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Michael Lee Pope

Stories by Michael Lee

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High Time?

Advocates call on the governor to legalize marijuana as soon as possible.

The debate over legalizing marijuana is about to light up, putting Gov. Ralph Northam at the center of a budding controversy.

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Controlling Gun Violence

After assault weapons stumble, lawmakers limit guns at polling places and government buildings.

Fulfilling their campaign promises to take action against gun violence, Democrats in the General Assembly are sending Gov. Ralph Northam several gun-violence prevention bills.

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The Strange Career of Felon Disenfranchisement

Amendment targets Jacksonian-era restriction weaponized during Jim Crow.

Felons have been prohibited from voting in Virginia since 1830, when the "right to suffrage" was denied "to any person convicted of any infamous offense." But it was during the era of Jim Crow that felon disenfranchisement became weaponized to prevent Black voters from influencing elections.

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Absentee Minded

Lawmakers consider bill to assign absentee ballots to precincts where voters live.

On election night, Democrats were shocked by how well Donald Trump was performing in Alexandria. As returns were posted online, concerns were rising among supporters of Joe Biden as the incumbent was outperforming expectations at precinct after precinct.

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Sealing the Record

House and Senate Democrats disagree on how old convictions should be expunged.

For people haunted by a conviction for felony drug possession or misdemeanor disorderly conduct, a debate now happening in the Virginia General Assembly is one that could have dramatic consequences for finding a place to live or landing a job. Lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow those people to seal their criminal record, expunging old convictions and helping them wipe the slate clean. But Democrats are bitterly divided over how to accomplish that goal.

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Fully Baked

Alexandria senator leads effort to legalize marijuana in Virginia.

The so-called "war on drugs" was a failure, locking up generations of Black men and tearing Black families apart. Now lawmakers in Richmond are finally coming around to realizing the damage that the prohibition against marijuana caused in minority communities. Last year members of the General Assembly approved legislation decriminalizing marijuana. This year, they may be on the verge of legalizing recreational use of marijuana — ending the failed war on drugs and adopting new equity measures to address some of the damage it caused.

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Killing the Death Penalty

Lawmakers consider bill to abolish capital punishment in Virginia

Virginia has executed people longer than any other state, a tradition that stretches back into colonial days when Captain George Kendall was executed for treason. Over the years, the commonwealth has executed more than 1,300 people. Now, Virginia may be about to join 22 other states that have abolished the death penalty.

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Privatized Incarceration

Alexandria senator leads fight against profiting from prisoners

Housing inmates in Virginia prisons costs the state about $70 a day for each inmate. But the private sector can do it a lot cheaper, about $50 a day. Lawmakers are about to debate whether that's a savings they can afford.

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Essential Leave

Advocates for paid sick days try to build support among Virginia Senate Democrats

Before the pandemic hit, Senate Democrats stopped a proposal requiring businesses to offer paid sick days. During the pandemic, they rejected it again during a special session. Now as lawmakers prepare for the upcoming General Assembly session, advocates are hoping they've finally got a strategy to persuade reluctant Senate Democrats to approve a new law increasing the number of workers in Virginia who have access to paid sick days.

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Appealing Bad Rulings

Lawmakers to consider expanding appeals court, providing new oversight to judges.

Virginia is the only state in the country that does not guarantee a right to appeal, allowing circuit court judges to make decisions with little oversight or scrutiny. Critics have been calling for reform ever since the Court of Appeals was first created in 1985. The Supreme Court of Virginia recommended an appeal of right as a "long term goal" in 2018. Now, Gov. Ralph Northam says he wants lawmakers to add four judges and support staff "to ensure the court can hear more appeals cases in a timely manner under an increasing workload."

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Dropping Out of the Electoral College

Lawmakers to consider joining National Popular Vote Compact

Virginia may be on the verge of dropping out of the Electoral College, joining a National Popular Vote Compact in an effort to ditch a presidential election system critics say is outdated and undemocratic.

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Absurd Leverage

Lawmakers to reconsider mandatory minimum for assaulting law enforcement

Earlier this year, lawmakers rejected a bill that would have ditched the mandatory minimum sentence for assaulting a law-enforcement officer. Now the General Assembly is about to consider the issue again.

Drawing the Line

Newly created redistricting commission zooms toward new maps in 2021

Now that voters have approved a constitutional amendment creating a new redistricting commission, the pieces have already started falling into place for how the commission will work and who will serve on it.

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Expunging the Record

Democrats are divided on how to clear charges and convictions.

House Democrats and Senate Democrats are deadlocked over how people accused of minor crimes should be able to clear their records, a clash that has stalled action for now on one of the most important criminal-justice reform efforts on the agenda for Democrats now that they have seized control of the General Assembly.

