Daily Press (Sunday) - - Opinion -

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.

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