With more than two months remaining in 2020, I can already say that it has been an amazing year in Virginia’s history. When the events of 2020 in the Commonwealth are reviewed in the future by historians in the context of the state’s history, the conclusion is going to be that Virginia underwent a consequential and transformative period equal to or superior to any other period of its history. For a state that is so rich with history I realize that might seem like an over-statement, but I believe my conclusion is fully supported by the facts.
I am not talking about surviving the COVID-19 pandemic or enduring what is likely to be called the absolute worst presidency in the history of the country, as important as both these situations are. I am talking about what went on with the Virginia General Assembly and its future impact on the state.
The year opened with a regular General Assembly session with many new faces from the 2019 elections. Never has there been a House of Delegates that was younger with more racial and sexual diversity. A Jewish woman took over the reins of power in the House of Delegates. More women and Blacks became committee chairs than ever before. And there was a determination to deal with unresolved issues that had plagued the state for decades and in some instances for centuries. The Governor was clearly on board to lead such a session.
Gun safety measures that had been talked about for years even as gun violence and mass murders had increased were enacted and signed by the Governor. Some had suggested for years that terrible things would happen if all gun transfers required a universal background check, but that system is now in place as a result of a bill I introduced that passed and was signed by the Governor. The more than 22,000 gun advocates most of whom were armed that assembled around the Capitol did not deter the Assembly from doing what it knew had to be done.
Non-discrimination legislation passed with the Virginia Values Act being one of the most comprehensive in the nation. Voting laws were changed to make voting easier and more accessible as voters are now learning as they cast their votes in this election. Many Jim Crow-era laws were repealed.
The special session called to deal with budgetary and other issues related to the pandemic built on the successes of the regular session with a pivot to criminal justice and policing reform. Civilian review boards have been empowered to investigate police-related complaints. Chokeholds were essentially eliminated as were rubber bullets and military-type equipment in local policing. Traffic stops for minor offenses—a big part of racial profiling—are now banned. Jury sentencing has been eliminated in what some are describing the most significant criminal justice reform. And there is even more that I will detail in future reviews.
Benjamin Franklin was asked at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention what kind of government we have. He responded, “A republic, if we can keep it.” In Virginia, we can say that we now have one of the most progressive governments in the country. To keep it, however, will require future vigilance and work. Many of the advances I celebrate here will become the stuff of future political campaigns where bigotry and fear will be used to try to turn the state back.