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Democratic Legislative Takeover Leaves Slim Pickings for Republicans

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (Craig Carper/VPM News)

The General Assembly cleared its procedural half-way point today on Tuesday, with Democrats advancing major legislation on abortion, voting, labor rights, and more.

Republicans, grappling with their new minority status, have been left with slimmer pickings. GOP lawmakers have had some luck with uncontroversial legislation, and have turned to floor speeches and the occasional attempts at compromise to exert their influence.

Democrats are unapologetic, saying that sweeping wins in November’s elections have given them a mandate to pass changes to the status quo.

“I think this shows elections matter and we’ve made a lot of progress on issues that have been stymied by partisanship,”  Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said.

Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle) is among those who have seen their fortunes change.

A year ago, he was among the most powerful lawmakers in the chamber. Bell chaired the Courts of Justice committee, where Democratic legislation on guns and marijuana regularly met an early end.

This year, he’s sticking to less controversial topics.

“I’ve had bills that address issues like how do you quarantine rabid dogs, and whether we can have albuterol inhalers at school,” Bell said.

Of the over 3,200 bills filed this session, few major bills with GOP sponsors have cleared either chamber. In some cases, Republican bills on issues like balanced billing and casino gambling have been incorporated into Democratic ones.

Still, Democrats have occasionally been open to compromise on bigger issues.

Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) says she was able to help convince Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) to make changes to his assault weapons ban to lower the charge for offenders from a felony to a misdemeanor.

“It’s still a terrible bill, but it’s not as bad as it could have been,” Chase said.

Republicans have also used floor speeches to characterize Democrats as job-killers and gun-grabbers. Some, like Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpepper), who is running for the Republican nomination in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, regularly upload those speeches to Facebook.

Republican lawmakers say they expected the changes, even as Democrats have broached topics like right-to-work and collective bargaining that were once bipartisan issues.

“We are careening into a situation where we’re going to look a lot like California in terms of public policy overnight then anyone would ever have expected,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said.

Still, Gilbert said there were limits to what Republicans could do about it given their election loss in November.

“We still have a voice here, and we still have a vote, but we do not have a majority,” Gilbert said.

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