Opinion: Commentary: In the Interim

Opinion: Commentary: In the Interim

Coping with relentless issues: pandemic, eviction crisis, unemployment crisis, boosting tourism and more.

Normally, the end of the legislative session allows time for legislators, staff, and advocates alike to regroup and catch their breath. However, though the 2020 General Assembly session officially adjourned on March 7th, things are still busy. After adjournment, cases of COVID-19 mounted rapidly, accompanied by tri-weekly calls with the Governor’s office, Health Department briefings, and evenings working to stay informed of the constantly-evolving virus and to share information with constituents.

After the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery reignited a call to action to reform our nation’s policing practices, I listened to and stood with Black Lives Matter protestors, and worked with Senate colleagues to build a comprehensive framework to end these tragedies and the culture that has made them so devastatingly commonplace.

As so many are painfully aware, an eviction crisis is looming in Virginia. The statewide eviction moratorium ended in July and the weekly $600 federal stipend for unemployment lapsed at the end of July, leaving many Virginians at risk of not being able to pay their rent. Although Governor Ralph Northam has implemented a statewide rent relief program, the initiative is not yet scaled up to prevent many Virginians from losing their housing during a public health crisis. I have been working closely with advocates and legislators to address this. To that end, over the last three weeks, I met with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, Tenants and Workers United of Alexandria and faith leaders from Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE) to hear issues and seek solutions. During a Special Session that Governor Northam has called to begin on Aug. 18, Del. Cia Price (D-Hampton) and I will be introducing legislation to require landlords who plan on evicting tenants to first enter into a payment plan for a missed rent payment, ensuring that one financial crisis will not push tenants out of their housing and ensure landlords do not lose income or go through the costly and unsettling process of evicting a family. I am also working with advocates to extend the eviction moratorium.

I serve on a number of interim Committees and Commissions between sessions which provide oversight of ongoing state programs, review potential legislation, and plan one-time special projects.

Two weeks ago I was elected the Vice-Chair of the Joint Commission on Technology & Science. Later that week the Alexandria General Assembly Delegation spent several hours interviewing and selecting a new Circuit Court Judge to replace retired Judge Nolan Dawkins. We chose Kathleen Uston from a pool of extremely distinguished candidates.

The next week I joined the newly-minted Commission on Unemployment Insurance, where we received reports on the Unemployment Trust Fund balance and projections for the rest of the year. I also attended two meetings of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, which I serve on as the Vice-Chair, where we finalized the wording for a pamphlet for voters on a proposed Constitutional Amendment which would create a redistricting commission that will appear on the November ballot.

In addition to these scheduled duties, I regularly meet with constituents and work to solve day-to-day issues for those in the 30th District. Working with Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson, I intervened with Dominion Energy to stop power from being cut from 158 customers in Old Town Alexandria overnight on one of the hottest days of the year and joined state and local staff from the Health Department and Alcoholic Beverage Control to help constituents who are seeking to open a “cat cafe” and wine bar in Old Town.

Legislative offices have also been helping the Virginia Unemployment Commission triage a previously-unfathomable deluge of unemployment cases. In 2019, 130,000 unemployment claims were made in Virginia. Since March of this year, there have been over one million. My Chief of Staff, Chris Leyen, personally fielded hundreds of the most complicated cases amid scores of other constituent concerns.

I also joined a number of constituents and interest groups to discuss pressing legislative matters. Along with some Delegates, I gave a report on criminal justice reforms to Social Action Linking Together (SALT) including discussing my work to ban private prisons and the damaging practice of solitary confinement in Virginia.

I am working with a constituent and Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter to draft enabling legislation for a new nonprofit which would serve as an advocate for inmates within the prison system. The organization would increase oversight of issues from healthcare and safety to access to healthy food.

In late July, I joined Virginia First Lady Pam Northam at the Torpedo Factory for a news conference announcing $860,000 in funding for Virginia Tourism projects, including the Duke Street Black History Trail.

The next day I joined the governor in Richmond as he signed The Virginia Values Act, my legislation to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and to expand protections for all protected classes in public accommodations.

In addition to these projects, my office continues to prepare for the special session, keeping our nose to the grindstone reviewing edits to the biennial budget, drafting legislation, and reviewing bills as they are introduced. We are also here to take up your concerns, serve as a liaison with state agencies, and listen to your thoughts on upcoming legislation.

It is my continued honor to serve the citizens of the 30th District.