For much of the last two years I have used this column to laud the steps that were being taken in the Virginia General Assembly with the support of then Governor Ralph Northam to bring Virginia into the modern era. Virginia has a rich history, but one that is also shrouded in controversy. There is a tendency on the part of long-time Virginians to want to focus on the earliest history of the Commonwealth in the new nation with an emphasis on the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the Declaration of Independence authored by a Virginian, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights that served as a model for the federal Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, the history that surrounded that era is not so glorious. Forgotten until recent times were the indigenous people who were forced out with the settlement of the colony and new state, the horrors of slavery, a Civil War in which the state was a major battleground, and a white supremacist government until recent years.
The shift in attitudes was not confined to Virginia alone as movements such as Black Lives Matter forced us to examine our history and our actions under the laws as they had been written. The success of Democrats at the polls to control both houses of the General Assembly as well as the governorship and attorney general’s office brought about the amazing changes in the laws of Virginia in 2020 and 2021.
Virginia moved into a leadership role in rewriting its election laws to make them among the most progressive in the nation. Early voting was instituted, absentee voting was permitted without the need for an excuse and voting generally was made more accessible. Laws against all forms of discrimination were passed and hate crime laws were strengthened. Common sense gun control laws were passed including my universal background checks bill. Major steps were taken to end the classroom to prison pipeline, and laws that were unevenly applied to racial minorities were repealed or revised. Symbols that represented the oppressive period of our history were removed. Our educational institutions moved to interpret our history more broadly to be inclusive of all persons who lived in the state.
I was feeling good that democracy was expanded, we were becoming more inclusive, our criminal justice system was being reformed, and our communities were becoming safer. And, then there was the election of 2021. Democrats lost the majority in the House of Delegates, and Republicans swept the statewide elections of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
In the current session of the General Assembly bills have been introduced to turn back all the progress that had been made over the last two years. The clock is being turned back to the more conservative Virginia that many of us have been struggling to get past for many years. All the bills are passing in the Republican controlled House of Delegates. Fortunately Democrats have a majority in the State Senate that will be able to defeat these Republican measures, and our progressive measures will remain in place. We must be eternally vigilant to ensure that while progress might be impeded it is not lost.