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Fall 2019 Capital News Service

More Pedestrians Are Dying on Virginia’s Roads

 

By Kelly Booth and Judi Dalati, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — On a Friday night in October, Katelyn Tilts was walking to a convenience store with a group of friends when she saw headlights coming at her.

“A car came around the corner really quickly and was swerving. The driver was swerving but started going directly at me and hit me head-on,” Tilts later told WTVR. “I remember thinking that it hurt so bad that I didn’t know how I would be able to make it until the ambulance got there.”

The hit-and-run incident left Tilts, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University, hospitalized and on crutches. She survived, but many pedestrians hit by vehicles do not.

According to data from the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Department of Motor Vehicles, 123 pedestrians died on the state’s roads in 2018 — the highest death toll in 10 years. 2019 also has been deadly: Preliminary figures show that at least 120 pedestrians died in traffic accidents in the commonwealth last year.

Not only are more pedestrians being killed, but they also are making up a greater proportion of all traffic fatalities:

§  In 2015, 10% of the people killed in roadway accidents in Virginia were pedestrians.

§  That figure jumped to 16% the following year. Last year, it was 15%, according to VDOT and DMV data.

“The vast, overwhelming majority of people who die on our streets are killed by drivers of cars,” noted Ross Catrow, executive director of RVA Rapid Transit, an advocacy group for regional public transportation.

“And the further sad truth is that these deaths and serious injuries often go unnoticed, underreported, and, even worse, usually nothing is done to build better streets and make them safer for people,” Catrow wrote on Streets Cred, his website about urban issues affecting mid-sized American cities.

Catrow has pointed out that some people say pedestrians are at fault for the rising number of traffic accidents. He rejects that notion.

“I’m so ultra-tired of engineers, elected officials and everyone else blaming ‘distracted pedestrians’ for the increase in injuries on our roads,” he said on his “Good Morning, RVA” podcast.

Catrow advocates traffic-calming measures such as painted curb bulbs and posts that can narrow intersections, increase visibility and slow down drivers to prevent pedestrian accidents.

Some people blame elderly drivers for causing accidents. But 25% of the motorists involved in traffic accidents that have killed pedestrians since 2013 were in their 20s — and half of them were under 40. About 22% of the drivers involved in pedestrian fatalities were 60 and older.

Ralph Aronberg, a traffic engineer consultant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said some people in their early 20s have poor driving habits.

“Drivers in that age group are more likely to use social media such as Instagram on their cellphone, are more likely to have groups in vehicles leading to distractions and are less likely to realize the consequences of taking their eyes off the road,” he said.

Aronberg, whose firm focuses on accident reconstructions, said people in their early 20s are also more likely to drive at night, drink and drive, or be under the influence of THC or other mind-altering substances while operating a car.

Pedestrians killed in traffic accidents in Virginia since 2013 have ranged in age from infants to 96. About a third of the victims were under 30; slightly over a third in their 40s and 50s; and the rest 60 or older.

Since 2013, Fairfax has had the most pedestrian deaths — more than 80, according to VDOT data. Then come Henrico County (43), Norfolk (40), Richmond (31) and Newport News (27).

The roads with the most pedestrian fatalities during that time period were:

  • Jefferson Avenue, Newport News — seven
  • Route 11, Washington County — three
  • South Street, Front Royal — three
  • Southbound Route 288, Goochland County — three
  • Chamberlayne Avenue, Richmond — three

Weather was not a factor in most pedestrian deaths.

“Most vehicle-pedestrian accidents happen in good weather,” said Daniel Vomhof, a traffic safety expert in California and a member of the Accreditation Commission for Traffic Accident Reconstructionists.

More than 85% of the pedestrian fatalities in Virginia happened in clear or cloudy weather conditions, the VDOT data showed. About 13% occurred in rain, mist or fog, and 1% in snowy weather.

To stay safe, Vomhof recommends that pedestrians wear white or reflective shoes at night and light-colored clothing that doesn’t blend in with the surroundings.

“Visibility increases when the object is in eye contrast to the background,” Vomhof said.

About the data in this report

The data for this project was downloaded from the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Virginia Crashes | Virginia Roads website. It covers every vehicle crash in the state from 2013 to July of this year.

The data set contains more than 828,000 records. We filtered it for pedestrian accidents (about 11,000) and then for fatal pedestrian accidents (660).

We analyzed the data using Microsoft Excel, aggregating the data by locality, weather conditions and other columns in the spreadsheet.

We also used the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicle’s online “Traffic Crash Data” tool to confirm and refine our analysis. We also ensured that the numbers were consistent with those published in the DMV’s report, 2018 Virginia Traffic Crash Facts.

How Fast Must You Go to Draw a Speeding Ticket?

 

By Erica Mokun and Catalina Currier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — “Nine you’re fine, ten you’re mine.”

A Reddit user recently quoted that saying in an online discussion about speeding in Virginia. The conventional wisdom is that you probably won’t get ticketed unless you’re going at least 10 mph over the speed limit.

Is that true? Pretty much, according to an analysis of speeding tickets processed in General District Courts across Virginia last year.

Almost 98% of the tickets involved going 10 or more miles an hour over the limit. Even where the posted limit was 35 mph or less, 97% of the speeding tickets were issued to people accused of exceeding the limit by at least 10 mph. The average speeder was going 17 mph over the limit.

Now, we’re not suggesting you should have a lead foot while driving. As the Reddit user noted, “Technically anything over the limit is illegal.” But statistically, if you’re speeding only by single digits, you’re unlikely to draw a ticket, the data indicate.

Of the approximately 590,000 speeding cases handled by General District Courts in 2018:

  •  About 13,750 involved going less than 10 mph over the limit. Forty of those cases involved going less than 5 mph over the limit.
  •  About 174,000 involved going 10-14 mph over the limit.
  •  About 283,000 involved going 15-19 mph over the limit.
  •  More than 118,000 involved going 20 or more miles per hour over the limit — which is one definition of reckless driving in Virginia.

The cases include 98,000 drivers who were going more than 80 mph, another definition of reckless driving that is grounds for being charged as a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Going 80 mph would be slow by the standards of some Virginia drivers. Seventeen defendants in General District Court were accused of going at least 130 mph — and 2,135 were charged with going 100-129 mph.

Driving like that can be expensive: More than 1,050 defendants were fined at least $1,000 — including about 150 who had to pay $2,500 or more. The average fine, including court costs, was about $190.

For safety and financial reasons, motorists should slow down, said Karen Rice, who has operated a driving school in Richmond for 19 years.

Her business, called The Driving School Inc., offers eight-hour driver improvement classes for court, DMV and voluntary purposes. Rice said registration typically spikes in December.

“After the holidays, business will be booming because of all the tickets written in this season, as well as people procrastinating because of the holidays,” Rice said.

Rice explained why she thinks many drivers go too fast: “I feel the majority of people speed because they are running late and just are not paying attention.”

Besides driving school, people accused of reckless driving may need a lawyer to help them in court. A conviction can have a significant impact on a person’s driving record and car insurance, said Will Smith, an attorney at the Bowen Ten Cardani law firm.

He noted that reckless driving, as a Class 1 misdemeanor, is a criminal offense. When drivers understand that, “they realize that that is something that they don’t want on their record,” Smith said.

About the data used in this report

For this report, we downloaded data on all criminal cases filed in 2018 in General District Courts throughout Virginia. The data had been scraped from the state’s court system by Ben Schoenfeld, a software engineer in Hampton Roads, and posted on an open website.

The entire data set included more than 2 million records. From this file, we extracted and analyzed the approximately 590,000 cases involving speeding. We examined how fast the driver was going, the speed limit, the fine imposed and other aspects of the cases.

We did the analysis — which involved sorting, filtering and summarizing the speeding data — with Microsoft Access and Excel.

Sex Ed Is Key to Reducing Teen Pregnancy, Advocates Say

By Hannah Eason and Emma North, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — In the early 2000s, Martinsville, a city of about 13,000 near the North Carolina line, had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Virginia. In a typical year, nearly 75 of every 1,000 teenage girls got pregnant.

More than a decade ago, the school opened a teen health clinic, which provides birth control and treats sexually transmitted infections. Since then, the city’s teen pregnancy rate has plummeted.

“It’s just been amazing because I’ve seen success,” said Beth Holyfield, the clinic’s health coordinator. “I think everybody was a little nervous about it because it was Bible Belt area, you know, offering birth control for children.”

Under the federal Title IX program, the Martinsville High School Teen Health Clinic can treat STIs and provide birth control without notifying the student’s parents. Holyfield and two nurse practitioners don’t discuss abortion, but they do routine checks on student weight and blood pressure and administer prescriptions.

According to new data from the Virginia Department of Health, among the state’s 133 localities, Martinsville ranked 16th in teen pregnancy rates in 2018. For every 1,000 teen girls, there were about 21 pregnancies.

Martinsville’s increased access to sex education and contraception coincided with the drop in the city’s teen pregnancy rate. Experts say preaching abstinence over other methods — Virginia’s official policy — has been ineffective. States with more schools teaching contraceptive methods tend to have lower teen pregnancy rates.

Localities vary widely in teen pregnancy rates

Virginia’s teen pregnancy rate in 2017 was 15 pregnancies for every 1,000 teenage girls, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thirteen states had a lower teen pregnancy rate than Virginia’s. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut all had fewer than nine pregnancies per 1,000 teenage girls.

Within Virginia, the rates vary widely, according to data obtained by Capital News Service from the Virginia Department of Health through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The data showed the number of pregnancies for every 1,000 adolescent girls in each city and county of Virginia. That way, it’s possible to compare localities regardless of population.

Petersburg, 30 miles south of Richmond, had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state in 2018: about 44 pregnancies for every 1,000 teenage girls.

Norton, a city at the southwest tip of Virginia, was second with 35 pregnancies per 1,000 teenage girls. Lancaster County, along the Chesapeake Bay, followed at about 30 pregnancies per 1,000 adolescent girls.

The cities of Roanoke, Richmond and Hopewell all had rates around 25 pregnancies for every 1,000 teen girls.

Sex education is optional in Virginia

Under the Virginia Standards of Learning, the state’s public school curriculum, schools in the commonwealth may teach sex education but are not required to do so. State law requires an emphasis on abstinence, but the SOL curriculum also includes recommendations for teaching about contraception and condom usage.

More than 90% of Virginia schools teach abstinence. Fewer than 40% of the state’s high schools teach contraceptive methods recommended by the CDC, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS.

Virginia Department of Education spokesperson Charles Pyle says the curriculum is designed to promote parental involvement and help students cope with peer pressure during developing stages.

Pyle said classes “include age-appropriate instruction in family living and community relationships, abstinence education, the value of postponing sexual activity, the benefits of adoption as a positive choice in the event of an unwanted pregnancy, human sexuality and human reproduction.”

Dr. Samuel Campbell, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the Virginia Physicians for Women health-care service, says pregnant teens need more than that.

Pregnant teenagers encounter a specific set of problems because of limited resources and support, Campbell said.

“They have difficulty with transportation. They frequently will seek care later because they are afraid to tell their parents (or) family. They have to continue with their schooling,” Campbell said. “And they have to deal with the social stigma of being a teen mom.”

Most states require sex ed

Thirty-two states require schools to teach sex education, according to the most recent statistics from SIECUS. Eighteen states — including Virginia — do not.

There are seven types of recommended contraception: the birth control pill, patch, ring and shot; implants; intrauterine devices; and emergency contraception. In 2017, no states reported that all of their schools were teaching about all seven methods as well as how to properly use a condom.

According to SIECUS, 19 states reported more than half of school districts teaching students about a variety of contraceptive methods. Fifteen of those states had teen pregnancy rates below the national average of 18 pregnancies per every 1,000 adolescent girls.

Of the 10 states with the lowest teen pregnancy rates, eight required sex ed in all school districts. They include New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Minnesota, which had pregnancy rates under 15 per 1,000 teenage girls.

The six states with the lowest teen pregnancy rates — Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey and Rhode Island — reported that three quarters of their schools taught students how to use a condom.

On the other hand, of the 10 states with the highest teen pregnancy rate, seven do not require sex ed in schools. Those states include Arkansas, Texas and Alabama.

Nationwide, 89% of school districts teach abstinence, which recommends that teens put off having sex until marriage. Many schools teach both abstinence and contraceptive methods. That is the case in New Jersey and New Hampshire, where teen pregnancy is below the national average.

Dr. Elizabeth Broderick, a pediatrician in Newport News, calls abstinence education “insufficient information.”

“Abstinence is an excellent way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections,” Broderick said. “But eventually, many people choose to become sexually active, and they should have accurate and complete information so they can make the best decision that fits their beliefs and values.”

Broderick says long-acting and reversible contraceptives are generally best for adolescents, but they can be hard to get.

“Access to contraception is difficult for most teenagers,” Broderick said. “Education about anatomy, physiology, contraception, sexually transmitted infections and consent is appropriate at school and at home.”

‘Educate them on the facts’ to make good decisions

The CDC’s teen pregnancy prevention guidelines say implants and intrauterine devices, or IUDs, are the most effective and reversible birth control methods. Broderick says these are more difficult to obtain than condoms or spermicide because they require a trip to the doctor and a prescription.

Dr. Natalie Dogal, an OB-GYN with Virginia Physicians for Women, said talking about contraception is important for preventing teen pregnancy. She said she discusses contraceptive options with all her teen patients.

“They tend to have heard good or bad stories from friends, parents or from reading online, and I like to educate them on the facts to help them make good contraceptive decisions,” Dogal said.

According to SIECUS, about 40% of male and female high school students nationwide report having had sexual intercourse.

Nationally, the teen pregnancy rate has decreased in recent decades. According to data from the CDC, the rates dropped by 50% from 2005 to 2017.

Nearly a third of teen moms reported not using contraceptives because they didn’t think they could get pregnant. Another quarter of teen moms reported that their partners did not want to use contraception.

“Many teenagers think they are invincible,” Dogal said. “That includes thinking they will never be the one who gets pregnant or gets an STI.”

