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2019 Capital News Service

GREENSVILLE/EMPORIA DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES

LOCAL BOARD MEETING

The Greensville/Emporia Department of Social Services Administrative Board will hold its regular meeting Thursday, June 20, 2019, at 3:30 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Greensville/Emporia Department of Social Services located at 1748 East Atlantic Street.

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Assembly OKs Limited No-excuse Absentee Voting in 2020

By Kal Weinstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Beginning in fall of 2020, Virginia will have more than Election Day. It will be more like Election Week.

Voters will go to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, to cast ballots for president and other political offices. But for the first time, Virginians will be able to vote early that year — from Oct. 24 through Oct. 31 — without needing to provide an excuse.

That is the effect of legislation passed Thursday by the General Assembly and sent to Gov. Ralph Northam, who has expressed support for the measure.

Currently, Virginia is one of 16 states that require an excuse to vote absentee. To cast an early ballot in the commonwealth, voters must provide one of a dozen reasons for voting absentee, such as having a health, religious, school or business reason that prevents the person from voting on Election Day.

That would change under SB 1026, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Lionel Spruill of Chesapeake, and HB 2790, introduced by Republican Del. Nick Rush of Montgomery County. On Thursday, the Senate joined the House in passing the final versions of both bills.

The legislation “allows for any registered voter to vote by absentee ballot in person beginning on the second Saturday immediately preceding any election in which he is qualified to vote without providing a reason or making prior application for an absentee ballot,” according to a summary by the Legislative Information System. The absentee voting period ends on the Saturday immediately before the election.

In addition, Virginia still will offer absentee voting the existing way — beginning on the 45th day before an election. But until a week and a half before the election, voters must provide an excuse to get their absentee ballots.

When lawmakers convened in January, Northam urged them to approve no-excuse absentee voting. He called the existing law “arbitrary.”

Spruill said people do not feel comfortable having to provide an excuse about why they are voting absentee.

“You’d be surprised at how many folks come down and have to give an excuse as to why they’re voting early,” he said. “There should be no excuse to vote.”

Spruill said the legislation might reduce long lines to vote at polling precincts on Election Day.

Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, co-sponsored both the House and Senate bills. She said passage of the legislation is a “victory for the whole commonwealth,” even though it will not take effect until 2020.

“It’s about time. The reason this was a bipartisan success is because citizens of Virginia have been pushing for these kinds of reforms for many years,” Kory said.

Report Shows Geographic Disparities in Health in Virginia

By Rosemarie O’Connor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- It's a five-hour drive from Manassas Park to Galax -- but in terms of life expectancy, the two cities are 25 years apart.

Residents of Manassas Park, a city of about 16,500 people in the Washington suburbs, live to 91 years old on average. But residents of Galax, a  city of about 6,600 people in Southwest Virginia, typically live to just 66.

That wide gap in life expectancy reflects the disparities in health outcomes in Virginia, according to the latest County Health Rankings from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the nation’s largest public health philanthropic organizations.  

For years, wealthy localities in Northern Virginia like Loudoun, Arlington and Fairfax counties have had the best health outcomes in the state while poor communities such as Petersburg, south of Richmond, and Galax and Covington in Southwest Virginia have some of the worst.

Health outcomes represent how long people live and how healthy people feel. They can be affected by health behaviors like smoking, diet and drug use; access to medical care; social and economic factors such as education and income; and physical environment like air quality.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation drew its data from a variety of sources including the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rankings help localities understand how various factors affect people’s health, according to the report. It said “connected and supportive communities, good schools, stable jobs, and safe neighborhoods” are the foundation for achieving a long and healthy life.

Poverty, lack of access to grocery stores and smog or other pollution can all exacerbate negative health outcomes.

Differences in health outcomes “do not arise on their own,” the report said. “Often, they are the result of policies and practices at many levels that have created deep‐rooted barriers to good health.”

These include "unfair bank lending practices, school funding based on local property taxes, and discriminatory policing and prison sentencing,” the report states.

The report emphasizes that “stable and affordable housing as an essential element of healthy communities.”

“Our homes are inextricably tied to our health,” Dr. Richard Besser, president and CEO of the foundation, said in releasing the report.

“It’s unacceptable that so many individuals and families face barriers to health because of what they have to spend on housing.”

Environmental Groups Glad About Coal Ash Cleanup Law

By Adrian Teran-Tapia, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Environmental and consumer groups applauded Gov. Ralph Northam after he signed legislation this week that aims to protect water quality by cleaning up more than 27 million cubic yards of coal ash from unlined ponds in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Northam signed into law SB 1355, sponsored by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, and HB 2786, sponsored by Del. Riley Ingram, R-Hopewell. The legislation seeks to clean up coal ash sites in the city of Chesapeake and in Prince William, Chesterfield and Fluvanna counties.

The ash is the byproduct of coal-fired power plants operated by Dominion Energy. The law will require Dominion to move the coal ash to lined landfills or recycling it in a safe manner. It will also require the closure and removal of any coal combustion residuals units, including coal ash ponds or landfills, within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

“The potential risks to public health and water quality posed by unlined coal ash ponds in the commonwealth are far too great for us to continue with business as usual,” Northam said. “This historic, bipartisan effort sets a standard for what we can achieve when we work together, across party lines, in the best interest of all Virginians. I am proud to sign this legislation into law.”

Ingram echoed those sentiments.

“I was pleased to see that the General Assembly, the governor, House, Senate and Dominion were able to all come together and come up with a great solution for the coal ash ponds and in my opinion for the betterment of everyone,” Ingram said.

The bills were co-sponsored by several lawmakers, including Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William. They contributed key components, including a ban on “cap in place” closure of unlined ponds — a method critics said could lead to water pollution. Another component is a requirement that at least 25 percent of the coal ash be recycled for concrete or other beneficial uses.

“I think this represents the first time Virginia has adopted environmental regulations that are more protective of the environment than federal law,” Surovell said. “This represents an important step forward for environmental protections in Virginia.”

Carroll Foy said she was proud that “bipartisan hard work” produced the legislation.

“At town halls and meetings with my constituents, I promised that I would fight for legislation to recycle coal ash into concrete and other materials and to excavate and remove the remainder of coal ash to lined landfills because it was the most effective way to protect public health and the environment,” Carroll Foy said.

The cleanup is expected to cost several billion dollars. Under the new law, Dominion will be able to pass on the cost to its customers. As a result, state officials have estimated, the average monthly electric bill will increase by about $5.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network thanked Northam and state legislators for working across party lines to pass the legislation.

“This legislation, which is a result of four years of persistent work by Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks and our Virginia partners, is an historic step to solve the serious and lingering pollution problem of legacy coal ash,” said Nancy Stoner, the network’s president.

She said that four years ago, Naujoks began testing water wells near some of Dominion’s coal ash ponds and discovered that lead and arsenic had contaminated nearby groundwater.

“The dangers of coal ash, leaking into groundwater, drinking wells, our rivers and streams and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, have long been documented, and we’re proud of our role in fixing the problem,” Naujoks said.

Kendyl Crawford, director of Virginia Interfaith Power & Light, said the new law was a step in the right direction. But she said the state should have required Dominion to bear the cost of the cleanup.

“It is long overdue that decades-old toxic coal ash is finally being addressed after having poisoned Virginia’s waterways. Removing millions of cubic yards of toxic material along waterways to safe, lined landfills is a step towards a healthier and more just state. Now, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that all coal ash, including that outside of the Chesapeake Bay watershed is safely recycled and disposed,” Crawford said.

“While we applaud the signing of this legislation that cleans up coal ash, once again Dominion, one of our electric utility monopolies, has shown their influence by pushing the fiscal burden to fall on electricity consumers.”

Trump’s Business Dealings Violate Constitution, Attorneys General Say

By Benjamin West, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Flanked by U.S. flags, two attorneys general argued Tuesday that President Donald Trump is violating the constitutional ban against government officials accepting gifts or favors.

Attorneys General Karl Racine of the District of Columbia and Brian Frosh of Maryland — both Democrats — made that assertion at a press conference regarding the latest chapter in an ongoing legal battle between the two jurisdictions and Trump.

In mid-2017, D.C. and Maryland sued Trump, alleging that the president has violated the emolument clauses of the U.S. Constitution as a result of his domestic and foreign business dealings through the Trump Organization. The case was heard Tuesday by a panel of three judges of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The Department of Justice continues to take the position that President Trump is above the law and that somehow, the Constitution’s anti-corruption law should not apply to him,” Racine said.

The suit involves two clauses in the U.S. Constitution:

  • The Domestic Emoluments Clause states that the president cannot profit domestically in business dealings aside from his salary, currently $400,000 per year.
  • The Title of Nobility Clause states that the federal government cannot distribute titles of nobility and that no government official can “accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind, whatever” from any foreign country without the approval of Congress.

“He’s trying to negotiate the terms of the Constitution,” Frosh said. “We have the right to have the president put our interests first and it appears that he’s not doing that, he’s putting his financial interests first.”

Racine pointed to the “horrific killing” of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, widely reported to have been orchestrated by the Saudi leadership.

“We now as Americans have to ask ourselves whether the administration’s reaction to that horrific murder was for valid diplomatic reasons, or whether it’s because the president of the United States has a financial interest that he is seeking to exploit and preserve,” Racine said.

Frosh said any payment to the Trump Organization from a foreign entity would be proof of a constitutional violation.

“The Domestic Emoluments Clause says that he only gets his salary from the United States and no other emolument,” Frosh said.

He cited the Trump International Hotel Washington, where foreign dignitaries and other guests have stayed, as problematic. The hotel is located less than a mile from the White House in a building called the Old Post Office.

“Trump Post Office Hotel is itself an emolument,” Frosh said. “So he’s violating both clauses, both of them, every single day.”

Frosh said the plaintiffs “expect to prevail” in the lawsuit. They plan to pursue the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if needed.

The attorneys general said Trump’s business empire make it “more difficult” to deal with the emoluments clauses, “but that’s what he signed up for.”

“When he ran for president, he knew he was going to have to live with these two constitutional requirements,” Frosh said. “And maybe it’s tougher for him than it would be for me or somebody else. But he ran for president; he’s subject to the Constitution just as every other American is.”

Trump and his attorneys have argued that the lawsuit has no legal merit and that D.C. and Maryland have no authority to sue the president over money his businesses may receive from foreign interests.

“The complaint rests on a host of novel and fundamentally flawed constitutional premises, and litigating the claims would entail intrusive discovery into the president’s personal financial affairs and the official actions of his Administration,” according to a document filed in court by the U.S. Justice Department.

