From minimum wage to guns, Senate moderates temper progressive push

By: - February 26, 2020 11:04 am

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, speaks on the Senate floor last year. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Blocking high profile gun laws. Scaling back a proposed minimum wage increase. A more conservative approach to Confederate statue removal.

A handful of moderate Democrats in the Virginia Senate are embracing their role as foil to the more progressive House of Delegates as they enter the frantic final days of the party’s first General Assembly session in power in more than two decades.

“We represent 8.5 million people,” said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, this week after yet another contentious meeting debating gun legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. “It’s important that when bills are passed that they’re generally accepted as reasonable and enforceable by most people.”

Democrats have already celebrated a range of major policy victories, from repealing abortion restrictions to adopting broad anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ residents. But the Senate’s reluctance in other policy areas has repeatedly frustrated Democrats in the House, who also represent the 8.5 million people who live in Virginia, but believe voters delivered a clear mandate for swift change in November when they handed Democrats a 55-45 majority in the House of Delegates.

With negotiations ongoing between the two chambers on key legislation, House leaders declined to comment on relations between the two chambers. But Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn made her frustration clear earlier this month when the Senate voted down a proposed assault weapon ban that was the centerpiece of Gov. Ralph Northam’s package of proposed gun legislation.

“The Democratic platform last fall was very clear,” Filler-Corn said in a statement. Polls before and after the election have shown majority statewide support for policies Senate Democrats are now blocking, including bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines. She said it “would be an understatement” to call four Democratic senators’ votes to block the law a disappointment.

Lawmakers in the Senate brushed off the criticism. “People knew that I was a moderate Democrat when I ran for reelection,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, who was one of four Democrats to vote against the assault weapon ban. “They could have run against me. They didn’t.”

Democrat Sens. Creigh Deeds (Bath), John Edwards (Roanoke) and Scott Surovell (Fairfax) joined with Republicans to block an assault weapon ban passed by the House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Under the control of both parties, the Senate has historically struck a more moderate tone. Last year, members of the GOP in the chamber joined with Democrats to advance compromise reforms that were later blocked in the House, including ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and legislation to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fees. (There are, however, notable exceptions. It was Republican leaders in the House that struck a compromise on Medicaid expansion in 2018 that GOP leaders in the Senate loudly and vociferously protested.)

Part of that is by design. Senate districts are larger and representatives are elected for four-year terms during typically sleepy off-off-year elections. And part of it comes down to the narrow majorities each party has been able to secure in the chamber in recent years. Until this year, Republicans held the 21-19 majority Democrats now enjoy.

“As a result, those in their respective parties who are most likely to break from the party position are the ones who tend to wield a disproportionate amount of influence over the outcome of legislation,” Jeff Ryer, a longtime legislative aid and spokesman for the Senate GOP caucus.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, sounded irritated this week as he addressed the limits of his party’s narrow majority in the Senate during a committee hearing on labor legislation. The Senate is pursuing a bill that would allow local governments to vote to give their employees the right to bargain collectively. The House is pushing broader legislation that would apply bargaining rights automatically at the state and local level.

“Let me explain something,” he said, his voice rising. “The votes, including mine, aren’t there for expansion beyond local government. … You have to make a choice. Do you want something? Or is it all or nothing?”

The Senate is also pursuing a scaled back version of legislation to raise the minimum wage. The House wants to gradually increase it to $15 an hour — something many Democrats campaigned on and polls have shown a majority of Virginians support. The Senate amended its legislation on the floor to take a regional approach that would only raise the wage to $15 an hour in Northern Virginia, with smaller increases in other regions.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who spearheaded the pared-back approach, warned his colleagues on the floor that whatever they thought about his version, they’d find it far more reasonable than whatever came out of the House.

The Senate’s tendency toward moderation has sometimes also irked Democrats in the chamber. Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said she was caught off guard when Surovell proposed amendments to her legislation granting authority to local governments to remove Confederate statues. Surovell’s version, which the Senate adopted, would require a study, waiting period and super-majority vote. The House version of the legislation imposes no such limitations.

“I don’t like having local governments jump through all these hoops,” Locke said, saying she’ll push to strip the requirements when delegations from both chambers meet to hash out differences between their bills in a conference committee.

What kind of agreement emerges in that committee and other conferences between the chambers remains to be seen, but as the House and Senate spend the final days of the legislative session resolving disputes between the two chambers, Democrats chose to stress all the legislation they agree on and already passed.

“What we’ve done is historic,” said Edwards. “It’s truly historic, the bills we’ve passed— it’s the first time in how many years that we’ve actually done something with regard to gun violence.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.