As we head down the homestretch of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly session – just 13 days to go until it’s “adjournment sine die” time – it appears that the Democratic majorities in both the State Senate and House of Delegates are on course to produce significant progress – if not perfection – in a wide range of areas. However…you knew there was a “however” coming, right? Well, yeah, because the fact is, the Democratic majorities in the State Senate and House of Delegates are very different places, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and the results will undoubtedly impact how progressive – and how strong on dealing with the climate crisis – the final legislative “sausage-making” process ends up being.
Before we get to this afternoon’s email, from Sen. Barbara Favola (D-SD31), that got me going on this topic, let’s just briefly review a few key differences between the State Senate and House of Delegate Democratic majorities.
- Democrats hold a significant, 55-45 majority in the House of Delegates, but only a *very* narrow, 21-19 edge in the State Senate. In other words, there’s almost no margin for error in the State Senate, whereas in the House of Delegates, Democrats can afford to lose a few votes on any given issue.
- The average Democratic State Senator is around 61.5 years old – about 12 years older than the 49.5-year-old average in the House of Delegates. In short, State Senate Dems are MUCH older than House Dems.
- The average Democratic State Senator has been there for about 12 years, nearly twice as long as the average Democratic Delegate. And, on a related note, Senators only have to run for reelection every four years, while Delegates have to run every two years. So, in short, the State Senate Democratic caucus is comprised of folks who have been there much longer than the House of Delegates Democratic caucus, with much less turnover – including from the post-Trump, post-“Women’s March,” progressive “blue waves” of 2017 and 2019.
- Just 7 out of 21 (33%) Democratic State Senators are female and just 3 out of 21 (14%) are African-American (plus one Asian-American). In stark contrast, 24 out of 55 (44%) Democratic Delegates are female, while 26 out of 55 (47%) Democratic Delegates are either African-American, Latino or Asian-American. In sum, the House of Delegates Democratic caucus is MUCH more diverse – and looks MUCH more like Virginia – than the Senate Democratic caucus.
- I’d argue that the State Senate Democratic caucus is much tighter, at this point, with Dominion Energy than the House of Delegates Democratic caucus. Just looking at State Senate Democratic leadership finds several folks in key power positions – Majority Leader (and Commerce and Labor Committee Chair) “Dominion Dick” Saslaw, of course, who has been *very* close to Dominion for many years, and who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Dominion; Speaker Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, who has received over $100,000 from Dominion Energy over the years; Senate Commerce and Labor Subcommittee on Energy Chair Lionel Spruill, whose top donor over his career has been…yep, Dominion Energy; etc. We see some of this in the House of Delegates as well, but arguably not nearly to the extent as in the State Senate in terms of Dominion influence.
- And yes, progressives and environmentalists would have been in a MUCH better position if we’d won a few of the close Senate races – Debra Rodman, Cheryl Turpin, Amy Laufer, Missy Cotter Smasal – this past election day. But we didn’t, unfortunately, and so instead of having a 24-16 or 25-15 Senate majority, we’ve got only that razor-thin 21-19 edge. Ugh.
With all that in mind, check out what Sen. Barbara Favola sent out a little while ago (bolding added by me for emphasis).
- “As you may have read in the newspapers, the Senate is taking a much more measured approach to implementing minimum wage legislation, gun safety measures, and policies that address climate change.”
- “The make-up of the Senate is 21 Democrats and 19 Republicans. This slim margin forces a more moderate stance than the House of Delegates is likely to take on controversial issues. It is important to remember that legislating is very different than advocating, although advocacy is an important ingredient in bringing about change. A wide range of stakeholders must be comfortable with the values and approaches represented in a piece of legislation for that bill to become law.”
First of all, I do agree with Sen. Favola that “legislating is different than advocating” and that for something to become law, it normally requires a “wide range of stakeholders” to be “comfortable” with it. However…where I’m not sure I follow Favola’s thinking is on the “more moderate stance” and much more measured approach” language re: “minimum wage legislation, gun safety measures, and policies that address climate change.”
For starters, I’m not even sure what words like “measured” and “moderate” mean, other than – translation – “less progressive” and “less aggressive/friendlier to corporate interests on tackling the climate crisis or other important issues.” We often see the word “moderate” being thrown around in the media, by the way, and most of the time it just seems like code either for “from a purple district” or “more conservative” or just “what the ‘Very Serious People’ think is good.”
In the case of Sen. Favola’s email, what would the words “moderate” and “much more measured” mean, exactly when it comes to, let’s say, raising the minimum wage? Presumably, the language hints at either not raising the wage to $15/hour, or not doing it in every part of Virginia, or doing it much more slowly, or some combination of all those things. So what’s the right answer here? Is the supposedly more “moderate”/”measured” approach – note the biased framing here, by the way – the *better* approach? Or, is it simply what can get through the older, more conservative, less diverse State Senate? Think about that one.
As for tackling the climate crisis, the fact is that the Senate (and House) never even seriously considered the less “measured”/less “moderate” approach – namely, the “Green New Deal” – but instead went with the “all-stakeholders-at-the-table” Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) approach. So right now, we’ve got a more aggressive House version of the VCEA, and a less aggressive Senate version. Which one will win out? Clearly, the House version *should* win out, if we’re at all serious about this issue. But, based on what Favola’s saying, it sure sounds like she leans towards the Senate version, which she (falsely, I’d argue) characterizes as more “measured” and “moderate.” Personally, I’d use words like “less effective” and “less aggressive,” and would argue that Sen. Favola’s word choice is a deliberately misleading “framing” device, to pretend that the Senate is actually more reasonable than the House, when in fact – at least on this issue – it’s actually just tighter with Dominion, less progressive in general, older, etc.
So, in the end, what we’re likely to see over the next 13 days is, effectively, trench warfare between the more “measured”/”moderate” (whatever the hell that means) Senate and the more progressive/aggressive House of Delegates on issue after issue, piece of legislation after piece of legislation. If you favor the more progressive/aggressive approach, now’s the time to contact your State Senator and let them know that. It’s also time for the Northam administration to weigh in, if they have a preference, or forever hold their peace…
P.S. I just saw this new Washington Post article, which writes, “The Senate — whose members are older, more tenured and less racially diverse — has taken less liberal positions than the House in many areas, including labor and immigration. Still, the defections on the assault weapons bill infuriated advocates and House Democrats given the issue’s prominence in fall campaigns.”