MARK IN THE NEWS:
Equality Virginia outlines 2021 legislative agenda
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Alexandria, VA 22314
The Virginia General Assembly's 2021 legislative session gaveled in on Wednesday, January 13.
Usually, my staff and I would be down in Richmond, working for you. This year, the House of Delegates will be holding its session virtually, to protect Delegates, Commonwealth employees, and the public from the spread of COVID-19.
Republicans Voted for First Time in 50 Years
to Send the Virginia General Assembly Home Early.
The Virginia Constitution calls for legislative sessions to be long (60 days) in non-election years and short in election years like 2021. While the Constitution only requires our legislative session to be 30 days long in odd-numbered years, it allows for the session to be extended if two-thirds of each chamber vote in favor of a procedural resolution extending the session. And every year since 1971 -- whether under Democratic or Republican rule -- a super majority of the Virginia legislature has consistently voted to extend the constitutionally mandated 30-day short session to 46 days. Until now.
This year, Republicans in the House and Senate, for the first time in 50 years, refused to extend our session to 46 days. Although Virginians are struggling right now under the catastrophic health and economic effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Republicans in the General Assembly voted to do as little work as possible. As Delegate Alfonso Lopez said on the Floor: “Families need a hand up, but our Republican colleagues want to work less. Small businesses are hurting, but our Republican colleagues want to work less.”
In these catastrophic times, Republicans voted to send the Virginia General Assembly home early.
The difference this year, of course, is that we are in the majority. So we will ask the Governor to give us a Special Session to complete our work after the 30 minimum days expire. That way we can continue our work to the 46 days the legislature has worked in election years for half a century.
Furthermore, instead of focusing on your needs, three Republican delegates focused on nullifying Virginia's fair Presidential elections. Delegates Mark Cole, Dave LaRock, and Ronnie Campbell sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence seeking the nullification of Virginia’s Electoral College votes. On the first day of session, Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn removed these three from important committee positions: Cole was stripped from his seat on Privileges and Elections, the committee he chaired for years where he led Republican efforts to gerrymander Virginia and weaken voting rights. LaRock was stripped of his seat on Transportation, and Campbell was stripped of his seat on Courts of Justice.
I can assure you that my Democratic colleagues and I will not let Republican obstructionism stop us from doing the people's work. And we sure have a lot of work to do. Here's what I'll be working on this session:
I serve on four committees:
- Privileges and Elections
- Public Safety
- Courts of Justice
- Health, Welfare, and Institutions
I chair two important subcommittees:
- Constitutional Amendments
- Public Safety (law enforcement reform, prisoners, jails, etc.)
The Privileges and Elections Committee, for which I serve as Chair of the Constitutional Amendments Subcommittee, handles legislation on voting rights, redistricting, and the administration of elections. As Chair of the Constitutional Amendments subcommittee, all constitutional amendments introduced this year will pass through my subcommittee. See the bills referred to this committee by clicking here.
The Public Safety Committee, for which I serve as Chair of the Public Safety Subcommittee, handles legislation related to the police, our prison system, and firearms. As Chair of the Public Safety, I will have jurisdiction over important bills on police practices and prison operations. See the bills referred to this committee by clicking here.
The Courts of Justice Committee handles legislation reforming our criminal and civil code and how our courts system operates. See the bills referred to this committee by clicking here.
The Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee handles legislation related to our healthcare system, health insurance, and social services. See the bills referred to this committee by clicking here. I also serve on the Behavior Health Subcommittee of what we affectionately call HWI.
My Legislative Agenda
In 2020, I introduced 47 bills, the second most of any legislator in the House of Delegates. Usually, in odd-year short sessions, we are limited to introducing 15 bills. This year, our limit is even more strict. We can only introduce seven bills(!) That was a very tight limit for me. Luckily, it doesn't include studies, constitutional amendments, or budget amendments. So in addition to my seven allotted bills, I have introduced a study, a constitutional amendment, and a budget amendment for a total of ten agenda items this year.