Governor Signs Law Slashing Sales Tax on Personal Hygiene Products

By Emily Holter, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The sales tax on tampons, diapers and other personal hygiene products will be reduced by more than half beginning Jan. 1, 2020.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday that he has signed SB 1715, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, and HB 2540, proposed by Del. Kathy Byron, R-Lynchburg. The bills will lower the retail sales and use tax rate on essential personal hygiene products to 2.5 percent.

The new law will apply to feminine hygiene products and nondurable incontinence products including diapers and other materials.

“We know that menstrual supplies and diapers are necessary to leave home for work, school, and social activities,” said Boysko, who called her bill the Dignity Act. “I am so glad we have made progress on the issue of menstrual equity and at long last will have tax relief for these products that women and families have to purchase.”

Currently, consumers pay the regular sales tax rate on these items: 7 percent in Virginia’s Historic Triangle (Williamsburg, James City County and York County), 6 percent in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, and 5.3 percent elsewhere in the state.

Byron said the law will benefit Virginians of all ages.

“This legislation won widespread bipartisan support because it provides tax relief on necessities used by women and men young and old,” Byron said. “For the young family buying diapers to those purchasing other essentials for their health, the savings because of this bill will add up and be appreciated.”

Northam commended the General Assembly for passing the bills.

“I am pleased to sign this common-sense legislation that makes these necessities more accessible and affordable,” he said. “The essential nature of personal health care products is not up for debate.”

The law will make these products subject to the state’s reduced sales tax of 1.5 percent, which currently applies only to food. In addition, local governments add a 1 percent sales tax on such purchases.

Boysko had wanted to remove the so-called “tampon tax” entirely. Byron pushed for a compromise on grounds that a tax exemption for personal hygiene products would have a big effect on the state budget.

Advocate Draws From Personal Experience as Example to Youth

By Georgia Geen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — James Braxton went outside only once in the four months he spent in jail, and he ate ice chips instead of drinking water. He says he didn’t want to get used to a routine; that would have meant he was staying there.

It was in 2005 when he got a call from a friend after being fired from his job at a call center for fighting with a coworker. Braxton needed money, and accompanying a friend on a personal retaliation mission was a way to get it.

But things didn’t go according to plan. He ended up driving their car through Newport News, pursued by up to a dozen squad cars. Braxton and the three young men in the car with him were charged with possession of a firearm and larceny.

“I was almost laughing because I couldn’t believe it; I was almost in a state of shock. It didn’t really hit me until we got to jail and we’re there for hours in processing,” Braxton said. “It had already hit the news what was happening, so guys in there are treating us like, ‘Dang, y’all about to go down.’”

Braxton’s story didn’t begin with a failed robbery attempt, and it didn’t end when he left Hampton City Jail. His early years are similar to those of some of the youth he advocates for today.

He joined RISE for Youth — a statewide campaign advocating for youth justice reform — two years ago after more than a decade of working to better himself and navigate past traumas. He is now the group’s strategic engagement director.

Shortly after Braxton’s parents divorced when he was 9, his mother, Mattie Brisbane, was diagnosed with breast cancer. One of the major traumas of his childhood was thinking his mother was going to die, Braxton said.

“That was a trying time,” Braxton said. “I felt like God spared her because in the times when I needed someone the most, she’s always been there. She’s always been there, always believed in me and always supported me.”

Despite his tendency to act out in school and high levels of frustration, Brisbane said she always saw “greatness” in her son.

“Even as a toddler, he was very smart, very curious, but he was bold,” Brisbane said. “One day I went to turn on the light, and the light wouldn’t come on. A couple of things electrical didn’t work and I started looking around — he cut electrical wires because he wanted to make his own TV.”

In his early high school years, Braxton said he was “one foot in the streets and one foot out.” The area where he lived at the time — Lincoln Park, a public housing site in Hampton that was demolished in 2016 — was known for crime, drugs and violence, he said.

“By default, I just got sucked into some of the activity that was happening,” Braxton said. “I gravitated toward it. It’s where I felt welcome, it’s where I felt like I belonged.”

As a 17- and 18-year-old, Braxton acted as a stepfather to his 23-year-old girlfriend’s child. The experience was toxic, he said, and the stress interfered further with his education.

“I’m thinking about how I’m going to get out of school to get to the WIC office to get this baby some milk,” Braxton said. “I’m now taking on that responsibility as an 11th grader in high school working two jobs living a whole grown person’s life. There was nobody I could talk to about that.”

When he was a senior in high school, the stress led Braxton to attempt suicide by taking a bottle of painkillers.

“I remember waking up in the hospital and just feeling broken and the weakest I had ever felt in my life,” he said. “I vowed to never be that weak again.”

It might have improved his situation, Braxton said, if he had had a mentor — someone he could relate to.

“That would have allowed me to feel open enough to have those conversations,” Braxton said. “And then from that, [have] some real, tangible, solid answers for housing and for food and for transportation in places where I don’t have to be system-involved to access them.”

By “system,” he means the welfare system or the criminal justice system. Most young people can’t access resources for necessities like food, housing and transportation until they’re “system-involved,” Braxton said.

An alternative would be local organizations working with the local government to address those issues, he said.

Braxton experienced what he considers a similar lack of assistance after he was released from jail in 2005. He got out when his $80,000 bond was reduced to $20,000, an amount his family was able to pay.

At the time, he spent all day, every day applying for jobs — it was “application after application,” he said. The opportunity that Braxton says changed his life was when he was hired as a pediatric dental assistant.

“But it had nothing to do with the [criminal justice] system, and the system had the opportunity to do that,” Braxton said. “That has to change.”

To Braxton, that job is the reason a judge decided to give him a second chance at the end of two years of criminal proceedings in 2007. The office staff and the doctor that hired him came with him to the sentencing.

“The judge was like, ‘I don’t see this often; I don’t see young men coming in with these kinds of charges and they’re doing the positive things you’re doing and making this kind of impact,’” Braxton said.

Braxton had taken an Alford plea — in which the defendant pleads guilty without admitting to the act — to his gun charge. After three years of probation, the judge dropped the larceny charge.

Braxton worked in property management for several years before he felt he needed to make a change and connect himself to his “purpose.”

He now advocates for improvements in the criminal justice system. In January, Braxton was part of a rally at the state Capitol that urged the General Assembly to reinstate discretionary parole, which allows prisons to release certain offenders before they have completed their sentences. During the 2019 legislative session, several bills were proposed to reinstate parole; none of them passed.

Braxton said he hopes “to be an example and mentor, especially to young African-American boys that don’t have examples of fathers or leaders in their home or in their environment.”

“I think that’s where it starts,” he said, “not waiting for the state or not waiting for the government to provide answers to neighborhoods and communities.”

Virginia Electric Utilities Wiring Rural Areas for Broadband

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — If you want internet service in the rural hamlet of Honaker, in far Southwest Virginia, Cable Plus is the only game in town. With internet speeds of 3 megabits per second, customers can go online to check their email, surf social media and watch low-quality videos from streaming services, but not much else.

The cheapest Cable Plus internet package available to the 700 households in Honaker: $54 a month.

An hour away in Bristol, Virginia, residents have plenty of options to choose from for broadband. They can get high-speed service — with speeds of at least 25 Mbps — for as low as $45 a month.

The difference in internet services between urban and rural communities in Virginia is stark: Only 53 percent of rural Virginians have access to broadband internet. Urban areas have far better coverage — 96 percent, according to a 2016 study by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

That’s because internet providers profit more when their customer base is concentrated and easy to reach. In rural areas, it’s much more expensive per customer to provide high-speed internet.

Virginia lawmakers have taken steps to address geographic disparities in broadband coverage by passing a bill that will give the state’s two largest electric utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, the green light to provide broadband internet service to unserved areas.

HB 2691, sponsored by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, will create a pilot program that allows the electric utilities to expand “middle mile” broadband coverage — the infrastructure that connects the networks and core routers on the internet to local internet service providers that serve businesses and consumers directly.

The bill will allow each utility to spend up to $60 million annually on the pilot program. The companies will be able to recover that money from ratepayers.

Dominion and Appalachian Power won’t be providing high-speed internet straight to residents’ homes and businesses, however. The final connection, called the “last mile,” will be left to third-party internet providers. The last mile brings service to the end user’s premises and is typically the most expensive component of broadband infrastructure.

Nate Frost, director of new technology and energy conservation at Dominion Energy, said the program is “unconventional” for electric utilities but could help solve rural Virginia’s broadband woes.

“There’s a unique opportunity to potentially leverage some of the business that we’re going to be doing anyway,” Frost said. “But getting to that point won’t be easy.”

Under the Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power must modernize their systems, and part of that involves bringing broadband to electrical substations to support new “smart” infrastructure initiatives.

The pilot program allows the electric utilities to add extra fiber optic cables to rural substations in addition to the fiber they’re already putting in place. That additional broadband capacity will then be leased to third-party internet providers, which will provide last-mile connections to homes and businesses nearby.

O’Quinn’s bill is awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature to become law.

Evan Feinman, Northam’s chief broadband adviser, said earnings by electric utilities from leasing middle-mile infrastructure will result in lower electric bills over time and will save ratepayers an estimated $150 million over the next three years.

Those savings are based on Dominion’s 2018 Broadband Feasibility Report, in which the company outlined the potential for adding broadband capacity to rural areas.

“It’s one of those very rare win-wins where the electric companies, ratepayers and people in need of broadband service all benefit,” Feinman said.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously but drew opposition from a few Republicans in the House of Delegates. Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, voted against it.

“We’ve made great progress toward achieving this goal over the last several years,” said Byron, who chairs the state Broadband Advisory Council. “I’m concerned that the approach enacted by HB 2691 might unintentionally divert or detract from our well-established and successful efforts.”

Over the last few years, the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative has provided millions of dollars to broadband service providers to extend their service into rural areas. During its recent session, the General Assembly increased funding for the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative for the 2020 fiscal year from $4 million to $19 million.

Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, also voted against O’Quinn’s bill, citing the increased costs to ratepayers.

“This is a perversion of the system where the State Corporation Commission has the authority to set reasonable rates and to return ratepayer money that exceeds reasonable rates,” LaRock said.

It’s not unprecedented for electric utilities to provide internet services in Virginia. Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, which serves rural areas in 14 counties, announced its own broadband expansion in January 2018. The $110 million project aims to provide internet and phone service directly to consumers through a subsidiary company called Firefly Broadband.

