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Freshman Lawmakers Brace for Historic General Assembly Session

Virginia State Capitol facade
Virginia's incoming class of legislatures includes a record number of women, and more African American delegates that at any point since Reconstruction. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

When it comes to office space, the General Assembly is a bit like a law firm. Leadership gets the corner office on the upper floors. Freshman lawmakers like incoming Del. Rodney Willet (D-Henrico) end up a few floors down, in a cozier space. 

On Thursday, Willet and his staff moved into their new digs.  

“I'll have you know, if you stick your head into the to the far corner of my window, I do have a view of the capitol,” Willet said, craning to see out of the alcove of his window. 

Willet’s not complaining. He’s part of a new Democratic majority with big plans: decriminalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage, ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment -- it’s all within reach thanks to eight Democrats like Willet, who flipped formerly Republican seats blue in November. 

“I'm certainly part of what I see -- and what others see -- as a mandate to get things done,” Willet said. “So if nothing else, I’ll be that vote.”

Near the top of the new majority’s wish list is gun control, including universal background checks, red flag laws, and maybe an assault weapons ban. Polls have shown the ideas are popular with a majority of Virginians.

But they’ve also inspired a backlash. 

Counties across the state have rushed to declare themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuaries,” and national gun activists have warned of a mass gun confiscation program. Some lawmakers have even received death threats.

Governor Ralph Northam has said he has no plans to take guns or to call in troops, as some conspiracy theorists have suggested.

“Nothing that we’re doing will threaten the Second Amendment or those people’s rights,” Northam said in an interview in November. 

Freshmen Del. Amanda Batten (R-James City) said she was “astonished” by the number of gun owners who turned out to support the sanctuary movement in her district; second amendment concerns weren’t something she said she heard a lot about on the campaign trail.

But Batten said in an interview last week that the outcry is a sign that Democrats should build consensus for their agenda.  

“Whenever you're the majority party, it's very tempting to overreach and be very aggressive in your goals,” Batten said. “And when you see pushback like this, I think it makes you more aware that, hey, we have to we have to work to gather bipartisan support.”

Batten has been working behind the scenes for other GOP lawmakers for around a decade, including as an aide to Sen. Majority Leader Tommy Norment and to her predecessor, Del. Brenda Pogge. Now that Batten is in office, she’s trying to be realistic about what she can accomplish as a first year lawmaker in the minority party. 

“A lot of what you do is just sitting back and listening,” Batten said. “No one loves that freshman legislator who jumps up at every single moment that they can and opines on legislation.”

Batten is one of 41 women who will be sworn in today -- the most in Virginia’s history. And for the first time in 400 years, a woman -- Eileen Filler-Corn -- will be Speaker of the House. 

The General Assembly is also more racially diverse. Almost a quarter of the incoming lawmakers are people of color. 

That includes Del. Josh Cole (D-Fredericksburg), who is a new member of the 23-member black caucus. Black lawmakers now control almost half the committees in the House.

Cole said the caucus will have the ear of Governor Northam, who struggled last year to explain how a racist photo ended up in his medical school yearbook. 

“We’re now in a position of power,” Cole said. “And so we now have the ability to push this hand.

The diversity of Democratic lawmakers may also be a source of friction. There’s disagreement on everything from regulating Dominion Energy to redistricting reform. 

Batten, the Republican lawmaker, said top Democrats will have to learn quickly how to keep things moving. 

“It's going to be like drinking through a firehose from folks who are now in leadership who haven't really experienced stuff before,” Batten said. “So I feel for them.”

But Cole says Democrats can bridge their differences. And he says he’s listening to the 48% of voters in his district who voted Republican.

“My mother said something to me last night as we were unpacking,” Cole said. “She said, ‘There's over 80,000 people that are now relying on you.’ And that's not something you ever want to take lightly.”

Cole and his colleagues have two months to cut deals, pass laws, and leave their first mark on the General Assembly.


Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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