Resources for Teen Mothers in Virginia

The Virginia Department of Health has resources for first-time teen mothers. In the “Resource Mothers” program, a community health worker develops a supportive mentoring relationship with the teen and her family. The free resources include information about prenatal care and health care, assistance finishing school and tools to avoid drugs and alcohol. Mothers can also sign up for free text messages on prenatal and infant care.

The Healthy Teen Network has a variety of resources for teen parents across the country, including #NoTeenShame, “Mom, Dad — I’m Pregnant” and Healthy Families America.

To find a health assistance program near you, call 1-800-311-BABY. This will connect you to the nearest health department. For information in Spanish, call 1-800-504-7081.

The U.S. Bureau of Maternal and Child Health has resources for women nationwide. The programs and initiatives include home visiting, which provides at-risk pregnant women tools for mother and child health, raising children and preventing neglect. The bureau seeks to promote child development and encourage positive parenting.

Planned Parenthood has a webpage for teens to get information about sex, puberty, pregnancy and birth control as well as a private chat function for additional questions.

Planned Parenthood has health centers in Charlottesville, Richmond, Hampton and Virginia Beach. There are also two health centers in the Washington, D.C., area.

How We Got and Crunched the Data

For this report, we downloaded teen pregnancy rates for each state from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition, we needed the teen pregnancy rates for each city and county in Virginia. The Virginia Department of Health posts such data on its website; however, at the time, the most recent statistics available were for 2017.

We filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the VDH, asking for the 2018 data. The department emailed us the file we requested and then posted it online.

The VDH provided the data as PDFs. We exported the data as an Excel file and cleaned up column headings and other formatting. We have posted all of the data we obtained from the VDH and CDC.

One question we wanted to explore was whether there was a relationship between teen pregnancy rates and the sexual education curriculum taught in schools. To examine this on the national level, we used 2017 data from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

We compared the council’s data, which explains how comprehensive sex ed is in each state, with the pregnancy rates from the CDC.

Virginia Denies Vast Majority of Parole Requests, Data Shows

 

By Emma Gauthier and Anna Madigan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Jen Soering and Elizabeth Haysom received parole last month after serving 30 years in state prison for the sensational murder of Haysom’s parents in 1985.

Soering, a German national who had been given two life sentences, and Haysom, a Canadian who had been sentenced to 90 years, were turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation.

“The Parole Board has determined that releasing Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom to their ICE deportation detainers is appropriate because of their youth at the time of the offenses, their institutional adjustment and the length of their incarceration,” Adrianne Bennett, who chairs the board, said in a statement at the time.

Soering and Haysom each had been denied parole several times before being granted parole in late November. Their release from the prison system may have given the impression that Virginia has become more lenient in granting parole.

And that’s true: The percentage of parole requests approved jumped from around 3% in 2014-16 to 13.5% in 2017, according to a Capital News Service analysis of Parole Board decisions.

But parole is still pretty rare in Virginia. Between January and October of this year, the Parole Board granted parole 5% of the time. Of more than 17,000 cases considered over the past six years, about 6% received parole.

The system’s critics say Virginia should grant parole more often.

“Considering that parole is a conditional release of an individual, this rate should be much higher,” said Jwa’n Moore, director of Taking Back Our Youth. “I believe that parole was created to prove that incarcerated people can learn from the mistakes that they have committed.”

Taking Back Our Youth is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “breaking the cycle” of juvenile incarceration.

Almost 30,000 people are serving time in prison in the commonwealth. In addition, 1,922 people were on parole as of October, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

The newest member of the Parole Board, Kemba Smith Pradia, was appointed in September. At age 24, Pradia was sentenced to 24 years in prison for her participation in her boyfriend’s illegal drug activities. After serving a quarter of her sentence, she was granted clemency by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

Following her incarceration, Pradia earned college degrees in social work and law and started a foundation that raises awareness about drug abuse, violence, rehabilitation of ex-offenders and other social issues.

“She would probably bring compassion and empathy to the board,” Moore said. “People who have a personal history with the system have a unique vantage point that those who have historically served on the parole board haven’t had.”

Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but inmates still can get parole if they were sentenced before the law went into effect; were sentenced under the Youthful Offenders Act; or are eligible for geriatric parole.

Inmates can apply for geriatric parole if they are older than 60 and have served at least 10 years or are older than 65 and have served at least five years.

Since 2014, of the approximately 2,900 applications for geriatric parole, 147 — about 5% — have been granted, the data indicated.

Of the 151 inmates older than 80 who have applied for parole, six have been granted. The offenders were denied for various reasons, including the seriousness of the offense and risk to the community. The Parole Board’s decisions generally do not list the crimes that the applicant was convicted of.

The oldest inmate to apply for parole was 92 years old; he was denied.

Of the 182 inmates under 21 who have applied for parole, four have been granted.

According to the data, the youngest inmates to apply for parole were 16 years old: One applied in 2014 and the other in 2018. Both were rejected.

“Minors are still learning and making mistakes that they have to learn from,” Moore said. “They should be held accountable for their actions, but parole gives our youth another chance at a positive lifestyle.”

In 1995, the Virginia General Assembly abolished parole on grounds that doing so would lower the frequency of reincarceration after release. State and federal officials say Virginia has the lowest rate of reincarceration nationwide: 23% of Virginia inmates are reincarcerated within three years of their release from prison.

“Virginia’s latest recidivism numbers are the result of a lot of hard work on the part of both the Department of Corrections and the incarcerated offenders,” Gov. Ralph Northam stated in a press release.

In 2000, in Fishback v. Commonwealth, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that juries must be told that parole has been abolished. Between 1995 and that court decision, 471 prisoners were sentenced without their juries knowing that they would not be eligible for parole, according to the Governor’s Commission on Parole Review.

In 2015, the commission recommended that those inmates receive an opportunity for sentence modification. The panel said juries might have had a misconception that offenders could receive a shorter sentence through parole.

“This misconception likely had real consequences, since juries typically hand down harsher sentences than judges,” the commission stated.

During the General Assembly’s 2019 session, legislators filed two bills to allow parole for those convicted before the Fishback ruling. One bill died in a House committee, and the other was defeated by one vote in a Senate committee.

similar bill has been submitted for the legislative session that begins Jan. 8. In addition, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, has proposed reinstating parole, and Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, has filed legislation to study that idea. Other legislators have suggested expanding the possibility of parole for inmates who committed crimes as juveniles and have served at least 25 years in prison.

The parole process begins with an interview in which an examiner compiles a summary and recommendation for the Parole Board. The board then evaluates the case based on a number of factors, including compatibility with public safety and the offender’s criminal history and conduct in prison.

Since 2014, the parole board has provided more than 2,000 unique reasons to explain its decisions not to grant parole. The most common reasons include:

  •  “Serious nature and circumstances” of the offender’s crime.
  •  “Release at this time would diminish the seriousness of crime.”
  •  “The Board considers you to be a risk to the community.”
  •  Extensive criminal record
  •  History of violence

About the data in this report

The Virginia Parole Board posts PDFs listing the decisions it makes each month. When the board denies parole, the PDF also lists one or more reasons.

To begin this investigation, we converted 70 PDFs — all of the Parole Board’s decisions from January 2014 through October 2019 — into an Excel file. The exported data, which included both decisions and reasons, totaled almost 76,000 rows.

From the Excel file, we extracted the Parole Board’s decisions in parole cases only (regular parole, geriatric and board review cases). There was a total of 17,240 cases.

We then used Excel’s pivot table feature and Microsoft Access to calculate the percentage of parole requests had been granted or denied each year.

 

More Virginia Residents Speak Languages Other Than English

 

By Ezaddeen Almutairi, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Nahlaa Alsilfih Alahmari and her husband, Abdullah Alahmari, are graduate students from Saudi Arabia. She is pursuing a doctorate in education at Virginia State University, and he is working toward a doctorate in media, art and text at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The couple is living in Richmond with their three children: a 9-year-old son, Muath, and daughters Ilan, 11, and Afnan, 4.

Though the family is thousands of miles from home, the Alahmaris want their children to stay connected to Saudi culture and especially the national language. So the parents speak Arabic to the children at home, and the youngsters take Arabic lessons at the Islamic Center of Richmond.

“Teaching my kids to speak in my maiden language is a very important thing to do. It is important to me as a mother and very important to the community as a whole,” Nahlaa Alahmari said. “It allows my children to feel more connected to their state of origin.”

The Alahmari family reflects the growing diversity of languages spoken in Virginia: The proportion of residents who speak a language other than English at home has risen from 14.8% in 2010 to 16.4% last year, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Approximately 7.5% of Virginia households speak Spanish, the data showed. Then come Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, each at slightly less than 1%. Dozens of other languages are spoken in the commonwealth as well — from Hindi and German to Telugu and Russian.

Arabic speakers represent one of the fastest-growing language groups in Virginia. Since 2010, the number of Arabic speakers in the commonwealth has risen 63% to almost 60,000, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Not surprisingly, the rise in Arabic speakers has paralleled the rise in the number of Virginians who trace their ancestry to the Arab world.

About 78,000 of Virginia’s 8.5 million residents claim Arab ancestry. That’s up 31%, from 59,000, in 2010.

Nationwide, the number of U.S. residents of Arab descent increased 28% — from about 1.65 million in 2010 to more than 2.1 million last year.

The states with the most Arab-ancestry residents are California (about 325,000), Michigan (200,000), New York (176,000) and Texas (157,000).

In most states, people with Arab heritage make up less than one-half of 1% of the population. The states with the highest concentrations of Arab-ancestry residents are:

  • Michigan, at 2% of the population
  • New Jersey and Massachusetts, at just above 1%
  • Virginia and New York, at just below 1%

Within Virginia, Fairfax County has the highest concentration of Arab-heritage residents — 2.7%.

U.S. residents with Arab ancestry come from a range of countries. Lebanese is the most common nationality, followed by Egyptians and Syrians.

Studies show that migration from the Middle East and North Africa increased after the Arab Spring, the anti-government protests and uprisings that spread across much of the Islamic world in the early 2010s. That might explain the rise in the Arab population in the U.S. this decade.

Although Arab countries have their own cultures and traditions, one commonality is language. As people from those countries have immigrated to America, they have brought the language with them and sought to pass it along to their children.

Academic research has documented the benefits and challenges when people continue speaking their mother tongue abroad and teach it to their children.

For example, a study titled “Bilingual Children’s Mother Tongue: Why is it important for education?“ highlights how social, racial and cultural barriers can discourage people from learning their mother tongue and how parents can establish a strong language policy to avoid language loss.

Mohammed Albishri, a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado at Denver, is a linguistic specialist. He said children who learn two languages end up speaking both better.

“For children who are already deep in the understanding of a different language, teaching them to speak in English can never have a negative impact on them,” Albishri said. “The understanding of a different language will further perfect the children’s understanding of English language. They will assimilate the language faster and better.”

About three-fourths of the Arabic speakers in Virginia say they speak English “very well,” according to the Census Bureau’s survey.

For children of immigrants, the problem often is not learning English — it’s learning the language of their home country. Nahlaa Alahmari said it can be a challenge to get her children to study Arabic.

“Sometimes,” she said, “my kids themselves resent practicing the language as they say it is too difficult for them to comprehend — which, of course, it is reasonable as no one else around them speaks the language.”

Democratic Majority Could Bring Monumental Change to Confederate Symbols

By McKenzie Lambert and Susan Shibut, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia has 110 Confederate monuments, many of which are housed in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. Among the most notable are the five towering monuments of Confederate leaders lining Monument Avenue. Others live in neighborhoods across the city from Church Hill to Bellevue. The city is home to significant Civil War buildings, including the American Civil War Museum and White House of the Confederacy. Street names such as Confederate Avenue inhabit the Northside, while Jefferson Davis Highway, named for the president of the Confederacy, runs along the city and throughout the state. Schools such as John B. Cary Elementary — named after a Confederate soldier who later served as his district’s superintendent — and George Mason Elementary — named after a slave-owning Founding Father — still exist even though concern for renaming the schools has been articulated. 

In recent years, residents have been pushing for the Monument Avenue monuments to come down. But the statues, which represent the dark and violent history of slavery for some Virginians and their families, stand tall, staring down the median of a prominent and busy avenue. This is in part because the power to remove the monuments has been denied to localities under the Dillon Rule, which allows the state to limit the powers of local governments. However, a new Democratic majority in Virginia’s state legislature may open the door to more local government control — and perhaps the removal of the monuments.

The Dillon Rule is derived from the 1868 written decision by Judge John Dillon of Iowa. Dillon identified local governments as political subdivisions of the state government. According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, 39 states apply the Dillon Rule to some capacity. Thirty-one apply it to all localities, while eight use the rule for only certain municipalities. The Virginia Supreme Court adopted the Dillon Rule in 1896.

Because Virginia law states that localities cannot remove war monuments after they have been established, the Dillon Rule has prevented localities such as Richmond and Charlottesville from passing measures to remove their Confederate monuments.

When the General Assembly resumes session in January, a Democratic majority would make it easier for legislators to make a new law stating that local governments have the power to remove Confederate monuments, or a law that bans them outright. John Aughenbaugh, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, said a new law is a way he could see localities gain the power to make their own decisions about the monuments.

“I don’t think many members of the General Assembly want to get blamed for upsetting those who still like the monuments,” Aughenbaugh said. “But they’ll be willing to go ahead and give the local governments the authority to make that decision on their own.”

Jim Nolan, press secretary for Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, said that increasing local authority has been a legislative priority for the mayor and will remain one heading into the 2020 General Assembly session. He said the mayor believes the General Assembly should grant authority to allow localities to determine the future of Confederate monuments. 

“Cities should have the right to choose if they want to contextualize or permanently remove monuments,” Nolan said.

In recent years, the Richmond City Council voted against two resolutions brought by Councilman Michael Jones requesting that state lawmakers give the city authority on what to do with the monuments. The resolutions would have put pressure on lawmakers to give the city authority. However, the General Assembly is not the only avenue for localities to gain the power to remove their monuments. Aughenbaugh said he predicts a locality will sue for the right to remove their monuments and the Virginia Supreme Court will be the deciding body. 

