RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) on Thursday will propose a package of legislation aimed at combating hate crimes and reining in white-supremacist violence, the third year in a row he has sought similar changes to state law.
Herring has so far had zero success in getting the General Assembly to pass such measures. In the meantime, reports of hate crimes have continued to rise. Recent FBI statistics showed a jump in hate crimes nationwide and a nearly 50 percent increase in Virginia in 2017.
After last year’s violent white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Republicans who control both chambers of the state legislature rejected Herring’s attempts to prohibit militia-type groups from marching and brandishing weapons.
Herring said he is trying to lay the groundwork for a different outcome when lawmakers convene in January for next year’s General Assembly session.
“I’m hopeful and optimistic that they’ll see it differently as they’ve seen the rise in hate crimes continue and heard from folks in their districts,” Herring said in an interview.
The legislature will operate in a climate that’s tightening up for the GOP, as Democrats have swept statewide races, gained three congressional seats in the recent midterms and pulled within one seat of parity in the House of Delegates and state Senate.
Next year is an election year for the entire legislature, and it could take place under a court-ordered redistricting that both parties expect to be friendlier to Democratic candidates.
To help his legislative package’s prospects, Herring said he has tweaked some elements to incorporate suggestions made by legislators over the past two years. For instance, the designation “domestic terrorist group” would apply only to an organization that had at least two previous convictions for violent acts, and the group would be able to appeal the designation. Herring’s other proposals include:
●Updating the state’s definition of a hate crime to include offenses committed on the basis of gender or sexual orientation.
●Creating more powers for law enforcement agencies to identify white-supremacist or other hate groups and intervene before they commit acts of violence.
●Barring anyone convicted of a hate crime from possessing a gun.
●Giving the state attorney general the authority to use grand juries to prosecute hate crimes across multiple jurisdictions.
Republicans opposed previous measures introduced by Herring as too broad and as nibbling away at gun rights, which is something GOP lawmakers have fiercely defended even as they have given ground in areas such as expanding Medicaid.
“The agenda toward taking firearms away from law-abiding people is ultimately insatiable,” Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), the House majority leader, said this year when gun restrictions were being considered after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
In pushing for the laws, Herring cited statistics from the Virginia State Police showing that there were 202 hate crimes reported statewide in 2017, up from 137 the year before. That accompanied a nationwide rise in hate crimes reported by the FBI, which said incidents were up 17.5 percent last year.
Herring blamed the increase in part on today’s harsh political rhetoric, a tone he said has been set by President Trump.
“Public officials are not speaking out clearly and strongly” to condemn acts of hatred, he said, “going all the way up to the highest office in the country giving a wink and a nod to it.”
Herring said he will try to nudge the legislative process by setting up roundtable meetings in communities around the state and inviting local lawmakers to attend.