RICHMOND — Virginia's House Republican leader is backing plans to offer generous paid parental leave for employees of the chamber and all of state government, a stance widely seen as an effort to rebrand the party in the era of President Trump.
House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (Colonial Heights) said he would set the plan in motion "immediately after being sworn in" as speaker — something that would happen if Republicans hold the House majority after a handful of election recounts next week.
Cox would direct the clerk of the House of Delegates to develop a policy to provide 12 weeks of paid leave to all full-time House employees following the birth or adoption of a child. He also would support legislation to extend that benefit to all state employees.
The benefit would be among the most generous in the nation for public employees, according to data compiled by the National Partnership for Women & Families.
Currently, employees must use personal leave, sick time and then short-term disability, which provides only a fraction of their normal pay.
Only about 10 states and the District provide paid family leave for some or all public employees.
Among them, Washington state offers 12 weeks. The District and New York offer eight; California and New Jersey, six; and Rhode Island, four.
"Family is the bedrock of our society, and there's nothing more important to a family than those first few months at home as they welcome and share joyous moments with their new child," Cox said. "As a society, we have to do more to strengthen families and encourage women to remain in the workplace. Strong parental leave policies improve morale and reduce turnover, two things critical in public sector workplaces."
The announcement comes as Virginia's GOP tries to recover from devastating losses in November. Democrats swept all three statewide offices on the ballot — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. And they picked up at least 15 seats in the House in a wave fueled by antipathy toward President Trump.
Rifts within the party — over whether to embrace or distance itself from the president in a swing state where he is deeply unpopular — promise to deepen this year, as Trumpian and establishment candidates battle for the opportunity to take on Sen. Tim Kaine (D) in November.
Even as that nomination fight plays out, Republican leaders in Richmond appear determined to present a more practical, less ideologically driven party at work.
When the first bills for the 2018 session landed in late November, the GOP trumpeted them under this banner: "Practical Solutions to Everyday Issues." They included a measure to recognize out-of-state teaching licenses for the spouses of military personnel stationed in Virginia and a bill aimed at making sure high school students who take "dual enrollment" courses through community colleges can transfer those credits toward college degrees.
So far, not a single antiabortion bill has been filed.
Cox also issued a strong statement against sexual harassment in November, calling on legislators and other members of the "Capitol Square community" to set an example for the state "by maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for all Virginians."
He also said, "We can empower women and encourage their continued involvement by ensuring our workplace is respectful and actively rejects any unwanted behavior, guaranteeing that everyone who steps foot on Capitol Square will be treated with the dignity and respect he or she deserves."
"Clearly it's an effort . . . to begin to rebrand the party in a way that can regain the trust of Virginians," said Bob Holsworth, a former political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and longtime observer of Richmond politics. "Given the tsunami that occurred, what became evident is the Republican brand is becoming increasingly toxic, and it's imperative for Republicans to regain a foothold in the policy debate."
Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D), who during the campaign called for providing incentives to private companies to offer expanded family leave, welcomed Cox's announcement on that issue.
"As a pediatric neurologist and a public servant, Governor-elect Northam has long supported giving families the flexibility they need after the birth of a child or an adoption," said Ofirah Yheskel, a Northam spokeswoman.
"He and his team are still formulating his policy agenda for the upcoming year, but he is eager to increase paid family leave options for state employees and all Virginians."
Holsworth called Cox's strategy "smart and well-intentioned" but questioned whether it can grab much attention "from the perch of the legislature," given that the Republican contest to challenge Kaine, the 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee, is expected to dominate headlines.