One city has already brought such a suit. Earlier this year, Norfolk filed a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Virginia, arguing that requiring the city to keep a Confederate monument was contrary to their freedom of speech. The suit has not been decided yet.

More than 1,800 Confederate symbols stand in 22 states as of February, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Virginia, with 262 Confederate symbols, has more than any other state and has removed 17 of its symbols since the racially-charged Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in which nine African-Americans were murdered, the organization said.

For decades, Richmond has sought to offset Confederate symbols. In 1996, a sixth statue was added to Monument Avenue depicting Arthur Ashe, an African American tennis champion from Richmond. Earlier this year the Richmond City Council voted to rename the Boulevard to Arthur Ashe Boulevard. J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School was renamed Barack Obama Elementary after a 6-1 vote by the Richmond Public School Board in 2018. Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts unveiled Tuesday, in front of a welcoming crowd, Kehinde Wiley’s statue “Rumors of War,” which depicts a black man in classic equestrian portraiture — a response to the monuments on Monument Avenue.

Virginia has been center stage in the national debate regarding the potential removal of Confederate monuments. In August 2017, the nation was rocked with news of violent clashes in Charlottesville. A “Unite the Right” rally and counter-demonstration were the climax of a months-long battle over the fate of a Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee statue that the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove. At the protest, James Alex Fields Jr., a white supremacist who traveled from Ohio to the event, drove his car into a crowd, killing counter-protester Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The night before the protest, participants gathered in the park with tiki torches and chanted slogans including the Nazi-associated phrase “blood and soil.”

After the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting, Stoney created the Monument Avenue Commission in 2017 in hopes of creating new ways to remember Richmond’s history while addressing the past memorialized on Monument Avenue. Its first meeting took place days before Heyer died counter-protesting in Charlottesville.

“Richmond has a long, complex and conflicted history, and the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue represents a shameful part of our past,” Stoney said in the commission’s 117-page report. “The majority of the public acknowledges Monument Avenue cannot and should not remain exactly as it is. Change is needed and desired.” 

After 11 months of public deliberation, the commission suggested solutions, which included:

  •  Moving the monuments to a museum and creating a permanent exhibit, including a deeper historical look into the history of the monuments by creating a mobile app and a film that ensures historical accuracy.

  • Adding permanent signage that reflects the historic, biographical, artistic and changing meaning over time for each monument.

  • Erecting a monument that pays homage to the resilience of the formerly enslaved.

  • Having local artists create contemporary pieces that bring new meaning to Monument Avenue.

  • Removing the Jefferson Davis statue.

The city cannot implement these suggestions, however, if state law overrides local laws. 

House Bill 2377 was introduced by former Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, in the 2019 General Assembly session. It would have given localities the power to remove or add context to their monuments, but it did not pass the then-Republican majority House.

For those who oppose the monuments, hope is on the rise. Democrats hold both chambers of the General Assembly as well as the governorship after the Nov. 5 elections — a power that has not been seen in over 20 years. Several of the newly elected legislators have spoken out against the monuments, including Democratic Sen.-elect Ghazala Hashmi, Democratic Del.-elect Sally Husdon, and Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk. Hudson plans to introduce legislation very similar to Toscano’s bill — Jones said he will co-sponsor the legislation.

In November, Jones tweeted: “The ‘monuments’ are nothing more than vestigial symbols of oppression and hate that need to come down - ESPECIALLY if it is the locality’s choice. We’re moving VA into the 21st century rather than ‘honoring’ the failures of the 19th.”

This was not the first time Jones touched on this subject. During Black History month in February, following Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal, Jones stood in front of the House of Delegates and made a personal speech

Jones talked about “two Virginias,” a white one and a black one, and how they have existed “in parallel along the same arc of history, frequently intersecting, but never running together as one. Two different experiences, born from the same beginning four hundred years ago and still never merged into one shared story.” 

According to Jones, “glorification of the Confederacy via monuments and flags in public spaces,” are examples of how white Virginians “consciously or unconsciously attempted to demonstrate its power over black Virginians.”

In describing the racially-charged differences between Virginians, Jones said, “It seems that we have not come far enough to understand the hurt and pain and the effect on those who grew up in the shadow of separate but not equal. Thirty years on, throughout the duration of my life, we are still struggling mightily with race in our state.”

If localities are given the authority to legislate the fate of their monuments, Nolan said Stoney and his administration will ask the city’s History and Culture Commission to make recommendations and commit to following a process in accordance to solutions provided by the Monument Avenue Commission.

Post-Election, Virginia Dodges Medicaid Work Requirements

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia residents with Medicaid will not be required to work in order to keep their policies since Gov. Ralph Northam halted the work requirements he previously agreed to implement nearly two years ago as a bipartisan agreement. 

House Republicans said in a statement that the previous agreement was made in “good faith” and Northam gave his “personal assurance” to implement Medicaid expansion with a work requirement, where most Medicaid recipients would have to work a certain amount of hours each month to keep their policy. 

“Broken promises like this are the reason so many people hate politics,” Del Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in the statement.

In 2019, Virginia expanded eligibility for health coverage to 400,000 people. So far, 342,000 Virginians have signed up for health insurance coverage through Medicaid expansion. Work requirements for Medicaid could lead to between 26,800 and 74,000 people losing their health insurance coverage, according to The Commonwealth Institute

The work requirements previously agreed on would apply to able-bodied Medicaid recipients who would need to work and pay premiums. For the first three months, enrollees would start with a work requirement of 20 hours per month. The workload would increase to 80 hours per month after a person was enrolled for 12 months, according to the amended budget

“In order to work, you have to be healthy, so work requirements for Medicaid expansion make no sense at all,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, in a press release. “We’re thrilled that Democrats are taking steps to halt the implementation of punitive work requirements to qualify for Medicaid Expansion and we hope that it means even more people will be able to benefit from the program.”

Arkansas was the first state to implement a work reporting requirement for Medicaid. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that 18,164 people lost coverage within the first seven months of the program and approximately 23% of all people subject to work requirements lost coverage. There is no evidence that work reporting requirements led to any major increase in work participation or hours worked, the study found. The policy is no longer being enforced in Arkansas, due to a recent court decision

Ashleigh Crocker, communications director for Progress Virginia, thinks it doesn’t make sense to implement the plan.

 “The vast majority of people who get insurance coverage through Medicaid are already working,” Crocker said. 

Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and director of the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said that moving forward, Republicans have “little ability” to retain the previous agreement from a couple years ago. 

“This is an example of how elections have consequences,” Farnsworth said. “The new Democratic majorities taking office next month have little interest in the work requirement as a condition for Medicaid expansion and seem very likely to abandon that provision in the next session.”

Rape Cases in Virginia Often Go Unsolved

By Anna Madigan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — In the #MeToo era, survivors of sexual assault are feeling more empowered to come forward with their stories. Despite the social movement, though, sexual assaults and rapes have the lowest clearance rates of all “crimes against persons” in Virginia.

In 2018, for example, fewer than 20% of all rape cases in the commonwealth were cleared by arrest, according to an analysis of Virginia State Police data. In contrast, kidnapping had a clearance rate of almost 75%.

The numbers don’t surprise Kate McCord, an associate director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She said there are multiple potential reasons for low clearance rates in sexual assaults.

Sometimes, McCord said, police keep cases open for future DNA evidence. Other reasons, she said, include inadequate police training and lack of resources.

One factor, McCord said, is the misconception that sexual assault has a higher rate of false reporting than other crimes.

“The pervasiveness that people who report sexual assaults are not to be believed is still an issue, so that could be contributing to the problem. There are a lot of different factors that could all be kind of interplaying to make this dynamic happen,” McCord said.

Virginia had similar numbers of rape and kidnapping cases last year, according to Virginia Crime Online, a database posted by the Virginia State Police. There were 1,879 reported rapes and 1,546 reported kidnappings.

However, the two crimes had very different clearance rates — the percentage of offenses in which police arrest a suspect:

  • 73% of the kidnapping cases were cleared by arrest. In 2% of the cases, the victim refused to cooperate, and in another 2%, prosecutors decided not to pursue the case.
  • Just 19% of rape cases were cleared by arrest. In 10% of the cases, the victim refused to cooperate, and in another 13%, prosecutors decided not to pursue the case.

McCord said some rape survivors might refuse to cooperate with authorities because of their relationship to the perpetrator.

McCord also said that “victim refused to cooperate” is a subjective reason to drop an investigation and that in some instances, police may be using this as an excuse.

“When you think about the concept of failure to cooperate, that could be a really subjective judgment call,” McCord said.

McCord used the Netflix series “Unbelievable” as an example of how survivors of sexual assault can be deemed uncooperative. “Unbelievable” is a drama based on a true story of a sexual assault survivor who was deemed uncooperative and who eventually sued the city of Lynnwood, Washington, after connecting investigations found evidence of her assault.

The Virginia State Police compile data on sex offenses other than rapes. In 2018, there were:

  • 2,831 cases of “forcible fondling”; 21% of them were cleared by arrest.
  • 531 cases of “sexual assault with an object”; 25% of them were cleared.
  • 623 cases of “forcible sodomy”; 28% of them were cleared.
  • 130 cases of statutory rape; 39% of them were cleared.

Overall, of the 5,994 sex-related offenses were reported to police in Virginia last year, 1,309 cases — or 22% — were cleared by arrest.

The clearance rate for all “crimes against persons” was 45%. For instance, of the 8,776 aggravated assaults, 57% were cleared. So were 59% of the 393 cases of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, and 47% of the 65,261 simple assaults.

Not only are the clearance rates for sex-related offenses low, but many of those crimes go unreported, according to advocates for rape survivors.

The Virginia Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Action Alliance reported that its hotline last year received 10,017 calls regarding sexual assault.

The combination of the relationship between the survivor and the attacker and low clearance rates for sexual assault can be the perfect storm to keep a survivor from reporting an attack to police.

“When you’re thinking about a survivor who just wants (accountability) but may not want for the person who harmed them to go to jail or prison, then they’re not going to choose to report to a system ... where they don’t feel like they’re going to be believed anyway,” McCord said.

Despite low clearance rates, McCord sees a “hopeful trend” of police departments learning about trauma-informed investigation and response.

The International Association Chiefs of Police states that trauma-informed sexual assault investigation training “provides law enforcement and multi-disciplinary community partners with information on the neurobiology of trauma and investigative strategies to respond to sexual assault crimes in a victim centered, trauma informed manner.”

Local police departments had a range of clearance rates for rape cases in 2018.

Among localities with at least 10 rapes, Washington County and the city of Waynesboro had the highest clearance rates at 40%. Fairfax County’s clearance rate was similar to the statewide average at 18%. Of the county’s 131 reported rapes, 23 were cleared by arrest.

In contrast, Fauquier and Hanover counties cleared only 6% of their reported rapes. The Richmond Police Department cleared only two of its 40 rape reports in 2018 — a clearance rate of 5%. Suffolk City had a slightly lower rate than Richmond, 4.55%, clearing one of 22 rape cases.

Because of the underreporting and low clearance rates for rape, law professor Donald Dripps argued in a recent issue of the William & Mary Law Review that rape should be a federal crime.

Dripps wrote that states and localities aren’t doing enough to solve rape cases. He said making rape a federal offense would focus federal resources on the issue.

Dripps, who teaches at the School of Law at the University of San Diego, wrote that the low clearance rates in rape cases are especially concerning in light of the emergence of DNA testing, searchable law-enforcement databases and other technology.

“As solving rape cases became less difficult, the clearance rate should have gone up,” Dripps stated.

How Virginians are going solar, powered by national program

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Joy Loving bought a Prius in 2012. The purchase was the first of two investments she said she made in a personal effort to save money and reduce her carbon footprint. The second: go solar.

After converting her home to solar energy, Loving began leading solar cooperatives with members of her Harrisonburg community who also were interested in going solar. As rooftop solar systems began popping up across the city, people began to notice.

“I think that's because it's a small city,” Loving said. “Solar panels that are put on roofs are visible in a way, whereas my own solar panels, living out in the county as I do, are viewed only by the cattle and sheep who live in the fields nearby.”

Co-ops such as Solarize Harrisonburg, which Loving founded, were helped off the ground largely by Solar United Neighbors, a national organization dedicated to representing the needs and interests of solar owners and supporters. SUN carries out its mission in two channels: helping homeowners and businesses convert to rooftop solar, and encouraging individuals to fight for their energy rights.

“Our work is dedicated to directing the control of benefits of our energy system back to local communities with distributed 'rooftop' solar as the cornerstone,” Aaron Sutch, SUN’s program director in Virginia, wrote in an email. “We're creating jobs and building clean, resilient energy into our communities while giving consumers energy choice and freedom.

The organization brings individuals and businesses together to create solar co-ops in communities across the nation. Once the co-ops are large enough, SUN pairs the groups with local solar installers. Members of the co-op review different bids and pick an installer they think would work best for their specific needs. The chosen installer then helps individuals within the group create a personalized plan to go solar.

As of November, SUN said it has helped more than 840 Virginia families convert to rooftop solar.

Another key facet of SUN’s mission is encouraging solar homeowners to advocate for their energy rights. An example of this would be the push to lift Virginia’s cap on net metering. Net metering is a policy that compensates solar homeowners who might produce more electricity monthly than they consume from the public utility grid. 

Excess solar energy is fed to the public grid under net metering, and owners can use that surplus to offset their monthly energy bills. 

 The General Assembly passed a bill in March raising Virginia’s net metering cap for not-for-profit solar owners from 1% to 2%. The bill also saw the collective cap for all members of a co-op raised to 7%. This legislation was praised by organizations like SUN.

This bill also enables investor-owned utilities to develop solar projects by allowing Virginians to participate in a voluntary subscription program. While this could allow more solar to be built in Virginia, it falls short of utility-scale solar that would benefit communities.

Sutch said residents should be allowed to participate in community solar projects.

