By Eric Luther and Jackson McMillan
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Democrats regained control of Virginia’s Senate this past week after Lynwood Lewis, D- Norfolk, assumed the District 6 seat vacated by Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam after an 11-vote victory against his Republican opponent.
Lewis’s installation split the state Senate 20-20, with Northam casting most tiebreaking votes. The newfound voting-block majority prompted Democrats to alter committee assignments and Senate rules, just as Republicans had done in 2012 under the tiebreaking authority of former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, R- Hanover.
The new committee assignments give Democrats an advantage over Republicans in 11 committees. The rules change confers special vetoing powers allowing new Senate Rules Chairman, Sen. John S. Edwards, D- Roanoke, to single-handedly kill any bill that is “substantially” amended by House Republicans.
Sen. William Stanley Jr., R-Moneta, was removed from the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee as a result of the power shift.
“Because the Democrats chose power and political gain over doing what is right for the people of the 20th Senatorial District, Southside Virginia now lacks representation on the most important committee in the Senate of Virginia,” Stanley said in an interview with the Martinsville Bulletin. “That’s a real problem.”
Stanley also said Democrats disregarded rules requiring committee membership to reflect the Senate’s proportional party makeup as a whole and effectively altered the way the General Assembly conducts business.
Additionally, Sen. Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg, lost his seat as majority leader to Sen. Richard Saslaw, D- Springfield, as a result of the special elections.
“The rules change giving unprecedented authority to the Chairman of the Rules Committee was by far the most egregious actions of the Democrats,” Norment stated in an email. “They scuttled the rules without the approved two-thirds vote.”
According to a release issued by the Democratic Caucus, Sen. Donald McEachin, D- Henrico, urged Republicans to come to a power-sharing agreement in 2012; warning that if Republicans choose not to share power, there is no going back.
“We will be at 20-20 sometime in the future, and perhaps there’ll be a Democratic lieutenant governor,” McEachin said in a floor meeting at the time. “And perhaps the shoe will be on the other foot.”
Republicans dismissed the argument at the time and called on Democrats to accept the decision, according to the caucus’s release.
“When Republicans took control of the Senate, we asked for power sharing,” McEachin stated in the release. “Now that we have control, we will be fair to our colleagues … but we will use our majority to work on the issues for which the voters spoke.”
Sen. Ryan McDougle, R- Mechanicsville, says Edward’s vetoing abilities are a horrible precedent for the General Assembly to set and have the potential to be abused.
“Unfortunately, I think you’ve seen a real clear direction in the last couple of weeks,” McDougle said. “You saw President Obama came out and said ‘if I can’t get Congress to enact the policies I want, I’ll work around them’ … and then we come to the (Virginia) Senate and have the same type of situation.”
McDougle says he and his fellow Republicans are trying to make sure the law and the “Virginia way” are being preserved.
“We’re having some struggles keeping that (“Virginia way”) in play right now,” McDougle said. “But we’re continuing to fight for it.”
Conversely, Saslaw says Virginia voters have made their sentiments clear, according to the Democratic caucus’s release.
“They (Virginia voters) have had three consecutive elections in which they could have given Republicans indisputable control of this chamber,” Saslaw stated. “But every time they chose to elect a Democrat.”
Democrats have a responsibility to use that majority to get to work on the issues that voters care about, Saslaw stated.
Despite the stance taken by the new majority leader and other members in the party, Norment says in a year when ethics and transparency are important issues, Senate Democrats have taken a giant step backwards.