Virginia has the fifth-highest rate of broadband adoption in the nation and ranks among the top 10 states in terms of its average peak internet connectivity speed, according to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Up to 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic flows through Northern Virginia.

But state officials have been concerned about the lack of broadband in rural areas, saying such connectivity is critical to economic development. Northam has made broadband expansion a priority, proposing that the state spend $250 million over the next 10 years to address the unequal distribution of internet service.

“Broadband internet is inarguably a necessity for participation in a 21st-century economy, and many Virginians have been left without quality access for far too long,” Northam said. “By ending this disconnect, we can better attract and support business and entrepreneurship, educate all Virginia students and expand access to cost-saving telehealth services.”

Institute of Contemporary Art Hosts Queer Film Collective Dirty Looks

By Emily Holter, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- It has been eight years since the first showing of “Dirty Looks,” a queer film series that traces contemporary LGBTQ aesthetics through historical works.

Beginning in New York City, “Dirty Looks” has been shown in several U.S. cities and international settings, including screenings at The Museum of Modern Art and The Kitchen in New York and The Hammer in Los Angeles.

The film series’ winter tour features cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Chicago and Richmond.

The Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University is hosting a free showing of “Dirty Looks” starting at 6 p.m. on April 3.
For David Riley, a graduate curatorial assistant at the institute, the film series offers insight into queer culture and how it has shifted throughout history.

“We’re looking forward to hosting this event and hoping to hold more events like these,” Riley said.  

Each tour has a different film lineup. This tour includes films from Angie Stardust, Zina Zurner and other queer contemporaries.  

“When I’m picking films for the program, I love going through old film guides finding titles that are interesting and not well known,” said Nordeen, who launched the Dirty Looks Inc. collective in 2011 in New York City because there was a lack of consistent space for queer film and art.  

“I prefer finding filmmakers whose works haven’t been canonized yet.”

“Dirty Looks” attracted an audience from the start.

“The first showing we did we ran out of chairs, and it was in a blizzard,” Nordeen said. The collective’s goal is to build community by looking at queer history and to create a consistent space for queer films, he explained.

Three years ago, the collective expanded to include an on-location segment in which its films are shown in city spaces that were traditionally queer spaces.

“Art is made in life,” Nordeen said. “When we’re looking at queer art, it is communal.”

Although Nordeen expanded the collective from New York to Los Angeles, he said it is important to screen these films in other cities.

“You know, why not Richmond?” Nordeen said. “Places like New York City and Los Angeles -- they need me the least.”  

Nordeen and other members of the collective will host a panel discussion following the showing, and take questions from the audience.

Animal Welfare Groups Happy About 2019 Legislation

Adrian Teran-Tapia, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Animal welfare advocates are pleased by the results of the 2019 General Assembly, which increased penalties for animal cruelty and mandated that pets receive more room to roam if tethered outside.

“Overall, this year’s General Assembly brought significant victories for Virginia’s dogs and cats,” said Matthew Gray of the Virginia Humane Society.

One of the standout bills was SB 1604, also known as “Tommie’s Bill,” which increases the penalty for animal abuse from a misdemeanor to a Class 6 felony.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, gained local and national attention and support after a pit bull was intentionally set on fire in February at a Richmond park. The dog, Tommie, eventually died from his injuries.

DeSteph’s bill and a companion measure in the House — HB 1874, introduced by Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland — easily passed both the House and Senate and now await the governor’s signature.

Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline, successfully sponsored two animal-related bills:

  • HB 1625 clarifies the definition of adequate shelter to protect an animal from heat or cold. The new definition says the shelter must be “properly shaded” during hot weather and have a windbreak during cold weather.
  • HB 1626 gives animal control officers permission to confiscate any tethered cocks that are being used or suspected of being used for animal fighting.

Orrock also introduced HB 1827, which said that animals tethered outside must have a tether four times the animal’s length or 15 feet long, whichever is greater. That bill cleared the House but was killed by a Senate committee.

According to the Humane Society, Virginia remains in the top tier as it relates to state animal protection laws, but several animal rights activists say Virginia can do more. For example, state officials should address the issue of tethering, said Tabitha Treloar of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, introduced a bill similar to Orrock’s tethering proposal in the Senate. SB 1025 passed after revisions and is on Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

It would require tether lengths to be at least three times the size of the animal or 10 feet long, whichever is greater. The bill would also prohibit adding weights to the end of the tether. Farm animals would be exempt from the tethering provisions.

Although the bill is not the big win animal activist hoped for, Treloar said it is a step in the right direction.

“We think this is going to provide additional clarity to the animal control officers who are responsible for enforcing code around the state, and we are glad we could come to a compromise,” Treloar said.

Also during the legislative session that ended Feb. 24, the General Assembly passed SB 1675, sponsored by Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg. It would mandate a minimum six-month imprisonment sentence for anyone who maliciously kills or injures any law enforcement animal. The punishment would be separate from and run consecutively with any other sentence.

Animal testing was another issue brought up this session. Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, proposed SB 1642, which sought to prohibit cosmetic manufacturers and suppliers from producing and selling any animal-tested cosmetics. This bill also would have authorized civil actions against violators, with penalties of up to $5,000.

“Animal testing for cosmetics is cruel and unnecessary and is deeply unpopular with the public,” Boysko said. “My bill aimed to ensure that animals are not harmed for cosmetics sold in Virginia, thus meeting consumer demand, saving animals and helping the U.S. match global progress on this issue.”

Boysko’s bill passed the Senate, 22-18, but was killed in the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources.

Kazoos and Chants Drown Out Westboro Church’s Message of Hate

By Evie King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Randy Blythe of Richmond’s heavy metal band Lamb of God met demonstrators from Westboro Baptist Church at the Virginia Capitol on Monday with an unlikely weapon: kazoos.

Armed with colorful plastic instruments, Blythe and more than 100 other counterprotesters drowned out the six WBC members with a cacophony of chaotic noise.

“I couldn’t bring my band, so we brought kazoos instead,” Blythe said.

Westboro Baptist Church, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” came to the Capitol to protest Del. Danica Roem as the first transgender woman to be elected to the Virginia General Assembly.

In a news release, WBC, which condemns LGBTQ rights, called Roem a “slave to sin” among other inflammatory statements.

As a rebuke to WBC’s hateful remarks, Roem encouraged her Twitter followers to donate to her campaign for re-election in the 13th House District, which includes Manassas Park and part of Prince William County. With the hashtag #westborobackfire, more than 900 contributors haveraised over $34,000 since March 1.

Jill Hammer, who supports Roem, showed up to celebrate her city’s diversity.

“Richmond is fueled by creativity, fueled by musicians and artists, and we’re here to have a party and show them that Richmond is about love for everyone,” Hammer said.

The music coming from WBC member Shirley Phelps-Roper’s speaker was barely audible over the counterprotesters’ unconventional chorus of noise.

Singing along to parodies of pop songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with lyrics modified to match the group’s message, Phelps-Roper said WBC intentionally chooses well-known music. “We’re trying to talk to this generation, meet them where they live,” Phelps-Roper said.

Less than 30 minutes later, the WBC protesters moved north to a sidewalk near VCU’s campus, demonstrating against the college’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Students stopped as they walked to class, some vocally protested while others stopped and stared.

In a statement to the university community, VCU President Michael Rao said the WBC demonstrators “detest what we hold dear: the beautiful diversity of our community, the inclusive commitments we make to each other, and our values of collaboration and integrity.”

At the counterdemonstration at VCU, Meredith Carrington held a sign that read, “God’s love is greater than your hate, Westboro.” Carrington said she felt it was her duty to show up to protest WBC’s messages.

“I think that Richmond has a long history of hate that we’ve done a tremendous amount to overcome, and I think we need to continue to do that in real ways,” Carrington said.

VCU student Tiana Roomes said she knew WBC’s message was directed at VCU students. “They are directing this to us because we support gay rights and preferred pronouns for transgender [individuals], and we support our military — and they hate that,” Roomes said.

The six WBC members were again drowned out by VCU students and counterprotesters who came from the Capitol. Within a half-hour, the group dispersed peacefully as kazoos buzzed and students chanted, “We’re here, we’re queer, nobody wants you here.”

Researcher Publishes Open Letter to Lynched Culpeper Man

This family picture of the Thompson family, about 1905 or 1906.From left, Lillian, Myrtle, mother Ida and Allie Thompson. Charles Allie Thompson was murdered at the hands of a lynch mob in Culpeper County, Virginia on Nov. 25, 1918. Photo courtesy Lorraine Nickens, niece, and Otis Jordon, nephew, of Allie Thompson.

The simple stone that marks the grave of Allie Thompson, in the family cemetery in Amissville. Photo by Allison Brophy Champion

By Kaytlin Nickens, Capital News Service

 

RICHMOND — “Working in the trenches, side by side with people,” as Zann Nelson said, highlighted the beliefs her father instilled in her youth. Growing up in Culpeper County, Nelson said she learned of a deeper truth to American history, and her father reminded her that people should be seen through the lens of equality.

Those experiences motivated her pursuit to make Virginia the first state to acknowledge the horrific crimes of the Jim Crow era.

Nelson, a researcher and a columnist for the Culpeper Times, initiated a resolution that passed the General Assembly acknowledging with “profound regrets” the lynching of over 80 African-American men. Nelson is the former director of the History of Culpeper Museum, where her research began.

“The culminating thing for me was when I took the position at the local museum and I could see first-hand histories were not being told,” Nelson said.

In 2005, a reporter contacted Nelson about the lynching decades earlier of an 18-year-old black man, Charles Allie Thompson of Culpeper. At that time, she said the only thing she had come across were two news articles published two days after Thompson’s murder.

“I wanted to know more,” Nelson said. She spent the next 13 years investigating the 1918 lynching of Thompson, hoping to bring some reconciliation to his family.

“Thirteen and a half years of perseverance is what got this resolution to pass,” Nelson said.

Nelson then worked with Culpeper Star-Exponent reporter Allison Brophy Champion on a series about the homicide and the various families affected. But she realized she needed to expand her scope.

“I discussed with a friend -- she brought it to my attention that I was just going after one person and encouraged me to look further into some kind of request,” said Nelson.

Nelson began emailing and visiting legislators. Nelson first reached out to Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon. The legislators asked Nelson if she would be willing to draft a resolution.

“The resolution is more than a piece of paper and consists of directives that will encourage ongoing research and recognition: particularly in the form of the database and the collaboration with the (Virginia Department of Historic Resources) on a marker program,” Nelson said. “This is not the end, but rather the beginning of a long and overdue journey to truth and the hope of reconciliation.”

