The longest bout of applause at the General Assembly session wrap-up panel held in Fairfax on Mar. 11 by the public policy advocacy network Social Action Linking Together (SALT) went to a Muslim man who tried to ask a question.
Identifying himself as a long-time U.S. citizen, Jisan Zaman got caught up in his emotions as he chokingly worked his way through a question to the General Assembly members in attendance about how they plan to address recent surges in hate crimes and anti-Muslim sentiments.
At one point, the woman standing behind Zaman in the Q&A line gave him a hug.
Zaman, who came to the U.S. when he was 10 and now works in McLean as a senior software developer for Celerity, seemed a little embarrassed and frustrated afterwards that his emotions prevented him from properly explaining his inquiry.
While he appreciated the support he got in the room from fellow constituents and the legislators, Zaman expressed skepticism that the feelings of goodwill can translate into effective political action.
“I was kind of disappointed by some of the answers,” Zaman said of the response he got to his question. “I’m not from the six countries [included in President Donald Trump’s revised travel ban], but I think it’s turning the waters for what’s coming next.”
Trump issued an executive order on Mar. 6 that temporarily suspended entry into the U.S. by nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen as well as the admittance of all refugees. A previous version of the executive order also applied the travel ban to Iraq.
The General Assembly members at the panel--all of whom were Democrats--noted that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring have spoken out against the executive order.
“Our top leaders are fighting with us and for us,” Senator Barbara Favola (D-31st) said. “We do live in a very diverse local community in Northern Virginia, and all of our local governments have come out and said that they are going to ensure that the police embrace an environment of trust with everyone they’re serving.”
Zaman says he had hoped for a more proactive response, such as specific legislation designed to protect immigrants and counter faith-based discrimination.
Fairfax Delegate Mark Keam (D-35th), who was born in Seoul, Korea, and lived in Vietnam and Australia before immigrating to the U.S. with his family, says that it is difficult to make progress on immigration and civil rights, because he and the General Assembly’s Democrats have to focus their energy on opposing legislation.
For example, during the 2017 General Assembly session, the Republican-majority House of Delegates and Senate both passed a bill that required nonprofit resettlement agencies to annually report information about resettled individuals, including refugees, to the Department of Social Services.
Both chambers also passed a bill that required local jails to assist federal immigration authorities by detaining inmates sought after by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
McAuliffe, a Democrat, subsequently vetoed the first bill, known as H.B. 2002, on Feb. 24 and the second bill, H.B. 1468, on Mar. 3, according to Virginia’s Legislative Information System.
“As someone who cares about immigrant rights and minority rights, we have to play defense against bills on the wrong side,” Keam said. “To do something positive, there just aren’t the opportunities, because we’re only one-third of the votes.”
The challenge of getting traction for progressive legislation in a staunchly conservative General Assembly emerged as a dominant theme of the wrap-up panel, which took place on the Virginia International University campus in Fairfax.
While it is officially nonpartisan and does not advocate for particular candidates or political parties, SALT focuses on policy related to poverty and other social justice causes, and the faith-based organization generally skews liberal.
According to SALT founder and coordinator John Horejsi, who moderated the event, the group invited several Republican representatives, including Delegates Richard Anderson (R-51st), Robert Marshall (R-13th) and Timothy Hugo (R-40th), but none of them came. Delegate Jim LeMunyon (R-67th) was also invited and has attended previous wrap-up panels.
As members of the minority party in the General Assembly, the legislators who attended the panel spent as much time discussing what they were unable to accomplish in the 2017 session as they did on successful bills.
Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn (D-41st), for instance, passed a bill requiring school principals to notify parents of students involved in alleged incidents of bullying regarding the status of any investigations into the incident.
She also served as chief patron for the New Americans Voting Act, which would have extended the amount of time new citizens have to register to vote, and a bill to increase the monetary threshold for an act of larceny to be classified as a felony, but both bills died in committee.
Filler-Corn says she plans to reintroduce the felony larceny bill next year, since it failed by only one vote.
Delegate Jennifer Boysko (D-86th) cited the unanimous passage of a bill letting trained individuals dispense naloxone, a drug that can be used in emergencies to treat opioid overdoses, among the biggest successes of the 2017 General Assembly session.
Boysko originally introduced the bill in December, but it was tabled by a House subcommittee on Jan. 24 and replaced with a nearly identical bill sponsored by Delegate Dave LaRock (R-33rd) that was ultimately passed by both chambers and approved by the governor.
Boysko was listed as a chief co-patron on LaRock’s bill.
“I have learned…that you cannot care about who gets the credit on the work that you do,” Boysko, who was elected to the House in 2015, said.
The Fairfax delegate’s “Dignity Act” exempting personal hygiene products, including tampons and sanitary pads, from the sales and use tax and a bill prohibiting employers from requiring job applicants to disclose their salary history both died in committee.
Delegate Alfonso Lopez (D-49th) passed a bill aimed at helping women- or minority-owned small businesses receive certification, legislation that McAuliffe signed on Mar. 13, but bills addressing lead levels in drinking water, the use of child labor on tobacco farms, and driver’s license suspensions for failing to pay fines were all left on the table by subcommittees.
In total, of the 1,221 bills that failed in the General Assembly this past session, only 30 were brought to the floor, while the remainder died in committee. 824 bills were defeated without recorded votes, according to Horejsi.
Because the Commonwealth does not officially broadcast legislative committee hearings, the Virginia Transparency Caucus, led by Delegate Mark Levine (D-45th) and Senator Amanda Chase (R-11th), has started to videotape committee meetings, managing to film to about 75 percent of all legislation in committees and subcommittees.
More than 60 percent of all state legislators signed a letter distributed by the transparency caucus calling for the new General Assembly building that will replace the current structure, which is scheduled for demolition this year, to feature cameras and vote-recording equipment, according to Levine.
“Transparency is important,” Levine said. “[Senator Chase] and I don’t agree on virtually anything, but we do agree that the public has a right to know what goes on behind closed doors in committees and subcommittees in the General Assembly.”