“Community solar enables individuals and businesses to get bill credit from a nearby shared solar project,” he said. “This will allow renters as well as low and moderate-income Virginians to benefit from solar energy even if they are unable to install a system on their own rooftop.”

However, the issue in Virginia, as Sutch pointed out, is that Virginia’s energy system defers to the monopoly created by Dominion Energy. There are currently contracts in place that prevent churches, schools and other municipal buildings from generating their own power outside of energy provided by Dominion, except on rare occasions such as weather emergencies.

“What we see is our energy progress running up against a very powerful special interest that works against the interests of many of the Virginia customers,” Sutch said.

SUN got its start in D.C. in 2009, stemming from the Mt. Pleasant Solar Cooperative originally started by Anya Schoolman. She said her son Walter and his friend Diego watched “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary about climate change, and wanted to help fight the problem by going solar. After realizing that an isolated transition to solar power was complicated and expensive, Schoolman wondered if the answer might be to convert her neighborhood in bulk.

After two weeks, more than 50 neighbors had joined Schoolman in wanting to install solar power on their roofs. The group became D.C.’s first solar co-op and two years later, 45 families in the area were reliant on solar energy.

Schoolman created DC SUN to replicate the success of its neighborhood co-op. Over the next decade, the DC SUN model spread to nearby states. In 2017, Solar United Neighbors became a nationwide program offering memberships. There were seven state programs already in place when it was officially established; now there are 13. In addition to D.C. and Virginia, SUN has memberships in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order in September laying out goals for a future driven by renewable energy. The order called for 30% of the state’s electricity to be supplied by renewable energy by 2030, and 100% of electricity supplied by renewable energy by 2050. 

“Solar energy is a rapidly growing segment of our economy,” Northam stated in a press release. “I am proud that the commonwealth is playing a role in driving this demand and taking advantage of the benefits that this resource provides.”

SUN offers a multitude of other programs aimed at giving Virginians the information they need to go solar. That information can be found on SUN’s website, along with a calendar of events the organization is hosting in the near future.

Loving continues to help establish other solar co-ops in the Shenandoah Valley.

“What we’re doing is educating the citizenry and the customers and other stakeholders of the big utilities, and I think that's a really important mission,” Loving said.

More Work from Home in U.S., Virginia and D.C. Area

 

By Kelly Booth, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — More Americans are working from home, and that’s especially true in Virginia and in the Washington, D.C., metro area, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nationally, the proportion of workers who work from home rose from 4.3% in 2010 to 5.3% last year, the data show. Virginia is slightly above the national average, with 5.6% of the state’s workforce working from home in 2018.

The figure was 6.1% in the D.C. metro area, which includes parts of Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia. That was the highest proportion of people working from home among the five U.S. metro areas with the most workers.

In contrast, the proportion of workers who worked from home last year was 5.9% in the Los Angeles metro area, 5.8% in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, 5.4% in the Chicago area and 4.7% in the New York area.

Why are more people working from home?

“People are better able to focus and not as distracted as they are in the office,” said Brie Reynolds, career development manager and coach at FlexJobs, a website that focuses on finding telecommuting jobs for workers in cities and remote areas.

Reynolds believes telecommuting will continue to grow. She said more people are turning to her company’s website to find work and more employers are offering remote work each year.

“I think more people’s jobs can just be done that way,” Reynolds said. “More people are able to do their jobs from anywhere where they’ve got a computer and an internet connection and maybe a phone.”

FlexJobs helps connect workers with a range of employment, including freelance opportunities and part-time jobs. The most popular categories this year for remote jobs are computer and information technology, medical and health, and sales, Reynolds said.

She said even doctors can now work from home, interacting with patients and insurance companies by phone and computer.

Education and training is another field on the rise, according to Reynolds. “There’s a lot more virtual education out there, online courses, and universities that are creating totally virtual or remote degree programs,” Reynolds said.

Women are more likely than men to work from home, according to the Census Bureau. The percentage of U.S. women who work from home rose from 4.4% in 2010 to 5.7% in 2018. For American men, the proportion went from 4.3% in 2010 to 5% last year.

According to Derrick Neufeld, associate professor of information systems and entrepreneurship at the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, employers can save money in real estate and rental expenses by having people work remotely or work from home.

“That can be a very significant factor. If they can start shutting down office space, it can save a lot of costs,” Neufeld said.

Neufeld said working from home can be a desirable alternative work arrangement, allowing workers to live farther from the city.

But there are downsides to working from home.

Neufeld said his recent studies have found that people who don’t meet face to face have a problem assessing the trustworthiness of their coworkers.

“It’s like a switch that doesn’t get turned on,” Neufeld said. “We can’t simply replace face-to-face communication with, let’s say, a video cast.”

Organization Aims To Feed More People In Need

By Emma Gauthier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Every Thursday at 10:30 a.m., John White packs the trunk of his black Mercedes-Benz with meals that he distributes to people in need in Central Virginia. 

For two years, White has been a volunteer with Feed More, a local organization involved with Meals on Wheels and Feeding America that serves Central Virginia through its 10 nutrition-assistance programs.

“It’s been an education for me,” White said. “There’s quite a bit of poverty out there and it’s so good to see the outreach that we have with Meals on Wheels.” 

This Thursday, Kroger is funding over 800 Thanksgiving dinners with a donation of $7,500. This marks the fifth consecutive year that Kroger has donated to Feed More for the holidays. 

“We’re immensely grateful to Kroger for their continued dedication to giving back to the community and their enthusiasm and passion for fighting hunger in Richmond,” Feed More CEO Doug Pick said in a news release. 

The partnership makes it possible for families in need to spend their Thanksgiving enjoying turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and more. 

At least 11% of U.S. households lived in a state of food insecurity at some point in 2018, according to the USDA

Food insecurity is classified as households that are either uncertain of having, or unable to acquire enough food to meet the needs of their family. 

Feed More has existed in Virginia for more than five decades, beginning with the formation of its Meals on Wheels program, which in 1967, served just eight clients.

Since then, the organization has grown to serve almost 200,000 people throughout 29 counties and five cities across Central Virginia. 

“With the support of our community, we are able to provide our neighbors who face hunger with one of the most basic necessities: nourishment,” said Audrey Gilani, marketing coordinator at Feed More. 

More than 1,600 people volunteered with Feed More in 2018, donating a total of nearly 70,000 hours. About 460 groups also volunteered for almost 83,000 hours. 

“I am so impressed with the organization, the efficiency and the good-will spirit of the volunteers at Feed More,” White stated in a social media message. 

Feed More received nearly $45 million worth of donated food in 2018, primarily from retailers, manufacturers and produce growers. Half of the donated food consisted of fresh produce and meat. 

The organization receives millions of pounds of donated food each year. During 2018 the largest donor was Food Lion with more than 5 million pounds, followed by Walmart with about 4.5 million pounds. 

Multiple Feed More programs are dedicated to children living in food insecurity. The Weekend Backpack program distributed over 55,000 meals to 54 schools for children to take home on weekends.

In Central Virginia, one in seven children do not know when their next meal will be, according to Feed More. Gilani says she is pleased with how programs such as Mobile Pantry, School Market and Weekend Backpacks reach vulnerable communities struggling with food access.

“Feed More is there for our neighbors when they need us most,” Gilani said.

Collectively, Feed More has distributed nearly 21 million meals to those in need.

“If the rest of us will just provide them with the resources,” volunteer Bill McCoy said, “the chances of anybody in the region having to go to bed hungry go way down.”

Virginia’s Unemployment Rate Drops to 2.6%

 

By Yahya Alzahrany, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia had the fourth-lowest unemployment rate in the United States last month, officials announced Tuesday.

The commonwealth’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped from 2.7% in September to 2.6% in October, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Virginia’s jobless rate continues to be much lower than the national average of 3.6%.

Only three states had an unemployment rate in October lower than Virginia’s: Vermont (at 2.2%) and North Dakota and Utah (both at 2.5%).

Virginia was tied with Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina with a jobless rate of 2.6%.

The state with the highest unemployment rate last month was Alaska at 6.2%, followed by Mississippi (5.5%) and the District of Columbia (5.4%).

Gov. Ralph Northam said more people are working in Virginia than ever before. He said October was the 16th consecutive month that the commonwealth’s labor force had expanded.

“Virginia’s economy is headed in the right direction,” Northam said in a statement issued during an economic development mission in the Middle East. “The competition for talent is on, because low unemployment gives workers more options about where to work.”

Competition can also help boost wages. On Wednesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said the average weekly wage in Virginia had risen 3.7%, to $1,113, between the second quarter of 2018 and the second quarter of 2019. Nationally, wages increased 3.8%, to $1,095, during that period.

“Next month, we will put forward a budget that continues investing in workforce development to ensure long-term, shared economic growth in our Commonwealth,” Northam said. “We want Virginia to be the best state to work in and the best place to run a business.”

Virginia’s unemployment rate has been dropping:

● In October 2018, it was 2.8% — tied for the seventh lowest in the U.S.

● In September of this year, the rate was 2.7% — tied for the fifth lowest.

“It is very satisfying whenever the Commonwealth’s unemployment rate drops, as it has been doing consistently throughout 2019,” Brian Ball, Virginia’s secretary of commerce and trade, said in a statement.

“Virginia’s highly trained and skilled workforce makes us a natural fit for top employers. We will continue to recruit those businesses that create productive job opportunities for Virginians.”

Baby Names Reflect Demographic Shifts

 

By Erica Mokun, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Bye-bye, Betty. You were one of the most popular names for girls in Virginia when Betty Grable ruled the silver screen in the 1930s. But last year, you didn’t even register a “boop” on the Social Security Administration’s list of common baby names in the commonwealth.

Mateo, on the other hand, has seen a meteoric rise. First appearing on the SSA’s list 20 years ago, it was the 46th most popular name for boys born in Virginia in 2018 — ahead of Robert, Jonathan and Adam.

Mateo, the Spanish form of Matthew, has emerged in Virginia as the state’s Latino population has grown. Last year, 179 boys born in the state were named Mateo.

The most common names for male babies in Virginia last year were William, Liam and Noah. The most common names for girls were Ava, Olivia and Emma. The SSA’s data, based on applications for Social Security cards, shows how names can rise and fall in popularity based on cultural and demographic trends.

“We see many more Spanish names rising through the charts in the U.S. as the Spanish-speaking population grows and people become more comfortable with diversity and interested in using names from their own culture,” said Pamela Redmond, an expert on the subject.

Redmond is co-founder and CEO of Nameberry, which describes itself as the internet’s “largest and most complete resource devoted to baby names.”

Baby names reflect what is fashionable as well as society’s appreciation for diversity.

“Baby names are completely barometers of who we are and what we like in a culture, ranging from our ethnic identity to our feelings about education and class to what we are watching on TV,” Redmond said.

The Social Security Administration annually tracks the names given to boys and girls in each state and has posted online data going back to 1910.

Some names stand the test of time. For boys, for example, James has been a top-10 name every year in Virginia; it was No. 4 in 2018.

Other names can fall out of favor as the decades pass. For instance, Shirley was the most common name for girls born in Virginia in 1936. But last year, it was given to fewer than five babies in the state — the threshold for being included in the SSA’s database.

Some names can suddenly surface and quickly soar in popularity. That is what happened with Liam. It first appeared on the SSA’s list for Virginia in 1985, ranking No. 138 with just five births. But by 2012, Liam was the third most common name for boys born in the commonwealth — and it took first place in 2017.

The data also shows what Virginia has in common with other states. Last year, for example, Ava was the No. 1 girls’ name in 10 other states, from Mississippi to Ohio, as well as in Washington, D.C.

According to the SSA database, parents today are drawing from a wider range of names than Virginians had in the past.

In 1910, parents having a girl chose from fewer than 300 names. By the 1950s, the SSA’s annual list had about 600 girls’ names. And in recent years, the number of girls’ names has hovered around 1,400.

For boys, the choices have been more limited: fewer than 200 different names in 1910, about 500 in the 1950s and fewer than 1,200 today.

Richmond resident Maya Slater, who is expecting her first child, has turned to resources like the SSA and Nameberry to find names that will stand out.

“I chose the name Raelynn for my child because I really wanted a unique name that I did not want all my friends to have,” Slater said. “So I downloaded an app, did some research on the name and went with it.”

Raelynn is relatively uncommon in Virginia. Last year, 88 girls born in the state received that name — so it ranked No. 72.

Redmond, who has written “Beyond Jennifer & Jason” and other books on the subject, noted that names can fall out of favor and then make a comeback. So don’t rule Betty out, she said.

“It’s getting just vintage enough to make a comeback, but we may not see it till the next generation,” Redmond said. “Names usually take four generations or 100 years to come back.”

Republicans Say New House Leadership Lacks Regional Diversity

By Jason Boleman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Earlier this month Democrats elected a new House of Delegates leadership team as the party took control of the chamber for the first time since 1999. 

For outgoing House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, the Democratic leadership team lacks diversity in one area: their home districts.

In a statement released Nov. 9, and retweeted by Republican leadership, Gilbert congratulated the new House leadership and said Republicans are looking forward to working with them, but also expressed concern with the party electing “an entire leadership team that is centered in the deepest parts of Northern Virginia.”

“The House of Delegates represents our entire commonwealth, and the varying and often conflicting interests of Northern Virginia, metro Richmond, Hampton Roads, and rural Virginia deserve a fair hearing in our legislative process,” Gilbert said. 

Among the new leadership is Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who is set to become the first female speaker in the chamber’s 400-year history.

Joining Filler-Corn in leadership positions are Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax. Herring will serve as House majority leader and Sullivan will serve as majority caucus chair in the upcoming General Assembly session. 

Under the current House District map, all three delegates are from northern Virginia. The outgoing leadership team represented central, western and northern areas of the state.

“It is a bit unusual to have an entire leadership team drawn from one region of the state,” said Bob Holsworth, political analyst and managing partner at the consulting firm DecideSmart, by email. 

Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said that regionalism has been “a fairly common theme here in the commonwealth.”

