Incremental Defeats

Incremental Defeats

Northern Virginia Democrats face major defeats and minor victories.

“We can argue about how easy it should be to get a firearm, but we shouldn’t be arguing about infants and those who are drunk and carrying weapons"

— State Sen. Adam Ebbin

Halfway through every session of the Virginia legislature, bills from the House are sent to the Senate for a vote and vice-versa. The event is called crossover, and in 2015 this will be marked by the complete absence of major reforms the Democratic minority hoped to push through. With a Republican majority in the Virginia legislature, Arlington and Alexandria’s Democratic representatives have had to struggle for minor gains.

One of the major defeats for Northern Virginia’s Democrats is this session’s lack of gun control legislations. While some Democrats said they anticipated many of their proposed gun control legislation would be defeated, many expressed surprise over bills, like Senate Bill 1179 that would have kept firearms away from four year olds or Senate Bill 943 which would have kept firearms away from people convicted of stalking, assault and battery of a family or household member, or sexual battery.

“I expected them to argue against the background checks or one per month limit, but this is unconscionable,” said state Sen. Adam Ebbin, bill 1179’s sponsor, “We can argue about how easy it should be to get a firearm, but we shouldn’t be arguing about infants and those who are drunk and carrying weapons.”

The nearly identical House Bill 1904 proposed by Arlington Del. Alfonso Lopez also failed to pass.

“We’ve had a lot of experience with kids not having skills to use these firearms killing themselves or someone else,” said Lopez. “Three and four year olds are learning about colors and how to sound out words, you should not by giving them a powerful firearm … When the founding fathers were talking about the second amendment, they weren’t talking about three or four year olds”

State Sen. Barbara Favola from Arlington, sponsor of Senate Bill 943, said the firearms issue felt very personal to her and she was extremely disappointed by its failure to pass.

“The bill would have kept guns away from domestic violence offenders convicted of physical or sexual abuse,” said Favola. “We’re not taking guns away from law abiding citizens; we’re taking them away for a short amount of times from criminals with a violent past. Research shows if you’ve committed violent crimes in the past, you’re more likely to do so in the future.”

Favola said she was struck by something she heard from a survivor of domestic abuse that’s haunted her through the debates over Senate Bill 943: “violence never deescalates.”

One of the other disappointments for Favola was the failure to pass Senate Bill 799, cosponsored by Ebbin, which would have added assaults on people because of their sexual orientation or gender identification to the list of hate crimes.

“A large percent of all hate crimes are perpetrated against individuals because of their sexual orientation and it’s not codified in Virginia,” said Favola. “That failed in committee, 6-7, in a party line vote. It’s sad when politics gets involved in something that makes so much sense.”

The bill’s defeat comes as a setback to the LGBT communities in Virginia. Lamia Beard, a 30-year-old transgender woman in Norfolk, was murdered last month. Her case remains under investigation by the local police.

The session was particularly rough on freshman Del. Rip Sullivan. In an earlier article, Sullivan laid out his priorities for environmental policy reform and gun control. None of those bills have continued past crossover.

One of the issues where Democrats have found bipartisan support is in their anti-sexual assault legislation. Senate Bill 712, proposed by state Senators Richard Saslaw and George Barker, would require any employee of a public university to report any allegation of a sexual assault within 48 hours of learning about it. The bill passed the senate unanimously and passed the House Education Committee on Feb. 16. Saslaw said he doesn’t get emotionally attached to his bills, but did say he spent a lot of time working on the sexual assault legislation.

But this support has not been universal. Alexandria Del. Charniele Herring proposed House Bill 1683, which would require universities to designate one employee to serve as a liaison to local social services and law enforcement to coordinate the response to any type of crime that involves bodily injury to a student or any sexual assault committed against a student. The bill was moved from Courts of Justice to Education, and ultimately never left the committee.

Another one of Herring’s bills, this one with Republican Dave Albo from Springfield as a co-patron, would eliminate the waiting period before accepting a “critically missing adult” report. In the bill, critically missing adult is defined as “as any adult 21 years of age or older whose disappearance indicates a credible threat to the health and safety of the adult as determined by a law-enforcement agency.” According to Herring, the issue of critically missing adults has come up for discussion before in legislation, but the Hannah Graham disappearance pushed the topic into the national spotlight, even though as an 18-year-old student Graham wouldn’t have been classified as a critically missing adult. The bill has passed the House and is currently in the Senate.

Herring says, despite various bills that have been defeated, that there seems to be more bi-partisan cooperation this year than she expected.

“I think that the tone of the session has been different from past years, it’s been more bipartisan,” said Herring. “I’ve been on Republican bills and they’ve been on some of my bills.”

Herring acknowledged her disappointment that other gun control measures didn’t pass and expressed particular frustration with the vote against her proposed amendment to House Bill 1823 that would have raised the amount an employee whose wages have been wrongfully withheld from twice their due amount to triple.

“I had a legislation regarding equal pay and it did not get through,” said Herring. “I think it’s something that’s just going to take work. It changes the status quo so it’s going to take more than one bill.”

For other Democrats, like Lopez, the key to passing productive legislation has been finding relatively small but important issues to focus on. Lopez has spent much of the session pushing bills that eliminate retaliatory evictions from apartment complexes and a bill that would make powdered alcohol illegal.

“The harmful uses of the product far outweigh any potential benefits,” said Lopez. “It can easily be transported in a pouch into a school or sprinkle it into someone’s drink, and if you get the mixes wrong you can make an incredibly toxic shot of alcohol. Kids have been known to snort it, which has significant harmful effects.”

Both bills have passed the House and the ban on powdered alcohol has also passed in the Senate. The other victory for Lopez in this session has been the success of his struggle for years to narrow the definition of small business in Virginia.

“Currently, a small business in Virginia is anyone with less than 215 employees or less than $10 million in gross receipts,” said Lopez. “That’s a very broad definition and it hurts women and minorities. It’s not a helpful definition. I want to adopt the federal standard, which varies by industry and is constantly updated.”

For years, the bill was changed and reformed with various wordings to make it more passable, but ironically after years of working on it, the bill is being passed in almost its original form.

“It’s not passed yet,” warned Lopez. “Though it passed the House, but it still has to go through the Senate. It’s taken four years, but I think we’re going to do some good.”