Virginia homeowners and business from using solar energy to meet their electric power needs. It would have expanded access to net metering, lifted Virginia’s 1% limit on solar energy generation, and allowed the development of community solar projects. The bill had wide support among a variety of groups, but it was still defeated on yet another party line vote.

Contraception & Women’s Health

Removing unnecessary and costly barriers to women’s healthcare, including birth control medication, was another initiative I pursued this year, with a bill to allow the Board of Pharmacy to issue licenses to non-profit facilities and clinics to dispense contraceptives on site. Although this bill had nothing to do with abortion, the bill died in subcommittee on a party line vote after the Family Foundation spoke against it.

Same Day Voter Registration

It shouldn’t be hard to vote in Virginia. This is why I unsuccessfully introduced HB 1904, hoping to allow same day voter registration. Everyone should have the opportunity to participate in our democracy. Deadlines that may have served a purpose in the past to allow registrars time to manually prepare for the election are no longer necessary.

These are just a few of the areas where there is so much work left to be done. That is why I’m running for reelection this year and hope to once again earn your support. We’re so close to having the majority in the House and the Senate – I see all the potential, progressive legislation that we can accomplish that would have a truly lasting and meaningful impact in our community.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Budget Update

While much of the news out of Richmond for the last several weeks was about shocking and disappointing scandals, the just concluded 2019 General Assembly Session also produced some important legislation that will have a positive impact on the lives of Virginians across the commonwealth.

The biggest bill we took on during the 46-day session actually sent us into overtime and a rare 47th session day. HB 1700 contained about 230 pages of amendments to the biennial budget we passed last year.


The amendments include money to give teachers across the Commonwealth a larger than expected pay raise. Overall HB 1700 provides a net increase of $85.7 million for K-12 education above the current adopted base budget and adds $12 million for school counselors in all elementary, middle and high schools in the Commonwealth in an effort to lower the school counselor to student ratios.

Other legislation (HB 1729) mandates that at least 80% of school counselors’ time during the school day be dedicated to providing counseling services to students, rather than other administrative support functions counselors are often called upon to do.

Water Quality

The amendments include significant investments for water quality improvement projects, including $25 million to help Alexandria separate its stormwater and sanitary sewer systems to prevent raw sewage from flowing into the Potomac River during heavy rains. Two years ago, the General Assembly gave Alexandria a tight deadline to stop polluting the Potomac.

Another $127.4 million will go to assist local governments and individuals in reducing nutrient pollution, such as a municipal or industrial waste discharges, which can act like fertilizer causing excessive growth of algae which can have negative impacts on the Bay, and $10 million to help localities install efficient and effective pollution-control measures– such as stream restorations and constructed wetlands- to combat runoff.

Affordable Housing

While we have yet to provide a recurring annual source of revenue for Virginia’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, we were able to provide an additional $1.5 million next year, bringing the total deposit to $7.0 million for the general fund annually.

We also funded a study of the potential need for an eviction diversion and prevention program in response to a recent study that found Virginia has of the highest eviction rates in the country.


The Budget also begins to make a down payment on the recently announced Amazon deal. Beginning July 1, 2020, the first $40 million of sales and use taxes remitted by online retailers with a physical nexus in Virginia shall be deposited into the Major Headquarters Workforce Grant Fund.

New investments in Higher Education will begin creating a Tech Talent Pipeline, including new high-tech degree programs to produce more computer science bachelors and master’s degrees Amazon and other tech companies desire.

Redistricting Reform

The House and Senate overwhelmingly voted for a resolution to amend the Virginia Constitution to create an independent redistricting commission to draw new congressional and general assembly district lines after the 2020 census is completed. The resolution will have to pass in identical form next year and receive a majority of votes cast in a referendum in November of 2020 for the change to take effect.

