“The legacy that we have left to Virginia and to the Democrats who now control its government is very clear. But I fear that a new and different legacy has begun,” Gilbert said in remarks on the House floor.
His critique of the Democrats’ approach, and the way Majority Leader Charniele L. Herring (Alexandria) defended her party’s path, highlighted the fundamental change in philosophy that’s at work this year.
A diverse slate of Democrats won majorities in both chambers of the legislature in this past fall’s elections, breaking a 20-year grip on Republican power in the House. They are advancing a mountain of legislation that would loosen restrictions on abortion, mandate a transition to clean energy, impose gun control, ease access to voting and much more.
“This was truly an historic week in Richmond,” Gilbert said. “But . . . not all history is necessarily good.”
Gilbert warned that Democrats don’t appreciate the role business plays in Virginia’s success.
“A thriving business environment means more and better jobs. It means more opportunities for people,” he said. “It means that people are better able to care for their families.”
Laws being pushed by Democrats, he added, would “sharply diminish” that: New taxes on gasoline and cigarettes. New powers for local governments to raise taxes. Changes to workers’ compensation policy. Allowing collective bargaining for public employees.
Proposed mandates for green energy, Gilbert said, would boost electricity bills and hurt the coal and gas industries.
“Democrats apparently want to run Virginia’s thriving economy not on the abundant energy resources that we already have at our disposal . . . but merely on rays of sunlight and gusts of wind.”
He complained that Democrats “only seem to ever be judged by their intentions, by their good and lofty intentions. They never seem to be judged by results.”
Voters who turned to Democrats last year “simply because they were mad at Donald Trump,” Gilbert added, are about to get serious buyer’s remorse.
“What additional costs can our economy and our citizens bear and continue to thrive? We are about to find out,” he concluded, to applause from his fellow Republicans.
Herring, the first woman and African American to serve as majority leader, rose to reply.
First, she said, Virginians did not elect Democrats just to spite Trump: “Virginia voters turned out because they were tired of the restrictive Republican policies on the other side of the aisle.”
Democrats, too, prize the state’s reputation as a top destination for business, she said, noting that the policies that have boosted Virginia’s business climate were championed by Democratic governors who worked with the Republican-controlled legislature.
But, she added, the needs of workers must be part of the equation.
"We believe that we can be a good place for business but at the same time a person can earn a decent wage," Herring said. "When someone earns more money, it puts more money into the economy and makes us stronger."
The push for renewable energy is an attempt to create jobs in new industries while solving a major problem, she said. “We know that not everything can run on air and the sun, but we do know that our environment is being harmed. We are about conservation, and we’re about innovation.”
She argued that Democrats are trying to keep up with a changing world. “What we have done is to create a business-friendly environment, make sure that people can put food on their table [and] making sure that laborers can get together and bargain.”
Herring ended with a plea for common effort.
“I know that both of us on both sides of the aisle love this commonwealth very much,” she said, acknowledging that Democrats should not “minimize the way you [Republicans] see things.”
“And while we may have differences, I encourage each of us to listen to each other,” she said. Democrats responded with a standing ovation as Republicans sat silently.
There hasn’t been much evidence of togetherness in a session that has featured a massive rally by armed gun rights protesters and suggestions that some parts of Virginia should be kicked out for being too liberal.
But a superficial reason for hope came just moments after the dueling speeches, when someone pointed out that two delegates — a Democrat and a Republican — were celebrating birthdays. The whole chamber broke out in song.