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Democrats Differ on Budget Solutions, a Potential Ban on Choke Holds, and Richmond's Mayoral Candidates Meet in Debate: Political Analysis for Friday, October 9, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Schapiro 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 differing opinions among Democrats on the state budget, a less aggressive bill to ban choke holds is heading to Governor Ralph Northam, and this week's debate among candidates for Mayor of Richmond.

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:  The special session is inching along and increasingly the differences are among Democrats.  This time it's over the COVID-racked budget and Governor Northam's different ideas for balancing it.

Schapiro:  It’s amazing Craig.  We've been at this now 53 days, today, still no end in sight.  The legislature has worked for roughly 21-22 days. The House of Delegates meets virtually, though it had an early session in person.  The Senate meets in person, and that's when its special venue, the Science Museum is available, so that's contributing to the delay.  Certainly the scale of the agenda, of the budget, which we'll talk about, COVID fixes, as well as criminal justice reform contribute to these delays.  And finally, there's a procedural problem here.  The House and Senate never agreed on rules for this session, so there's been a good deal of improvisational legislating.  That said, there appears to be a compromise emerging over a repair for the budget.  Because of the pandemic, there's a hole of $2.7 to $2.8 billion in it.  The balancing plan that House and Senate Democrats, remember the Democrats are back in the majority, is not entirely to the governor's liking.  The legislators, Democrats, want to spend some of this money that the governor would prefer to set aside unappropriated, as a cushion against continued complications attributed to the plague.  The House version would help itself to almost $200 million, about $186 million that the governor would prefer to remain unappropriated.  I think it's about a $500 million balance that the governor has in mind.  The governor is telling the legislature to think about these investments in January when everyone's back and there's a fuller idea of what dollars might be available, but it looks like we'll see a compromise officially in the next week or two.  That again, depends on their ability to engage.  And then of course it would be sent on to the House and the Senate for their votes and then to the governor for any changes he might make and maybe even any vetoes he might issue.  He has that item veto.  I think one of the interesting things that we've seen, particularly in this budget debate, is if you will, the martyrdom of Kirk Cox.  The top old Republican speaker was yanked from the committee of delegates and senators who fashioned this compromised budget.  He was pulled by his successor, his speaker, Eileen Filler-Corn.  Cox has been trash-talking the Democrats spending plans in particular, as they deal with police and criminal justice reform.  And that has only to do with how he hopes to make up for his loss for speaker, and that is to get himself elected governor in 2021.  Now the speaker is of the view that he should be denied this high-profile forum in which she is basically just saying “no”.  That doesn't mean that Cox isn't going to continue to say “no”.  He has a very particular audience in mind, the Republican activists who will decide the party's nomination for governor in 2021.

Carper:  And in much talked about police reform, a ban on chokeholds has been sent by legislators to the governor.  It's not as strong as some Democrats had hoped.

Schapiro:  Yes, this is probably one of the more symbolic post-George Floyd steps taken by the legislature.  It is now before the governor.  There were some other differences on police reform bills between the House and the Senate; they are being resolved.  But these chokehold restrictions are special for any number of reasons.  Certainly, the powerful symbolic significance of them, but also to look at these bills, one of which proposed by Democratic candidate for governor Jennifer Carroll Foy, would have established this sort of behavior as a felony.  But the bill that has been sent to the governor allows some wiggle room for the police, and it eliminates any sort of criminal or misdemeanor penalty.  Instead it would be an administrative penalty.  Now that can be somewhat significant.  You know, a cop could lose his job if applying a chokehold to a suspect.  He could be stripped of his certification as a cop, and that would render him ineligible for continued employment.

Carper:  And Richmond's mayoral candidates debated again this past week, this time on VPM.

Schapiro:  If there was a kind of a constant in these two debates, it's looking like an election in which it's, you know, Levar Stoney and everyone else.  No one, at least in these settings, stands out as a threat to the incumbent.  Now Kim Gray is continuing to press this, you know, cronyism, corruption theme, but she doesn't do so with great passion, great energy.  Justin Griffin continues to repeat his city just doesn't work theme.  And given what we're seeing with the pandemic, there's been a lot of, shall we say, improvisational government, and Levar Stoney has been front and center in that.  Alexsis Rodgers pushed back against criticism by Gray, that she was, you know, a newbie and inexperienced in municipal affairs.  And that says to me, that Gray recognizes that some of the votes she needs to overtake Stoney are drifting to Rodgers, if they hadn't been there already.  And it was interesting.  One of the questions put to the candidates was for whom would they vote, and all of them, except one, Stoney, said they would vote for themselves.  And Stoney, you'll recall, said, well, he would vote for Alexsis Rodgers.  I'm wondering if, you know, there's a hidden message there, overtures to her voters or assuming Stoney is reelected, perhaps in a second term there's a job in it for Alexsis Rodgers.

Carper:  And finally, Virginia, a state with a long history of making it difficult to vote, is leading the nation in early voting.

Schapiro:  And now, it depends on how you look at these numbers.  According to the U.S. Elections Project and MSNBC, Virginia is number one in early voting.  But that means you would have to count the ballots or any cast in person, the mail ballots that have been returned, and the mail ballots that had been requested and presumably are anticipated.  That's a million or more votes; that would be 20% of the national total, by the way.  Virginia looks to be in second place only to Florida, if you count votes cast, and that's about 770,000 votes.  I think what's really important here is that we have a deadline, Tuesday, the 13th.  That's the last chance to register to vote and be eligible to cast a vote in November.  Currently Virginia has 5.8 million residents registered to exercise the franchise.  That's roughly two in three residents of a state with a population of 8.5 million.

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

Schapiro:  Have a good weekend.

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