No Excuse Early Voting

Virginian’s will finally have to stop making up excuses to vote early, if the Governor signs the bill we passed that allows any registered voter to vote absentee in person beginning on the second Saturday prior to election day without having to provide a reason.

School Resource Officers

The General Assembly directed the Department of Criminal Justice Services to establish compulsory minimum training standards for law-enforcement officers serving as school resource officers including mediation and conflict resolution, including de-escalation techniques; awareness of cultural diversity and implicit bias; working with students with disabilities, behavioral health or substance abuse disorders, or trauma experiences; and student behavioral dynamics, including child and adolescent development.

Jacob’s Law

Delegate Richard P. “Rip” Sullivan championed a bill none as “Jacob’s Law” that will allow unmarried and same sex couple to create families using assisted conception. His bill changes the statute to provide gender-neutral terminology and allows an unmarried individual to be an intended parent, paralleling the ability of an unmarried individual to adopt under the adoption statutes. The bill further allows for the use of an embryo subject to the legal or contractual custody of an intended parent in a surrogacy arrangement.

Help for Families with Autism Coverage

Legislation passed this year requires health insurers to provide coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder in individuals of any age. Currently, such coverage is required to be provided for individuals from age two through age 10.

Deep Fake Video Harassment

Finally, my own bill updates Virginia’s anti-revenge pornography statute to include creating, adapting, or modifying a sexually explicit videographic or still image with the intent to depict an actual person.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Changing the Rules

This is the final week of the 2019 General Assembly Session. Odd year sessions are our short sessions, when we meet for 45 days rather than 60. In theory we have less to do, since Virginia adopts a biennial budget every other year, although in practice we end up doing almost as much revising to our biennial budget in the odd years as we do when adopting new budgets in the even years.

In addition to figuring out how to manage a significant budget windfall that resulted from tax changes at the federal level that limited Virginians’ ability to itemize deductions (we did a combination of tax payer rebates and raising the Virginia standard deduction), we also considered over 2,200 bills and resolutions.

There is no way to handle that much work in as slow and deliberate a way as we might have liked. Especially in short session years, it’s critical to keep laser focused on our legislative priorities — even in the face of other crises.

Last year, on the heels of our historic gains in the House when we came a random drawing away from partisan parity, I passed a record five bills (out of about 40 that I introduced). In short session years the rules limit us to introducing 15 bills. I’m pleased to report that four of my 15 bills have now passed the Senate. Three of them will go into a conference committee — the process in which two similar bills passed in each respective chamber are reconciled into one — after which, they will head to the Governor’s desk. In addition to this, I submitted 13 commending resolutions to honor those in our community who celebrated a milestone anniversary or work achievement.

In addition to shepherding my own bills through the legislative process, I serve as the Parliamentarian for the House Democratic Caucus. That means I’m responsible for knowing the rules, helping my fellow Delegates navigate the floor, and trying to out-maneuver my colleagues from the other side of the aisle on procedural matters. This session has been particularly interesting when it comes to knowing and using the rules to the maximum benefit of our caucus.

One of the most prominent issues in the General Assembly this year was the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Virginia was presented with a unique opportunity to become the 38th and final state to ratify the ERA. Since the beginning of this session, there have been lobby days, rallies, protests, ROBO calls, and mass emails — all centered on passing the ERA. And for those of you who followed the journey of Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy’s HJR 579, you’ll know that it was defeated in subcommittee by Republicans on a party line vote.

My colleagues in the Senate, however, passed SJR 284, a bipartisan measure introduced by Senators Glen Sturtevant and Dick Saslaw. After crossover, my Republican colleagues in the House left that bill in subcommittee, again on a party line vote.

After crossover, advocates on behalf of the ERA and some of the bill’s original patrons came to me, as the House Democratic Parliamentarian, looking for another path to bring the ERA to a vote on the floor. We know that if the entire body were presented the opportunity to vote on the ERA, rather than just being presented to a small subset of its members in a subcommittee, we have the support to finally pass it in the House.