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Thanksgiving Through the Years

From war and pandemic to claptrap and taffeta, the evolution of the holiday in Alexandria.

The story of Thanksgiving is fake news riddled with misinformation and fraud.

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Being There

Advocates for open government worry about too much virtual participation. Virginia Press Association executive director Betsy Edwards says the law is designed to make sure the public and the press have an opportunity to ask members of the Planning Commission why they voted against a zoning change and or why the mayor voted for a bike lane. She worried that unlimited virtual participation would limit availability to the public and the press to ask questions and get answers.

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The Pandemic Election

Virginia voters support Biden, Warner and a new redistricting commission.

Twenty years ago, Virginia was a red state. Republicans scored Virginia's electoral votes in every presidential election since LBJ was reelected in 1964. Republicans held both U.S. Senate seats. The Grand Old Party had all the statewide offices, a majority of the congressional delegation and both chambers of the General Assembly. That was the environment when Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, ran for governor and lieutenant governor.

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Myth-busting the Vote

A look at how the election will really happen in Alexandria

For most Alexandria voters expected to cast a ballot this year, Election Day has already come and gone. The unprecedented spike in early voting comes at a time when the city is battling a deadly pandemic and a whirlwind of misinformation. Here are a few myths about the election this year and why they are wrong.

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Civilian Oversight

City Council members to consider creating citizen board to investigate police

Last spring, disparities in law enforcement created a groundswell of support for a new civilian review board in Alexandria, a group that could investigate excessive use of force and abuse of authority. Since that time, the General Assembly passed a new law giving these kinds of bodies authority to subpoena documents and witnesses as well as make binding disciplinary determinations. Now members of the City Council are about to consider several options for what kind of civilian review board they want to create.

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Hiding at the Top of the Ticket

Race for Senate features two-term incumbent versus first-time candidate.

When Mark Warner ran for governor in 2001, opponents knocked him for wanting to be governor without having ever run for office before.

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Limiting Neck Restraints

Lawmakers negotiate behind closed doors on how to curb police use of chokeholds.

When lawmakers began their special session on criminal justice reform in August, hopes were high that the General Assembly would send the governor a bill that banned police from using chokeholds. But now that the protesters have gone home and the lawmakers have moved behind closed doors to negotiate in a secret closed-door conference committee, advocates for criminal-justice reform are worried about what will emerge in the conference report that will be presented to the House and Senate.

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Alexandria’s Failed Experiment with Wards

Del Ray forced a ward system on Old Town. It didn’t end well.

Del Ray was furious. The Alexandria City Council was dominated by members from Old Town, and they took action in the interest of Old Town. People in Del Ray felt neglected and unheard. The elected members of council did not include one single solitary member from their neighborhood, and so people there were demanding the city abandon its at-large system of representation on the City Council and adopt a ward system similar to the one the city had before adopting the city manager form of government.

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An Election about Elections

Voters to determine how redistricting works next year.

When Republicans were in charge of drawing political boundaries for the General Assembly and Congress, Democrats supported an amendment to the Virginia Constitution creating a new mapmaking commission. The idea was to take the power of political gerrymandering out of the hands of the majority and hand it over to a group that wouldn’t be quite so focused on screwing the opposition. But then Democrats seized control of the General Assembly, and most House Democrats flip flopped on the issue.

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Mask Penalty Indoors, Side-Eye Outdoors

State Senate approves civil penalty indoors, City Council ditches fines outdoors.

Not wearing a mask indoors might get you a $500 fine from the Commonwealth of Virginia, although failing to wear on the sidewalk outside will get you just a side-eye from the City of Alexandria.

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The Fight for Paid Leave

After effort for paid sick days falters, lawmakers move toward paid quarantine leave.

The fight for paid sick days is on hold for now, and advocates have moved to a fallback position for the special session of the Virginia General Assembly: quarantine leave.

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Drop-Box Election

Pandemic protocols rewrite rules on voting.

When absentee ballots are distributed in the next two weeks, voters will have a new option to exercise their franchise: a drop box, which will be installed outside the Registrar’s office on North Royal Street.

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Automated Justice?

Lawmakers to consider automatic expungements for misdemeanors.

Virginia is one of 10 states that offers almost no way for people convicted of misdemeanors to expunge their records, creating roadblocks for people trying to get a job or rent an apartment. Even when a jury finds defendants in Virginia not guilty or when prosecutors dropped charges, allegations remain on records as a stain that can cause problems for years to come. That’s why lawmakers are about to consider a proposal from the Virginia Crime Commission on automatic expungement, which is expected to be released early next week.

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Reforming the Police

Lawmakers consider sweeping set of proposals to change policing in Virginia.