Nelson took her resolution draft to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, which helped her advance her resolution, by forming a work study group called the History of Lynching in Virginia.

The resulting measures, HJ 655 and SJ 297, passed the General Assembly unanimously. The legislation calls “for reconciliation among all Virginians” regarding the racial terror, state-sanctioned segregation and discrimination faced by African-Americans during the Jim Crow years.

According to the identical resolutions, the state will document the lynchings online and with historic markers. The goal is to bring awareness of Virginia’s lynching history, for “healing and reconciliation in Virginia’s still-wounded communities and for families and descendants affected by lynchings.”

The resolutions note that more than 4,000 lynchings took place throughout the South between 1877 and 1950. At least 80 lynchings — some scholars say more than 100 — occurred in Virginia.

After the legislation was passed, Nelson wrote an open letter to Thompson, who went by Allie, published in the Culpeper Times on Feb. 21. In her letter, Nelson details the process for getting the resolutions passed and the importance of Thompson’s legacy.

“Allie, I assure you it is not just lip-service to the shameful past,” Nelson wrote in her letter.

“In closing please allow me to thank you. You may think that your loss of life was for nothing, but you would be wrong. Allie, it is because of you that this historic piece of legislation has come to pass: the first for any state in the United States.”

Governor Signs Law Banning All Tobacco Products at School

By Alexandra Zernik, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — School boards must ban any tobacco or other forms of nicotine products from all school property and school-sponsored events under legislation signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Ralph Northam.

Northam signed HB 2384 and SB 1295, which expands existing law to include:

·A wider variety of nicotine products, such as vapes and e-cigarettes in addition to tobacco

·A broader range of school property, such as school buses and school-sponsored events off campus.

The new law, which takes effect July 1, will require all local school boards to develop and implement comprehensive tobacco-free policies.

“The recent and dramatic rise in youth smoking and vaping represents a serious public health crisis that requires our attention and action,” Northam said. “We have a responsibility to prevent our children from being exposed to all types of tobacco or nicotine-containing products.”

Northam noted that when he was a state senator, he led efforts to enact a statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants. He sees HB 2384, sponsored by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, and SB 1295, introduced by Sen. Lionel Spruill, D-Chesapeake, in the same way.

“As governor, I am proud to sign this legislation that will make Virginia schools and communities safer and healthier,” Northam said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that use of tobacco products by American youth is on the rise — largely because of the increasing popularity of e-cigarettes.

Nationwide last year, more than 27 percent of all high school students used a tobacco product within the past 30 days, according to a survey by the CDC. About 21 percent of the students had used e-cigarettes, and 8 percent regular cigarettes. (Some survey respondents used both types of products.)

That represented a big increase in vaping: In the 2017 survey, fewer than 12 percent of high school students had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

Northam noted that as of fall 2017, about 12 percent of Virginia high school students were using e-cigarettes — almost twice the proportion of teenagers smoking traditional cigarettes.

The U.S. surgeon general and the federal Food and Drug Administration have declared the sudden increase in e-cigarette use an epidemic. They fear a new generation of young people may become addicted to nicotine if actions aren’t taken to prevent it.

Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources, Daniel Carey, praised the legislation signed by Northam.

“This law will not only protect Virginia’s children from exposure to second-hand smoke, it will also help to establish a tobacco-free norm, allowing students to make better choices about their health when it comes to saying no to tobacco products outside of school,” Carey said.

According to State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver, a statewide survey found that 84 percent of adults in Virginia — including 75 percent of smokers — agree that all nicotine products should be banned from school grounds and activities.

“While 40 school districts in Virginia already have established this type of policy, the new law will expand protection to children in all of our public schools,” Oliver said.

Northam previously signed into law legislation raising from 18 to 21 the age to buy tobacco and nicotine products.

Attorney General Aims to Help Virginians Avoid Scams

By Ben Burstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Nearly 12 million consumer complaints have been filed in the United States, in just a few years, ranging from reports of identity theft to consumer rights. The first week in March marks the Federal Trade Commission's National Consumer Protection Week, created to educate consumers about their rights and available resources.

In Virginia, Attorney General Mark Herring’s Consumer Protection Section will cover a different topic every day this week to highlight different ways consumers can protect themselves and their money.

Herring addressed environmental consumer issues Tuesday, such as with Fiat Chrysler and auto parts supplier Robert Bosch. The company reached a settlement over the use of “emissions defeat devices,” which turn on a vehicle's emissions control sensor while being tested, but then turned off during normal operation in some of their vehicles. The emissions control sensor in vehicles reduces pollutant gas discharged while being driven.

Bosch is required to fix affected vehicles and provide owners with restitution. A total of $171 million is being paid back to the states involved, including $5.3 million to Virginia. That money is being used to either buy back, or fix vehicles that were impacted. Some of the money will be paid to the National Association of Attorneys General for training and future enforcement purposes.

"Businesses who lie to consumers about their products must be held accountable, and Virginians who purchased these misrepresented products deserve compensation," Herring said.

Monday, Herring’s office focused on ways its Consumer Protection Section can help Virginians. The organization has five units and was created to protect consumers from fraudulent business practices, and to respond to consumer complaints. "State consumer protection efforts have become increasingly important as the Trump administration continues to dismantle and undermine federal consumer protection efforts, especially from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau," Herring said.

Since 2014, the section has recovered over $292 million in relief for consumers, according to Herring.

"My Consumer Protection Section has returned millions of dollars to Virginia consumers who were scammed by predatory lenders, shady debt collectors, and businesses that try to skirt the law. I will continue to fight for Virginia consumers and make sure they have the tools they need to protect themselves," Herring said.

The office has a webpage housed with different resources for consumers to keep up with recent scams, view business records and submit complaints. There is also information on how to obtain a free credit report from a credit bureau agency, and how to check for fraudulent activity.

Federal law requires free access to a credit report from each bureau annually. Anything suspicious on a credit report or financial account should be reported immediately; the FTC has information on credit freezes to prohibit anyone from obtaining information.

This week Herring also announced the start of the Wells Fargo Consumer Redress Review Program, which allows those who have not received reimbursement in the unauthorized account scandal to have their cases reviewed by Wells Fargo. The program, which reviews if a consumer is eligible for compensation, is a result of a December settlement with Wells Fargo.

"I would encourage any Virginians who believe they have been a victim of Wells Fargo's deceitful business practices to reach out to the company, to see what kind of relief they are owed," Herring said.

On Tuesday the office also delved into student debt protection. On Wednesday, the focus is protections for veterans, from scams that attempt to obtain pensions. Thursday the office will tackle protections consumers have from predatory lending scams, and also tech-related scams.  On Friday, consumers can learn about different scams and fraud tactics, and how to identify them.

National Consumer Protection Week is in its 21st year since being created by the Federal Trade Commission in 1998.  

Gold Box in Richmond Park Connects People Around Globe

By Andrew Gionfriddo, Capital News Service


RICHMOND -- It sounds like science fiction, but for the past several weeks, visitors to Monroe Park have been able to step inside a large gold-colored shipping container and have a conversation with people in Mexico, Sweden and other countries around the world.


The futuristic technology is a portal featuring a large-screen monitor and high-speed internet. It connects to dozens of similar portals across the globe.

The device, built by a New York-based company called Shared Studios, was installed at the suggestion of Richmond businessman Andy Stefanovich, a thought leader who helped organize the first TEDxRVA in 2013.


Stefanovich brought his idea to Alice Massie, president of the Monroe Park Conservancy, which manages the park. Massie said it did not take much convincing for her to agree to install the portal.


“It’s a little bit of an element of surprise,” she said. “Why a gold box in the park?”


Shared Studios has been installing portals since December 2014. The first was between New York and Tehran, Iran.


“Everyday New Yorkers and everyday Iranians could walk and meet someone new and have a conversation with someone they otherwise wouldn’t have the context or opportunity to engage with,” said Jake Levin, chief operating officer of Shared Studios. “We expected people to stay in for five minutes, and they ended up staying for 45 minutes or longer and having really powerful conversations, so it kind of grew from there.”


Richmond’s portal, Shared Studios’ 41st, was installed in mid-January in Monroe Park. The news spread by word of mouth, Massie said. Virginia Commonwealth University, which surrounds the park, provided a strong server to help deliver the clearest and most responsive experience possible.

“What I was surprised about was how much people were willing to do for it,” Massie said.


The portal is privately funded for a year. Local organizers are reaching out to potential sponsors to keep it in the city after January 2020. It will remain in Monroe Park until May 1 and then head to another area of the city.


“One of the ideas was moving it to a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of experiences during the summer,” Massie said. “You have kids in summer school and in camps. What if they got the chance to interact?”


Massie hopes the project will help promote the city across the nation and around the world. “We want people to know Richmond beyond Virginia and the East Coast,” she said.


The portal is an opportunity for Richmond residents to share their thoughts with people elsewhere.


“It’s not only importing things from the world to inspire us, but also what are we going to export?” said Karen Manning, who serves as a portal ambassador, communicating with other portals, organizing events and helping people use the device.


From sharing urban garden tips with people in Los Angeles to jazz musicians jamming with Appalachian musicians, the portal transports locals for a moment in time. By walking into a container and talking to a stranger, they come back from the exchange with more cultural knowledge.


“It’s all about understanding how similar people can be,” said Taylor Logue, another Richmond portal ambassador.


“You can talk with someone you have nothing in common with culturally and still very quickly get to a meaningful conversation,” Logue said.


Those conversations can break down barriers, said Sanaz Habibi, the curator for the portal in Stockholm, Sweden.


“Even with different socio-political atmospheres, we’re still struggling with the same issues,” Habibi said.


Shared Studios’ next step is to make the portals portable. Manning said the company hopes to develop a way to bring the devices -- perhaps on trucks or as inflatable portals -- to remote areas.

Green Book Helped Black Travelers Navigate Racist Terrain

By Kaytlin Nickens, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Oscar-winning film “Green Book” has spurred interest in the original Negro Motorist Guide that many African-Americans consulted when traveling in the South during the Jim Crow era. Virginia, and especially Richmond, played a key role in the book’s development.

The movie depicts the African-American pianist Don Shirley’s concert tour in 1962 in the Deep South and the friendship that developed between Shirley and his cab driver, Tony Lip. The movie ends with Shirley giving Lip a copy of the Negro Motorist Guide: Green Book.

