Change Is Happening–Just Look at Virginia.

Virginia is for Lovers
By Carolyn Wetzel
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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam certainly had a busy weekend last week. Virginia undeniably has a history of oppressive legislation, particularly in regards to race relations, gun control, and reproductive rights and access. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the governor’s own less-than-palatable past, which is putting it mildly: he’s not exactly the poster boy for the progressives after the racist stunts he pulled in medical school. Despite it all, last weekend was a huge step forward for Virginia. Here are some highlights of the banner Easter weekend in Richmond:

Friday

Abortion access: Virginia is the first state this year to codify abortion protections, rolling back antiquated abortion restrictions (some of which have been law for decades). This is a breath of fresh air for abortion advocates in the midst of battles between governors who are attempting thinly-veiled attacks on reproductive rights by designating abortion as “non-essential.” The new laws do away with state TRAP laws (targeted regulations against abortion providers), which required patients to get an ultrasound at least 24 hours beforehand as well as counseling on abortion alternatives; facilities providing more than five abortions per year to be designated as hospitals; first trimester abortions to be administered by a physician. Both bodies of the Virginia state legislature passed bills back in January that would allow nurse practitioners to provide abortions in the first trimester. These laws go into effect on July 1.

Gun Control: Multiple bills restricting guns were also signed into law. The new laws require background checks on all firearm sales in Virginia, limit sales to one handgun purchase per month, establish penalties for Virginians who do not report missing or stolen guns within 24 hours, and give law enforcement the ability to seize weapons from those deemed a danger to themselves or others. “We lose too many Virginians to gun violence, and it is past time we took bold, meaningful action to keep our communities safer. These common sense laws will save lives,” read the governor’s statement. The state previously had some of the loosest gun laws in the country.

Saturday

Virginia Values Act: Virginia became the first state in the South to pass comprehensive protections for the LGBTQ+ community in housing, employment, public spaces, and credit applications. Though the first in the South, the Virginia Values Act is the 21st of its kind in the U.S. “We are building an inclusive Commonwealth where there is opportunity for everyone, and everyone is treated fairly. No longer will LGBTQ Virginians have to fear being fired, evicted, or denied service in public places because of who they are,” Northam said.

Sunday

Voter Rights: The governor signed legislation to expand access to voting and announced that the state of Virginia will no longer require photo ID in order to vote. His statement read, “Voter ID laws disenfranchise individuals who may not have access to photo identification, and disproportionately impact low-income individuals, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities.”

The new laws provide automatic voter registration at the DMV, will implement early voting in addition to absentee voting, and will expand polling hours. They also stipulate that Election Day will become a state holiday, and Lee-Jackson Day, which celebrates Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, will no longer be recognized.

Clean Energy: Governor Northam signed a bill to establish a schedule to close old fossil fuel power plants. Energy companies will pay fines if they do not meet their targets; money which would help fund renewable energy programs in disadvantaged communities and training for green jobs. The legislation also advances offshore wind, solar, and distributed generation, and establishes a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program in compliance with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to reduce power plant emissions.

A lot of change happens outside of electoral politics through the work of grassroots activists and organizers who work every day to effect change in their communities. And during this time when many of us are extremely frustrated and feeling, frankly, cynical with the way things are going politically, it’s important to remember that we can all work to bring justice to our communities in this way. Virginia’s state legislature has been under conservative control for the past 25 years. 2019 was a huge election year for the state and brought a critical shift in leadership that was proven last weekend. Virginia shows us that elections do matter, and we must continue to push for change within the realm of electoral politics as well as outside of it.

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