In 2019, after years of hard and strategic organizing work, Democrats finally won control of both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century.
As a result, the 2020 legislative session was a true joy to observe, as Virginia emerged from its GOP-controlled policy slumber and blossomed into a bastion of progressive values in the South.
This new Democratic majority, buoyed by numerous Sister District alumni, got straight to work and has made tremendous gains in a short time. The culmination of the successful session was Democratic Governor Ralph Northam signing into law a slew of progressive bills. This slate of bills, made possible by Virginia’s new Democratic legislative majority, is certain to improve the lives of countless Virginians, and lays the groundwork for even more progressive gains in next year’s session. These laws go into effect July 1, 2020. Here are a few greatest hits from Virginia’s newest laws:
Gun Violence Prevention
In July 2019, when Virginia had some of the loosest gun control laws in the country, Northam called a special legislative session to address gun violence in the wake of the tragic Virginia Beach Shooting. But the Republican controlled legislature was completely disinterested in tackling the topic, instead gaveling out of session after just ninety minutes and refusing to take any action.
Now, thanks to the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly, Northam was able to sign a groundbreaking slate of gun violence prevention laws. These include common sense measures like a red flag law, co-sponsored by Sister District Alumni Delegates Chris Hurst and Kathleen Murphy; universal background checks for all firearm purchases, co-sponsored by Sister District Alum Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy; and stronger penalties for gun owners who do not report lost or stolen weapons within 24 hours, co-sponsored by Sister District alum Delegate Hala Ayala.
Expanded Voting Access
Northam also signed a series of laws that will improve access to the ballot box for voters across the Commonwealth. These include no-excuse absentee voting and expanded access to early voting, both co-sponsored by Sister District alumni Delegates Jennifer Carroll Foy, Lee Carter, Wendy Gooditis and Elizabeth Guzman. Northam also signed an automatic voter registration bill sponsored by Sister District alum Joshua Cole, as well as a same-day voter registration bill sponsored by Sister District alum Delegate Hala Ayala.
The state also enacted laws making Election Day a state holiday (co-sponsored by Sister District alumni Delegates Wendy Gooditis and Elizabeth Guzman), extending polling hours on Election Day, and repealing the state’s voter ID laws, which have been shown to suppress turnout among poor voters and voters of color.
With the passage of the Virginia Values Act earlier this month, Virginia became the first state in the South to enact comprehensive protections for members of the LGBTQ community. The Virginia Values Act protects the LGBTQ community against discrimination in housing, employment, public spaces and credit applications. This historic bill was co-sponsored by Sister District alumni Senators John Bell and Ghazala Hashmi, as well as Delegates Alex Askew, Hala Ayala, Lee Carter, Karrie Delaney, Elizabeth Guzman, Chris Hurst, Mike Mullin, Kathleen Murphy, Danica Roem, Shelly Simonds, and Kathy Tran.
Healthcare and Reproductive Rights
Northam also signed some bills aimed at increasing access to healthcare. House Bill 66, sponsored by Sister District alum Delegate Lee Carter, creates an out-of-pocket cap of $50 per month on the cost of insulin, one of the lowest caps in the country.
With a new law, chief co-sponsored by Sister District alum Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, Northam overturned Virginia’s 24 hour waiting requirement, as well as the requirement that anyone seeking an abortion receive an ultrasound.
Protecting Working Families
Northam signed a series of bills protecting Virginia’s working families. These bills, some of which were sponsored by Sister District alumni Delegates Karrie Delaney and Kathy Tran, will combat worker misclassification and wage theft. They will also ban workplace discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or any other related medical conditions (House Bill 827, sponsored by Sister District alum Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy).
Criminal Justice Reform
To combat the disparate impacts that a punitive approach to criminal justice can have on members of the community, Northam signed a series of important bills related to criminal justice reform. This included a law, chief sponsored by Sister District alum Delegate Elizabeth Guzman, that raised the age at which a minor can be tried as an adult from 14 to 16.
As of 2016, more than 1 of 7 adults in Virginia had their licenses suspended due to unpaid fines and fees, a practice that many advocates for the poor saw as the state criminalizing poverty, while making it difficult for the poor to earn income. Thankfully, a new law, co-sponsored by Sister District alumni Senators John Bell and Ghazala Hashmi and Delegate Elizabeth Guzman, eliminated the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fees, as well as other non-driving related offenses.
Protecting the Environment
This year, with the passage of the Clean Economy Act, co-sponsored by Sister District alumni Delegates Jennifer Carroll Foy, Hala Ayala, Karrie Delaney, Wendy Gooditis, David Reid, Shelly Simonds and Kathy Tran, as well as Senator Ghazala Hashmi, Virginia became the first Southern state to commit to a transition to clean energy by 2050. The law requires the state’s energy producers to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2050 and requires nearly all coal-fired plants to close by the end of 2024. It also creates a program to reduce the cost of energy for low-income residents and provides that wind and solar energy generation are “in the public interest.”
Flipping both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly blue made these new, transformative policies possible. Virginia’s new legislators are now on the frontlines, leading Virginia and the country towards a more progressive future. These successes demonstrate so clearly the power of state legislatures, and the vital need for Democrats across the country to invest their time and resources into flipping state seats blue during this critical redistricting election year.
In 2017 and 2019, Sister District helped elect and re-elect 17 members of the Virginia House of Delegates and 2 members to the State Senate.