The guidebook was first published in 1936 by Victor Hugo Green, a postal carrier in the Harlem section of New York. Green’s wife, Alma Duke, was from Richmond. Green was inspired to write the book in part by the discrimination he and his wife faced on trips to her racially segregated hometown.

“With Green’s wife being from Virginia, he decided to make trips less humiliating and reached out to fellow mailmen all over the country,” Calvin Alexander Ramsey, an author and playwright who has done extensive research on the subject, told The New York Times in 2015.

Green knew the risks African-American travelers faced when entering a “whites only” establishment. So with information gathered from fellow postal workers and other sources, Green put together his guidebook.

“The idea of the Green Book is to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable,” Green wrote.

For Virginia, the 1938 issue of the Green Book listed more than 50 hotels, tourist homes, restaurants, beauty parlors and other businesses that welcomed African-Americans.

Ten of those establishments were in Richmond. One was the YWCA, built in 1914. The organization has worked to help families in Richmond during a time when racism and segregation prevailed.

The YWCA is still on Fifth Street in Richmond, but many of the local establishments listed in the Green Book are gone.

Only a third of the travel guide’s sites still exist, according to the Smithsonian Channel, which has produced a documentary about the book.

In the documentary, Dr. Henrie Monteith Treadwell, a civil rights activist, said Green’s travel guide reflected a significant and troubling time in U.S. history when many businesses openly discriminated against African-Americans.

“It’s important to have everyone in this nation examine the significance of the Green Book,” Treadwell said. “If you don’t see the history, if you don’t see where it was, how can you say it happened?”

The Smithsonian Channel produced the documentary because of popular interest in the “Green Book” movie and the controversy it has raised. Although the film won an Oscar and Golden Globe for best picture, many critics say it contains factual inaccuracies and unjustly tells the story from a white person’s point of view.

The documentary can provide historical perspective on the actual Green Book, said David Royle, the Smithsonian Channel’s chief programming officer. “We are proud to tell the true story behind this remarkable guide and to shine new light on this disturbing yet important period in American history.”

He noted that before Green published his guidebook, it was hard for African-Americans to know where they could travel. African-American travelers faced widespread discrimination — and not just in the South.

“During the first half of the 20th century, throughout Jim Crow and continuing into the era of the civil rights movement, segregation was a legal reality in the American South,” the Smithsonian Channel reported. “When African-Americans journeyed north and west, however, they encountered racism that spanned the entire country.”

The final edition of the Green Book was published in 1966 — shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations. In earlier issues of his publication, Victor Green said he looked forward to the day when the Green Book would no longer be needed.

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,” Green wrote. “That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication. For then we can go as we please without embarrassment.”

General Assembly Expands Revenge Porn Law to Include Fake Nudes

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill to expand revenge porn laws to include realistic fake images.

In 2014, Virginia outlawed the dissemination of explicit photos or videos without the consent of the person seen in the images. The images may have been originally shared in agreement between both parties, but in cases of revenge porn, get posted online by people seeking to embarrass the victim.

“They put them on a website with the intent to coerce, harass or maliciously hurt those folks,” said Del. Marcus B. Simon, D-Fairfax.

Simon introduced HB 2678 to protect victims of an emerging trend known as “deepfakes.” These realistically fabricated images and videos are becoming more common as modern software develops and social media creates easier access to images.

“These days you don’t even need to actually have photos like that — of the person, in your possession … all you have to have are pictures of their face,” Simon said. “You can use artificial intelligence to wrap that on the body.”

Roughly 10 million Americans have been threatened with or become victims of revenge porn. Women are twice as likely to be threatened by men, according to a 2016 study by the Data and Society Research Institute.

“The non-consensual dissemination of intimate photos or videos is not just humiliating for victims, but it can also carry significant emotional, psychological and even financial repercussions,” Simon said.

In a 2015 study from the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, 51 percent of victims of revenge porn indicated that they had considered committing suicide, and 39 percent said the crime affected their career and professional lives. Ninety percent of victims, according to the same group, are women.

Revenge porn laws now exist in 41 states and Washington, D.C., but according to Simon’s team, HB 2678 is “one of the first of its kind in the country.”

The bill adds language to existing law that includes protection for victims when their image is used in the creation, adaptation or modification of a video or picture. Violators of the law could be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a sentence of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

“Deepfakes are yet another malicious tool used to harass and terrorize individuals, who are most often women,” Simon said.

If signed by the governor, the “deepfake” cyber harassment bill will go into effect July 1.

Black-owned Restaurants Serve Culture and Cuisine

By Madison Manske, Capital News Service

 RICHMOND — “People in Richmond don’t talk to each other,” said Kelli Lemon, owner of Urban Hang Suite. She created her coffee shop last year to make a comfortable space for customers to connect with one another despite their differences.

Lemon is also tri-owner of the Virginia Black Restaurant Experience — an opportunity for people throughout the Richmond and Henrico area to connect and to enjoy the diversity of meals offered by black-owned restaurants.

The third annual Richmond Black Restaurant Experience starts Sunday and runs through March 10. This year the event features 30 restaurants as well as food trucks, caterers and local chefs.

The theme is Culture Meets Cuisine, and the food is served up for a good cause: It will raise money for the Mary G. Brown Transitional Center, a nonprofit agency that helps people with housing, job training and other services. With every event ticket purchased, proceeds will go directly to the center. Events that serve alcohol will give 100 percent of their sales to the center.

Each restaurant participating in the RBRE will have a passport that lists all other restaurants included in the experience. Mama J’s, Vagabond, Pig & Brew and Urban Hang Suite are a small handful of what to expect — with vegan options available at certain restaurants.

Throughout the week, the RBRE will also sponsor various events that require a ticket:

  • Mobile Soul Sunday on Sunday (March 3)
  • A Seat At The Table — Dinner Party Social on Monday (March 4)
  • Zumba and Cocktails with Jackie Paige and DJ Nobe on Monday (March 4)
  • Wine Tasting and Pairing at C’est Le Vin on Tuesday (March 5)
  • Hip Hop Karaoke with Pro DJ Direct and Unlocking RVA on Tuesday (March 5)
  • Afrikana Film Festival - Invisible Vegan on Thursday (March 7)
  • ART for the SOUL on Friday (March 8)
  • Brunch Trolley Tour on Saturday (March 9)
  • Diaspora and Untold RVA on Saturday (March 9)
  • Stick A Fork In It! on Sunday (March 10)

In its first year, the RBRE consisted of 19 restaurants. Last year, 10 restaurants joined the list bringing it to 29. Every year, more jobs are created and more money is raised through special event ticket sales.

The experience was created by Lemon, Amy Wentz and Shemicia Brown with the aim of addressing economic disparities within the city’s minority-owned business community as well as advancing Richmond’s growing culinary tourism scene.

The inaugural event helped launch the business the three women operate as Virginia Black Restaurant Experience. Events such as the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience operate under the VBRE umbrella, Lemon said. The women organize the annual RBRE with support from Dominion Energy.

“We felt like what we do is bigger than just a week, so we started Virginia Black Restaurant Experience,” Lemon said. “It’s just an experience of celebrating culture and cuisine that often times gets ignored for various different reasons.”

Benefiting a community organization

For the last two years, the beneficiary of the RBRE was Renew Richmond, an organization dedicated to increasing healthy food efforts by creating urban gardens and offering educational and other programs.

“We wanted to give someone else the opportunity to be able to grow their nonprofit,” Lemon said.

This year’s beneficiary, the Mary G. Brown Transitional Center, is a partner in the Richmond Food Justice Corridor, a network of organizations seeking to address food access, build community, reduce violence, inspire youth and accomplish other community goals.

Richmond is a popular food destination where Lemon says minorities in the food industry often get overlooked. When Lemon opened Urban Hang Suite in October, she wanted to open a space that allowed engagement to anyone who walks in the door.

Located at 304 E. Broad St., her coffee shop offers a traditional grab ’n’ go setting in the front with an open space in the back for people to connect.

According to Lemon, black-owned restaurants can face challenges in terms of obtaining financing, promoting and managing the business.

“Because of that lack, we found it important to be an assistant or just to be an ally to these restaurant owners in pursuit of giving them a true, proper place within the Richmond culinary scene,” Lemon said. “You have to realize that in some of these smaller black-owned restaurants, they’re the chef, they’re the marketer, the GM — they may be a host one day.”

Inner City Blues, home of Carolina Bar B Que, has participated in the RBRE every year so far. Co-owner Alicia Hawkins said she and her husband see higher sales each year, and that allows them to be more active in the business and the community.

“Richmond is a foodie town, and a lot of times with the small businesses, a lot of people don’t know that these small businesses exist,” Hawkins said. “I have customers come in all the time to say, ‘We didn’t know you were here,’ which is kind of strange.”

Before the restaurant moved to 3015 Nine Mile Road in 2014, it was Inner City Blues Takeout on Gilpin Court in Jackson Ward. When the landlord wanted to make changes, Hawkins and her husband had to relocate. After the owner of their current building retired, the space opened up for them.

“It was a business opportunity that it was just as if God had opened the doors,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins went to the original Armstrong High School. Having grown up in the area, she was familiar with her new business location.

Hawkins said the RBRE is a chance to showcase restaurants like hers.

“We also saw the lack of black-owned restaurants in the larger restaurant weeks,” Lemon said.

Richmond is home to many food festivals from Richmond Oktoberfest to Festival of India. According to Lemon, when VBRE was created, the organizers got criticized and called racist for celebrating African-American restaurants.

“We had to remind everyone of the other festivals that happen all the time in this city,” Lemon said. “All these festivals celebrated culture and heritage, and that’s all we’re trying to do.”

For a full list of participating restaurants and event/ticket sale information, visit www.vablackrestaurantexperience.com. The website also has a link for donations.

“It’s very important for those that are not familiar with this week to know that it is open to everyone,” Lemon said. “We hope that people come out of their comfort zones for this week.”

General Assembly Legislative Scorecard

Here is an infographic, created by Capital News Service, showing how many bills each Delegate or Senator introduced this session and how many of those passed or failed.

Delegate Tyler introduced 6, 4 of which passed. Senator Lucas introduced 10 bills, 3 of which passed.

 

The Williamsburg Winery’s “Petite Fleur” Awarded Gold Medal at Governor’s Cup Competition

By Kal Weinstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Gov. Ralph Northam raised a toast to the state's burgeoning (and burgundy) wine industry at the Virginia Wineries Association’s Governor's Cup gala. Among the gold medal recipients on Tuesday night was the 2017 Petite Fleur, from The Williamsburg Winery.  

