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Diverse Leadership, Session Agenda, and Scandal Recovery: Political Analysis For Friday, January 10, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Shapiro, with a microphone between them.

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins VPM News Director Craig Carper for this week's political analysis. Topics include the history-making diversity in Assembly leadership, a look at the major agenda items for this Assembly session, and a turnaround for Governor Northam after last year's blackface scandal.

Phil Liles:  This is VPM News 88.9 and with this week's analysis Craig Carper, VPM News Director, and Jeff Schapiro, political columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  A new Democratic legislative majority takes power in Richmond led by historic figures, including Eileen Filler-Corn as the first woman and first Jew as House speaker.  Good morning, Craig.

Craig Carper:  Good morning, Phil, and good morning, Jeff.

Jeff Schapiro:  Good morning, Craig.

Carper:  As we've seen, there's a lot of fanfare for the swearing in of the first female and Jewish speaker in the House, and we saw a lot of energy and enthusiasm.  Winning in hindsight can look easy though governing in this new Democratic majority can be difficult.

Schapiro:  And let us not forget that among these historic figures are African Americans, African American men and women, in leadership positions for the first time.  And this presence, this history-making presence reaches deeply into the ranks of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses.  Those first hours are a reminder that it's perhaps easier to be in opposition than to govern.  And of course the Democrats are accustomed to having their brains beat out pretty much for the past 20 years, particularly on the House side by this very disciplined Republican majority.  One measure of this, and it's very inside, was this debate over the rules.  And clearly the Republicans creating opportunities there for themselves to keep their people, their base energized.  The big flashpoint, of course, which will be resolved later today when the Rules, the joint House-Senate Rules Committee meets banning firearms in the Capitol.  Of course, the gun issue is a huge issue following that mass slaying in Virginia Beach in May.  The rules fight, particularly in regard to guns and who makes the decision about whether firearms should be allowed in the Capitol, gives both sides a chance to display their bona fides on firearms.  The Democratic spin machine is busy, especially this morning.  One of the things that we're hearing ahead of this joint rules committee is that there are red states, we are reminded, that there are red states that have banned firearms in their state houses, among them Oklahoma and Mississippi.  Of course, firearms a big issue in the governor's second message to the legislature.  He made the point that the reason the Democrats are in charge now is that voters are horrified over what happened in Virginia Beach, angry that the legislature didn't do anything about it when it met in special session in July.  The governor's position, by the way, on firearms is interesting.  He's clearly in favor of restrictions, but he's not at this point going beyond these eight basic proposals, and that would include universal background checks, restoration of one handgun a month, and then some ban on what constitutes a combat-style assault weapon.

Carper:  And we're just a few weeks shy of a one-year anniversary of the blackface scandal. What a difference an election makes for Governor Ralph Northam.

Schapiro:  For sure, I mean, this guy was the goat in the legislative session last year because of the blackface calamity.  Now he is, of course, the hero.  This is the first time in nearly 30 years that the Democrats have had the trifecta - the General Assembly, the governorship, and the courts.   Legislators who were demanding he resign in February, 11 months ago, are now happy to stand with him.  I think it's clear that the, you know, the governor knows he screwed up.  Certainly the public knows he screwed up.  But I think Democrats now know they really overreacted in demanding his resignation.  Voters, while disappointed with what Northam had done, nonetheless share his agenda.  And the feeling is that if even if Northam was bad, Donald Trump was, is worse.  And of course, the Republican, the new Republican minority knows that.

Carper:  We've seen some big shuffles in both the House and Senate committee makeup.

Schapiro:  Yes, first on the Senate side, then on the House side.  Senate Democrats really stacking the deck, much as the Republicans did when they were in charge.  I guess imitation is the highest form of flattery. [laughing] Even with that narrow majority in the Senate, Democrats are stacking the committee's roughly 2-1 in their favor.  On the Senate Finance Committee, now called the Finance and Appropriations Committee, there are 11 Democrats, 5 Republicans.  Under Republicans it was the other way around.  But look closely at that majority.  Half, more than half, six are now from Northern Virginia.  That's up from three, and it includes the Chair, Janet Howell, the first woman to chair that committee.

Carper:  Thanks to Jeff Shapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Jeff, we will catch up again next week.

Schapiro:  Looking forward to it.

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