The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia Democrats push liberal agenda — with a dose of caution

Spectators overlook the House of Delegates in Richmond on Tuesday.
Spectators overlook the House of Delegates in Richmond on Tuesday. (Patricia Sullivan/TWP)

RICHMOND — Virginia Democrats are delivering on the liberal agenda they promised for this year's General Assembly session, pushing through hundreds of bills that undo years of Republican leadership and change course on significant issues.

In a cascade of votes Monday and Tuesday ahead of a legislative deadline, the new Democratic majority advanced measures to protect LGBT residents, help undocumented immigrants, protect the environment, fund roads and raise the minimum wage.

And that was on top of earlier action to pass gun control, ease abortion restrictions and enact the Equal Rights Amendment.

Democrats pulled back in some areas, suggesting a limit to the state’s new blue status. A controversial ban on assault weapons never got a vote in the Senate, though the House of Delegates kept a version alive. Neither chamber approved a repeal of the state’s right-to-work law. Campaign finance reform has seen little action.

“Virginia has not become the East Coast version of California,” said University of Mary Washington political scientist Stephen Farnsworth. “But Virginia is clearly being governed in a far more liberal direction than has been the case in decades, if not ever.”

The shape of this year’s 60-day session came into clearer focus on Tuesday, the “crossover” deadline for passing bills in the House and Senate and sending the measures to the opposite chamber for consideration.

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The changes have touched off extreme responses in some GOP quarters, from the massive pro-gun rally that shut down Richmond streets last month to the suggestion that liberal places such as Arlington and Alexandria should rejoin the District of Columbia and rural red counties should secede to West Virginia.

The ideological tension boiled over into Tuesday’s invocation in the House, where the Rev. Robert M. Grant Jr. of the Father’s Way Church in Warrenton gave a prayer that railed against abortion and same-sex marriage, prompting most of the Democratic caucus to walk out. Even a few Republicans retreated to the rear of the chamber.

“There is a time and a place for everything,” Del. Matt Fariss (R-Campbell) said afterward. “This is a time we need to work together and not be divisive.”

Democrats say they have marching orders from last fall’s elections, which gave them full control of the legislature for the first time in a generation, with majorities of 55 to 45 in the House and 21 to 19 in the Senate. In concert with Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, the caucus is empowered to enact sweeping change.

The sheer volume of legislation Democrats unloaded this year has been staggering, leading to an unusual number of long floor sessions and late-night committee meetings.

Republican leaders have repeatedly accused the new majority of cutting corners in their haste to shake up the status quo.

“I think they are moving very far, very fast,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said. “What you’re seeing is a huge shift in the way Virginia operates going forward.”

To Democrats, that’s the whole point.

Over and over on Tuesday, lawmakers marveled that they were approving ideas that had gone nowhere in two decades of Republican dominance.

“Today is a good day,” Del. Roslyn Tyler (D-Sussex) said before voting to raise the minimum wage after 10 years of failure.

On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) had long proposed giving undocumented immigrants a “driver privilege card,” which would include a notice that it could not be used for voting — something offered in neighboring Maryland and in the District.

Those bills always died — until Tuesday, when the Senate approved the measure. The House went a step further, making immigrants eligible for a conventional driver’s license — though not the Real ID-compliant license that will be required to board an airplane or enter a federal facility, starting in October.

The House and Senate also voted to make certain undocumented immigrants, often referred to as “dreamers,” eligible for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.

In other ways, Democrats have been cautious about pushing their advantage. Many of their newly gained seats are in suburban districts that until recently favored Republicans. Lawmakers are also protective of Virginia’s prized Triple-A bond rating, which contributes to the state’s status as a top place for doing business.

One major area that has seen little public action so far is the state’s two-year, $135 billion budget, which is on a different schedule than other types of bills. Lawmakers have proposed hundreds of amendments to the spending plan proposed by Northam, but the measures are making their way through committees and have yet to get to the floor.

