Liberal dream bills, once considered dead-on-arrival in Virginia’s overwhelmingly Republican House of Delegates, face better odds in a reshaped Richmond after Democrats swept state elections earlier this month.
Democrat Ralph Northam will be sworn in as the 73rd governor after running on one of the most progressive platforms in recent Virginia history — including a $15 minimum wage, expanding Medicaid to nearly 400,000 low-income people and imposing new gun-control measures.
Unlike outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), Northam will take office in January alongside a General Assembly where Republican clout has been significantly diminished. The GOP has lost its two-thirds majority in the House of Delegates and may lose control of the chamber entirely, depending on the outcome of three races that have yet to be settled. One thing is for certain — the election flipped 15 GOP seats, so that the current count is 49 Democrats to 51 Republicans.
The Senate remains 21 Republicans to 19 Democrats with Democrat Justin Fairfax breaking any ties in his capacity as the newly elected lieutenant governor.
Progressive groups see the shifting balance of power as an opportunity to advance legislation that had floundered when Republicans had a stronger majority.
“There are advocacy groups in Virginia where there are cobwebs everywhere because they are pushing things that would never fly with Republicans in control,” said Josh Stanfield, who leads a PAC devoted to electing progressive House members. “Now they can have real tangible demands. Every constituency can come and say, ‘Look, there’s no longer an excuse not to get this done.’ ”
For immigrant advocates, it’s issuing drivers licenses to undocumented Virginia residents. LGBT groups want to expand anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing to include sexual orientation and gender identity. And abortion rights advocates want to repeal the requirements that women undergo ultrasounds and wait 24 hours before terminating pregnancies.
“While it’s certainly not a downhill slide into progressive policy victories, it is exciting and invigorating to contemplate the things we can find the one or two Republican votes to get done in 2018,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of the liberal Progress Virginia group.
The Blue Virginia blog recently published a list of 54 bills that it says should be part of a progressive offense in the House of Delegates.
But Del. David J. Toscano (Charlottesville), the Democratic House leader, wants the focus on economic and health-care issues, such as paid family leave and Medicaid expansion.
“The Republicans have been guilty in overreach and arrogance in how they tried to push a conservative agenda, and it backfired,” Toscano said. “Our new legislators should learn from the experience of their Republican counterparts, so they hit the sweet spot for what people in the commonwealth really need and not get too much into socially divisive issues that Republicans have pushed for so long.”
Toscano is mindful that every seat in the General Assembly is on the ballot again in 2019 — a year that may be more favorable to Republicans without a statewide race to boost turnout.
After winning the governorship, Northam listed Medicaid expansion and gun control, as well as fighting the opioid epidemic and promoting government efficiency and renewable energy as his priorities.
Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), set to be speaker if Republicans keep control, has vowed House Republicans would be a check against an “extreme liberal agenda.”
“The House is eager to work with the administration where we can, but we are also going to stand up for the things we believe in,” said Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for Cox, in a statement. “We can work across the aisle on things like keeping taxes low, making college more affordable, and fighting the opioid crisis, and those are the things we should focus on.”
If the House of Delegates ends up in a 50-50 split, Democrats and Republicans will have to negotiate a power-sharing agreement.
Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University, said that even slim Republican majorities present major hurdles for Democrats.
For example, a Republican speaker can assign lawmakers to committees in a way to keep legislation from reaching the full floor for debate. Some moderate House Republicans who may have crossed party lines lost their seats on Nov. 7. And Democrats may not be united on contentious issues with tough reelection battles just two years away.
“People in the progressive side of Virginia politics shouldn’t get their hopes up too high,” Kidd said. “We are still sort of coming down from the amazing election, and we are thinking ‘What can Democrats accomplish now?’ The reality is without the majority, they still can’t accomplish any more than they already have.”
The battle for the majority continues outside the election cycle. Northam can offer incumbent GOP lawmakers jobs in his administration, creating pickup opportunities for Democrats. Then-Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) used that tactic in 1998 to erode Democratic majorities in the legislature.
Even if politicking and parliamentary maneuvering puts Democrats over the top, some of the more liberal members of the General Assembly say they are realistic about the prospects of far-left legislation.
“A lot of the more moderate goals that people see as more attainable can be used as a first step for more progressive legislation,” said Lee Carter, a democratic socialist who unseated House Majority Whip Jackson Miller (R-Prince William) after campaigning on single-payer health care and repealing Virginia’s right-to-work laws.
And Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Falls Church), who has sponsored $15 minimum wage bills, concedes it’s unlikely to pass next year because of pro-business Democrats. Neither Toscano nor Northam would commit to a $15 wage in post-election interviews.
Kim Propeack, a leader of the pro-immigrant group CASA in Action, said Virginia Democrats should resist the urge to be overly cautious.
“The worst thing that could happen after the kind of election we saw in Virginia is that voters do not see real results,” said Propeack, whose organization’s top priority is advancing a bill authorizing driver’s licenses for undocumented Virginians that has already attracted some Republican support.
“All the time we are told to go for small and shallow reforms,” she said. “This election proved people want big and bold.”