Only a few hours into a special session of the General Assembly earlier this week, members of a Senate panel passed a sweeping bill on policing reform that does everything from banning no-knock warrants and limiting chokeholds to creating use-of-force standards and requiring de-escalation training.

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Night Court

Lawmakers to consider eliminating no-knock warrants, new hurdles for nighttime search warrants.

Lawmakers in Virginia are about to consider banning no-knock warrants and creating a new requirement that judges — not magistrates — sign off on search warrants executed at night.

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Dangling Liberty

Lawmakers to consider putting pretextual stops in the rearview mirror.

Do you have a parking pass dangling from your rearview mirror? What about rosary beads or a graduation tassel? Police officers can use that as a pretext to pull you over and ask to search your car.

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Progressive Prosecutors Lobby for Justice

Commonwealth’s Attorneys from Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax join forces to press for reform.

As lawmakers prepare to return to Richmond for a special session on criminal justice reform, this group of likeminded prosecutors known as the Progressive Prosecutors for Justice will be pushing for a package of criminal-justice reform bills that does not have the backing of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys.

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At the Crossroads

Lawmakers to slash the state budget and consider criminal-justice reforms.

The threadbare Franklin and Armfield office on Duke Street stands at the crossroads between racial injustice and economic crisis. It’s a ramshackle building now, but it was once the headquarters for the largest domestic slave trading firm in the United States, present at the creation of the systemic racism that plagues Virginia cops and courts. It’s also the city’s latest acquisition, and the state budget was to include $2.5 million to help transform it into the Freedom House Museum. But then the pandemic hit, and the governor hit the pause button on that line item as well as all the other spending priorities of the new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

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Protecting Paychecks

Restaurants, lawyers and consultants in Alexandria receive millions in forgivable loans.

Restaurants in Alexandria received the biggest chunk of federal cash from the Paycheck Protection Program, landing more than 200 forgivable loans and saving about 4,000 jobs, according to new data released from the Small Business Administration. Lawyers, consultants and home health care workers also scored big, landing hundreds of loans and saving thousands of jobs. Ultimately, businesses in Alexandria received more than 3,000 loans and preserved more than 35,000 jobs.

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More for Enforcement, Less for Assistance

Since the recession, funding has increased for public safety but decreased for social services.

Since the recession, spending on public safety in Alexandria has increased year after year. According to documents from the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts, that category of government spending has increased 38 percent since 2010 as city leaders increased salaries for police officials and funded new positions at the city’s emergency communications center. But during that same time, spending on health and welfare programs has increased only 12 percent. Spending on social services has actually gone down since 2010.

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Alexandria Reckoning

Police launch formal inquiry into why Black people make up majority of arrests.

Black people are 23 percent of the population in Alexandria, and yet most arrests in the city are of African Americans. Most cases when police use force are against Black people. Most drug arrests are of Black people. And almost half of the inmates at the Alexandria jail are Black people.

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Black, Male and Arrested in Alexandria

Alexandria’s war on drugs hits black males hardest.

According to the Alexandria Police Department, 64 percent of people arrested in Alexandria for drug arrests last year were African American. Almost half of those arrests were Black males.

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Alexandria’s Income Gaps

Whites make three times as much as Hispanic workers, twice as much as black workers.

White Alexandria is pulling in significantly more money than Hispanic workers and African Americans, according to numbers from the United States Census Bureau. A look at average income shows non-Hispanic whites make more than $85,000 a year. That’s more than three times the average income for Hispanic workers, $24,000, and more than twice the average income for black workers, $37,000.

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Disproportionate Use of Force

African Americans are often targets of strong-arm tactics by Alexandria police.

Documents outlining use of force by the Alexandria Police Department show force is used against black males more than any other group. In the most recent report, which covers 2019, 54 percent of the instances of use of force was against African Americans. That’s significantly higher than the black population in Alexandria, which is 23 percent.

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Overlooked Primary for U.S. Senate

Three Republicans on the ballot this month.

Don’t look now, but Virginia is in the closing days of a primary. You might not have heard about it because of the global pandemic and the economic crisis. But buried beneath all the headlines about police brutality and racial injustice, Republicans are about to decide which candidate they want to appear on the ballot this November against incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Warner.

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Al Fresco Pandemic

Restaurants eye parking lots and sidewalks as potential outdoor dining spots.

In normal times, the parking lot behind the Del Ray Cafe gives the restaurant a competitive advantage. Drivers can turn off East Howell Avenue and pull into one of the dozen spaces behind the 1925 house that’s been repurposed into a thriving restaurant. These days, the parking lot is giving the restaurant a different competitive advantage, one that nobody saw coming a few months ago.

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Furloughed and Waiting

Uncertainty lingers as furloughed workers hope temporary layoffs come to an end.