The Petite Fleur was one of 68 gold medal recipients of the more than 500 wines submitted from across the state.

 A creation from winemaker Matthew Meyer, the Petite Fleur is a blend of Muscat Ottonel and Vidal Blanc, offering hints of apricot, peach, pear, melon and other tropical fruits.

“It is a dessert wine, but it can go with cheese or foie gras,” he said.

Fifteen years ago, Meyer came to Virginia from Napa Valley, California, because of the potential he saw in the state’s young wine industry.

“My inspiration was just to come out here and get involved in something that was, at that time, just starting to grow,” he said. “In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen an absolute incredible transformation of the wine quality in Virginia, which is exciting to see.”

The Williamsburg Winery’s president and CEO, Patrick Duffeler II, said Virginia has proven without a doubt that it can produce wines that go toe-to-toe with the best the industry has to offer.

“It’s not because I say so. It’s because the wine critics say so,” Duffeler said. “We are just now getting out of our infancy and growing into an awkward adolescence, and I think the best has yet to come.”

Kathryn Parsons, who traveled to Richmond to represent The Williamsburg Winery at this year’s gala, said the 2017 Petite Fleur is available in their retail shop, their website, and at their Colonial Williamsburg location.

“It’s a very popular wine. We don’t do a whole lot in the way of dessert wines,” Parsons said. “So for our clients that like something a bit sweeter, it’s the perfect mix.”

Parsons said the wine is not “overly sweet,” and that “there’s enough acidity to balance that so it just feels bright and fruity.”

Every wine submitted to the competition was required to have been made from 100 percent Virginia fruit. Of the gold medal recipients, 12 of the top-scoring wines comprised the Governor’s Case, from which the winner of the Cup was announced at Tuesday night’s gala.

Before an audience of hundreds of people, Northam awarded the first-place trophy to Horton Vineyards for their 2016 Petite Manseng.

“Virginia’s wine industry has uncorked remarkable growth in recent years, generating over a billion dollars in economic impact annually and creating thousands of job opportunities for Virginians,” Northam said.

Following the event, Gov. Northam’s office released a statement giving further praise to Virginia’s blossoming wine industry.

“Virginia winemakers have developed a fluency in reading the signs from their soil and growing distinctive varietals that have found a home in Virginia,” the statement said.

Safe Driving Advocates Lament Defeat of ‘Hands-Free’ Legislation

By Katja Timm, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Traffic safety advocates are upset by the surprise defeat of legislation that would have prohibited motorists in Virginia from holding their cellphones while driving.

They said the legislation — HB 1811 and SB 1341, which died as the General Assembly adjourned Sunday — would have helped prevent accidents caused by distracted driving.

“I think we’re very disappointed,” said Janet Brooking, executive director of DRIVE SMART Virginia, a nonprofit group that promotes traffic safety. “We had been working very hard to make sure the bills advanced.”

For much of the legislative session, the bills appeared headed toward passage.

The House and Senate had each passed slightly different versions of HB 1811, sponsored by Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick, and SB 1341, sponsored by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George.

One version said: “It is unlawful for any person, while driving a moving motor vehicle on the highways in the Commonwealth, to hold a handheld personal communications device.”

Another version said it would be unlawful for a driver “to hold in his hand a handheld personal communications device.”

Looking back, Brooking said amending the bill allowed opponents to sabotage the legislation.

“It’s not about the language of the amendment,” she said. “It’s about what happens to bills like this. The amendment was thrown in there to strategically put the bill in harm’s way.”

When a conference committee of House members and senators convened to resolve the matter the day before the session ended, the legislation was changed significantly. The committee recommended that drivers still be allowed to talk on their cellphones — they just couldn’t “view, read, or enter data.”

The conference committee’s report then was rejected in the House — and so the legislation died.

As a result, the current law, adopted in 2009, remains unchanged: It is illegal to text and send emails while driving, but not to use phone apps such as Snapchat, Facebook or Instagram, or to talk on the phone.

Brooking said she believes that fatalities and accidents would decrease if Virginia had stronger laws to stop driving distractions. That has happened in other states that have implemented “hands-free” driving laws.

In mid-2018, the governor of Georgia signed the “Hands-Free Georgia Act,” which is almost identical to the original versions of the legislation proposed this year in the Virginia General Assembly. The act made it illegal for Georgia motorists to hold a handheld telecommunications device while driving.

Since the law took effect, traffic fatalities have dropped 14 percent in Georgia, according to the Glenda Mitchell Law Firm of Cartersville, Georgia.

Brooking sees a silver lining in the defeat of the “hands-free” bills at the Virginia Capitol. The legislation received widespread media coverage and raised awareness about the problem of drivers using cellphones.

“The press that we got on this bill was unparalleled,” Brooking said. “Through this process, we have educated and raised visibility towards the subject of distracted driving.”

Education and legal changes will be necessary to adequately address the problem, Brooking said. She said safe driving advocates will not give up pushing for stronger laws during the General Assembly’s next session.

“People are still being killed in our roadways,” Brooking said. “We can’t just walk away from this; people are dying.”

Bills to Protect Landowners in Pipeline Cases Fail

By Ben Burstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Landowners fighting to keep their property from being taken by pipeline building companies will continue footing the legal bills after two bills failed in the House.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said he introduced the bills to give landowners who don’t want pipeline construction on their land a fair chance against Dominion, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, Southern Gas and other companies involved in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

SB 1404 would have required pipeline companies to pick the costs incurred by homeowners in eminent domain legal battles.

SB 1403 sought to amend state law and require the entities acquiring the property to pay all costs of court proceedings. It also would have required pipeline companies to provide compensation for homeowners. The compensation would have been at least 25 percent more than the company’s initial offer for the land.

Because the pipeline project was approved by the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, the companies may invoke eminent domain — a right given to the government to take property for public use — if landowners refuse to accept compensation for their property.

“The pipeline companies have all the power, in the General Assembly and in condemning the property of small landowners,” Petersen stated after the bills failed. “My bills would have leveled the playing field in a small way. The House just missed it. We’ll be back.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a 600-mile underground pipeline that would deliver natural gas from West Virginia to the southwest region of the state and North Carolina.

Over 85 percent of affected landowners have entered into easement agreements to allow construction, according to the project website. Those landowners received compensation. The remaining easements needed to begin construction are being challenged in court. Such legal battles have halted construction. The pipeline was scheduled to start operating this year, but the new estimated completion date is between 2020 and 2021.

Residents have also lost property in the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline project that runs from West Virginia to southwest Virginia. Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth Dillon allowed Mountain Valley to seize private property through eminent domain. A group of landowners have requested a hearing from the U.S. Supreme Court, but it is uncertain whether a hearing will be granted.

On Dec. 7, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals suspended a permit allowing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to cut through two national forests. Dominion plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The House denied Petersen’s request to have changes to his bills restored to their original form. House amendments would have made the bill effective only on proceedings that started before July 1 of this year. Both bills failed as introduced. The senator plans to try again in the General Assembly’s 2020 session.

Senate Passes Bill Allowing Guns in Church, Fails in House

By Christian Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. --- While most people go to church to worship, security expert Chernoh Wurie goes to worship and protect. He leads security at Hill City Church in the Richmond area.

A bill to allow weapons, including firearms, within places of worship died in the House last week. Senate Bill 1024, introduced by Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, passed the Senate along party lines, 21-19, but died in the House Rules Committee. The bill sought to repeal a law on the books since the 1950s.

“It’s chaos waiting to happen if you ask me,” Wurie said. “It gets a lot more problematic when you put guns in churches.”

Hill City Church, a non-denominational Christian church off Staples Mill Road near the Richmond city line, has a strict no-firearms policy, with signs up throughout the building. The only people allowed to carry a weapon are Wurie and his security team, picked he said because of their police training.

Wurie said places of worship without an organized security team might be more likely to allow congregation members to carry because “there is no other form of protection.”

Gun violence has occurred at places of worship in the recent past.

  • In October, 11 were killed and seven injured in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

  • In November 2017, 26 people were killed and about 20 injured in a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

  • In January 2017, a mass shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City left six dead and 17 injured.

Some said the number of casualties in Texas would have been higher if a civilian hadn’t fired at the shooter. But other groups feel uncomfortable with firearms in a place of worship.

The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy is a coalition of more than 700 faith groups. The organization opposed SB 1024 and urged members to contact legislators, saying that worship spaces should “be holy, safe and a refuge” and “free of violence.”

Wurie said he thinks some places would allow their congregation to carry firearms, and it is ultimately the institution’s decision.

He said if the bill had passed, he would have anticipated institutions potentially hiring congregation members with security experience.  

“It can be a distraction, to a point, for both security and the congregation,” Wurie said. “If everyone is allowed to carry arms during worship, it could be a distraction for the people.”

If the bill had passed the House, Imad Damaj, faculty adviser for the Muslim Student Association at Virginia Commonwealth University, said they planned to lobby the governor to veto it and that the organization did not think the bill would make anyone safer.

“We spoke against it; a lot of people in the Muslim community spoke against it,” Damaj said. “Accidents can happen. You come to a place of worship for peace, prayer and inspiration.”

Damaj worships at the Islamic Center of Virginia. He also said weapons would be a distraction to the congregation.

“People don’t feel comfortable praying next to people who carry arms,” he said.

He questioned if Sen. Black spoke with faith leaders before introducing the bill.

“I can tell you from the Muslim community perspective … we don’t want that [the bill],” Damaj said.
Just before the Senate approved the bill on Jan. 24, Black said that congregation members are “vulnerable” and “the ultimate target” of someone who intends to inflict “mayhem on the congregation.” He pointed to church shootings in recent years, including a 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist who killed nine black churchgoers during a Bible study service.

“You cower in place or you fight back,” Black said.

Black did not respond to requests for a comment on the legislation.

VCU Panel: Journalists Need to Call Out Racism

By Owen FitzGerald and Rosemarie O’Connor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Politicians, journalists, educators, voters -- whose responsibility is it to combat racism, and where do they start?

Hundreds gathered in the Virginia Commonwealth University Commons Theater Monday evening to tackle that question. The discussion “Blackface, the Scandal and the Media: A Discussion about Racism in Virginia,” featured VCU journalism professors and Richmond-area journalists.

“You must do this study of the dead to later study the living,” said Clarence Thomas, an associate professor of journalism at VCU. Thomas and the panelists emphasized the importance of knowing the history behind blackface in the media.