As you'll see below, my 2021 agenda is in many ways a continuation of the work I've done for many years: strengthening our democracy, protecting Virginians from intimidation, nourishing families, increasing transparency, empowering Rainbow civil rights, fighting the effects of climate change, and improving accountability.
Strengthening and Protecting Democracy
I've long believed that the President of the United States should be elected directly by We the People of the United States. One person, one vote. The electoral college is the "joke of the Constitution," written at the last minute when James Madison said the delegates were tired and wanted to go home (what he called "the hurrying influence produced by fatigue & impatience"). It's premised on the fact that the United States would never have political parties, that each individual elector would vote their conscience, and that white men in slave states should have 3/5 greater representation than white men in free states, with increasing representation based on the number of people enslaved. Talk about rewarding bad behavior! Of course those enslaved -- and free women -- were not supposed to have any vote at all.
It never fails to irk me that this undemocratic anachronistic idea, widely thought to be a boneheaded mistake even while the Founders were alive, still sullies our Constitution. I ask myself:
- If all men and women are created equal, why should moving from one state to another quadruple a citizen's voting power?
- Given that the electors are not exercising independent judgment any more, why have them at all?
- Why should a "winner-take-all" system disenfranchise all the Americans in a state that votes for the presidential candidate that loses in that state?
- Why should a candidate solidly rejected by the American People (like Donald Trump and George W. Bush) become President anyway?
- Why should voters in only a few select states (Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin) receive all the campaign attention and select the President while, in more than 40 states (including Virginia), our Presidential vote is relatively meaningless?
- Wouldn't more Americans vote if they knew their vote actually counted toward who became President, rather than knowing in "red states" and "blue states" that they could largely stay home without making any real difference in the presidential race?
- The Electoral College began in 1789. We had political parties as early as 1796. Now, two centuries later, may we finally conclude that the Founders were wrong when they premised an entire voting system on the firm belief that we would never develop political parties here?
- Shouldn't all Americans be equal under the law?
Read more about why I advocate for the National Popular Vote by reading my recent op-ed in The Washington Post.
My National Popular Vote bill passed the Virginia House of Delegates last year but was waylaid in the Virginia Senate. I could use your help. Please notify Virginia State Senators if you believe that all Americans should have an equal right to cast their ballot for President of the United States.
2. My Safe Elections bill (HB2081) generally bans people from carrying firearms at polling locations. Voting is a sacred right. It must be free and fair and done without any intimidation by their fellow citizens bearing firearms. There are some small exceptions in the bill, for police, military, and on-duty security. The bill would also ban non-law-enforcement from bringing firearms to a location where ballots are being counted or recounted.
Guns do not belong in polling places or the Virginia Capitol.
Persuade your elected representatives with words or with votes.
Not with threats or intimidation.
3. I will also be introducing a Safe Capitol bill to ban firearms on Capitol grounds and in State Government buildings (no bill number yet).
As we learned the hard way last week, there are some Americans who detest democracy and want a violent overthrow of the Government if their preferred candidate of choice fails to win a free and fair election.
To me, wanting to transform our country into a dictatorship is fundamentally un-American. If you don't like how your representative votes, organize to vote that representative out or run yourself. You have every right to threaten your elected representatives with un-election.
But you should never threaten your elected officials with violence. To do so is a direct challenge not to the representative with whom you don't agree; it's a direct challenge to our republic itself. The success of our imperfect 231-year-old experiment in democracy depends on the peaceful transfer of power and the willingness of losing candidates to concede elections after all votes are counted and recounted.
It was reported that many Republicans in the US Congress voted to overturn our free and fair elections because they were "afraid of the mob."
The Safe Capitol bill will ensure that Virginia's elected representatives act according to their constituents and their conscience: and not according to fear and intimidation. We should exert the will of those that elected us, and not the will of those threatening us.
intimidation, threats, and violence toward elected officials are incompatible with a healthy and thriving democracy.
Will public exposure reduce gerrymandering?
It's worth a try.
