Wild-card Democratic senators in line to be power players of divided government

‘Imagine the U.S. Senate with more than one Joe Manchin’

By: - November 3, 2021 4:13 pm

Virginia State Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, left, gestures as he talks with Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, second from right, as they prepare for the reconvene session to order at the Science Museum of Virginia Wednesday April 22, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The Senate is meeting in a remote location due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. (AP Photo/POOL/Steve Helber)

With Republicans in Virginia suddenly one Senate seat away from total control of state government, attention turned almost immediately Wednesday to a pair of Democratic senators with a history of siding with the GOP on key issues like education and abortion.

And on Wednesday morning, the two men, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, and Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, appeared to be delighting in a sudden surge of interest in their policy ideas and positions.

“It’s a new day,” said Morrissey, a pro-life Democrat who said Texas-style abortion legislation goes too far but declined to say what changes to Virginia law he might be inclined to support. “I am a very strong proponent of the right to life. That’s as far as I’m going to go. Folks can read into it what they want; I will carefully consider any and all legislation.”

Petersen, who joined with Morrissey and Republicans earlier this year to make school reopening a focus of the legislative session, meanwhile, continued to criticize restrictions on after school activities and mask mandates that Democrats have generally supported — a subject of many passionate floor speeches he delivered over the past year.

“Once we go back into session it will have been two years since the pandemic began,” Petersen said. “I think we’re getting to the point where we need to move on and get on with our lives.”

The comparisons to moderate Democratic holdouts in Washington, Arizona’s Sen. Kristen Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, were instantaneous.

“If you want to know what the Virginia Senate is going to look like next year, imagine the U.S. Senate with more than one Joe Manchin,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.

Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, reads an obituary of the late Lt. Gov. John Hager as he sits at his desk before the floor session in the temporary Virginia Senate chamber inside the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond on Aug. 28, 2020. (Pool photo by Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Democrats were still holding out hope Wednesday that Republicans might not win an outright majority in the House, noting that absentee ballots were still being counted in several races where the GOP was leading by a few hundred votes. But Republicans, who appear to have flipped seven Democratic seats for a 52-48 majority, said they were confident the results would hold and busied themselves with discussion about who would serve as the next House speaker.

With Republican Glenn Youngkin in the governor’s office and former GOP Del. Winsome Sears presiding over the Senate as lieutenant governor and casting tie-breaking votes, Democrats will not be able to spare a single vote in the chamber  — where they hold a 21-19 advantage — if they hope to block GOP-sponsored bills.

Democratic leaders in the Senate will be aided by the fact that they will continue to retain control of key levers of power in the chamber — namely the authority to set the agenda through control of committees and daily floor calendars.

That means no Democrats will have free rein to cross caucus priorities. But there’s also no guarantee leadership will be able to bottle up GOP bills if one or more Democrats breaks ranks, said Bob Holsworth, a longtime political observer in Richmond. “There are ways of getting things out of committee,” he said. “My guess is that this isn’t going to be the easiest thing in the world.”

He called the comparisons to Sinema and Manchin “absolutely real.”

Petersen and Morrissey aren’t the only Democrats in the Senate with contrarian streaks, but they do stand out for the frequency with which they break with their party and the impassioned speeches that typically accompany their dissent. Both have also demonstrated a willingness to withhold their votes for key Democratic priorities in exchange for legislative concessions in other areas.

An analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project found that during the 2021 legislative session, Petersen sided with his caucus in just 67 percent of votes — less than any other member. His more notable dissents included opposition to legislation legalizing marijuana and budget language that have limited evictions during the pandemic.

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

Morrissey, who is moderate on some social issues but displayed a progressive streak in legislative areas like criminal justice reform, sided with his caucus 79 percent of the time in 2021, according to VPAP. Some of the more prominent bills he sided with Republicans on included legislation that aimed to bar the state health department from operating a sex-ed hotline for children and legislation that repealed a prohibition on certain health insurance plans covering abortion.

Every other Democrat in the chamber except for Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, whose splits with his caucus have generally come in lower-profile votes, voted with fellow Democrats 84 percent of the time or more.

Other Democrats in the chamber pushed back on the idea that the Senate wouldn’t be able to withstand GOP pressure. Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, noted that Democrats’ biggest internal debates were over policies that pushed the state to the left. He predicted it would be easier to unify Democrats in the chamber against GOP proposals that would move the state to the right.

“I think in an environment where we’re the last bulwark against Virginia returning to inequitable policies, I think that’s a very different vote than some of these votes that are getting criticized,” said Surovell, who says he’s envisioning an “Alamo strategy” for the chamber.

At the same time, Petersen and Morrissey were already thinking Wednesday about areas in which they might be able to collaborate with Republicans.

On schools, Petersen said he’d heard from parents upset about mask requirements. “I talked to parents who have kids in drama programs — they still have to wear masks on stage,” he said. “I guess if I was to summarize things I want to see in the next couple years — maybe we focus on a little more joy, having fun, being outside and letting kids enjoy themselves.”

Petersen also voiced support for offering a bigger standard deduction on the state income tax, which he framed as a good Democratic issue because it cuts taxes for working people that also potentially aligns with Youngkin’s campaign promise to double the standard deduction for individuals.

And he suggested Dominion Energy’s decision to back Democrats over Republicans in the governor’s race might open the door to his longtime goal of banning political donations from publicly regulated electric utilities — which in the past has been a nonstarter for a majority of members in both parties.

Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Morrissey said he sees himself as aligning with the GOP primarily on education and abortion. On the latter, he said he would walk a line between his belief that the government shouldn’t tell women what to do with their bodies and his Catholic faith. (On the subject of telling women what to do with their bodies, he volunteered that he was dismayed that Democratic women had backed a bill to ban so-called happy ending massages, which he said he opposed in solidarity with sex workers. “Do you see the inconsistency?”)

But he said he didn’t want to say too much about his abortion stance yet.

“I’m not going to give anymore away other than saying what I’ve already said,” Morrissey said. “I’m very, very much pro-life. I have always been. From the beginning of life to the end of life. You may have noticed I was author of legislation to ban the death penalty.”

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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.