Thomas, who moderated the discussion, was joined on the panel by:

  • Jeff South - associate professor of journalism, VCU
  • Mechelle Hankerson - reporter, the Virginia Mercury
  • Samantha Willis - freelance journalist and editor
  • Michael Paul Williams - columnist, Richmond Times-Dispatch

The panel opened with this video from the Huffington Post, “The History of Blackface in America.” The video shows the use of blackface in popular movies, television shows and cartoons even in recent years.

This discussion came after two top Democratic officials admitted to wearing blackface.

Gov. Ralph Northam has been under fire since Feb. 1, when a news organization published a photo from his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical College yearbook. The picture showed two men -- one in blackface and the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. He initially admitted he was in the photo and apologized.

The next day he denied he was in the photo, but said he had worn shoe polish to darken his face while dressing as Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984. State and national leaders on both sides of the aisle called on Northam to resign.

Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface at a party in 1980. Herring said he dressed as rapper Kurtis Blow, wearing a wig and brown makeup. He apologized for this “one-time occurrence” and said it was a “minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then.” Northam and Herring are still in office despite calls for resignations, though far fewer have called for Herring’s resignation.

The Commonwealth Times, VCU’s student-run newspaper, earlier this month published racist photos from Richmond Public Institute and the Medical College of Virginia yearbooks, some pictures as recent as 1989.  

Photos showed students wearing blackface, enacting a “slave sale” and displaying violence toward Asian Americans. RPI and the Medical College of Virginia merged to form VCU in 1968.

These events opened old wounds, spotlighting the history of racism and Jim Crow in Virginia.

“Blackface is not and never was intended to be flattering, innocent or complimentary,” Thomas said.

Every panelist expressed concern over the lack of attention paid to the person in KKK robes in Northam’s yearbook picture.

“There aren't black voices standing up and saying, ‘yes the blackface is bad, but there's also a man in a KKK robe,’” Hankerson said.

“There aren't enough minority voices in journalism to guide the needed coverage,” she added, a thought echoed by other panelists.

Panelists also discussed the public's focus on racist images, instead of calling out racism in policy and culture.

“There is a certain amount of trauma that comes with viewing these images over and over,” Willis said. “There needs to be sensitivity when covering these stories.”

“Clearly it’s been a failure,” South said, adding that journalists didn’t properly vet Northam while he was running for office.

“The media needs to be more courageous about calling racist behavior racist,” Hankerson said.

South referenced a Halloween costume Northam wore last year depicting James Barbour, a slave owner who served as Virginia’s governor from 1812 to 1814 and said that there was no reaction to it until after the blackface scandal.

Panelists agreed and also pointed to Northam’s role in the recent State Air Pollution Control Board vote to allow Dominion Energy to build a compressor station in Buckingham County for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The decision will impact Union Hill, a predominantly black neighborhood.

Hankerson added that political change “can’t just come from black lawmakers,” saying it wasn’t their sole responsibility.

A key question of the night was posed by Williams -- the “why” that perpetuates racism.

“Because it is a benefit to people,” he asked, “how do you get someone to give up an advantage?”

The panel unanimously agreed that education is imperative to combat racism in America. How and when children are educated about racism should be a primary focus if the goal is to enact widespread institutional change.

“The body that we pay attention to is called the stream of information in society. We must pay close attention to the heart,” Thomas said, ”because the heart of the stream of information is truth.

“Protect it from the cancers that might invade it.”

Legislators Want All Capitol Meetings Video-Recorded

 

Transparency Caucus leaders Del. Mark Levine and Sen. Amanda Chase deliver their bipartisan group's letter to G. Paul Nardo, clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates.

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A bipartisan group of Virginia lawmakers is demanding that the General Assembly record and archive its subcommittee meetings — a critical part of the legislative process and the only proceedings not yet video-recorded by the state.

The demand was contained in a letter drafted by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, co-founders of the Virginia Transparency Caucus. It was signed by 68 of the 100 members of the Virginia House of Delegates and 29 of the 40 state senators.

Virginia has been slower than other states to pull back the curtain on the legislative process. Floor sessions of the House and Senate were not archived until 2017. Committee hearings were not livestreamed and archived by the General Assembly until the Transparency Caucus pushed for that after the 2018 session. Virginia became the 42nd state to record such meetings.

In 2018, the advocacy group Progress Virginia began livestreaming subcommittee meetings as part of its Eyes on Richmond program. College interns use cellphones and tripods to stream video of the meetings to the Eyes on Richmond website.

Legislators recognize the importance of such transparency.

“Subcommittees are where the primary work of the General Assembly gets done,” Levine said. “More than half of all House legislation fails in subcommittee. It’s where the majority of bills get amended and discussed at length.”

He said that the public deserves access, not “just the lobbyists.”

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said that all Virginians, no matter how far from the Capitol, deserve to see their legislators in action. Rhyne believes the proposed policy is a “big step in the right direction.”

Levine and Chase presented their letter Sunday, the final day of the legislative session, to G. Paul Nardo, the clerk of the House of Delegates, and Susan Clarke Schaar, clerk of the Senate.

The letter “formally requests that both Clerks’ Offices maintain and provide to the public full audio and visual recordings of all the official business of the legislative subcommittees in the Virginia General Assembly that is open to the public.”

“I believe in full transparency,” Chase said, “and that the voters of our great Commonwealth should be able to see and witness those they have elected to office.”

This is the second time that the Transparency Caucus has asked legislative leaders to video-record subcommittee meetings. The group made a similar request in 2017.

The caucus was co-founded by Levine and Chase in 2016. At the beginning of the 2018 legislative session, the caucus persuaded House leaders to require that all subcommittee votes be recorded.

Efforts to Ratify ERA Fail on Tie Vote in House

By Kal Weinstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Despite a 24-hour vigil by advocates of the Equal Rights Amendment, House Republicans refused to allow a vote on ratifying the measure Thursday — officially killing the ERA for the year.

The defeat comes to the dismay of many who thought Virginia would be the 38th state to ratify the amendment, potentially adding it to the U.S. Constitution. Experts disagree whether the ERA can be ratified because the deadline to do so has passed.

More than two dozen advocates spent Wednesday night enduring freezing temperatures outside the Capitol building for an “equality vigil” organized by VAratifyERA. Throughout the event, which was live-streamed, supporters read letters from ERA allies and encouraged those watching from home to call their delegates.

Many Democratic leaders attended the vigil, including U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who represents the state’s 7th Congressional District; Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler of Virginia Beach; and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, showed up with pizza for participants.

“My mother, who does support the ERA, would be very disappointed if I didn’t bring you all food!” Roem said.

With bipartisan support, the Virginia Senate passed a resolution in January to ratify the ERA. However, the proposal died in the House Committee on Privileges and Elections -- and so it could not be considered by the full House of Delegates.

On Thursday, House Democrats attempted to introduce a rules change that would have allowed a simple majority vote to bring the ERA to the floor. The rules change failed on a 50-50 vote along party lines. One Republican -- Del. David Yancey of Newport News -- joined the 49 Democrats in voting for the rules change; all other Republicans voted against it.

Afterward, Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, apologized to constituents.

“As elected officials, we have a moral obligation to listen to our constituents and let their voices be heard,” she said. “I am deeply sorry that did not happen.”

The ERA states that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Supporters say the amendment would be a move toward equal rights for women and men. But others argue there could be unintended consequences, such as co-ed prisons or women being drafted into the military -- claims that ERA supporters dispute.

With the ERA now effectively dead for the year, Democrats are turning their attention to the fall, when all 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly are up for election. The House Democratic Caucus released a statement announcing the defeat but also urging supporters to be optimistic.  

“2019 is an election year here in Virginia,” the statement said. “This time next year, when the Democrats do have the majority, we will ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.”

Lawmakers OK Bills To Expand Access to CBD, THC-A Oils

By Serena Fischer and Ben Burstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- In the final weeks of its 2019 session, the General Assembly passed three bills that would help people using cannabis-derived medications.

On Saturday, the House and Senate gave final approval to a bill allowing students who have proper documentation to use CBD oil and THC-A oil at school.

SB 1632, sponsored by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, would prohibit schools from suspending or expelling a student for using CBD or THC-A oil with valid permission. The bill also would protect school nurses from prosecution of possessing and distributing the oils in accordance with school board policy.

Earlier in the month, legislators passed:

  • SB 1557, introduced by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico. It would allow physician assistants and licensed nurse practitioners to write a certification for cannabidiol oil and THC-A oil.

  • SB 1719, filed by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax. It would allow patients receiving CBD or THC-A oil to designate a registered agent to pick up the medication on their behalf.

Dunnavant, the only physician in the Virginia Senate, has been an advocate for expanding access to medical cannabis.

“Allowing nurse practitioners to make treatment available will shorten the wait time and suffering for patients dealing with pain,” Dunnavant stated in support of SB 1557. “It is an effective way for physicians to offer low-cost and low risk remedies to their patients.”

Dunnavant hopes that expanding the use of cannabis-derived medications will help combat the growing opioid crisis.

“Overdose deaths related to prescribed opiates have decreased by 25 percent in states where medical marijuana programs are available. The potential side effects and risks of medically administered CBD and THC-A are far lower than opiates and many pharmaceutical drugs currently requiring a doctor’s prescription,” Dunnavant’s website states.

CBD, or cannabidiol, and THC-A, or tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, are two of the main compounds in the cannabis sativa plant.

Both components interact with cannabinoid receptors in the body that affect mood, pain, and memory. Neither contain the properties that produce a high. When raw, TCH-A has no psychoactive effects; only when burned does it become THC. Hemp, also a cannabis plant, is more widely used for CBD oil for its very low level of THC.

CBD and THC-A oils are used by many people to treat anxiety, migraines, nausea and other health problems. THC-A oils can achieve the same results as CBD oil but are less potent.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not endorse any CBD or THC-A medication with the exception of Epidiolex, used to treat seizures from two rare forms of epilepsy. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says it will support further research by the FDA into different components of cannabis.

“DEA will continue to support sound and scientific research that promotes legitimate therapeutic uses for FDA-approved constituent components of cannabis, consistent with federal law,” said Acting DEA Administrator Uttam Dhillon in a press release.

Virginia has moved slowly in allowing access to medical cannabis.

In 2015, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing CBD and THC-A oils only for the treatment of intractable epilepsy. Last year, lawmakers passed a bill sponsored by Dunnavant authorizing medical practitioners to recommend the oils to treat or ease the symptoms of any diagnosed disease or condition.

