Virginia House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn is careful not to sound presumptive, but she’s already thinking about what Democrats could do in year one, year two and beyond if they win control of the General Assembly.
If her party takes power in the elections Tuesday, she said, handling it wisely could mean the difference between one cycle of Democratic control and majorities that stand for “generations.”
“I think that there is a lot of good that we can do,” Filler-Corn said in a recent interview. “Some of that will be quick. And some of it may take some time.”
With all 140 seats in the state legislature up for election next week, 2019 could be a transformative year for Virginia politics. By flipping two seats in each chamber, Democrats could take full control of the statehouse for the first time in 26 years.
Hanging over the 2019 campaigns is one big question: If Democrats win the power to reshape the state, what would they do with it?
On the campaign trail, Democratic candidates are promising to enact tougher gun control laws, raise the minimum wage, pass anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ Virginians and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, priorities the GOP has thwarted for years. Their broader platform includes more funding for public education, stronger environmental regulations, easier access to voting, health care affordability and defending Medicaid expansion.
Republicans — who have controlled at least one legislative chamber since 1993 — are warning voters a Democratic takeover could bring radical change, jeopardizing Virginia’s reputation as a politically moderate, pro-business state.
Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, who noted that Democrats had full control when he entered the legislature in 1992, said he’s troubled by the level of Democratic support for repealing the state’s right-to-work law, which has prohibited mandatory labor union membership since 1947.
“Those Democrats when I first came in would not recognize this agenda,” Norment said, adding that, if Democrats win control, it might take “bipartisan collaboration” to block some of their bolder progressive ideas.
If they win, the scope of the Democratic agenda could depend on how many seats they gain, with bigger majorities allowing more far-reaching legislation. In the House, the policy agenda would also be shaped by the election of a new speaker, possibly the first woman or person of color to ever hold the position.
Anything Democrats pursue would have to pass muster with Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a moderate still trying to mend relationships with members of his own party who called on him to resign over his blackface controversy in February.
If there’s a marquee issue uniting Democrats, it’s gun control.
After every high-profile mass shooting over the last few years, Democrats called for action on guns, advocating for universal background checks, reinstatement of the state’s former one-handgun-a-month law and restrictions on assault-style weapons and magazine capacity. Republicans blocked every proposal, including bills that have drawn bipartisan support elsewhere, such as a bump stock ban and red flag laws that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns from people whose behavior is deemed threatening.
That debate played out again this year after the May 31 mass shooting at a municipal building in Virginia Beach, where an attack by a city engineer left 12 people dead. In response, Northam called lawmakers back to Richmond for a special session in July. Republicans — who accused Democrats of politicizing the shooting and pursuing policies that wouldn’t have prevented it — adjourned the session within hours, directing the GOP-led State Crime Commission study gun and mental health issues until after the election.
If voters elect Democratic majorities next week, that study may become moot.
“We’re going to get common-sense gun restrictions overnight,” former Gov. Terry McAuliffe said earlier this month at a fundraiser in Richmond.
In interviews, several Democratic lawmakers said other bills that have already drawn bipartisan support — like the ERA and banning anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing and public employment — would be at the top of the to-do list for a Democratic General Assembly.
Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, who has championed the idea of making Virginia the 38th and potentially final state needed to ratify the long-stalled gender-equality amendment to the U.S. Constitution — said she wants the ERA done first.
“Some people want to do it on Valentine’s Day, because they think it’ll be cute. And I’m like ‘No,’” Carroll Foy said at a recent stop on her get-out-the-vote tour in an ERA-themed van. “A hundred and sixty million women are waiting for this. So let’s make it the first thing that’s coming right out of the General Assembly.”
Due to long-passed federal ratification deadlines and other procedural uncertainty, it’s not entirely clear what would happen if Virginia ratified the ERA. But its ratification here could help trigger a new legal push or congressional action.
Last year, ERA ratification passed the state Senate, but an effort to bring it to the floor of the House failed in a tie vote.
ERA opponents have warned it could have unintended consequences, jeopardizing a variety of laws designed to protect women. Pro-life groups have also argued it could potentially outlaw restrictions on abortion, a claim ERA supporters say is unfounded.
Playing off the firestorm that ensued over a Democratic-sponsored abortion bill in the 2019 legislative session, Republicans have tried to paint their opponents as extremists on the issue of late-term abortion.
House Republicans have set up a bare-bones website featuring video of Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, telling a committee earlier this year that her bill would have allowed a woman and her doctor to choose abortion up until the moment of birth.
“THIS IS WHY YOU HAVE TO VOTE,” the website reads.
In mailers warning that Tran’s bill could become law if Democrats win, the Republican Party of Virginia featured photos of babies and language calling late-term abortion “murder.”
