RICHMOND — A conservative Republican delegate and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus have struck an unlikely alliance aimed at killing a bill that has Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a tight spot.
Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta) has written a floor amendment meant to derail legislation sought by Korean American activists who want new textbooks to note that the Sea of Japan is also known as the East Sea.
The black caucus has signaled its support for the amendment, which would require that the commonwealth make sure that its textbooks also give “due acknowledgment” to the “cultural contributions by African Americans and Virginia Indians.”
If approved, the amendment would probably kill the underlying bill since, with just days left before the session’s scheduled conclusion Saturday, the altered legislation would have to go back to the Senate for approval of the changes.
Defeat of the bill would spare McAuliffe (D) from having to choose between offending a major trading partner (Japan) or reneging on a campaign promise to a sizable voting bloc (Korean Americans).
Democratic and Republican legislators from Northern Virginia offered the legislation in both House and Senate this year at the behest of Korean American activists who consider the “Sea of Japan” designation a relic of Japanese imperialism.
McAuliffe promised to back the measure during the campaign. But soon after his win, he received a letter from Japan’s ambassador saying that the measure could damage the nation’s substantial business ties to the commonwealth.
Both chambers passed their versions of the bills by wide margins, but the measures have run into trouble since crossing into the other chambers. On Monday, the deadline for bills to emerge from committees, Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) allowed the House bill to die in the committee she leads.
Lucas said she objected to the bill because it catered to the concerns of Korean Americans even though the legislature has not shown a similar sensitivity to African Americans. She noted a failed 2003 bill that called for the adoption of textbooks that “reflect the history of minorities in the Commonwealth.”
Landes, chairman of the House Education Committee, objected to the bill earlier in the session for other reasons. Wading into this decades-long dispute between the Koreans and Japanese, he predicted, would prompt other groups to bring their territorial disputes to the pages of Virginia textbooks year after year.
His floor amendment was distributed to delegates Monday, but instead of offering it, Landes asked that the House postpone action for the day. The delay gave some supporters of the bill hope that Landes was having second thoughts — especially given that House Republican leaders have not wanted to see McAuliffe get off the hook on a tough choice.
McAuliffe has consistently said that he will sign the bill if it gets to his desk. But earlier in the session, he and top aides quietly pushed legislators to kill it, according to four people familiar with their efforts.
Members of the black caucus are ready to support Landes’s amendment if he brings it to the floor.
“The point of the amendment is to make everybody aware — you need to realize the precedent you’re setting,” said Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond). “This was one of many geographical disputes or instances where one group of people’s history is sort of subordinated to another’s. And I thought the right thing to do was to fix it for everybody.”
Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax), who co-sponsored the House version that died in Lucas’s committee, said the amendment was “pitting one minority group against another” in an effort to spare the governor from having to make a difficult choice.
“The perception is out there in the Korean community that the governor is still trying to have it both ways,” Keam said.