By expanding the definition of practitioner to include nurses, SB 1557 would make it even easier for Virginians to use the medical treatment.

“Expanding the availability of effective treatment options is both compassionate and practical,” Dunnavant said.

Kid’s Rule: House of Delegates Page Program Holds Annual Mock Debate

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By Emily Holter, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Before the General Assembly adjourned, critical issues like gun control and tax incentives were being debated in the House chamber. One smartly dressed young man proposed raising taxes to create a relief fund for counties with high unemployment. His colleagues raised questions about the idea: “Do you see this bill as anti-capitalist?”

But these weren't legislators holding the debate; they were legislative pages -- teenagers who run errands for lawmakers during their annual session. Toward the end of the session, the roles are reversed: The pages act as delegates for a mock debate while the elected delegates serve as pages and even pass out candy and water to the participants.

The General Assembly’s page program allows teen students to work with delegates and senators, taking on responsibilities that prepare them for future government roles.

In exchange for their hard work, the pages hold a mock General Assembly debate. They craft bills, act in committees and vote on legislation.

In their roles as delegates, pages voted on 19 mock bills that passed committees. They tackled controversial legislation on the environment and other issues.

Debating back and forth, pages asked questions and researched facts for and against proposed bills -- all while following formal House procedures.

Acting as a delegate,  Jakob Dean, a page from Chesterfield, proposed creating the relief fund for counties with an unemployment rate of 7 percent or worse. Funds would help with public resources such as infrastructure, schools and police and fire departments. Dean proposed a 5 percent tax increase to businesses that make more than $1 million in yearly profits.

“I see where $50,000 seems like a lot of money, but that’s only 5 percent,” Dean said. “These companies do not give any of the money to anything.”

The other mock delegates fired away with hard questions. “How would this affect businesses if they have to pay higher in taxes?” one asked.

Dean swayed the make-believe legislators, and his bill passed, 27-10.

Some mock bills failed. Del. Matthew Haske’s bill offering a tax incentive for military service did not pass in the House.

Greg Habeeb, the father of one of the pages and a former member of the House of Delegates, said the page program is a valuable experience for young people.

“These kids get to see the General Assembly in action for five weeks,” Habeeb said. “It’s interesting to see the different issues they bring to the table.”

Most Virginians Don’t Want Officials to Resign, Poll Finds

 

By Emily Holter, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginians have low approval ratings of Gov. Ralph Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, but most people say no one should resign or be impeached, according to a recent poll by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. It found that of the state’s three top officials, Attorney General Mark Herring is the best-positioned to remain in office.

Over the past month, the three leaders, all Democrats, have been under scrutiny after several scandals, and some politicians and groups have called for their resignations:

  • Two women have accused Fairfax of sexual assault -- allegations he has denied.

  • Northam has been in hot water after the discovery of a photograph in his medical school yearbook showing a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb. Northam initially apologized for the photograph and then denied he was in the picture. He later admitted to putting “a little bit of” shoe polish on his face to imitate Michael Jackson in a 1984 dance competition.

  • After calling for Northam’s resignation, Attorney General Mark Herring apologized for wearing blackface when he was 19 years old to imitate a rapper.

With that backdrop, U.Va.’s Center for Politics asked a representative sample of Virginia adults about their opinions of Northam, Fairfax and Herring.

The poll found that of the three leaders, more people believe Fairfax should quit. Thirty-five percent believe Fairfax should resign, and 28 percent favored impeachment.

Only 17 percent of Virginians approve of the governor’s job performance. However, only 31 percent of respondents say he should resign, and 21 percent believe he should be impeached.
According to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, there was a strong racial divide over whether Fairfax should resign. Thirty-nine percent of white respondents said they favored his resignation, compared with only 8 percent of black respondents.

Of the three officials, Herring had the fewest number of people suggesting he resign (19 percent) or be impeached (14 percent).

The poll involved interviewing 636 adults from Feb. 15-19. It had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Virginia Lawmakers Increase Animal Abuse Penalty to Felony

The memorial for Tommie, a dog that was tied to a pole and set on fire in Richmond.

Adrian Teran Tapia and Mario Sequeira Quesada, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Every state in America, and at least nine countries. That is how far the story of Tommie, a dog tied to a pole and set on fire, traveled as people rallied for his survival and donated money for his treatment. Tommie suffered burns on 40 percent of his body after he was doused in an accelerant and set on fire in a Richmond park. Despite round-the-clock care, he died five days after rescue.

If the dog had survived the attack, under current law the person responsible could have faced only a Class 1 misdemeanor charge punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a fine up to $2,500.

That’s why the crowd following Tommie’s story turned its attention to SB 1604, introduced by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach. The bill would increase the penalty for animal abuse from a misdemeanor to a Class 6 felony, which can draw up to five years in prison.

Five days after Tommie’s death, the House passed the bill unanimously Wednesday. It cleared the Senate unanimously on Feb. 5.

Under current law, a person can only be charged with a felony if the cat or dog dies. DeSteph’s bill would make the penalty of torturing a cat or dog a Class 6 felony regardless of whether the animal survives. DeSteph said he introduced the bill after a dog named Sugar was attacked by her owner with a machete. Because the dog did not die, the owner was only charged with a misdemeanor. DeSteph said that the act alone should warrant the felony charge, not the outcome of it.

"People who torture a dog, or any animal like this, their next step is to go after a human," DeSteph said. "They're truly a threat to public safety and to society and should be dealt with severely."

House co-sponsor Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, said Tommie’s story helped the bill gain more support. She said some members of the Animal Welfare Caucus even suggested the legislation be named “Tommie's Bill.”

Robert Leinberger is an animal control supervisor with Richmond Animal Care and Control, the city shelter that led Tommie’s rescue and recovery efforts. He said donations poured in from around the world for Tommie, which boosted the reward to $25,000 to help find and convict his attacker, who is still at large.

Tabitha Treloar, with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said SB 1604 empowers the SPCA’s mission to protect more animals.

“There is a big gap in the current law. It does not consider the advances of veterinary medicine,” Treloar said.

Treloar said that veterinarians can often save animals from critical injuries, which helps the attacker avoid felony charges. That could have happened in Tommie’s case.

“It was sickening what happened to him,” she said. “The bill is a big step that I think the commonwealth can take to demonstrate that this type of cruelty will not be tolerated.”

Leinberger, who has worked in animal control for 27 years, called Tommie’s case “by far one of the worst cases of cruelty” he had ever seen. “What is really scary is what will be next, or even worse -- who will be next.”

He encouraged people to report the first sign of cruelty.

“If you even think of mistreating an animal, don’t,” Leinberger said, adding that there are many ways to find a pet a new and safe home.

Shaun McCracken agreed. She rescued her 7-year-old dog Pippin, who was suffering from a severe joint illness.

“The SPCA changed my life,” the theater professor said at a recent “Dog Kissing Booth” fundraiser. “She is better because of the care, time and effort they put in her.”

McCracken said Tommie’s case really affected her and that something must be done to avoid future tragedies.

“I think this person should never be allowed near any animal, or any human being,” she said.

DeSteph said that party lines don’t and shouldn’t matter when it comes to animal welfare legislation. “We have great laws in place regarding animal protection, but I think this is one that had gaps to fill.”

RACC receives one or two cases of negligent animal cruelty a week, Leinberger said. He hopes the passage of SB 1604 will help reduce the number of attacks.

“It has been a roller coaster of emotions, almost every single emotion you can think of,” he said.

More than 6,000 people signed up to attend a memorial service for Tommie. As a result, RACC has been holding open houses for members of the public to pay their respects to the dog.

An open house will be held 2-7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and noon-5 p.m. on Saturday at the city shelter, 1600 Chamberlayne Ave.

Anyone with information about the crime can contact Metro Richmond Crime Stoppers at 804- 780-1000.

Assembly OKs Bills to Address Housing and Eviction Issues

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A flurry of bills addressing affordable housing and high eviction rates in Virginia cities moved forward in the House and Senate this week.

Three bills on those issues have passed both chambers and have been sent to Gov. Ralph Northam to be signed into law. Several other measures have passed one chamber and are awaiting a floor vote in the other.

Democratic lawmakers have been pushing for solutions to the affordable housing crisis since the Eviction Lab, a research group at Princeton University, found that of the 10 cities with the highest eviction rates in the United States, five are in Virginia: Richmond, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake.

“Every Virginian deserves a safe place to call home,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Charles City. He is sponsoring HB 2229, which would allow localities to waive building fees for affordable housing developments.

“By supporting more affordable housing, we can address the devastating impacts of Virginia’s high eviction rates,” Bagby said.

The Eviction Lab found that the problem of evictions disproportionately impacts minority communities. Richmond has the second-highest eviction rate in the country.

“Housing eviction rates in our commonwealth are a disgrace,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton. “It is no secret that the laws and regulations around eviction in Virginia are intentionally vague and disproportionately target our most vulnerable communities.”

Of eight bills introduced in the House and Senate, three have passed both chambers:

  • HB 2054, introduced by Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, requires landlords to provide a written rental agreement to tenants.
  • HB 1681, introduced by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, expands eligibility for the housing choice voucher tax credit to low-income communities in Hampton Roads.
  • SB 1448, introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, changes the terminology from writ of possession to writ of eviction for the writ executed by a sheriff to recover real property pursuant to an order of possession. The bill specifies that an order of possession remains effective for 180 days after being granted by the court and clarifies that any writ of eviction not executed within 30 days of its issuance shall be vacated as a matter of law.

Five other affordable housing bills are awaiting a floor vote in the House or Senate with about a week left in the session. Virginia House Democrats said in a press release Wednesday that they are committed to implementing affordable housing reform and protecting vulnerable communities from evictions.

“The displacement of vulnerable communities is not the nationwide record we want to be setting in the commonwealth,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond.

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Stories on Emporianews.com are be searchable, using the box above. All new stories will be tagged with the date (format YYYY-M-D or 2013-1-1) and the names of persons, places, institutions, etc. mentioned in the article. This database feature will make it easier for those people wishing to find and re-read an article.  For anyone wishing to view previous day's pages, you may click on the "Previous Day's Pages" link in the menu at the top of the page, or search by date (YYYY-M-D format) using the box above.

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Emporia News welcomes your submissions!  You may submit articles, announcements, school or sports information using the submission forms found here, or via e-mail on news@emporianews.com.  Currently, photos and advertisements will still be accepted only via e-mail, but if you have photos to go along with your submission, you will receive instructions via e-mail. If you have events to be listed on the Community Calendar, submit them here.

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