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Historic General Assembly Convenes in Richmond

STATE SEN. DICK SASLAW was greeted with a standing ovation in Vienna Sunday as the new Senate majority leader in Richmond, who assumed his new post when the General Assembly convened yesterday. (Photo: News-Press)

Yesterday morning, as a momentous Virginia General Assembly was called to order in Richmond for a two-month legislative session, history was made in the first minutes as the House of Delegates elected the first-ever woman, and first-ever Jewish person, at its Speaker of the House in the 401-year history of the body. State Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn was sworn in by Virginia Supreme Court chief justice Donald W. Lemons to become the House’s 56th Speaker.

Filler-Corn, whose 41st District is west of Falls Church in Fairfax County but east of the City of Fairfax covering the communities of Burke and Mantua, had been the first ever leader of a party caucus in Richmond before the Democrats won control of both the House and Senate in last November’s election.

The stunning speed by which the Democrats wrested control from what had been a dominant Republican majority in the House and Senate between the 2017 and 2019 elections has created an unprecedented alignment in the legislature. While it’s been 20 years since the Democrats had control, the Democratic Party of 2020 is vastly different in its makeup from the “Dixiecrat” Democrats of days gone by, when many held very conservative views on issues pertaining to women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and gun control, for example.

That’s what makes the just-convened session of the legislature so unique and historic, beginning with the election of Filler-Corn but also to include, at long last, the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, something that has awaited the one state needed to create a two-thirds majority to enshrine women’s equality in the U.S. Constitution.
This legislative session, the Democrats in control will surely vote to ratify that amendment, being the 38th state to do so, even in the face of Republican efforts around the country to block it by rescinding ratification in other states.

Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam was scheduled to deliver his State of the Commonwealth address last night, following on “the most progressive budget in Virginia history” that he introduced last month. It includes, he said, “Proposals to invest in K-12 education, address housing affordability, make tuition-free community college available to low and middle income students who pursue jobs in high-demand fields, protect Virginia’s environment, transform the Commonwealth’s early childhood education system and combat maternal and infant mortality.”

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Filler-Corn, in prepared remarks she presented after being sworn in Wednesday, said, “A new torch is being passed today, one that ushers in the modern era, representing all Virginians, learning from our shared experiences and moving forward in our collective prosperity.”

She added, “Sometimes, how we work, and how we conduct ourselves, can be just as important as what we do. I urge us all to get to know one another, to reach across the partisan aisle. I know we will find we have more things in common than we have differences.”

“We can show the next generation and the country that Virginia is home for robust debate, where we also work together and get things done in a respectful manner.”

Her appeal for civility comes in the context of announced efforts by pro-gun advocates, among others, to demonstrate loudly against expected votes to constrain gun use with such measures as universal background checks, red flag laws and restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Meanwhile, in the State Senate chamber, State Sen. Dick Saslaw, who represents the City of Falls Church, was elected the majority leader, a position the veteran lawmaker has held in the past, most recently from 2008 to 2012 and 2014. Saslaw, who was his party’s minority leader in the Senate when out of power until this month, was met with a rousing standing ovation by a capacity crowd that filled the hall in Vienna Sunday for his party’s annual “Road to Richmond” brunch.

Saslaw was the first speaker introduced at the event, and his ovation was due in part to the fight he waged last year to fend off a primary challenge and be returned to the Senate seat he’s held since 1980.

He vowed Sunday to be in the forefront of his party’s efforts to reform state laws pertaining to women’s and LGBTQ rights and other priority issues for the party.

State Sen. Adam Ebbin, the first openly-gay state representative in Virginia history, told a crowd of supporters last Friday night that he will be introducing comprehensive LGBTQ anti-discrimination legislation. He was joined at that event by U.S. Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., who represents the 8th District of Virginia that includes Falls Church and just returned to the district from a week of campaigning for his preferred Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttegieg in Iowa.

Beyer praised Ebbin’s courage as a trail-blazer for equality in Virginia.
Falls Church’s State Del. Marcus Simon said he’s also introducing legislation for LGBTQ non-discrimination in housing in a briefing to supporters here last Thursday.

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The new makeup of the state House of Delegates includes many firsts. It will have the first women of color to lead committees, and have an historically diverse group of committee chairs and vice-chairs, members of the most diverse House of Delegates in Virginia history, not only in terms of race and gender, but also in terms of experience, thought, orientation, religion and backgrounds.

Filler-Corn said yesterday, “History and the role we play in Virginia’s story have been on my mind in the weeks leading up to today. We know that Virginia’s history has many triumphant highs, from bringing democracy to this country, to maintaining the oldest continual lawmaking body in the Western Hemisphere.

“But,” she added, “our commonwealth has been fallible, too,” citing “how far we have to go to reach the promise of equality on which this nation was founded, in large part by the words and deeds of Virginians, both for good and for ill.”

She vowed that in addition to passing the Equal Rights Amendment, “we will address discrimination in our laws, we will take common sense measures to prevent gun violence and keep Virginians safe, and we will address the threat that climate change poses to our entire Commonwealth, especially in the coastal communities.”

“The public expects us to build a safer, more equal, more prosperous and more inclusive Virginia. That is exactly what we will do.”

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