When Joy Phansond was furloughed from her job as sales coordinator at the Holiday Inn in Old Town, the temporary layoff was initially supposed to last until April 5. Then it was extended to May 5. Then it was extended again until June 5. She suspects that it’ll be extended again until July at least because the hotel business in Alexandria has been slammed by the collapse of tourism, trade shows and conventions.

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Chirilagua in Crisis

More than half of those tested in low-income Hispanic neighborhood are positive for COVID-19.

Azucena Esquival lives in a cramped apartment in the Arlandria neighborhood of Alexandria, where the problem of community spread isn’t just theoretical. The pandemic is in her household. Earlier this month, she tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Another adult in her household paid $300 to get a test, which was also positive. They are living with two people who have not been tested. None of them are currently working, and they have no source of income.

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Hunger Rising

Applications for food stamps skyrocket in Alexandria as local economy tanks.

Recent weeks have seen a dramatic spike in the number of people in Alexandria with no resources to put food on the table for their families, leading to a skyrocketing number of applications for food stamps as unemployment numbers climb and people in Alexandria suddenly find themselves in an awkward position — asking for help from the government just to buy groceries. Officials at the Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services say applications to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have more than tripled since February, before the novel coronavirus pandemic prompted Gov. Ralph Northam to issue a stay-at-home order and shut down most of Alexandria’s economy.

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Loan Sharks in the Water

Lawmakers crack down on predatory lending, although reform won’t happen for eight months.

The LoanMax on Mount Vernon Avenue in Arlandria is open for business during the pandemic, and colorful signs in the windows announce in English and Spanish that the car-title lender remains open during a stay-at-home order — offering loans at 200 percent annual interest during a time when unemployment claims in Alexandria are skyrocketing. Those kinds of interest rates will be illegal under the Fairness in Lending Act, which Gov. Ralph Northam signed last week after lawmakers signed off on some last-minute changes. But the ban on such high-interest lending won’t take effect until New Years Day 2021, which means high-interest lenders have eight months to engage in an unprecedented lending spree during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

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Mounting Layoffs

Businesses notify state officials of 5,000 layoffs in Northern Virginia.

Businesses across Northern Virginia are flooding the Virginia Economic Commission with thousands of layoff notifications, an indication of how deep the region’s economic uncertainty is becoming as the COVID-19 crisis continues its devastating path. Since the beginning of March, the commission has received notification of about 5,000 layoffs in Northern Virginia. That’s more layoffs in one part of the state than all the other regions in Virginia combined.

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Banks to the Rescue

Small businesses wait for banks to get federal money from the Paycheck Protection Program.

Like many business owners across Northern Virginia, Cyrille Brenac is still waiting to hear back from his bank about his application to the Paycheck Protection Program. That’s the $350 billion program that was part of the $2.2 trillion stimulus law designed to offer money to small businesses who can demonstrate they are keeping their employees. For Brenac, who lives in the Cherrydale neighborhood of Arlington, the money would help him rehire about 50 employees of his two French restaurants he laid off when the economy abruptly shut down as the result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

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Justice Delayed

When does a defendant no longer have the right to a speedy trial?

Judges across Northern Virginia are about to be presented with a difficult question: Does the crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic trump a defendant’s right to a speedy trial?

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Recovering After Disaster

New approach allows disaster loans to become grants, avoiding glut of uncollected debt.

The Small Business Administration has issued more than $1 million in low-interest disaster loans in Alexandria since 1987, and most of those loans were never paid back in full, according to documents received through a public-records request. Now, with the economy in crisis, leaders at the federal officials are rolling out a new loan program that recipients won’t need to pay back in full if they keep their employees during the downturn. The move comes as businesses across Alexandria are trying to figure out how they are going to stay afloat now that Gov. Ralph Northam has ordered residents across Virginia to stay at home until June 10.

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Are Hospitals in Northern Virginia Ready?

Projections show a critical lack of hospital beds and ICU beds.

Northern Virginia’s health care system could be overwhelmed by an influx of patients infected with the novel coronavirus, according to an assessment from the Harvard Global Health Institute. The projections show hospitals in Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria could quickly fill their available beds with patients, forcing administrators to either expand capacity or make the kind of life-and-death decisions about care that Italy has been forced into by the crisis.

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Generational Divide

Senior conservative Democratic senators from Fairfax undermine labor agenda.

When Democrats won both chambers of the General Assembly in November, hopes were high that the new majorities in the House and Senate would move forward with a progressive agenda that had been rejected when Republicans were in power. Labor groups were particularly excited about the prospect of passing a $15 minimum wage, collective bargaining for public employees and a requirement that all employers offer five paid sick days. But the General Assembly session ended this week without fully accomplishing these goals.

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