Daily Press (Sunday)

A change in Richmond

Democrats win slim legislativ­e majorities but face challenges ahead


Virginia voters handed Democrats control of both legislativ­e chambers on Tuesday, rejecting the Republican agenda and endorsing a platform that emphasized abortion rights, public education, criminal justice reform and climate progress.

While much has been made about how voters rebuked Gov. Glenn Youngkin at the polls — they did — the more compelling narrative is about what this means for the General Assembly session that convenes in January and the policy platform Democrats will try to advance when lawmakers return to Richmond.

The campaign that concluded last week was a bruising, tightly contested affair, particular­ly in the swing districts that both parties needed to secure legislativ­e majorities. The parties, political action committees, advocacy groups and candidates poured tens of millions into this year’s races, making an effective argument for campaign finance reform in the process.

Both sides were able to make their case to voters, through rallies, debates, advertisin­g and neighborho­od canvassing. And at the ballot box, Virginians favored Democrats, though only slightly, in preserving that party’s slim majority in the Senate and handing it control of the House as well.

It is notable that this was the first election conducted under Virginia’s still-new independen­t redistrict­ing process. It was hoped that a commission made up of citizens and lawmakers would reach agreement on new legislativ­e maps, but their impasse handed that work to the state Supreme Court, which appointed a mapmaker to draw them.

The result was districts which slightly favored Democrats but did not protect incumbents. Half of the Senate were placed in districts with another senator

and two districts had three incumbents. It was similar in the House: 40 districts included two incumbents and two districts had three.

That led to a wave of retirement­s, as many long-serving lawmakers opted to leave Richmond rather than face a colleague or new constituen­ts. The General Assembly lost some of its most senior and experience­d legislator­s, people

who know the ins and outs of governance.

That may well be the biggest challenge facing the new Democratic legislativ­e majorities. There will be plenty of new faces in both the House and Senate, and many lawmakers will need to learn new leadership roles while on the job.

While not an insurmount­able obstacle, it also adds to the pressure on Democrats to deliver. They will have the grace provided by the 2024 legislativ­e session being 60 days, rather than 30 days as in odd-numbered years, but the General Assembly must approve a new two-year budget — which requires a lot of heavy lifting for even the most experience­d hands.

Hampton Roads members will be in the thick of it. Del. Don Scott of Portsmouth is poised to become House speaker, the first Black man to hold that position, while Sen. Louise Lucas will remain as Senate president pro tempore.

As vocal and relentless critics of the governor, they will need to set campaign rhetoric aside and work with Youngkin if they hope to achieve their goals for Virginia. The governor may have a diminished mandate as a result of Tuesday’s vote, but he still has veto power and Democrats lack large enough majorities to override him.

That doesn’t mean Virginia is doomed to two years of partisan bickering between the legislativ­e and executive branches and inaction on the commonweal­th’s priorities. There are areas in which the two sides are already aligned, such as behavioral health, and policies in which they could find middle ground, including on education.

With majorities in both chambers, Democrats can also advance constituti­onal amendments on issues such as abortion without Youngkin’s involvemen­t. Amendments need to pass in consecutiv­e sessions before heading to voters, so expect that to be a priority come January.

Democrats convinced Virginia voters that they would be trustworth­y stewards if returned to full control in the General Assembly.

Now they will need to organize, prepare and hit the ground running when the legislatur­e convenes if they hope to deliver on their promises.

 ?? BILLY SCHUERMAN/STAFF ?? Voters head to the polls at the Mary D. Pretlow Anchor Branch Library in the Ocean View neighborho­od of Norfolk on Tuesday.
BILLY SCHUERMAN/STAFF Voters head to the polls at the Mary D. Pretlow Anchor Branch Library in the Ocean View neighborho­od of Norfolk on Tuesday.

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