“As for whether the regional dominance translates into an actual resource or representation imbalance: not likely,” Bitecofer said. “But keep in mind, every time a resource gets distributed to NoVa the accusation will be leveled.”

Holly Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Filler-Corn, said the delegate does not have a response to Gilbert’s statement, instead choosing to focus on policy matters.

“Her decisions on leadership, including committee chairs, will speak for themselves,” Armstrong said. “The policy agenda will begin to take shape as the committee chair decisions are made and caucus members continue to discuss priorities.”

 On Thursday, Filler-Corn announced Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton and Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex would receive chair positions – respectively – to the Appropriations, Finance, Commerce and Labor, and Education committees.

With more chair decisions to be made, Bitecofer said she would not be surprised to see more regional diversity in the assignments.

“I expected that the fact that Democrats have chosen leaders from NoVa would be raised as concerns among the minority,” Bitecofer said. “This detail has not been overlooked, and I assume we'll see some nice committee chairs doled out to members representing other regions to offset that.”

Holsworth agreed that committee chairs will play a role in offsetting Gilbert’s concerns.

“Key committee chairs - who have greater power and leadership than some of the leaders - exhibit considerable diversity in terms of region,” Holsworth said.

The current House leadership team, which has been in place since 2018, includes Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, Gilbert and Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax. Republicans are still determining the new Republican minority leadership roles. Cox, outgoing speaker of the House, said he will not pursue a leadership position in the upcoming session. Hugo, the current majority caucus chair, lost his re-election bid to Democrat Dan Helmer. 

 Gilbert, House majority leader since 2018, and Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, are likely contenders for the minority leader position, according to the Washington Post. They are both influential figures in the Virginia House of Delegates Republican Caucus, Holsworth said. 

The last Democratic Speaker of the House was Tom Moss, a delegate from Norfolk who served as speaker from 1991 until the Republicans took control of the chamber in 2000. Moss’s House majority leader was Richard Cranwell, who represented Danville until leaving the House in 2001.

Democrats now hold a 55 to 45 majority over Republicans in the House, and a 21 to 19 majority in the Senate. No change in Senate leadership is expected, according to Senate Democrats. Minority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, will assume the majority leader position currently held by Thomas Norment, R-James City.

Virginia Republicans Mull Over New House Leadership

By Jeff Raines, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- After Democrats seized control of the General Assembly on Election Day and proceeded to vote on key leadership positions, Republicans began meeting behind closed doors and mulling over who will steer their party forward.

As the minority party, Republican power in the House has been severely reduced, according to Bob Holsworth, a political analyst and managing partner at DecideSmart.

“The new minority leader will be the spokesperson for the opposition and have the additional job of recruiting candidates who can help the GOP regain power in future elections,” Holsworth said in an email.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, House majority leader since 2018, and Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, are likely contenders for the minority leader position, according to the Washington Post. They are both influential figures in the Virginia House of Delegates Republican Caucus, Holsworth said. 

Gilbert has already served as majority leader and has not broken from more conservative values of the caucus, whereas Kilgore has supported Medicaid expansion. 

Holsworth said “it will be interesting to see whether Kilgore’s support for Medicaid expansion, a policy that provided significant benefits to his constituents, is seen as a negative by the majority of Republican members who opposed it.”

Del. Kirk Cox has served as speaker of the House since 2018 and prior to that served as House majority leader since 2010. He has held the House District 66 seat for 29 years, since 1990. 

The Republican Party is meeting to decide who will be the new minority leader in the House and will announce their decision aftward, which is a normal proceeding according to Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

“The question is, does the majority leader become the minority leader or does the caucus move in a different direction,” Farnsworth said.

Cox has announced he will not pursue a leadership position. He held onto his seat in slimmest margin he has ever won by in a hard fought Election Day victory against Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman.

 House District 66 was redistricted in 2018 and now leans Democratic by 32 percentage points, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Cox won with 51.7%, against Bynum-Coleman’s 47% of the vote -- or close to a 1,300 vote margin. The Independent candidate, Linnard Harris Sr., picked up a little over 1% of votes.

Cox and members of the caucus have not responded to multiple requests for comment on minority leadership proceedings, which Farnsworth said was common.

“Republicans on ballots tend to be more reticent in terms of dealing with the media,” he said. “But that reticence is certainly intensified in the age of Trump.”

Farnsworth offered insight into the proceedings. 

Party leaders tend to hold districts they will not lose in an election, Farnsworth said. “If you are representing a vulnerable district, you would be less interested in leadership responsibilities.”

Republicans are increasingly losing ground in urban and suburban districts. Moderate Republicans in these areas are the most likely to lose their seats, according to Farnsworth, and the party is becoming increasingly conservative as they lose ground to Democrats.

  The Republicans took over the House in the late 1990s and have held it since. Republicans and Democrats have grappled over the Senate and there hasn't been consistent Republican control. 

Democrats now hold a 55 to 45 majority over Republicans in the House, and a 21 to 19 majority in the Senate.

The key factor according to Farnsworth, is the consolidation of power in state government, with a Democratic governor leading Virginia. 

“The last time the Democrats controlled the Governor's office and the House and the Senate was 1994, the end of Douglas Wilder's term as governor,” he said. 

Democrats voted Eileen Filler-Corn the speaker of the House four days after the election. Del. Charniele Herring was tapped as majority leader, and Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan Jr. will serve as caucus chairman.

 Filler-Corn is the first female and Jewish speaker of the House and Herring is the first woman and African American to serve as majority leader.

No change in Senate leadership is expected, according to Senate Democrats. Minority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, will assume the majority leader position currently held by Thomas Norment, R-James City.

Virginians Are Recycling More of Their Trash

By Eric Everington, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia recycled almost half of its trash last year, setting a record despite China’s ban on importing plastic and other solid waste.

The statewide recycling rate in 2018 was 46% — up 3 percentage points from the previous year, according to data released this week by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The data showed that:

  • The Central Virginia Waste Management Authority, which includes Richmond and surrounding localities, had the highest recycling rate in the commonwealth — 59%.
  • The Virginia Peninsulas Public Service Authority, which includes Hampton, Poquoson and Williamsburg and nearby counties, had the lowest rate — 29%.
  • The city of Newport News had the biggest improvement in recycling in recent years. Its rate jumped from 38% in 2016 to 57% last year.

The numbers represent the percentage of municipal solid waste that is sent for recycling. Local governments also get credit for activities such as programs to reduce the amount of trash generated.

Several factors affect an area’s recycling rate. They include population, population density, location of recycling facilities and funding.

By April 30 each year, the local governments and regional planning units that oversee recycling collect their data and submit a report to the Department of Environmental Quality. DEQ reviews the information and then calculates an overall recycling rate for the state.

“DEQ works with businesses and localities and environmental groups to promote environmental awareness through recycling,” said Leslie Beckwith, the agency’s director of financial responsibility and waste management programs.

The statewide recycling rate was 44% in 2015. It dropped to 43% in 2016 and 2017 before jumping to 46% last year.

The increase came despite an unstable market for various types of trash to be recycled — especially China’s decision to stop accepting solid waste.

“China’s revisions in recycling material acceptance is having a big impact on the recycling market,” Beckwith said.

As a result, DEQ has asked localities and planning units to identify any changes or challenges regarding their recycling efforts when they submit their 2019 reports.

One change is that many localities have dropped recycling glass because it is hard to find a market for that product. That is why DEQ is asking Virginians to minimize their use of glass.

“Citizens should try to generate less waste, like purchasing products with the least amount of packaging and those that are readily recyclable, such as aluminum cans vs. glass bottles,” said Anissa Rafeh, the department’s communications coordinator.

Glass can be problematic to recycle for several reasons, said Joe Romuno, director of national accounts for an environmental consulting firm called Great Forest Sustainability Solutions.

“Broken glass can contaminate other recyclables like paper and cardboard, lowering their value,” Romuno said. Moreover, broken glass can be a safety hazard to workers and can damage machines at recycling facilities.

Also, glass must be sorted by color in order to reprocess for recycling. “Glass is difficult to sort when broken, and if broken down too finely, it may become too difficult to reprocess,” Romuno said.

Four localities in Northern Virginia have teamed up to tackle the challenge of glass recycling.

The city of Alexandria and the counties of Fairfax, Arlington Prince William have joined forces to collect source-separated glass in purple bins for better recovery. The glass is then crushed at Fairfax County’s Glass Processing Center to produce sand and gravel that can be used in construction and landscaping projects.

DEQ is also keeping an eye on new technologies to improve Virginia’s recycling efforts. For example, the agency was on hand when the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority announced it was deploying 2,000 recycling bins from an Israeli company called UBQ.

The bins are made with a thermoplastic created from household waste that would normally end up in a landfill, including banana peels, chicken bones, plastics and old pizza boxes.

Mail Often Arrives Late in Richmond Area, Data Shows

By Jaclyn Barton, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Rachel Westfall, who lives in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, says her mail service has always been hit or miss. But since April, there have been a lot more misses.

“My personal property tax check apparently never made it to City Hall, even though I mailed it at the beginning of April, two months before the due date,” Westfall said.

Her complaint is a common one in the Richmond area, which has some of the worst mail delivery in the country, according to data from the U.S. Postal Service. Last spring, less than 84% of the region’s first-class mail was delivered on time. Only two service areas in the U.S. had a worse on-time delivery rate.

According to the Postal Service, single-piece first-class mail service is the least expensive and fastest option for mailing items such as postcards, letters and large flat envelopes. Delivery time is measured from the collection box drop point to delivery.

Every quarter, the service posts on its website data showing what percentage of first-class mail arrives on time in each of its service districts.

One measure looks at mail that is supposed to arrive within three to five days. On that metric, the Richmond area has been below the national average since the summer of 2017.

For example, between April and June of this year, 86.5% of the mail nationwide arrived on time, the latest quarterly performance report shows. But for the Richmond area, the figure was 83.8%. Only two service areas in the U.S. — both in New York City — had on-time delivery rates lower than Richmond’s.

The Richmond area’s worst quarter in recent years was October through December of 2018, when less than 66% of the mail that was supposed to be delivered in three to five days arrived on time. That was a difficult quarter throughout the country for the Postal Service: The nationwide on-time delivery rate for that period was just over 72%.

The Postal Service also measures on-time delivery for mail that ought to arrive in two days. On that yardstick, too, the Richmond area is usually below the national average.

Between April and June, for example, about 92% of two-day mail in the Richmond area arrived on time, the Postal Service’s data showed. Nationwide, the figure was about 94%.

The Postal Service’s target is to deliver 96.5% of two-day mail and 95.3% of three- to five-day mail to arrive on time. The service set those targets in 2014 but has never met them.

The Postal Service’s media relations staff did not respond to several requests for comment about the performance data.

Mail delivery depends on several factors. Mistakes during sorting can occur at the post office by machines or clerks. Moreover, mail carriers may have more than 1,000 addresses per route.

On social networks such as Nextdoor.com, many Richmond-area residents have complained about poor mail service.

“We constantly get mail in our box with someone else’s address on it — several times a week. A few months ago, I even got some poor person’s medication delivered to me by mistake. I had to carry it several blocks to the proper recipient,” a resident of Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood commented on Nextdoor.com.

Another said, “I have missing mail every month. This has been a problem for several years. I have called and wrote the Postal Service with no resolution. This has caused me anxiety.”

Such complaints became so prevalent that U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin of Richmond held a town hall meeting with his constituents about the issue last spring.

“The constituents of the 4th Congressional District deserve reliable and predictable mail delivery. They deserve the best quality service, and right now that is not happening,” McEachin said in a press release in April.

Westfall, a private music teacher in Richmond, said she tried reaching out to her local post office about her missing tax-payment check to City Hall. But she said she was unable to speak with someone who could resolve the issue.

Eventually, Westfall said, she was told to fill out a “missing mail” form on the Postal Service’s website. She said she experienced error messages and technical difficulties on the site and couldn’t find a technical support number to help her.

After resubmitting her request for three weeks, she received a confirmation email that her request had been submitted. Claims remain active for seven days and then are deleted.

Westfall’s lost check appeared at the end of July. She knew the check resurfaced only because she had put a stop payment on the missing check and was notified by her bank that someone had tried to process it.

Westfall said no one from the Postal Service ever contacted her about the missing mail.

Virginia Government Shifts With Democrats Dominating Election Day

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Democrats have taken control of the Virginia General Assembly, flipping both the Senate and House blue.

“Tonight, the ground has shifted in Virginia government,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a press release late Tuesday. “The voters have spoken, and they have elected landmark Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House of Delegates.” 

Key House Victories

Democrats grabbed six additional seats, giving them a 55-45 lead in the House.

In House District 94, Democrat Shelly Simonds defeated Republican incumbent David Yancey in a rematch from 2017. Simonds garnered 58% of the votes for the district, while Yancey earned 40%, according to unofficial election results.

In House District 76, Democratic candidate Clint Jenkins defeated Republican incumbent Chris Jones. Jenkins tallied 56% of the vote, while Jones gathered 44%. 

Democrat Martha Mugler won House District 91, an open seat previously held by Republican Gordon Helsel since 2011. Mugler garnered 55% of the vote in the district and Republican Colleen Holcomb won 45% of the vote. 

   In House District 40, Republican incumbent Tim Hugo lost to Democratic challenger Dan Helmer. Helmer accumulated 53% of the vote to Hugo’s 47%.  

In House District 28, Democrat Joshua Cole defeated Republican Paul Milde in an open seat. Cole amassed 52% of the vote, while Milde won 48%. 

Democrat Nancy Guy won House District 83, defeating Republican incumbent Chris Stolle. Guy garnered 49.95% percent of the vote, while Stolle earned 49.87%.

Key Senate Victories

In the Senate, Democrats gained two seats previously held by Republicans. They will now lead the chamber 21-19. 

In Senate District 13, Democratic candidate John Bell defeated Republican candidate Geary Higgins. Bell garnered 55% of the vote in the district, while Higgins gathered 45%.

