RIGHT TRACK TO DIVERSITY
The General Assembly is becoming more diverse in race, gender, sexual orientation and points of view
We expect the halls and offices of the General Assembly’s Pocahontas Building to be ringing with the clamor of healthy debate throughout the next several weeks. At least, more so than in recent memory.
That’s because the policy issues being discussed during this 46-day session will be by the most diverse body representing Virginia’s residents in more than a century.
Healthy debate is a precursor to progress and breakthrough.
Just how diverse is this group of legislators? Consider the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus now includes 21 members, 11 of whom are women. That’s an uptick from previous years; in 2004 there were just 16 members in the group.
Not only are women being elected to positions in the General Assembly, they are also holding seats of power.
Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, of Fairfax County, is the House minority leader. It’s the first time in 400 years that a woman has held the position.
In 2017, Virginians elected the first openly transgender member of a state legislature in the United States. Del. Danica Roem, of Manassas, has filed more than a dozen bills to be considered during the 2019 session.
At age 29, Del. Jay Jones, of Norfolk, is the youngest member of the House of Delegates. He sits on the same body as Del. Charles Poindexter, of Glade Hill, who graduated high school 29 years before Del. Jones was even born.
The General Assembly’s diversity was on Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr.’s mind this week.
The James City County Republican — who is white and has served in the Senate since 1992 — spoke about the range of viewpoints represented within the legislature at his annual pre-session breakfast for supporters.
Though Sen. Norment doesn’t necessarily agree with what many of the new legislators have to say, he acknowledged their presence introduces a vast array of perspectives, values and backgrounds to the conversation, all of which is “healthy.
He remembers when, some two decades ago, there weren’t any women in the Senate Republican caucus. The 1992 General Assembly — when Sen. Norment was first voted into office — included just four female senators and 12 female delegates within the combined 140-member body.
For more than a century, the General Assembly’s lack of diversity was the result of policies that made it nearly impossible for blacks and women to participate. But it had not always been that way.
Just prior to the end of the Civil War, the Colored Monitor Union Club urged hundreds of black men to vote at Norfolk polling places for 1865’s spring local elections. That civic engagement helped spur African-American men to run for office and vote during the 1867 constitutional convention that was a part of the commonwealth’s efforts to be readmitted to the Union once the war concluded.
The new constitution was drafted by a group of 104 delegates, including 24 black men, and it extended the vote to all males, white and black; set up a free system of schools for all races; and established elective democracy at all levels of state government.
Those rights helped get African-American men elected to the General Assembly, creating an environment where the legislative body looked like the male half of the state for the next two decades. A series of Supreme Court decisions, as well as the allowance of poll taxes and literacy tests, began to take effect around the turn of the 20th century, effectively disenfranchising black voters and stopping black men from running for statewide elected offices.
Virginia is, thankfully, getting back to a place where our legislative body includes people of varying genders, races, family experiences and sexual orientations, all of whom have differing views on how to improve the commonwealth we all call home.
It is all the more inspiring to see the body elected to represent the whole of Virginia look like the people who elected it.
Just five months before his death, President John F. Kennedy delivered a commencement address at American University that touched on positive influences of diversity.
“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
It’s heartening to see our differences represented in our state’s elected leadership.
For the session that began on Wednesday, we will continue to report on the pangs that accompany legislative debates, and we fully expect the commonwealth to be healthier for those discussions. Read our politics coverage online at dailypress.com/news/politics and you can also watch many of the General Assembly’s meetings at lis.virginia.gov.