The 2020 legislative session kicked off shortly after noon with several history-making firsts as women and people of color assumed leadership roles previously held only by white men for the last 400 years.
And Gov. Ralph Northam received a warm welcome from his fellow Democrats during his yearly address to lawmakers — a remarkable scene given the widespread and bipartisan calls for his resignation in February following a blackface scandal.
“It's a proud moment to look out and see a General Assembly that reflects, more than ever, the Virginia we see every day,” said Northam, who has rebounded from his pariah status and won praise from Democrats for his new focus on addressing longstanding racial inequities in a state with a history of institutional racism.
Northam outlined a broad agenda Wednesday that includes changing the law to allow local governments to remove Confederate statues. One of the House's first acts was to elect Del. Eileen Filler-Corn at the new speaker, the first woman to serve in that role. She is also the first Jewish speaker.
Her top deputy, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, is the first black woman to hold that role, and the House elected Suzette Denslow to be the first ever female clerk. Ghazala Hashmi, who unseated a Republican incumbent to help Democrats flip the Senate, became that chamber's first Muslim female member.
“A new torch is being passed today," Filler-Corn said on the House floor. Since Democrats won majorities in the state House and Senate, Northam and top lawmakers have laid out an ambitious agenda that includes high-profile issues Republicans thwarted for years, such as gun control measures and criminal justice reforms. They also have pledged to ease restrictions on abortion access, raise the minimum wage, prohibit discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community and make Virginia the next state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Many Democratic lawmakers wore blue Wednesday, a nod to the November blue wave that helped them take full control of the General Assembly in November. Democrats have had three successful election cycles in Virginia since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, significantly changing the makeup of the General Assembly. Women, people of color and millennials have all made gains.
African American lawmakers are set to have more power than ever before, including leading several powerful legislative committees. “It is our time,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, vice chairwoman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and a potential 2021 gubernatorial candidate. She said the black caucus was committed to eliminate the “last vestiges of racism and white supremacy in Virginia law.”
Gun issues figure to be the most high profile area of debate. Democrats want new restrictions that include universal background checks, an assault weapon ban and a red flag law to allow the temporary removal of guns from someone deemed dangerous to themselves or others.
Republicans and gun-rights groups have pledged stiff resistance. Gun owners are descending on local government offices to demand they establish sanctuaries for gun rights. More than 100 counties, cities and towns have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries and vowed to oppose any new “unconstitutional restrictions” on guns.
The Equal Rights Amendment was expected to be another top issue. Democrats say their caucus unanimously supports ratifying the gender equality measure and pledged to do so quickly. Opponents warned at a news conference that ratification would lead to the rollback of abortion restrictions as well as a host of negative consequences for women. Critics say the ERA is not lawfully before the states for ratification, in part because of the congressional deadline passed decades ago.
Wednesday also marked the return of Joe Morrissey, a former lawmaker who spent his days at the General Assembly and nights in jail after being accused of having sex with his teenage secretary. Morrissey defeated a Democratic incumbent to win a Richmond-area Senate seat.
Republicans said Wednesday that the state had flourished under its watch, with a strong economy, good schools and low crime rate. GOP lawmakers said their new job in the minority would be to hold the majority accountable, keep Virginia business friendly and exercise fiscal restraint.
“We think that, very quickly, the voters of Virginia will begin to get buyer's remorse about what they've done here,” House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert said.