Democratic challenger Ghazala Hashmi defeated Republican incumbent Glen Sturtevant to flip Senate District 10. It was a tight race throughout, but Hashmi garnered 54% of the vote in the District.

Though the Democrats celebrated many wins, they fell short of flipping some competitive districts. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, fought off Democratic challenger Sheila Bynum-Coleman, despite redistricting which left House District 66 more Democratic. In a competitive race not called until well after midnight, Republican Siobhan Dunnavant maintained her seat in Senate District 12, in a tight race against Debra Rodman.

The last time Virginia Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governorship was in the mid-1990s. This trifecta could make it easier for the party to pass its agenda.

“Since I took office two years ago, we have made historic progress as a Commonwealth,” Northam said. “Tonight, Virginians made it clear they want us to continue building on that progress.”

Black Children More Likely to Live in ‘Concentrated Poverty’

By Emma Gauthier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — African American children are more than seven times as likely as white children in Virginia to live in “concentrated poverty” — neighborhoods where at least 30% of the residents are poor, according to census data compiled by a children’s advocacy group.

Growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods is “one of the greatest risks to child development,” say officials at the nonprofit organization Voices for Virginia’s Children.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released a report showing that 91,000 children in Virginia live in concentrated poverty. That figure includes 2% of white children in the commonwealth but 4% of Latino children and 15% of black children.

Overall, 5% of Virginia’s children live in concentrated poverty. That is below the national average of 12%. But while concentrated poverty rates have fallen in most states in recent years, Virginia hasn’t seen any improvement, the study said.

“Children deserve to grow up in neighborhoods where they have the opportunity to thrive. This report shows us that current policies in Virginia are not benefitting all children equitably, and informs where we need to focus our efforts,” said Margaret Nimmo Holland, executive director of Voices for Virginia’s Children.

“One might think a strong economy would have a positive impact on all families, but we can see from the data that is not the case. Certain groups of children and their families are disproportionately left behind, so we need to target policies that will reach these children specifically.”

According to a news release issued by Voices for Virginia’s Children, children in high-poverty neighborhoods tend to lack access to healthy food and quality medical care, and they often face greater exposure to environmental hazards, such as poor air quality and toxins such as lead. When these children grow up, they are more likely to have lower incomes than children who have moved away from communities of concentrated poverty.

The report issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation is titled “Children Living in High Poverty, Low-Opportunity Neighborhoods.” The report is part of a project called KIDS COUNT.

Children in concentrated poverty are a subset of all children living in poverty. In connection with the report, KIDS COUNT released data on the overall poverty rates for children in each state. The data was drawn from the American Community Survey conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In Virginia, 28% of African American children and 9% of white children live in poverty, the data showed. For children of all races, the state’s poverty rate is 14%.

Nationwide, 33% of African American children and 11% of white children live in poverty. For children of all races, the national poverty rate is 18%. The rate had been decreasing since 2014 but stalled from 2017 to 2018.

The poverty level is based on income and family size. The poverty threshold for a family of four was $24,858 in 2017, the most recent year in the KIDS COUNT data set.

The states with the highest overall child poverty rates in 2017 were Louisiana (28%) and Mississippi and New Mexico (both 27%). Then came the District of Columbia and West Virginia at 26%.

The states with the highest rates of African American children in poverty were Louisiana (47%) and Mississippi (42%). Then came Ohio at 42% and Alabama, Michigan and Nevada at 41%.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation report said it is important to tackle the problem of concentrated poverty. The problem is especially prevalent in urban areas. About 23% of children in cities live in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared with 5% of children in suburban communities.

Getting children out of concentrated poverty pays off.

“Children under age 13 who moved from low-income neighborhoods to more affluent communities had higher incomes as adults compared to peers who remained in impoverished areas,” the report stated. It urged governments to:

  • End housing discrimination against people who have been incarcerated.
  • Support subsidies and other incentives for developers to expand the number of affordable housing units.
  • Provide incentives to large community institutions, such as hospitals and universities, that hire and purchase locally and contract with businesses owned by women and people of color.

Philip Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, said public education also is part of the solution.

“Ensuring that children are in a safe community with access to a high-quality school — these are important goals to help children escape from poverty,” Tegeler said. “The educational disadvantage that is associated with high-poverty neighborhoods is possible to overcome, but very difficult.”

Tegeler said concentrated poverty resulted from “a long history of intentional segregation.” He blamed “municipal fragmentation” and the way land use, schools and taxation were used to separate communities by income.

Nationwide, 13 million children live in poverty, with 8.5 million in concentrated poverty.

“It’s important to recognize that children are only young once, and there’s only a few pressing years we have to really help children realize their potential,” Tegeler said.

Snap Out of It: Political Ads Appearing on Snapchat

 

 

 

By Emma North, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A candidate for sheriff in a rural Virginia county is trying to reach younger voters by advertising on a social media platform popular with their age group — Snapchat.

William Stowell is an independent running for sheriff in Tuesday’s election in Botetourt County, nestled in the mountains in western Virginia. Stowell’s campaign ads on Snapchat feature policies he thinks will appeal especially to younger voters, particularly his views on tobacco laws.

“If I’m elected, if you’re 18 to 20 years old, you can go in and buy cigarettes in this county, and nobody’s going to harass you or anything like that,” Stowell said.

Stowell not only has an unusual media campaign plan but also is an unusual candidate. He is a convicted felon (for a third offense of driving under the influence) whose rights were restored in 2017 by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Stowell said he began using Snapchat after issues with censorship on Instagram and Facebook. He has spent just $33 on Snapchat ads but has enjoyed a big return: about 511 impressions, or views, for every dollar spent.

This election cycle, Stowell is the only candidate running Snapchat ads in Virginia. However, political organizations, advocacy groups and marketing firms are advertising on the platform, trying to inform and/or influence Virginia voters.

According to the Snapchat Political Ads Library, such advertisements have received more than 7 million impressions in Virginia this year.

Snapchat began reporting its political ad history in September. The company’s website offers 2018 and 2019 political ad campaign data including money spent, impressions and start dates.

According to the website, “Snapchat empowers self-expression, including about politics. But political advertising that appears on Snapchat has to be transparent, lawful, and right for our users.”

Political ads on social media have triggered intense debate in recent weeks. It was triggered by Facebook‘s decision not to fact-check or remove political ads containing misinformation. On Wednesday, Twitter announced that it would ban all advertisements about political candidates, elections and controversial policy issues.

Snapchat’s policy is to review political ads on a case-by-case basis. The company said it would not allow “content that is misleading, deceptive, impersonates any person or entity, or otherwise misrepresents your affiliation with a person or entity.”

“We encourage political advertisers to be positive. But we don’t categorically ban ‘attack’ ads; expressing disagreement with or campaigning against a candidate or party is generally permissible if it meets our other guidelines,” the policy states. “That said, political ads must not include attacks relating to a candidate’s personal life.”

So far this year, Snapchat has carried about 1,200 political ads in the U.S., including 62 for Virginia political campaigns. Many of those campaigns started in September and closed immediately after the voter registration deadline on Oct. 15.

Snapchat reported that more than $30,000 was spent on political ads in Virginia in 2019. The largest spender is AcraMax Publishing Inc., which is based in Newport News and publishes news and feature stories online and in newsletters. AcraMax has spent almost $16,000 this year to share political ads on Snapchat.

Other large political ad spenders include Targeted Victory LLC.ACRONYMFP1 Strategies and Authentic Campaigns Inc. In addition, Donald J. Trump for President and the Trump MAGA Committee have purchased ads from a company called Realtime Media that has a P.O. Box in Arlington.

“ACRONYM is putting our money where our mouth is, literally, by being one of the only outside progressive groups advertising on Snapchat, and one of the only outside groups running digital ads supporting the impeachment inquiry,” said Tatenda Musapatike, senior director of campaigns for the organization, which was created after the 2016 presidential election.

In Virginia, ACRONYM has launched a voter registration and mobilization program called People’s Power Grab.

“To get young voters and voters of color registered and engaged in the run-up to the 2019 elections, People’s Power Grab is running Snapchat ads because they know that those two groups are spending a significant amount of their time on the platform,” Musapatike said.

Musapatike said her group has been able to track the success of the People’s Power Grab ad campaign by monitoring impressions and click-through rates.

“The higher those two stats are, the more confidence we have that our campaign is going to be successful in encouraging young adults in Virginia to vote this year,” Musapatike said.

According to the Snapchat Political Ads Library, ACRONYM ads have received about 383,000 impressions so far this year.

In terms of reaching an audience, Snapchat advertisements can range widely. AcraMax saw 275 impressions per dollar spent — but the Southern Environmental Law Center has done much better. The SELC spent $509 on Snapchat ads and had about 505 impressions for every dollar spent.

Claudine Ebeid McElwain, the program communications manager for the SELC, said Snapchat is one of many channels the center uses to engage Virginians on environmental issues like offshore drilling and threats to clean water. The SELC ads ran during the late spring and early summer.

Virginia College Students Weigh in Before Election Day

Capital News Service, By Emma North, with contributing writers

RICHMOND -- All 140 seats of the Virginia legislature are up for election on Tuesday and college students across the state have been busy registering voters, hosting town halls and canvassing for candidates. 

"College students are more likely to vote in 2019 than any other Virginia midterm because of the aggressive voter registration efforts at college campuses around the state this fall,” Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said in an email.

Many eyes are on the student vote this election. According to the United States Census Bureau, the largest percentage point increase in voter turnout for any age group in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections was among 18- to 29-year-olds, when voter turnout spiked from 20 percent in 2014 to 36 percent in 2018.

Students at four-year institutions in Virginia make up around 5% of Virginia’s voting age population, according to an analysis of data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. In certain key districts students make up a larger portion of the voting population. House District 12 covers part of the Virginia Tech campus and the entire Radford University campus. Radford students make up 19% of the district. 

"The impact of increased student voting also may shape races in districts without colleges and universities as some students choose to register to vote based on where they grew up, and others choose to register where they are going to school," Farnsworth said.

Grant Fox, press secretary for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said Democratic campaigns have worked closely with the party’s groups in university districts.

“Often the best voter registration and canvassing efforts on college campuses are run by students, and Democratic campaigns have been working with student organizers to register and mobilize young voters effectively," Fox said.

John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, said Republicans always try for the student vote. 

“Numerous campaigns have had internship programs and contacts with College Republican chapters,” Findlay said. 

CNS reporters compiled information about student voter engagement and policy concerns from 14 Virginia college campuses with enrollment over 4,500 people. Political groups and campaign campus organizers were contacted.

Several themes echoed across campuses: concerns about climate change, varying views on gun control and a strong push to register as many students as possible. 

Based on a CNS analysis of competitive races, redistricting changes and recent voting trends on Virginia Public Access Project, nine of these college campuses fall into competitive race districts. Candidates in some of these districts also weigh in on how they have focused on gaining student support. 

Findlay said student turnout could “definitely” affect House Districts 85, 93, 91 and 12 and Senate Districts 6 and 7. He also said turnout could affect SD 10 and HD 28, “although most students live outside those districts.”

Christopher Newport University

Senate District 1: Democratic incumbent Monty Mason, running unopposed

House of Delegates District 94: Republican incumbent David Yancey; Democrat Shelly Simonds; Libertarian Michael Bartley (competitive)

The rematch between incumbent Yancey and Simonds could be impacted by higher student voter turnout. In 2017, the seat was decided by a tiebreaker determined by a random drawing from a ceramic bowl. The undergraduate enrollment is almost 4,900. 

Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at CNU, said over email that student turnout can have an important impact on the outcome of elections big and small. She said the 18- to 24-year-old age group votes in exceedingly small numbers, as does the age cohort above them.

“This causes the population pyramid and the voting population pyramid to be inversed - and although younger Americans should make up the majority of voters they make up a small minority,” Bitecofer said. She added that even a small increase in turnout among college students can “have a profound impact.”

According to Bitecofer, a school the size of Virginia Commonwealth University can exert “great influence on the outcomes of these off off year elections which have low turnout overall.”

The challenge is a little harder for CNU because of the size of its student body, she said. “I think CNU is fairly reflective of other student bodies in that they care about issues like student loans and climate change,” Bitecofer said.

George Mason University

SD 34: Democratic incumbent Sen. Chap Petersen, running unopposed

HD 37: Democratic incumbent Del. David Bulova, running unopposed

There are over 26,000 undergraduate students at the university. The student-run George Mason Democrats organization provides voting education, hosts campus political events and canvasses dorm to dorm and house to house for get-out-the-vote efforts. Group member Erica Kelly expects a high voter turnout this off-election year. 

“Ever since we got our campus precinct, our numbers have gone up and up,” Kelly said. 

Registered GMU students can cast their ballot at the on-campus precinct in Murten Hall. The university registered 3,700 students to vote, according to Kelly. She expects around 2,000 will cast a ballot. George Mason Democrats will drive students to polling places on Election Day. They also helped register students for absentee voting. Fifty-three students voted absentee last year, Kelly said, but doesn’t have the numbers for this year. 

The GMU College Republicans group is also visible on campus. The group has thrown efforts into phone banking and canvassing for local races in Northern Virginia ahead of the election, since both House and Senate candidates are incumbents running unopposed.

James Madison University

SD 26: Republican incumbent Mark Obenshain; Democrat April Moore

HD 26: Republican incumbent Tony Wilt; Democrat Brent Finnegan

JMU has more than 19,000 undergraduate students. Both House and Senate districts skew Republican, though HD 26 leans slightly more Democratic after redistricting.

Dukes Vote, a student-led initiative supported by JMU’s Center for Civic Engagement, is leading the school’s get-out-the-vote efforts. 

Primarily focused on education and engagement, Dukes Vote said it has visited over 70 classes this fall to educate students about the voting process and offer voter registration. 

“We have a traveling candidate town hall,” said Carah Ong Whaley, associate director of the Center for Civic Engagement. “We bring the candidates from all sides of the aisle to campus and they go to three different residence halls in one night to engage with students directly.”

