- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, a Democrat from Fairfax County, has been waiting 26 years for his party to regain unified control of state government in Virginia.

On Wednesday, he got his chance.

The General Assembly convened with Mr. Saslaw taking over as Senate majority leader and Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn becoming the first woman to hold the state’s House speakership, the result of stunning Democratic gains in November’s elections.

With fellow Democrat Ralph Northam still in the governor’s mansion, Mr. Saslaw has 26 years of pent-up ambitious plans he can now push through.

He’s sponsoring bills to increase the minimum wage to $10, to delete Virginia’s requirement that girls notify a parent before obtaining an abortion, to expand background checks to all firearms purchases made in the state, and to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

And he stood with Ms. Filler-Corn and Mr. Northam this week to back other ideas, including no-questions-asked early voting in elections and granting illegal immigrant students discounted in-state tuition at public colleges.

“A new torch is being passed today,” Ms. Filler-Corn said as she took the gavel, also the first Jewish person to hold the post in the 400-year history of the chamber.

That history was very much on her mind, she said, pointing to portraits of white men that populate much of the state Capitol, saying they represented “where we have been, and how far we have to go to reach the promise of equality on which this nation was founded.”

She highlighted her chief lieutenant, Delegate Charniele L. Herring, who represents Alexandria, and is the first woman and first black person to be majority leader. And Ms. Filler-Corn said she’s named the most diverse slate of committee chairs in the assembly’s history.

In the Senate, a black woman, Sen. Louise Lucas, is the president pro tempore.

“On this first day of our 401st year, we are taking strides to honor our history, and also to right wrongs and create a safer, more inclusive and more prosperous commonwealth for all of our citizens,” she said.

Ms. Filler-Corn has a decade of experience in the legislature. Mr. Saslaw has 44 years — the first four in the House and the rest in the Senate, where he’s been Democrats’ leader for the last 22 years.

“The people voted for results, and we’re going to deliver results,” Mr. Saslaw said on Twitter. “Today, the work of building a safer, fairer commonwealth — a place where everyone has an even chance to succeed — begins.”

His party now holds a 21-19 advantage in the Senate, and a 55-45 edge in the House.

That they’ll tilt the state to the left is not in doubt. How far they go remains to be seen.

Some Democrats had hoped to end the state’s right-to-work tradition and enact a ban on sales of military-style semiautomatic rifles.

Those were left off the agenda Mr. Northam, Ms. Filler-Corn and Mr. Saslaw have embraced.

Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said Mr. Northam is the key figure, putting the brakes on the most aggressive parts of the liberal agenda, along with the Democrats in the Senate.

“The Democratic majority in the Senate is more moderate than some of the Democratic voices you’re going to hear in the House. And both the governor and the Democratic Senate caucus are going to establish limits on what some of the more liberal members of the caucus might like to accomplish,” Mr. Farnsworth said.

In his State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night, Mr. Northam delivered a defense of capitalism, saying it “enables more people to live in prosperity than ever,” and he called for measured progress that builds on rather than upends the last decade.

He bragged about the state’s 2.6% unemployment rate, its AAA bond rating and winning a share of Amazon’s new headquarters, and he said the state needs to protect that. But he also said workers need attention.

“Let’s work together to raise the minimum wage,” he said.

He also pushed for his gas-tax increase to fund what he called historic investments in roads and rail projects.

Even with Mr. Northam acting as a brake on his party’s left wing, the change in Virginia politics is historic by any measure.

When Democrats shared or held control of the levers of government over the last century, it was a conservative party, with members ranging from urban core districts to the most rural parts of the state. The majority that took the reins Wednesday, by contrast, is almost exclusively urban and suburban, meaning the party doesn’t feel the constraints of worrying about getting its rural members re-elected.

“This is a pivotal moment in Virginia politics,” said Mr. Farnsworth. “The Democratic Caucus of 2020 is far more liberal than previous caucuses, and they seem likely to legislate in ways that will make Democratic voters happy.”

Yet he said there are definite limits. Democrats may pursue social issues, but they’ll avoid legislation that could risk the state’s reputation as relatively low-tax, carefully budgeted and business-friendly.

“One of the things the Democrats will be very careful not to do is act like a tax-and-spend liberal stereotype,” Mr. Farnsworth said. “What they’re more likely to do is those pieces of legislation that can satisfy Democratic constituencies, but not actually cost the state budget a great deal.”

Democrats’ first day was not without hiccups.

Ms. Filler-Corn and her new majority do not yet have a new set of rules laying out the committee rosters. They had to approve a temporary set of rules to allow the chamber to get up and running — but promised they’d try to get a full rules package settled by Thursday.

The question facing Democrats is over how much to flex their new powers. They could stack the key committees with a disproportionate number of Democrats, thus limiting the GOP’s ability to affect legislation.

Republicans said that would be a poor start to the new year.

Delegate C. Todd Gilbert, Shenandoah Republican, said this is the first time in history there’s been a clear majority that’s “not been ready to go on the opening day.”

Ms. Herring begged patience for the novice new leaders.

“This is a transition of leadership. It’s been over 20-something years since my side of the aisle has been in power,” she said.

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