Virginia emerges as South progressive leader under Democrats

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In a state once synonymous with the Old South, Democrats are using their newfound legislative control to refashion Virginia as the region’s progressive leader on racial, social and economic issues. Lawmakers are on the verge of passing the South’s strictest gun laws, broadest LGBTQ protections, highest minimum wage and some of its loosest abortion restrictions, churning through landmark legislation on a near-daily basis.

The leap to the left has sparked fierce pushback from rural Virginians, social conservatives and others who are chafing under the political shift in the state, where a holiday honors Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and monuments to those men dot the landscape.

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“It’s like a jewelry store smash and grab,” Republican Sen. Bill Stanley said of Democrats’ strategy. “They’re going to grab everything they possibly can while they can get it before the lights go on and the siren goes off.”

It’s a breathtaking change after years of legislative inertia. Virginia has been a political outlier among southern states for a while, routinely electing Democrats to statewide office. But Republicans held a firm grip on the legislature until President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, which mobilized disaffected suburban voters and boosted Democrats in two successive legislative elections. They have full control of the General Assembly this year for the first time in two decades.

“It’s nice to finally be able to do what I think the majority of Virginians have wanted for a long time,” Democratic Del. Mark Levine said.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have voted to end a state holiday honoring Lee and Jackson and instead are making Election Day an official holiday. They spent Tuesday – the deadline for each chamber to pass its own version of legislation – passing dozens of other bills, including a measure to incrementally raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and legislation to allow local governments to remove Confederate statues. That bill comes in the wake of a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, sparked in part by the city’s attempt to remove a Lee statue, that turned violent.

Lawmakers also have advanced this year:

– a renewable energy measure that will likely raise electric rates but, environmentalists say, make the state among the greenest in the country

– comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation

– bills that abortion-rights advocates say will make Virginia a “safe haven” for women in neighboring conservative states

– resolutions to make Virginia the critical 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a major victory for women’s-rights advocates

– a repeal of a provision requiring voters to show ID before casting a ballot.

The legislature, led by the first female House speaker and with the highest number of African-Americans in leadership positions in the state’s 400-year history, is set to give final passage to most pieces of landmark legislation ahead of the March 7 adjournment.

The highest-profile fight has been on Democrats’ push for stricter gun laws, including universal background checks and a ban on selling assault weapons, after last year’s fatal shooting at a government complex in Virginia Beach. Many Democrats campaigned on the issue in 2019, and gun-control groups heavily funded candidates.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s gun-control measures passed the House, but the more-conservative Senate has blocked some of the measures, including the assault-weapons ban.