Environmental issues weigh the heaviest in the minds of students, said Reilly Flynn, a sophomore studying English at JMU and political director for the JMU College Democrats. 

“The climate crisis is very real and will be catastrophic,” Flynn said.

JMU College Republicans did not respond to a request for comment.

Liberty University

SD 23: Republican incumbent Stephen Newman, running unopposed

HD 23: Democrat David Zilles; Republican Wendell Walker

With an undergraduate enrollment of 45,935, Liberty University has a College Republicans group and a College Libertarians group. The university is a Christian academic community. Its founder, Jerry Falwell, endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 and Ted Cruz announced his presidential campaign at Liberty, in 2015.

College Libertarians President Aaron Sobczak said that in previous years he had seen get-out-the-vote efforts from the school but nothing this year. He cited a pro-life stance on abortion and gun rights as the most important issues to students, but College Republicans Chairman Nathan Hines said the biggest issue for his group was convincing students to vote. 

"It’s something we’ve always struggled with, especially with this generation being a little more liberal," Hines said. "We just keep informing our students and our members of the issues at hand and the importance of getting involved."

University of Mary Washington 

SD 17: Republican incumbent Bryce Reeves; Democrat Amy Laufer.

HD 28: Democrat Joshua Cole; Republican Paul Milde III (competitive)

The total enrollment at the university is over 4,700. District 28, which encompasses parts of Stafford County and Fredericksburg City (including UMW campus), is home to a particularly competitive race this election season between Democrat Cole and Republican Milde.

Farnsworth said most of the university’s students are keeping a close watch on the Cole-Milde race. 

“District 28 was home to one of the closest elections in the Commonwealth two years ago, and an influx of student voters may end up being decisive in that contest, settled in 2017 by less than 100 votes out of more than 23,000 cast,” Farnsworth said. “The vast majority of Mary Washington students who have registered in Fredericksburg as city residents will be voting in the Milde-Cole race.”

Get-out-the-vote efforts on Mary Washington’s campus have been particularly robust this year with registration drives helping to get more students signed up or aware of how to fill out an absentee ballot, he added.

“Students have organized ride-shares to take students to the polls in Fredericksburg city, and that will also help boost student turnout,” Farnsworth said.

Norfolk State University

SD 5: Democratic incumbent Lionell Spruill running unopposed

HD 89: Democratic incumbent Jerrauld Jones running unopposed

Over 5,000 students are enrolled at NSU, a historically black college. Old Dominion University, located a few miles away, shares the same House District. 

NSU is hosting actress Kerry Washington on Nov. 3 to discuss voting, activism and democracy. Norfolk State Young Democrats has also been campaigning for the competitive race in HD 81 between Republican incumbent Del. Barry Knight and Democratic challenger Lenard Myers, a CNU graduate. 

The group also took over the university’s Instagram account on National Voter Registration Day, to help pump student voter registration. The university’s College Republicans group has not been active on their Facebook page since 2013 and no Republican group is listed on the university website.

Old Dominion University

SD 6: Democratic incumbent Lynwood Lewis; Republican Elizabeth Lankford (competitive)

HD 89: Democratic incumbent Jerrauld Jones, running unopposed

The undergraduate enrollment at ODU is 19,372. Sydney Johnson, president of the ODU Democrats, said that for the past two weeks students canvassed across the campus to emphasize the importance of students voting, especially given the competitive Senate race between Lewis and Lankford.

“This year, we have a lot of students canvassing,” Johnson said. “We do our best to get everybody active. Everybody knows what their polling location is. We remind people to vote.”

According to Johnson, some of the key issues that matter to students are student debt, immigration and police brutality. Johnson said she feels frustrated when she hears students, especially African Americans, ask her why they should vote.

“You’re a black American and it matters,” Johnson said.

ODU Democrats also made sure that students who aren’t native to Norfolk register for absentee ballots.

“There’s a lot of students who do an absentee ballot,” Johnson said. “In fact, I know two of my best friends are voting absentee.”

Radford University 

SD 38: Republican incumbent A. Benton Chafin; Independent George McCall III

HD 12: Democratic incumbent Chris Hurst; Republican T. Forrest Hite (competitive)

Hurst is getting out the vote to Radford University's almost 8,000 undergraduate students and has registered around 1,000 students to vote between Radford and Virginia Tech universities, according to Geoffrey Preudhomme, former president of the Radford University Young Democrats. 

Hurst ran an effective campaign, reaching young voters at Virginia Tech and Radford. “He unlocked the student vote,” Preudhomme said. “That's the only reason he won was because of the surplus [of votes] from Radford and Virginia Tech put him over the edge.”

Radford University Young Democrats lobbied to move a polling location closer to campus and will give rides to the polls, Preudhomme said. Students are concerned with student debt, climate change, marijuana legalization, gun violence, and LGBTQ, racial and gender equality.

College Republicans at Radford University said they haven’t had as much traction, according to their president, Jeff Geisinger. 

“It's definitely been a struggle out here. So we haven't had the manpower to really participate in any door knocking or any registration, or anything for that matter,” Geisinger said. “We just have been trying to get people interested.”

According to Geisinger, the campus is very liberal. Conservative values such as the ability to openly carry firearms without government involvement, limited taxation and free market capitalism do not resonate with the student body, and Republicans on campus may not speak up, he said.

Regent University

SD 7: Democrat Del. Cheryl Turpin and Republican candidate Jen Kiggans (competitive)

HD 85: Democrat Alex Askew; Republican Rocky Holcomb (competitive)

Regent has an undergraduate enrollment of 4,646. Holcomb hopes to get his House seat back after losing it to Turpin in 2017. And Turpin hopes to secure the open Senate seat in District 7, which has voted blue since the 2016 presidential election when voters were split between Trump and Hillary Clinton. At Regent, student education is offered from a Christian perspective. According to Pew Research, in the 2018 midterms, most white evangelical Christians continued to support Republican candidates. The university provides voting registration information to students, along with the message: “Every vote counts!” Regent states on its website that it “neither supports nor opposes any candidate for public office.”

There is a Federalist Society on campus that hosts discussions surrounding national policy issues. The organization did not return a request for comment by time of publication. 

Findlay agreed that a strong student voter turnout from Regent could help Republican candidates and said it “could definitely help both SD 7 and HD 85.”

Virginia Commonwealth University 

SD 9: Democratic incumbent Jennifer McClellan; Libertarian Mark Lewis

SD 10: Republican incumbent Glen Sturtevant; Democrat Ghazala Hashmi (competitive)

HD 68: Democratic incumbent Dawn Adams; Republican Garrison Coward

HD 71: Democratic incumbent Jeff Bourne; Libertarian Pete Wells

VCU has an undergraduate student enrollment of 24,058 according to U.S. News. VCU Votes Coalition will provide assistance to college students on Election Day. The coalition is formed by students and faculty who aim to promote voter engagement on campus. There is a polling location on campus at the Student Commons.

"We will be focused on helping students with their polling location, providing nonpartisan sample ballots and voting guides, and making sure they get to the polls,” said Madeline Doane, student leader of the program. 

The coalition’s get-out-the-votes effort began months ago. VCU Votes said it has helped over 2,500 students register during the fall semester.

Doane said VCU Votes visited over 40 classes typically taken by freshmen to provide students with nonpartisan information about the elections. The coalition registered 100 new voters through this classroom initiative.

VCU Votes also organized forums and roundtables with local candidates to inform students, including a forum with Hashmi on Oct. 25.

The VCU Young Democrats worked to engage students through weekly meetings where they discussed the most pressing issues to the members and the general community, according to Kaylin Cecchini, vice president of the group.

“We’ve seen this has been successful; working jointly with other organizations, candidates, and officials we’ve seen a huge increase in student voter enthusiasm,” Cecchini said. “Voting is essential to having your voice heard and represented in government, so we work very hard to get as many students active in the political process as we possibly can.”

College Republicans of VCU could not respond to questions regarding student engagement and preparation for Election Day but offered the following comment through social media: “We value everyone's opinion and believe their voice should be heard in every election.” 

Sturtevant did not return a request for comment. The Young Republican Federation of Virginia also did not respond.

Virginia State University 

SD 16: Democrat Joseph Morrissey; Independent Waylin Ross 

HD 66: Republican incumbent Kirk Cox; Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman (competitive)

The combined student population at this historically black college is approximately 4,600, according to the university. NextGen America has worked on the VSU campus since September, encouraging voter registration and “talking to students about the issues they care about,” Wafa May Elamin, NextGen Virginia organizer said.

On National Voter Registration Day, NextGen partnered with the Student Liaison Outreach Team, according to Elamin. The organization has also canvassed neighborhoods. Bynum-Coleman, Democratic candidate for HD 66, also joined the team. 

Elamin said they have information tables at the student center and maintain visibility on campus to connect with students. 

A big concern from students on campus is racial equity, according to Elamin. Other important issues include access to health care, being a part of low-income communities, and receiving quality education at their university.

“Those are a lot of the conversations that we’re having and they’re still continuing,” Elamin said.

 The polling place for students is at Ettrick Elementary School, which is a “20-minute walk off campus,” according to Elamin. NextGen will shuttle students to the polling place and back to campus every 30 minutes.

In office since 1989, Cox is in a competitive race against Bynum-Coleman. Fundraising in 2019 was neck-and-neck, with Bynum-Coleman raising over $1.4 million and Cox raising over $1.3 million. Redistricting shifted by 32 percentage points in favor of Democrats, according to VPAP. Morrissey is already considered the projected winner of SD 16, though he faces Independent Waylin Ross on the ballot. 

Democratic leadership, including former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have recently supported Morrissey.

Virginia Tech

SD 21: Democratic incumbent John Edwards; Independent Steve Nelson

HD 7: Republican incumbent Larry Rush; Democrat Rhonda Seltz

HD 12: Democratic incumbent Chris Hurst; T. Forrest Hite (competitive)

The undergraduate enrollment is almost 28,000. Virginia Tech’s campus is home to multiple political organizations including the Young Democrats, College Republicans, Green Party and Young Americans for Liberty.

The Young Democrats at Virginia Tech are usually “the ones that are typically standing outside and yelling at people to make sure people are registered,” said Virginia Tech political science student Annika Klingen. 

The College Republicans at Virginia Tech host get-out-the-vote call nights and attend town hall meetings. 

Klingen mentioned a couple important issues to students. 

“Climate change is the No. 1 biggest one on this campus,” she said. 

She also said that in the aftermath of protests over Virginia Tech’s handling of a Title IX case in April that women’s issues have become a prevalent topic on campus as well. 

Most on-campus students vote at Squires Student Center, while the military segment of the student population, the Corps of Cadets, and off-campus students vote at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church.

Hurst has campus organizers at Virginia Tech to help register voters and knock on doors. According to his campaign manager, Michelle Moffit, Hurst represents more students than anyone in the Virginia General Assembly. Moffit said they are “hyper-aware” of the student vote and that it is crucial to their district. 

Hurst’s opponent, Forrest Hite, did not respond to a request for comment.

College of William & Mary 

SD 1: Democratic incumbent T. Monty Mason, running unopposed

HD 93: Democratic incumbent Michael Mullin; Republican Heather Cordasco (competitive)

The college has an undergraduate enrollment of 6,377. Due to redistricting, the HD 93 race between Mullin and Cordasco is more competitive than in previous election cycles. Both the William and Mary Young Democrats and College Republicans have engaged in outreach events throughout campus.

The College Republicans have hosted monthly pizza socials and held meetings with candidates from nearby House districts. Per their Facebook page, the group has met with 91st District candidate Colleen Holcomb and 96th District candidate Amanda Batten this semester.

The Young Democrats recently held a tailgate event, which was attended by McAuliffe, Mason and Mullin. The group canvassed on weekends throughout the semester.

Mullin said that student outreach has been a major focus of his campaign’s get-out-the-vote effort.

“Lots of the issues we vote on in the General Assembly impact students’ lives,” Mullin said. “With so many important issues on the ballot, we feel confident they’ll turn out and vote next Tuesday.”

Mullin’s opponent, Cordasco, did not respond to a request for comment.

University of Virginia

SD 25: Democratic incumbent Creigh Deeds; Independent Elliot Harding

HD 57: Democrat Sally Hudson, running unopposed

There are 16,777 undergraduate students and 7,862 graduate students at U.Va, for a total of 24,639 on the grounds, according to the university. Both the University Democrats at UVA and College Republicans at UVA have been active in outreach to the student body. Both groups have also been vocal about the political impact of holding exams on Election Day, according to the university paper.

Though there is no competitive race in the district, groups have canvassed for other districts and emphasized the importance of voting. 

The College Republicans recently canvassed for Cox, Kiggans and Stolle. 

Along with stressing the importance of voter turnout, College Democrats said on Facebook that flipping the House and Senate blue will give Democrats “the ability to make real tangible change in Richmond and push for policy that we are passionate about, such as gun control, the ERA and LGBTQ rights, to name a couple things.”

Why is this election different?

This is the first state legislative election since the election of Trump, who lost Virginia to Clinton, and the beginning of increased Democratic resistance movements at all levels of government. 

“He has dominated the news cycle nearly every day of his presidency, and that intense media and public focus on politics has more people than ever paying attention to his actions,” Farnsworth said. 

This election, 85 of the 140 seats are contested by a major party compared to 49 seats contested by a major party in 2015. 

Historic fundraising totals also reflect the momentum Democrats are trying to gain in the legislature. House and Senate Democrats raised a combined $62 million during the current election cycle (2016-2019) while Republicans raised just shy of $48 million, according to VPAP. And Democrats have spent almost $24 million more to secure the House, compared to 2015.

Farnsworth said this year’s election is pivotal because Republicans hold a narrow majority in both chambers of the legislature. Republicans lead in the House 51-48, with one seat vacant. They lead in the Senate 20-19, with one seat vacant.

Taking a wider view, Democrats haven’t held both the General Assembly and the executive branch in a generation, according to political analyst  Bob Holsworth. Democrats last held the majority in the House in 1999 and Democrats had control of the Senate in 2007, but also briefly controlled the Senate after the 2013 elections and following special elections with a 20-20 split, Holsworth explained. Ralph Northam was lieutenant governor at the time, but control didn’t last after a Democratic senator resigned and they lost the special election, he said.

