Partisanship, race play too much of a role in recall efforts around Virginia

June 30, 2021 12:01 am

State Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth.

When supporters of a rarely used tactic to remove a politician from office – in this case, state Sen. Louise Lucas – feel compelled to say the effort isn’t racially motivated, be very, very suspicious.

After all, recall efforts of local and state elected officials in Virginia in recent years have often spotlighted African-American politicians. Citizens sometimes seek to oust the incumbent in court; in other instances, they can petition for special elections that might not attract as many voters as the regularly scheduled ones.

At least five political science experts also told The Virginian-Pilot they couldn’t remember any time there’s been a recall trial against a state legislator. The rarity under the state law is indeed noteworthy. It raises questions about why Lucas’ actions last year, during a protest in Portsmouth, would even come close to disqualifying her from elective office.

As The Pilot reported: “In Virginia, some experts say, judges are unlikely to toss a state lawmaker from the job without a clear violation of the law — such as a criminal conviction.” Lucas initially faced charges that were later dropped.

Lucas, who represents a district that includes Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Sussex County, is Black. She’s the president pro tempore of the state Senate and has been in office nearly 30 years. Lucas’ current term is scheduled to expire at the end of 2023. Lucas has clout in the General Assembly, as well.

She’s also a Democrat, and her party holds a narrow 21-19 advantage over Republicans in the upper chamber. Her dismissal could mean a possible loss of Democratic control of the Senate if a Republican wins the lieutenant governor’s race this fall.

So this could be a partisan-inspired putsch as much as anything.

More than 4,600 registered voters in the 18th Senate District have signed a petition to recall Lucas, citing her role during a protest last year at the city’s Confederate monument near downtown. (About 46,500 people voted in the 2019 election for Lucas’ seat.)

The 2020 protest was during a time of heightened civil rights protests nationwide, following the police slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The petition claims Lucas actions’ “escalate(d) the aggression of the protesters” on June 10, 2020, and that people in the crowd said on social media “that no one will be arrested on the direction of Senator Lucas.”

As The Virginian-Pilot noted, two months after the protest, the police announced felony charges against Lucas and 18 others, including local NAACP leaders. But a judge later dismissed charges at the request of the city’s top prosecutor, saying the charges didn’t have the necessary probable cause. Many state Democrats and activists called the criminal charges racist.

Curiously, supporters of the recall filed the petition in Chesapeake Circuit Court, not in Lucas’ stronghold of support in Portsmouth, the city she’s most closely identified with. She’s a former Portsmouth City Council member.

Online court records say a hearing in the case is scheduled July 2.

Nelson Velez, chairman of the Virginia Tea Party, is one of the leaders of the recall effort. He said last week the Portsmouth commonwealth’s attorney “failed” to prosecute Lucas and that the Democratic Party “failed” to force her to step down. That’s why “the people” stepped up, he said. Velez lives in Lucas’ district.

My phone calls, emails and attempts to reach Velez on social media this week weren’t returned. I really wanted to interview Velez about his motivations – and apparent hypocrisy.

I wanted to know, for example, why no such recall has been initiated by the state Tea Party against Virginia legislators who publicly questioned Joe Biden’s victory in the fall election. The skepticism about Biden’s win likely encouraged the people who participated in Jan. 6 assault at the U.S. Capitol – and who tried to overthrow the government. Several people died and more than 100 police officers were injured that day.

Sen. Amanda Chase attended then-President Donald Trump’s rally before the storming of the Capitol. Three delegates wrote to then-Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 5, urging him to nullify Virginia’s electors and conduct an audit, even though Biden won Virginia by 10 points.

In fact, Velez has said publicly he attended the rally where Trump spoke that day and headed to the Capitol, but heard flash bombs and police sirens and didn’t go further.

Of course, Chase and the other doubters are Republicans. And Tea Party groups around the country tend to side more with Republican lawmakers than Democrats.

Nor am I kidding about the racial overtones of the current removal campaign against Lucas. Several recent, high-profile recall efforts in the commonwealth, primarily in Hampton Roads, placed African-Americans in the cross-hairs.

In 2010, Portsmouth Mayor Jim Holley became apparently the first politician nationwide to be recalled twice. He had been fined by fellow council members for a pattern of mistreating his assistants. His first recall occurred in 1987.

Then-Mayor Kenny Wright of Portsmouth – what is it about this city? – was the focus of a recall effort in 2016, before a local judge ruled there weren’t enough valid signatures collected on petitions. The aborted attempt to get rid him was especially mean-spirited and pointless, since it occurred just a few months before Wright was defeated in the general election that fall.

Norfolk Treasurer Anthony Burfoot weathered a recall campaign in 2016, while he was facing a federal trial on public corruption and perjury charges stemming from his years on Norfolk City Council. The effort was overkill and didn’t get far. Burfoot eventually was convicted and served prison time.

In one exception to the rule, Steve Descano, who’s White, is the subject of an ongoing recall effort in Fairfax County. Descano, the county’s commonwealth’ attorney, has drawn the ire of conservatives who say he’s too lenient on criminals. County Republicans also support the drive.

It’s reasonable – in theory, anyway – to maintain the recall mechanism in city charter or in the state code. Voters should be able to keep elected officials in check for lawbreaking or despicable behavior.

My beef is that a small portion of an electorate can, in effect, overturn the will of a majority of voters from a previous election. That’s not fair.

You can also oust the politician when his current term expires. Absent simply egregious actions, should elected officials face the threat of expulsion midterm?

It will be interesting to see how a circuit court judge will rule in Lucas’ case. I doubt a jurist wants to determine which political party rules a chamber in the Assembly.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]