4. My Transparency in Redistricting bill (HB2082) would require full transparency in the redistricting process. Although I did not support Amendment 1, because it allows gerrymandering in redistricting and insufficiently protects Virginians in minority communities, I do believe I can limit the scope of the flaws in the new constitutional amendment if we require its proceedings to be completely open to the public. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
My legislation would require all meetings and hearings of the Virginia Redistricting Commission and the Supreme Court of Virginia on redistricting to be livestreamed, whether held virtually or in person, and to allow for public comment even after maps have been proposed. It also prohibits backroom "off the record" arm twisting on district selection and requires any proposed plan before the Virginia Supreme Court to have the approval of both a Democratic and a Republican special master.
It is my sincere hope that whether you supported or opposed Amendment 1, you will join with me in supporting transparency in the process.
5. Finally, I will be introducing HB1931, my Virtual Meetings bill to help break down barriers to holding local office. The bill would increase local elected officials' ability to balance their duties as elected officials with their responsibilities as caring family members. It would allow those serving in local government to, on limited occasions, participate virtually in public meetings when they need to take care of a sick family member or attend to a personal matter. This bill passed the House last year with broad bipartisan support, 62-38, but then was sent to the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, which liked my bill idea so much, they amended it to make it even broader in application. In addition to the recommendation of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, my Virtual Meetings bill has the support of numerous women's groups, because even today, it is still women who disproportionately take care of family needs.
I think we have learned during the COVID pandemic that virtual participation, while not quite as good as "being there," still can accomplish many things. With this law, Virginians with substantial responsibilities in family caregiving will have a greater opportunity to serve their communities as well.
Equal Rights for Rainbow (LGBTQ+) Virginians
6. I have again introduced my bill to Stop State-Funded Discrimination (HB1932). Would it surprise you to know that under current Virginia law, all taxpayers are required to fund adoption and foster-care discrimination against same-sex and non-Christian couples? A law written by the current Minority Leader Todd Gilbert passed in 2012 when Republicans were in control of all three branches of Virginia government: it has what they called a "conscience clause" that allows the conscience of bigots to be assuaged on the ground that if their religion promotes bigotry, Virginia must subsidize it.
My own view is that if people want to act in a bigoted manner, they shouldn't be required to have state funding to do it. Virginia already struggles with foster children aging out of the foster care system before they can find a loving home. Loving people who can ably take care of children and want to give them a loving home should not be prevented from doing so simply because they are in a same-sex marriage or a different religion from folks who want to take our taxpayer dollars to fund their discrimination.
Waving the Rainbow Flag on the day same-sex couples
were given equal protection under the law
7. As a marriage equality activist for more than two decades now, I have also introduced a Marriage Equality Constitutional Amendment (HJ539) to repeal the same-sex marriage ban in the Virginia Constitution and add in its place an affirmative protection for the right of same-sex couples to marry.
On the day that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that marriage equality was the law of the land, I was thrilled. I went down to the Supreme Court that day, rainbow flag in hand, to celebrate Obergefell v. Hodges and what I thought was the culmination of two decades of advocacy.
But if there's one thing we've clearly learned in the Trump era, it's that progress can be reversed. With the death of the incomparable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there is absolutely no guarantee the Supreme Court of tomorrow will have the same reverence for the equal protection under the law as they did in 2015.
So we need in the Virginia Constitution an affirmative protection of the right to marry.
Rainbow Rights and Police Accountability
8. I have re-introduced the Good Apples Act (HB1948), which passed the House of Delegates during the special session in 2020 only to be stalled by the Senate Judiciary Committee last summer.
This common-sense bill does three important things
A. It amends the definition of "bias-based profiling" to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
According to a study by the National Center for Transgender Equality, half of transgender people report they are uncomfortable seeking police assistance. More than one-fifth (22%) of transgender people who had interacted with police reported police harassment. A 2013 study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that transgender people of color were SIX times more likely to experience physical violence from the police compared to White non-transgender survivors and victims.
