A historically diverse Virginia General Assembly convened Wednesday, led for the first time in more than two decades by Democrats who promised to enact a litany of changes.
Likely the most prominent debate this year will be on gun control, an area where Democrats have promised significant changes.
The House quickly elected Eileen Filler-Corn at the new speaker, the first woman to serve in that role. She is also the first Jewish speaker. She represents Virginia's 41st House District, which lies in Fairfax County and includes Springfield and Burke.
“A new torch is being passed today, one that ushers in a modern era representing all Virginians,” Filler-Corn said on the House floor.
Many Democratic lawmakers wore blue Wednesday, a nod to the November blue wave that helped them take full control of the General Assembly for the first time in a generation. Democrats have made strong gains in Virginia since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, significantly changing the makeup of the General Assembly. Women, people of color and millennials have all made gains.
African-American lawmakers are set to have most power at the legislature in Virginia's 400-year history, including leading several powerful legislative committees.
“It is our time,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan, vice chairwoman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said Wednesday morning. She said the black caucus was committed to eliminate the “last vestiges of racism and white supremacy in Virginia law.”
Ghazala Hashmi, a first-time candidate who unseated a Republican incumbent to help Democrats flip the Virginia Senate, became that chamber's first Muslim female member.
In the weeks since Democrats won majorities in the state House and Senate, they have laid out an ambitious agenda. It includes high-profile issues Republicans thwarted for years, including gun control measures and criminal justice reforms. They also have pledged to ease restrictions on abortion access, raise the minimum wage, prohibit discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community and make Virginia the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Lawmakers also will be tasked with passing a two-year state budget and deciding whether to legalize casinos.
Gun issues figure to be the most high-profile area of debate. Some of the new restrictions Gov. Ralph Northam and other Democratic lawmakers want include universal background checks, banning assault weapons and passing a red flag law to allow the temporary removal of guns from someone who is deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.
Republicans and gun-rights groups have pledged stiff resistance. Gun owners are descending on local government offices to demand that officials establish sanctuaries for gun rights. More than 100 counties, cities and towns have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries and vowed to oppose any new “unconstitutional restrictions” on guns.
“If Democrats don’t see that outpouring of rejection for the policies they are proposing and react to it, it strikes me as being extremely arrogant,” said Del. Dave LaRock, R-Hamilton.
But the Democrats say they got a much different message from voters in November.
“This is not taking away Second amendment rights,” said Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William. “We are proposing legislation that protects all Virginians.”
As debate over gun legislation heats up security at the Capitol has been ramped up. Thousands of gun rights activists are expected there for their annual rally Jan. 20, but this year there is special security planning underway to make sure everything stays peaceful.
Democrats indicated early Wednesday they were not going to pass a set of rules organizing how the House will operate, as is traditional on its first day. The delay allows Democrats to put off a contentious floor debate on whether to ban guns from the Capitol, which likely would have overshadowed much of Wednesday's events.
The Equal Rights Amendment was expected to be another top issue. Democrats say their caucus unanimously supports ratifying the gender equality measure and have pledged to do so quickly.
Hundreds of advocates for what could become the next amendment to the U.S. Constitution staged a lively rally outside an entrance to the Capitol, where they cheered as Democratic lawmakers walked in and chanted “E-R-A” as several Republicans followed.
ERA supporters formed a gauntlet to welcome lawmakers — chanting “get it done” — just like they did last year only to have their hopes dashed when the GOP majority refused to even take a vote on the measure.
“I come here just absolutely euphoric,” ERA supporter Elizabeth Johnson. “I know that the ERA will pass.”
In her opening speech, Filler-Corn made the promise ERA backers wanted to hear.
“This House will pass the Equal Rights Amendment,” she said.
Opponents held a press conference Wednesday morning where they warned ratification would lead to the rollback of abortion restrictions as well as a host of negative consequences for women.
“Would our women-owned small business programs, would they go away since they discriminate based off of sex?” said Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper. “These are legitimate questions that we keep asking.”
Critics of the measure say the ERA is not lawfully before the states for ratification, in part because of a congressional deadline that passed decades ago.
ERA advocates' efforts in Virginia “will be nothing more than political commentary. The time to ratify the ERA expired more than 40 years ago,” said Kristen Waggoner, senior vice president of the U.S. Legal Division and Communications for Alliance Defending Freedom.
A memo by Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel says an expired pair of deadlines imposed by Congress on ratification of the measure means it's too late for additional states to ratify it now. Congress sent it to states in 1972, attaching a 1979 ratification deadline to it. That deadline was later extended to 1982. During that time just 35 states ratified it — three short of the 38 needed.
But Engel's finding is unlikely to be the last word on the amendment. On Tuesday, supporters of the ERA filed a federal lawsuit in Massachusetts aimed at clearing a legal path for adoption of the amendment. The lawsuit argues that because the deadline was set forth in legislation authorizing states to ratify the amendment — and not in the three-sentence amendment itself — it's not constitutionally binding and Virginia's vote would put the amendment over the top.
Engel also said Congress may not revive a proposed amendment after a ratification deadline has expired. He said the only option is for Congress to begin the process again.
Efforts by ERA opponents are underway to block its ultimate adoption as the Constitution's 28th Amendment, including a lawsuit filed in federal court in mid-December by Alabama, Louisiana and South Dakota.
Later Wednesday night, Northam, who has largely rebounded from a blackface scandal that almost drove him from office a year ago, is set to address lawmakers. He’s also promising sweeping changes to the state's criminal justice reforms that include decriminalizing marijuana, softening the penalties for people caught stealing smaller-dollar items and reducing the number of Virginians whose driver's licenses are suspended.
Wednesday also marked the return of Joe Morrissey, a former Virginia lawmaker who used to spend his days at the General Assembly and his nights in jail after being accused of having sex with his teenage secretary. Morrissey defeated a Democratic incumbent in a primary to win a Richmond-area senate seat.
Republicans have cast Democrats' agenda as extreme, saying it would bring Virginia in line with liberal California or New York. They've promised to look for ways to hold the majority accountable, keep Virginia business friendly and exercise fiscal restraint.
“We think that very quickly, the voters of Virginia will begin to get buyer's remorse about what they've done here,” incoming House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert said.