Working with Delegate Hala Ayala, the House Democrats introduced a rule change that would specifically allow the full House to vote on resolutions to ratify amendments to the United States Constitution by a simple majority vote (HJ 274). In addition, I also introduced a rule change (HJ 280) to allow the House of Delegates to discharge any resolution from a committee by a simple majority.

Proposed rule changes must sit on the Speaker’s desk for five business days — so we’ll know by Thursday of this week whether we can bring the ERA to the floor for a full vote. I’m cautiously optimistic about the outcome of these proposed rule changes; but I know that even if we cannot ratify the ERA this year, then we will most certainly be able to do it next year with a Democratic majority in the House.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Resources for Furloughed Feds

Today marks Day 34 since the government shutdown began. Northern Virginia is home to more than 83,000 federal employees, many of whom are currently on furlough or working without pay. Next Thursday, January 31, is the next regularly scheduled payday for federal employees, but it remains uncertain whether the government will re-open in time.

Our local governments in Fairfax County and City of Falls Church have done a wonderful job to provide support and resources in response to the shutdown, making sure no student goes hungry and hiring to fill temporary positions like substitute teachers and bus drivers.

Below is a list of resources available for furloughed federal employees and their families. I hope the information is helpful, but even more I hope that the Administration ends the shutdown soon.

Community Support for Furloughed Federal Employees

City of Falls Church 

Falls Church City Public Schools (FCCPS) will be expediting free and reduced lunch applications. The furlough is considered a change in income and all families affected can apply immediately to get this benefit. School lunch account balances will be allowed to accrue for affected students. Apply here.

FCCPS is also hiring substitute teachers and bus drivers. Find out more and apply online.
Falls Church Housing and Human Services offers a number of services and programs like food referral for City residents, along with financial assistance paying rent for contract government workers who will not receive back pay. Visit their website or reach them at 703-248-5005.

The Animal Welfare League of Arlington’s pet pantry is open to Falls Church City residents (with valid ID). No appointments needed. Find out more here.

Fairfax County 

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) will be providing meals (breakfast and lunch) regardless of ability to pay or temporary financial circumstances.

FCPS is offering substitute teaching positions to furloughed workers and will have an expedited hiring process. Learn more and apply online.

Fairfax Connector will provide free rides system-wide for federal government employees affected by the government shutdown who are still required to report for work. Eligible riders must present a federal photo ID to the bus operator. Find schedules, routes, and other information here.

The Fairfax County Animal Shelter has pet food and a limited amount of other supplies available for furloughed federal employees. Supplies are available during shelter business hours. For more information, call 703-830-1100 or email
Families in the Child Care Assistance and Referral Program with a 12-month eligibility can request that child care co-payments be lowered. Call 703-449-8484 or email

Other Resources 

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is offering a free (non-credit) class to furloughed federal employees and contractors. Employees can choose from select Business and Management, IT and Computer Skills, and Professional Development classes. Call 703-878-5770 or visit the website for more information.

George Mason University’s School of Business will offer free career skills workshops for furloughed federal employees and contractors. Find out more here.

The United States Office of Personnel Management has a website dedicated to furlough guidance.
AT&T/DIRECTV, T-Mobile, Cox, and Verizon are offering flexible payment options for those affected by the government shutdown.

Dominion Energy and Washington Gas are also providing support for federal employees impacted by the shutdown.

More information can be found on the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority’s website.

How You Can Help

If you’d like to help, check out the Stuff the Bus campaign to restock local food pantries in Fairfax County.

The Falls Church Community Service Council also welcomes donations of non-perishable food, toiletries, paper good (napkins, toilet paper, etc), and household items (laundry detergent, dish soap, etc). Donations can be dropped off at Knox Presbyterian Church (Route 50 and Allen Street) between the hours of 9:30a – 1:00p most weekdays. Please call their office 703-237-2562 if you have any questions.