When state lawmakers return to Richmond early next year, they also will return to a Virginia tradition: divided government.
With Republicans taking control of statewide offices and the House of Delegates in November’s election, Democrats have fallen from two years of rare single-party control of state government to now holding just a single-seat majority in the state Senate.
And as Loudoun has become more blue, the majority of voters here found themselves in the historically unusual position of voting for the losing candidate for governor, going for Democrat Terry McAuliffe by an 11-point margin. This year, Loudoun voters also once again find themselves represented almost wholly by Democrats, who held off the red wave that flipped House of Delegates seats elsewhere in the state.
That will mean big changes for Loudoun’s representatives in Richmond.
“It’s worth a comment that we don’t know what committees we’ll be on,” said Del. Wendy W. Gooditis (D-10). “So, for some of us, the committees that we’ve been most useful on in the last two years, we might not be on at all, so that always could get in the way of our priorities.” In her case, she said, that especially involves the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, and the intersection between agriculture and climate change.
“If I am removed from the Agriculture Committee, that could seriously impact my effectiveness there,” she said.
Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87) said he’s hopeful the delegation will still be able to tackle local, bread-and-butter issues.
“There’s going to be things that we can do this session that are bipartisan or nonpartisan, and so I want to work across the aisle to make sure that we restore, for instance, funding to [the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority] and be able to fully fund our roads and future construction projects,” Subramanyam said. “And I also want to make sure we fully fund our schools, and make sure teacher pay is closer to on par with the national average, so we can attract good teachers.”
Gooditis, who has been in the minority party before, was less optimistic.
“My first session, 2018 and 2019, my first two sessions were under Republican control with a Republican speaker, and they really clamped down,” Gooditis said. “Especially in my second session there, which was the one before the campaign for reelection, they clamped down on my bills to such an extent that the simplest bills given to me by the governor’s administration to carry—very, very simple, straightforward, useful bills—they made up reasons to kill.”
In 2019, Gooditis saw one non-ceremonial bill pass, legislation expanding existing authority to make some building modifications eligible for school security grants. That bill, she said, passed at least in part because a Republican colleague in a neighboring district championed it. Other bills, ranging from studying the possibility of storing naloxone in automated external defibrillator cabinets around the state, to expanding the list of people who are required to report child abuse and neglect, to protecting electoral board members from employment discrimination on the basis of their election-day work, were killed in committee.
Subramanyam also said Northern Virginians could feel the political change in their pocketbooks.
“A Republican majority generally will hurt Loudoun County, because less funding will come up to Loudoun County,” Subramanyam said. “We’re paying probably as much if not more taxes that go into the state’s coffers than any other county, but in the past, before our Democratic majority, we had trouble getting that money to come back. Now, we’re going to see probably a reversal of the past couple of years where we were able to fund so many different projects.”
“If we’re going to provide tax cuts in certain areas, we have to have a plan for making up the revenue in other areas,” said Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-31). “We have to understand that it does cost money to provide the quality services that Loudoun residents expect, and residents throughout the Commonwealth expect, if we want to do a good job.”
The newly split government will also put Democrats on the defensive as Republicans seek to capitalize on their victories across the state and their first opportunity in years to set the path for Virginia government. Some of that could come in the form of trying to undo legislation passed over the past two years, such as new gun laws.
There are a variety of ways for Republicans to make changes. Most commonly, that’s by passing a bill—and with a Republican lieutenant governor casting the tiebreaking vote in the Senate, if all 21 Democrats do not vote together, Republicans have the majority vote in both chambers.
Other changes could happen in the courts, with a change in the state’s top attorney. Favola pointed to the example of abortion access—with incoming attorney general Jason Miyares unlikely to take up Attorney General Mark Herring’s work defending in court what has long been a right enshrined in federal law, and depending on the outcome of a pending U.S. Supreme Court case, access to abortion could soon hinge on actions by state legislatures. Favola said she expects Senate Democrats will be “very aggressive” in protecting access to abortion.
And some legislation with reenactment clauses can be stopped with simple inaction. The state’s minimum wage hikes, which are stepped through 2026, and the legal sale of marijuana are two major pieces of legislation that will require another vote of approval.
“It’s going to be a very interesting session,” Favola predicted. “The Democrats are still in control in the Senate, so it’ll be very much sort of a yin and yang kind of environment. I think Democrats, at least in the Senate, we’re going to hold firm with some of the progress we made in the last session, especially with regards to gun safety.”
With a divided government, there are some things local Democrats said may go to the back burner instead of the General Assembly next year.
“There’s a lot I want to do on climate change, and a lot I want to do on increasing pay for teachers more, but I just don’t think it will pass in a Republican majority,” Subramanyam said.
“There was a lot of interest in banning assault weapons, that probably is not going to pass the House this time,” Favola said, also pointing to climate change legislation.
But Subramanyam also pointed out things could change again next year. A case in front of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could see the House of Delegates facing another election next year after new electoral districts are drawn. Herring has fought against that in court.
Normally, the 2021 election would have been the first under new electoral districts drawn following the decennial census, but delays at the U.S. Census Bureau meant there wasn’t enough time to get that done before November—and in fact those districts are still pending, after the state’s redistricting commission failed to come to an agreement on a new map and sent that work to the state Supreme Court.