B. It makes it a duty for law enforcement to report acts of wrongdoing by their fellow officers. If "Good Apples" let their supervisors know about the "Bad Apples" in their department, there is a much greater chance to change the underlying culture of law enforcement, to prevent police wrongdoing in the first place.
C. It requires law enforcement officers on duty to aid people suffering from serious bodily injury or life-threatening conditions.
You can watch me present the bill in the Public Safety Subcommittee by clicking here or the image below.
Fighting the Effects of Climate Change by Reducing Urban and Inland Flooding
9. HJ552 will create a joint subcommittee on urban and inland flooding to study the development of a comprehensive and coordinated planning effort to address recurrent flooding in inland and urban areas across the Commonwealth.
This study arises directly from conversations started over the Summer with constituents from across the 45th District who have grown tired with experiencing increasingly frequent "100-year" storms, including the three that occurred just in 2020.
Removing Funding for the United Daughters of the Confederacy
10. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) has, for decades, received funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia to maintain Confederate memorials. This has been going on for 150 years or so. It's about time this stop! I have introduced a budget amendments to remove this funding. If the UDC wants to maintain statues or gravesites honoring slave-holding traitors, they can still do so, but they have to raise money from private funds and not rely on taxpayers to do so.
Although tied up in litigation and appeals, my budget amendment during the 2020 Special Session
should eventually allow Governor Northam to remove the Richmond statue of Robert E. Lee.
(My bill to remove Virginia's statue of Lee in the US Capitol was a 2020 success.)
Vaccine Town Hall with Public Health Leaders
Yesterday I hosted Dr. Danny Avula, Vaccines Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Health, and Dr. Stephen Haering, Director of the Alexandria City Health Department at a town hall to discuss vaccine accessibility and distribution, in Virginia generally and in Alexandria specifically. I thank these hard-working doctors and public-health professional for taking time out of their busy schedules to answer the questions of the more than 80 Virginians who attended the live session.
We did our best to cover every question posed by folks. And I suspect many more than eighty will want to watch the seminar at their convenience. Just click here or on the image below.
Alexandria Rabbi Opens First Day of Session
As is our custom, the Floor session every day begins with a prayer. I had the distinct honor of hosting my own constituent, Rabbi David Spinrad, from the Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, to share some words of wisdom with the entire House on its very first day in the 2021 session. Thank you, Rabbi, for your inspiring invocation!
Governor Northam Delivers State of the Commonwealth Address
On Wednesday night, Governor Ralph Northam delivered his final State of the Commonwealth Address, detailing many of his priorities, including leading our Virginia through this deadly virus that has claimed more than 5,700 Virginians' lives and helping our kids return to school safely. He also talked about the importance of our democratic institutions and peaceful protest, saying "During these challenging times, kindness and calmness must prevail."
To watch his address in its entirety, click the image below.
Help Me Get on the Ballot!
As you may recall, I'm running to be Virginia's next Lieutenant Governor. To get on a statewide ballot, we have to have petitions signed by more than 10,000 (!) registered Virginia voters, including at least 400 in each of Virginia's eleven congressional districts, by the end of February. This is a challenge even in normal times. During a pandemic, it will be particularly onerous. But we will succeed...because we have to.
I could use your help. All you have to do is go here and download the proper petition. Sign it. Then, if you leave the house, you can ask folks --with a mask and gloves and hand sanitizer! -- to sign it too. All I need is 12 per page, although if you don't get 12, we can still use it. The petition just gives me access to the ballot. Folks can sign without voting for me (although I hope they will, of course). Please let my campaign manager know if you are willing and able to help me get on the ballot in Virginia.
It may seem like a small task, but it happens to be a critical one to my campaign. Please help if you can.
Now that session has begun, you can expect my newsletters every Sunday morning until we adjourn sine die.
If you have any questions, don't hesitate to email our office or attend Mark's Monthly Meetup which will happen virtually Sunday afternoon, January 31
I thank you again for the honor and privilege of serving you.
Delegate Mark Levine
Serving Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax in Virginia's 45th District