Democrats have accused Republicans of twisting the snippet of video out of context and using it to mislead people about the legislation. Third-trimester abortion is already legal under state law if three doctors determine there’s a severe risk to the mother’s life or health. Tran’s bill, which failed in a Republican-led subcommittee, would have lowered the threshold to one doctor and removed language saying that, in order for abortion to be an option, the pregnancy must “substantially and irremediably” threaten the mother’s physical or mental health.
Though pro-choice lawmakers said Republicans were distorting the bill’s intent, some Democrats — including U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. — distanced themselves from the proposal, saying existing rules on third-trimester abortions, which rarely happen in Virginia, are adequate.
Though the uproar over Tran’s bill focused on the third-trimester provisions, the legislation would have lifted a variety of other restrictions, including a rule that requires women to undergo an ultrasound and wait 24 hours before getting an abortion.
Tran’s campaign did not give a yes-or-no answer when asked if she plans to reintroduce the same bill next year.
“I stand by the legislation and will always defend a woman’s right to make her own reproductive health care decisions without government interference, but I’ll also be focused on taking action to reduce gun violence, making health care more affordable, improving our public schools and expanding economic opportunity for every Virginian,” Tran said in a statement.
To some Democrats, the abortion bill controversy represents the type of overreach that could come at a cost in future election cycles. Virginia — home to the oldest continuous legislative body in the New World — isn’t known for embracing rapid change. And if Democrats win back the White House in 2020, the ground could quickly shift back toward Republicans in 2021, when the House will be up for election again.
Democratic candidate Larry Barnett, who’s challenging incumbent Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, in a competitive race in Richmond’s suburbs, said he sees trouble ahead in swing districts like his if the party moves too far on hot-button issues like abortion and guns.
“To me, there are some really good steps on both of those fronts that a majority of Virginians get behind,” Barnett said. “We should not overreach in some of those territories to places that will alarm our communities and sort of create a pendulum swing in the opposite direction.”
Barnett, a mental health professional, has made clear he supports universal background checks and red flag laws.
On Saturday afternoon, Barnett joined several other Richmond-area candidates for a canvass kickoff organized out of a suburban backyard in Chesterfield County in conjunction with End Citizens United, a national group who says its mission is to “end Big Money in politics.” In speeches to a crowd of several hundred, several Democrats framed the 2019 elections as a choice between corporate interests and the interests of average people.
Democrat Ghazala Hashmi, a college professor and immigrant hoping to become the first Muslim-American woman in the General Assembly by unseating Republican Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, dropped references to poets Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes as she asked volunteers to “add your voice to this marvelous American song.”
“It is ours. It is not corporations’,” Hashmi said. “It is not restricted to just a few.”
Virginia Democrats have pushed to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, doubling the current $7.25 that matches the federal minimum wage. Earlier this year, a bill to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2021 made it to the floor of the state Senate, but died on a party-line vote.
That vote was engineered as a message to the business community from Norment, the Senate GOP leader who said in a recent interview that he found Democrats’ economic proposals “very disturbing.”
“How in the world can we afford to pay somebody passing a hamburger out a McDonald’s window $15 or $20 an hour?,” Norment said. “They are not going to absorb that cost.”
After Virginia voters refused to enshrine a right-to-work policy in the state Constitution in a 2016 ballot referendum, Republicans and business leaders have tried to elevate it as an election-year issue, warning that scrapping it could jeopardize Virginia’s top spot in the CNBC best-states-for-business rankings. A survey conducted this year by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce found that a majority of Democratic candidate oppose the right-to-work law.
Democrats have noted that Virginia was named the worst state for workers in another set of rankings compiled by anti-poverty group Oxfam America.
“I think that they are not mutually exclusive and we can do a good job on both,” Filler-Corn said. “I think that we can do better for workers while still maintaining our best state to do business in the rankings.”
As a candidate in 2017, Northam discouraged his party from targeting the right-to-work law, and it’s not clear if Democrats would make a concerted legislative push against it if they win control.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who is in a tough re-election fight against Democratic challenger Sheila Bynum-Coleman, said the progressive groups and big donors supporting Democrats are going to expect big things in return.
“They’re not going to let them come in here and do very small, moderate policies. You just don’t get that kind of money for that,” Cox said as he took a break from giving out free hot dogs to a large crowd at a campaign event/Halloween festival he hosted in a Chesterfield park.
As Democrats prepare to fan out for the final get-out-the-vote push, their argument is that as Virginia has changed, Republicans aren’t changing with it.
“Republican leadership refused to debate any of these issues,” Filler-Corn said. “And I think that they will see that that was a mistake at the ballot box.”