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Virginia Reacts to Violence in D.C., The General Assembly is Back to Work, and The New Redistricting Commission Takes Shape: Political Analysis for Friday, January 8, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Schapiro with a microphone between them.
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 Virginia’s reaction to pro-Trump rioters storming the U.S. Capitol, the General Assembly returns to work, redistricting efforts, and the death of a Virginia legislator from COVID.

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, Happy New Year!

Jeff Schapiro:   Good morning.  Good to see you, Craig, and happy new year to you.
Carper:  Jeff, the siege of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters this week, the disrupted congressional ratification of Joe Biden's win for president spotlighted Virginia politicians on both sides of the fight.  One that's rattling state politics ahead of the legislative session and the election for governor.

Schapiro:  It goes without saying, you know, Virginia is a blue state, and there's absolutely no sympathy in a good part of Virginia for what occurred in D.C. on Wednesday.  Now that said, there's still a lot of red territory here, and nearly all of it in the countryside.  And the four Republican congressmen who represented those areas were “all in” on this challenge to Biden's election.  In fact, the editorial page of my newspaper accused them of participating in essentially a coup d’etat or an attempted coup d’etat.  Those four are Bob Good, a freshmen, Ben Cline, Morgan Griffith, and Rob Wittman.  Now, meanwhile, all of the Democrats in the Virginia delegation are joining calls either for a second impeachment of Trump or demanding that the vice-president, Mike Pence, and the Trump cabinet remove the president under the 25th amendment.  Even with fewer than two weeks left in his term, there are a lot of Democrats who say it's time for him to go.  That Democrats are angry over what has occurred is an understatement.  Tim Kaine, the state's junior senator and someone usually very circumspect in his public pronouncements, used language unfit for the public airwaves to describe his feelings about the mayhem in Washington and the Republican refusal to condemn Trump for contributing to it, if not causing it altogether.  And you know, when the House returned to session into Thursday morning, Morgan Griffith was in the thick of this parliamentary tussle over the Pennsylvania vote.  The situation became so heated that a couple of congressmen, one of them was not Griffith, almost came to blows.  At least this is what the national press is reporting.  Now, of course, all of this follows the Democratic take-back of the Senate.  With Democrats winning those two seats in Georgia, that Democratic majority, albeit a narrow one with the vice-president, Kamala Harris, casting the tie-breaking vote.  This means that Democrats will be controlling the committee structure, and that means a Virginian will be a committee chairman for the first time since 2007.  Mark Warner will take over the Senate Intelligence Committee.  It's a high-profile assignment, made more so by Donald Trump's bromance with Vladimir Putin and what Warner describes as the apparent intelligence failure by the FBI and other agencies ahead of Wednesday's chaos at the Capitol.

Carper:  And the General Assembly returns to work Wednesday for its annual winter session. While legislators wrapped up an 83-day special session barely two months ago, it's not clear how long they'll be back at work this go-around, and they'll have a lot to do in this election year.

Schapiro:  Yes, and a lot of the business from that special session is expected to dominate the regular session.  That includes acting on a COVID wrecked budget and some of the law-and-order reforms that were debated before and after the death of George Floyd.  That includes legal protections for cops who use excessive force and perhaps doing away with the death penalty.  By the way, the House will again be meeting virtually, the Senate in a socially-distanced setting at the Science Museum of Virginia, several miles west of the Capitol.  Now we're also expecting the General Assembly to wade back into the gambling issue and how the state, in effect, taxes this nascent industry and how those revenues will be used.  Also, legalization of marijuana is up again.  There's a lot of momentum behind it, including the support of the governor.  Plus, the state believes that legal pot can be a huge cash cow for the state in the out years, just as liquor is through the state's monopoly on sales of booze.  Now this is supposed to be a 46-day session, but Republicans say they won't go along with a traditional proforma extension.  That means the session then by law could go no longer than 30 days.  But one of the ways around that, the governor just calls legislature into special session - one, or two, or maybe even three.

Carper:  And the panel of legislators and citizens, 16 in all, who will draw legislative and congressional lines has been selected.  It will recommend boundaries that delegates and senators can only vote up or down, not tinker with, as was the rule when redistricting was a strictly legislative prerogative.

Schapiro:  This is a consequence, of course, of the constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters in November.  The idea is to take politics out of redistricting and so-called made-to-order districts, the gerrymander, if you will.  The citizen members were selected from a pool of about 1,100 applicants.  Party leaders in the House and Senate recommended candidates to a panel of retired circuit court judges who then met for the final selection.  And the commission will go to work when census figures are in hand, but they are running late.  And that means map-making could run late too.  Now about two dozen states leave redistricting to independent commissions.  Among voters here, there was a clear recognition that redistricting, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, had only contributed to polarization in Richmond, and that there had to be a better way.  There's still a lot of grousing about this new scheme, but Virginia is now stuck with it, because the voters said so, and now it's up to the politicians to make it work.

Carper:  And finally, sadly, a southwest Virginia Republican died of the coronavirus over the new year's holiday.  The death of Ben Chafin from Russell County is calling attention to the COVID-19 crisis in Virginia, including the slow rollout of the vaccine, and that's a source of criticism for the Northam administration.

Schapiro:  Yeah, of course.  You know, we are seeing disproportionate cases of COVID among people of color and low-income Virginians.  Around the country at least seven state legislators have died of COVID, and that even included the incoming speaker of the New Hampshire House, a Republican.  And within Virginia's political class, more than half a dozen members have contracted the disease. That includes the governor and the first lady; all have recovered, of course, except for Chafin.  His case was extreme and required that he be choppered from southwest Virginia to the Medical College of Virginia here in Richmond, where he died.  Now, Virginia is approaching 400,000 cases with some of the highest infection rates in Chafin’s native southwest Virginia.  Part of the problem out there is that next door in Tennessee, few steps have been taken by its Republican governor to control COVID.  And of course, healthcare is a problem in this region with huge gaps in services.  Medicaid expansion is supposed to take care of that.  And Chafin was among four Republican senators who went along with expansion two years ago; he had been an opponent.  Now supplies of the vaccine are making their way to Virginia, but it's less than expected.  And the state is having difficulty getting this out and into people's arms.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Virginia is 46th among the states, the fourth worst in terms of inoculations.  It's shaping up as something of an embarrassment for the Northam administration.  Remember, our governor is also a doctor.  He's bringing in Danny Avula, the head of the Richmond-Henrico Health District, to come on temporarily as the COVID vaccine czar.  And Northam may have more to say about this on Friday in his virtual meetup with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease official.

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

Schapiro:  See you then.

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