Something rather amazing has been happening in Virginia and it can serve as a template for other states. The Commonwealth of Virginia has the oldest continuous law-making body (legislature) in the New World. Richmond, Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy. The famous miscegenation case, Loving v. Virginia, arose in, well, Virginia. In recent memory, Virginia has had Republican governors such as George “Macaca” Allen, , Jim Gilmore, and Bob “the Briber” McDonnell . Our State Senate boasted Republicans such as Ken Cuccinelli, also known as “the Cooch,” for his desperate attempts to control women’s bodies and the sex lives of LGBTQ people. Even as Virginia’s cities and the suburbs surrounding Washington, DC turned blue, gerrymandering kept Republicans in control of the State legislature and senate.
When things began to change, they did so gradually.
Here’s what “gradual” means. It means that a lot of people volunteered and donated and maybe won a seat here and there, maybe local seats first and, then, a few years later, a state seat, but they didn’t get to see legislative accomplishments. Dems might propose new laws, but the Republican-controlled legislature and senate generally never even let those bills out of committee. (That saved Republican legislators from having to vote down popular bills that even their red constituents favored.) And so, the next year, people went back to work trying to elect even more Democrats. Virginia began to vote pretty reliably blue in national elections (and for the VA Governor and the US Senate, where state gerrymandering can’t impact the vote) but still couldn’t manage to elect a majority of Democrats to the State legislature and senate. When Democrat Terry McAuliffe was VA’s Governor, his main accomplishment was blocking crazy Republican bills. And, so, the next year, people went back to work trying to elect even more Democrats.
Finally, in 2019, we managed to elect Democratic majorities to the State legislature and (narrowly) senate. Along with our Democratic Governor, here’s what they did:
*Ratified the ERA
▪ Ended mandatory ultrasounds before abortions
▪ Ended the 24-hour waiting period before abortions
▪ Passed universal background checks on gun purchases
▪ Limited gun purchases to one per month
▪ Made Election Day a state holiday
▪ Passed early voting for all Virginians
▪ Passed same day voter registration
▪ Passed automatic voter registration
▪ Passed parole for juvenile offenders
▪ Ended zero tolerance policies for disciplinary infractions in schools
▪ Banned hair discrimination
▪ Expanded hate crimes protections to include the LGBTQ community and those with disabilities
▪ Created best practices for trans students in schools
▪ Banned conversion therapy for minors
▪ Enacted anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community
▪ Enacted anti-discrimination protections for pregnant people
▪ Decriminalized marijuana
▪ Established the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice
▪ Extended the green job creation tax credit
▪ Joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to cut carbon emissions
▪ Passed mental health training for teachers
▪ Eliminated the requirement that race be disclosed on marriage records
▪ Passed protections for undocumented immigrants who are victims or witnesses to crimes
▪ Passed in-state tuition for DREAMers
▪ Cracked down on wage theft
▪ Protected the Affordable Care Act at the state level
▪ Increased the minimum wage to $12/hour
▪ Ended ban on collective bargaining
▪ Repealed unnecessary abortion clinic regulations
▪ Repealed voter ID laws*
There were some things we’d hoped to get done that we weren’t quite able to do, but we’ll come back next session, hopefully with even more Democrats. (Electing even more Democrats matters. It means that even if a Dem or two can’t get on board, legislation can still pass, and those Dems can tell their voters, for example, “Well, I didn’t vote to close the local for-profit jail where lots of constituents work.”)
But here’s a few lessons that others can learn from Virginia. First, this is often a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t get discouraged and give up if, at first, your efforts don’t lead to legislative accomplishments. Once you’ve got Democratic representation in your district, you need to go to work helping the district next door.
Second, we need to contest every race, even the ones where it seems obvious the Republican will win. Make them work for it and spend their money and resources on it; no reason to give it to them for free. And, be ready to seize any slip-ups. Sometimes, we surprise ourselves, but you can’t win the races you don’t enter.
Third, when Democrats DO finally seize control, it’s important for them to do as much as they can, as fast as they can, to actually make things better for people. Virginia Democrats resisted advice that they “go slow, build consensus with Republicans, be bipartisan, etc.” It’s funny how Republicans never seem to get the same advice, isn’t it? Run, don’t walk, to raise the minimum wage, decriminalize marijuana, clean up the environment, get guns out of our schools and stores, etc. Also, do everything you can to removed the barriers to voting that Republicans put in place. Allow early voting, make it easy to register to vote, make election day a holiday, etc. If you want people to keep working for you, you need to show them that you’ll do what you were elected to do.
Fourth, by passing the ERA, Virginia Democrats have given every other Democrat running in every other race in the country a gift. No Republican should be allowed to avoid the question, “Do you support equal rights for women?” Make them explain to America’s women WHY they shouldn’t be equal.
Are all of Virginia’s Democrats perfect? Far from it. Did they do everything I’d have liked? Nope. But they’re so much better than the Republicans that it’s not even close.
We can have nice things. Not by asking Santa Claus,
but by electing Democrats.
*Cudos to Mrs. Whatsit and NetWork NoVA for this list.