Virginia poised to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses

Here are several major policy areas that have seen action during the session, including some that faced crucial votes on Tuesday.

Gun control

This issue was the showpiece issue for Democrats, who promised action after last year’s mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building.

The House has been more aggressive on this front than the Senate, passing all eight bills called for by Northam. They would institute universal background checks; limit handgun purchases to one per month; require owners to report a firearm theft or loss within 24 hours; give local officials the authority to pass gun restrictions; tighten the prohibition on guns for someone under a protective order; make it a felony to “recklessly” leave a gun in reach of anyone 18 or younger; and create a “red flag” law allowing authorities to seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. The chamber narrowly approved an assault weapons ban Tuesday, 51 to 48, after struggling over how to define those firearms and how to enact the ban.

The Senate has passed five of the governor’s gun-control bills. On Tuesday, it rejected a measure on reporting lost or stolen guns. The sponsor of the assault-weapons bill withdrew it from consideration, and the child-access bill died in committee.

Casinos and sports betting

Both the House and Senate have advanced bills that would let five cities — Portsmouth, Norfolk, Danville, Bristol and Richmond — seek a public vote on whether to build casinos.

The measures would empower the state lottery to oversee casino gambling, but they differ on many details, including the amount of tax revenue that would come back to the state and localities. Both chambers on Monday also approved versions of a bill that would allow sports betting and the online purchase of lottery tickets.

Energy: Despite many Democrats running last year on pledges to refuse political contributions from Dominion Energy, the state’s biggest electric utility, the regulated monopoly is having a successful session.

A Senate bill to prohibit taking campaign money from Dominion died in committee. And both houses are advancing sweeping environmental legislation called the Virginia Clean Economy Act that Dominion has had a strong hand in shaping. The measure sets goals for switching to renewable energy sources in coming years and helps safeguard Dominion’s investments in wind and solar.

A Green New Deal Act with stricter environmental guidelines died in House committee. There was no similar version in the Senate. The House did pass a bill restoring some powers of the State Corporation Commission to oversee Dominion’s rates.

Workers' rights

The House approved a bill allowing collective bargaining for public employees, but carved out exceptions for legislative aides as well as for employees of hundreds of constitutional offices around the state: sheriffs, commissioners of the revenue, treasurers, commonwealth’s attorneys and circuit court clerks. Virginia is one of only three states, along with North Carolina and South Carolina, that forbid collective bargaining for the public sector.

The Senate passed a bill giving localities the option of allowing public-sector collective bargaining. How the two versions will be reconciled is uncertain.

The Senate on Tuesday passed a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $11.50 by July 1, 2023, then divide the state into regions where the wage would vary based on the cost of living. The House voted along party lines, 55 to 45, to approve a bill raising the wage to $15 an hour by July 1, 2025.

Criminal justice

The House has voted to decriminalize marijuana, imposing a fine of no more than $25 for simple possession. A House measure to legalize pot was defeated, with Democrats saying the state is “not ready” for that step. The Senate passed a decriminalization bill late Tuesday.

The House and Senate have both voted to double the threshold for felony larceny to $1,000.

Confederate memorials

The Senate voted along party lines Tuesday to give local governments control over Confederate statues. Earlier the session, the Senate passed a bill to find a replacement for the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that represents Virginia in the U.S. Capitol. The House voted along party lines Tuesday to remove Lee’s statue from Statuary Hall, and approved the local control bill by a vote of 53 to 46.


The House and Senate have passed bills to repeal a state law requiring that a woman seeking an abortion undergo an ultrasound 24 hours beforehand. The measures would allow health professionals who are not doctors to perform the procedure, adding nurse practitioners in the Senate version, and physician assistants and nurse practitioners in the House bill.

Voter access

Both the House and Senate have passed bills making Election Day a state holiday and scrapping Lee-Jackson Day to make room for it, and establishing no-excuse absentee voting. The House on Tuesday passed a bill repealing a requirement that voters present photo ID. A similar bill already passed the Senate.

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