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Special Session, Fairfax for Governor, and 9/11: Political Analysis for Friday, September 11, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Schapiro with a microphone between the two.

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins VPM News Director Craig Carper for this week’s political analysis. Topics include continued legislative activity in the General Assembly special session, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax’s filing to enter the 2021 gubernatorial race, Northam’s endorsement of Levar Stoney in his bid for reelection as Richmond’s mayor, and the 9/11 anniversary. 

Craig Carper: From VPM news in Richmond, I'm Craig Carper. Joining me now is Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist and VPM’s political analyst, Jeff Schapiro. Jeff, good morning.

Jeff Schapiro: Good morning, Craig.

Carper: Virginia's legislature is inching ahead over police reform with both chambers wrapping up their respective and conflicting packages. It's a reminder that even with the same Democratic party controlling the House and the Senate, Democrats have very different views.

Schapiro: Yes, and the most contentious issue separating Democrats, House Democrats more progressive or liberal, Senate Democrats more centrist, the idea of stripping police of legal protections against lawsuits alleging abuse or racial bias. I believe the term is qualified immunity. It barely, and I mean barely, got out of the House. Some Democrats had changed their votes. Some of them had to walk. And then in very short order that bill, sponsored by Jeff Bourne a Democrat from here in Richmond, went down in defeat in a senate committee. Again, that was expected. One of the first casualties on the Senate side was a qualified immunity bill pushed by Joe Morrissey. The House and Senate, again, have completed work on their respective packages. There are some similarities - doing away with chokeholds, making it a lot more difficult for cops who were fired for subpar or unprofessional conduct to hire on with other departments. But what I find fascinating about all of this is that this wasn't the primary reason legislators returned to Richmond. The primary reason was a state budget out of whack because of the pandemic. There's a $2.7 billion hole in the budget, and the legislature is still trying to figure out how to fill it. The speculation at this point is that Governor Northam will probably prevail in terms of how he would like it done, and that would include resisting using the so-called “rainy day” fund, that emergency fund. The governor doesn't want to touch that, worried that it might send the wrong signal to the credit rating agencies. Of course, Virginia is among a handful of states with the highest possible AAA rating. But think about some of the things that have been before the legislature on what was supposed to be, again, a budget-oriented special session. They're debating Confederate monuments again. That issue was supposed to have been settled in December, but now the House wants to do away with these public hearings that local governments would have to hold before voting to take down Confederate iconography. And there's a very distinctive feature to the House bill, and it’s aimed at a particular school and a particular member of the legislature. A protection for the Virginia Military Institute from taking down its monuments, something a school with a Civil War heritage, particularly a Confederate heritage, is resisting. That is largely targeting its author, Tommy Norment, the Senate Republican Minority Leader. P.S.: Governor Northam was graduated from VMI too, but his position on Confederate monuments clearly conflicts with the prevalent view up at Lexington, that they should stay.

Carper: And Justin Fairfax, the state's embattled lieutenant governor is running for governor next year. And unlike many of the other candidates for 2021, Fairfax may be the issue in the Democratic primary.

Schapiro: Justin Fairfax, this week filed organizational papers so he can go around knocking on doors, raising money, being a candidate in that Democratic primary in 2021. It is a crowded field or a growing field - clearly Terry McAuliffe, Jennifer Carroll Foy, Jennifer McClellan. However, given that Justin Fairfax, while Ralph Northam and Mark Herring were dealing with blackface scandals, had to answer for allegations by two women of sexual assault. Now he has forcefully denied these allegations. He has even challenged in court reporting by national news organizations on these allegations. But all of this is taking place at a time of elevated racial and gender sensitivities, and even though Justin Fairfax is an African American male, it is clear that the controversy that has dogged him since 2019 is likely to, how shall I put this, compel Democrats to remind Fairfax that for governor, a fresh and untainted face would be preferred in ‘21. Of course, Terry McAuliffe is anything but a fresh face. He was governor from 2014 to 2018, and liked that job so much he's running for it again.

Carper: And what a difference a year makes. Governor Ralph Northam is endorsing this week for reelection Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who was among the first of the Democrats to demand Northam's resignation over the blackface scandal.

Schapiro: Right, and of course Stoney is one of those fresh faces for statewide office, or at least I think that the mayor would argue such. And though he has played down the possibility of running statewide in ‘21, if he is reelected to a second term as mayor, one would think there would be probably considerable pressure on him to make that race, perhaps pressure coming from his political rabbi, Terry McAuliffe. But to Northam's endorsement of Levar Stoney, this is a reminder that Ralph Northam, for all of his difficulties post-blackface, is held in very high regard by black voters. And I'm told the polling suggests as much, Levar Stoney's polling suggests as much. And that even among white voters, Governor Northam in the city is held in very high regard, and in a crowded field for mayor every little bit helps.

Carper: And Jeff, today is the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. One of the targets was the Pentagon in Northern Virginia. This was an event that changed Virginia's politics and its government.

Schapiro: Of course, Jim Gilmore, a Republican, was governor at the time. Governor Gilmore was often personally briefing the press and the public on what was going on as close to real time as was possible. The gubernatorial campaign, then between Mark Warner and Mark Earley, was essentially suspended for about two weeks. And when the candidates reemerged, they did so carefully, very gingerly addressing issues, most notably security. And it wasn't long before returning to the campaign that both candidates laid out plans for essentially Virginia's answer to a Department of Homeland Security, a cabinet-level position, one that would be put in place by Mark Warner as governor and would be led by John Hager, then former Lieutenant Governor John Hager, the Republican who had been defeated by Mark Earley for the party's gubernatorial nomination the previous year. Here we are 19 years later dealing with a different kind of threat, the pandemic. And though Virginia is still wrestling with this problem, our positivity rates, in other words those test rates, are not nearly as high as they've been in other states. Now this has compelled the governor, Ralph Northam, to announce at week’s end that the tougher standards that had been in place for Hampton Roads, sort of that great resort destination that includes Virginia Beach, will now be dialed back.

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

Schapiro: Safe weekend to you.


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