Republicans have not lost hope for holding the majority despite the gap in fundraising. 

“Money doesn't vote, the constituents do, and our polls show us that I am still ahead," said Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, in a previous CNS interview.

The National Rifle Association said they aren’t concerned by the cash injection on the other side of the gun lobby from Everytown for Gun Safety. Everytown donated almost $1.5 million to Democrats this year, compared to the NRA’s $350,269 to Republicans. 

“I’ve been at this for nearly 30 years and I’ve seen time and again our voters swing key elections,” said Glen Caroline, head of the NRA’s Grassroots Programs and Campaign Field Operations Division, in a previous CNS interview. “I am aware of all the money our opponents are spending, but I’m not intimidated.”

The party with the majority will yield influence when the General Assembly takes up redistricting in 2021. Virginia usually redistricts every 10 years around the Census but in 2018, 25 House Districts in the central and southeastern part of the state were redistricted following a court order.

Students around Virginia have made it clear they plan to show up on Election Day.

“Young people tell pollsters they are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican by about a 60-40 margin, an engaged student population is more likely to help Democratic candidates,” Farnsworth said.

Election Day is Tuesday, and the polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. The newly elected legislators will assume office the second Wednesday in January following the election.

CNS staff Aliviah Jones, Christopher Brown, Imani Thaniel, Jason Boleman, Jeffrey Raines, Jimmy O’Keefe, Mario Sequeira Quesada, Morgan Edwards, Rodney Robinson, and Susan Shibut contributed to this report.

2018 Report Found Nearly 7,000 Absentee Ballots Mailed Too Late

By Aliviah Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia voters have already returned more absentee ballots in 2019 than in the November 2015 election -- the last time all 140 seats in the General Assembly were up for reelection. In the last few elections there has been an uptick in absentee ballots, but not all returned ballots are counted.

A Virginia Department of Elections 2018 post-election report found that 6,771 absentee votes did not count in the 2018 election because they were returned to the registrar's office after Election Day. Eleven were returned late in person and 6,760 were mailed late.

The VDE lists 2018 official absentee ballot counts as 287,763.

The VDE said in the same report that they would “work with general registrars in an attempt to determine if there are patterns that exist preventing the timely return of ballots.”

Ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day, or Nov. 5, in order to count. The only exception, according to Andrea Gaines, VDE director of community relations and compliance support, is if voters are overseas or in the military.

The return date is listed on the absentee ballot application, but not the ballot itself, according to Gaines.
“There is no return date on the ballot itself,” she said. “When a voter receives an absentee ballot, they also receive instructions on how to properly cast that ballot in a manner in which it will be counted.” 

When asked how VDE worked with registrars to determine patterns preventing the timely return of ballots, per the 2018 report, Gaines said: "Our mission is to provide voters with the information and resources necessary to successfully cast their votes."

Zareen Farhad, a 19-year-old student at Virginia Commonwealth University, said she is voting absentee this upcoming election because she can’t make it back to Northern Virginia. Farhad said she has voted absentee three times and that the instructions on the ballot are sufficient, but that the VDE website could clarify when the ballot is due.

“I think that the Virginia elections website could be a bit more clear about exactly how to vote absentee and when early in-person voting is,” Farhad said.

Grant Fox, press secretary for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said the organization recently hired a full-time voter protection director to make sure every vote counts and voters are aware of their rights. 

Republican and Democratic candidates have highlighted the option to vote absentee.
John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia said “we’re encouraged by the absentee numbers.” 

As of Monday, the unofficial return count for absentee ballots is 73,903, out of 123,459 absentee ballot applications, according to VDE. 

"Using absentee voting is a good indicator of potential turnout, and if you look at previous elections and compare it to today there has been an increase in this election and overall," said VDE commissioner Christopher Piper, in a previous CNS interview.

Stakes are high with all 140 legislative seats up for grabs for this first time since 2015, but also since Donald Trump was elected president. Several Senate districts held by Republicans have leaned blue in recent elections since then, and voters pushed Democrats into the House en masse in 2017. Republicans currently hold a slim majority in both chambers of the legislature.

According to an analysis posted by the Virginia Public Access Project, 54 House districts have already surpassed the number of absentee ballots returned in 2015. Of those, 22 are also key House races determined by a CNS analysis of competitive races, redistricting changes and recent voting trends on Virginia Public Access Project. The top five House districts that have seen over twice the number of return absentee ballots compared to 2015 are:

  • HD 76 – Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, facing Democratic challenger Clinton Jenkins.
  • HD 78 – Del. Jay Leftwich, R-Chesapeake, running unopposed.
  • HD 77 – Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, running unopposed.
  • HD 9 – Democrat Martha Mulger and Republican Colleen Holcomb are running for an open seat in a Republican-held district where Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
  • HD 66 – Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights faces challengers Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman and Independent Linnard Harris Sr. 

Twenty-one Senate districts have also had a higher return in absentee ballots than in 2015. Three of the key senate races identified by CNS have had higher returns this year than 2015. 

Residents who wish to vote absentee must apply for a mailed absentee ballot by 5 p.m. Tuesday through the VDE online citizens portal or their local voter registration office. The deadline to return absentee ballots to registration officers is Election Day at 7 p.m.

Virginia DMV Increases Staffing As Real ID Deadline Approaches

By Jimmy O’Keefe, Capital News Service

RICHMOND --  After noticing his driver’s license was set to expire, Loudoun County resident John Akins paid a visit to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles Friday. This time he’ll obtain a Real ID-compliant driver’s license — a new requirement for many Americans. 

Virginians have until Oct. 1, 2020 to acquire a Real ID-compliant driver’s license or ID if they would like to travel by plane or access certain federal facilities. As the deadline approaches, the Virginia DMV has increased staffing at customer service centers .

“We’ve had more than 700,000 Virginians already receive a Real ID,” said Matthew Butner, a spokesman for the Virginia DMV. “The main driver I think is the air travel piece.” 

It is optional to acquire a Real ID, but federal agencies will not be able to accept non-Real ID licenses or IDs after next year’s deadline. Access to Transportation Security Administration security checkpoints will require either a Real ID or a passport for domestic and international flights. Some military bases already require a Real ID for access.

The Real ID Act, which was passed by Congress in 2005 at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, establishes minimum security standards for state-issued IDs, such as driver’s licenses. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the security standards required for the Real ID itself and the process of obtaining it include: “Information and security features that must be incorporated into each card; application information to establish the identity and immigration status of an applicant before a card can be issued; and physical security standards 

for facilities where driver's licenses and applicable identification cards are produced.”

Akins, a computer engineer, said he knew Real ID is intended to provide an increased level of security when traveling, but he noted that the look of his new driver’s license and the process for obtaining it wasn’t drastically different than the previous procedure.

“This process wasn't unlike any other time I've renewed my license, although obtaining a Real ID-compliant license required an in-person visit to the DMV,” Akins said. “I was surprised to see that the only discernible difference between my original driver's license and the Real ID license was a small solid black circle with a star in the center, in the upper right corner of the license.”

To meet demand for the new IDs, DMV has increased staffing at service centers. The organization also has expanded its mobile outreach program, which travels throughout the state providing Real IDs.

“We also have added DMV Connect teams, which are doing a ton of work for us,” Butner said. “These are two-to-three person teams, they have a laptop, a camera, and a signature pad and they can go out and do any DMV transaction other than testing and vital records.”

DMV Connect teams typically go to places that lack easy access to DMV customer service centers, such as rural areas. Recently, teams have been working in densely populated areas where customer service centers are already busy. 

Earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the state has been issuing Real IDs at all Virginia Department of Corrections facilities to formerly incarcerated people.

“We are fully committed to ensuring returning citizens have access to the support they need to successfully reintegrate into society,” Northam said in a press release. “Having identification that is Real ID-compliant will be a valuable tool in reducing recidivism and helping them start out on a positive path upon release.”

Butner encourages Virginians who still need to obtain a Real ID to do it sooner than later. 

“We are seeing increased wait times, and that's just simply due to the volume of customers that are taking advantage of Real ID,” he said. “It's only going to get more crowded as we head towards Oct. 1, 2020 … don’t wait until the last minute.” 

Obtaining a Real ID requires the following: 

  • One proof of identity and legal presence

  • Two proofs of Virginia residency

  • One proof of social security number

  • Current driver’s license, if seeking to obtain a Virginia driver’s license for the first time.

  • If proof documents contain different names (for example, if the last name on a birth certificate is different than the name on a payroll check stub), it's necessary to supply documents showing proof of the name change, such as a marriage certificate, divorce decree, or a court order.

As Election Nears, Democrats Haul in the Cash -- Republicans Aren’t Daunted

 

By M. Quesada, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- In competitive General Assembly races, a majority of Democratic challengers and incumbents are outraising their opponents and hoping dollars convert to voters on Election Day.

Stakes are high with all 140 General Assembly seats up for re-election on Nov. 5 and a push to flip both chambers to a Democratic majority. A win for Democrats would mean the party  leads both the executive and legislative branches and could be better positioned to pass legislative agendas. 

Democrats raised $13.7 million total to Republicans $8.1 million total in five key Senate races and 26 in the House of Delegates determined by a CNS analysis of competitive races, redistricting changes and recent voting trends on Virginia Public Access Project.

In competitive House races, six Democratic challengers outraised Republican incumbents in the past three months, based on new data released by VPAP. Only three Republican incumbents held a fundraising edge over Democratic challengers -- Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, and Del. Christopher Stolle, R-Virginia Beach. Freitas did not register in time to have his name on the ballot, but pledged in August to mount a write-in campaign that could translate to a win in the Culpeper Republican stronghold.

Democratic challenger Sheila Bynum-Coleman outraised Speaker of the House Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, by over $200,000 during the same period. Independent candidate Linnard Harris Sr. raised $2,167.

On the other side, with 11 Democratic incumbents seeking reelection, only two Republican challengers outraised their contenders. Ian Lovejoy is vying for Democratic Del. Lee Carter’s House District 50 seat. Lovejoy outraised Carter by over $70,000. Challenger H. Otto Wachsmann Jr. outraised Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, in the race for the seat of House District 75.

Carter said he wasn’t surprised, or unsettled, by his opponent’s cash advantage, "given the fact that Virginia has no limits on corporate contributions.” 

“In fact, I've been continually surprised by how weak his fundraising has been compared to other Republicans in the area, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of his money ... comes from the Republican Party or other Republican campaigns,” Carter said. “I've never taken a single dime from for-profit corporations or industry interest groups, and I never will.  That grassroots support is certainly reflected in our conversations with voters, and I'm very confident that I'll be able to win despite being outspent, just like I did in 2017."

A U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld a redistricting map that favored Democrats and also left six Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts. Some Republican strongholds also began to fade blue when Donald Trump ran against Hillary Clinton, and in recent House and U.S. Senate elections.

There are five battleground races in the Senate, based on VPAP data. In Districts 10 and 12, Democratic challengers have outraised Republican incumbents.

 

Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, raised over $1.4 million in the last two filing periods. She outraised her opponent, incumbent Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, whose cash haul was $694,844 in the same period. The two candidates were the first to spend over $1 million in media ad-buys. District 10 challenger Ghazala Hashmi outraised first-term incumbent Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, by $487,951.

Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, the only Democratic incumbent in this group, holds an advantage of nearly $20,000 over his Republican challenger Elizabeth Lankford.

Republican Jen Kiggans and Democrat Cheryl Turpin are vying for the seat vacated by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach. Turpin raised over $890,000 and Kiggans brought in just over $600,000.

Democratic candidates in these competitive Senate races accumulated just over $4.1 million in three months, compared to the $2.1 million raised by Republican candidates, according to campaign finance reports collected by VPAP.

Jeff Ryer, press secretary for the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus, said the party has faced similar situations before. 

“Hillary Clinton outspent Donald Trump ... and yet Donald Trump was able to prevail,” he said. Ryer said the candidates’ message during an election is more important than money. “Every indication that we have is that most of the races are very close and that both State Senate and State House could go either way.”

Democrats see the uptick in fundraising as proof of the momentum they are gaining in Virginia. The party has also had a higher number of candidates run in the past two elections -- more than double the number in 2015.

“In 2017 Virginia really started a ‘blue wave,’ following Trump’s election,” said Kathryn Gilley, director of communications for the Virginia House Democrats. Gilley believes out-of-state money and interest is important for the future of Virginia. “People see that there is a possibility of flipping the chambers this year,” she said.

Across the state, Democrats have raised large amounts of cash in the past three months, even in districts that lean heavily Republican and don’t offer great odds of victory, in part due to a flood of donations Gilley referenced. But there are opportunities based on climbing voter turnout in off-year elections; heightened by the increasing popularity of absentee ballots. Still, the last time all seats were up for grabs in 2015, only 29% of registered voters turned up. 

“There is greater enthusiasm, right now, among Democratic-inclined voters than Republican-inclined voters,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “The candidates that are better funded at this point have a better chance in using that money to turn out voters on election day.”

Kidd said out-of-state donations represent the attention these elections have around the country. “People are looking at Virginia as a bellwether to see where voters are and then look forward to next year in the presidential race,” he said.

Key races are identified in this story from VPAP’s competitive index of House and Senate races and also include districts that lean Democratic after House redistricting. Races with an Independent candidate were not included.

‘No pedestals, no weapons, no horses,’ -- Women’s Monument Unveiled on Capitol Square

By Susan Shibut, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Hundreds watched as the first seven statues of “Voices from the Garden: The Virginia Women’s Monument” were unveiled on the Capitol grounds this morning, on Indigenous Peoples Day. 

The monument is the nation’s first created to showcase remarkable women of Virginia.

Mary Margaret Whipple, vice chair of the Women’s Monument Commission, said the monument embodies the goals of the commission to honor real women in a way that is not mythic or symbolic. The Virginia General Assembly established the commission to determine and recommend an appropriate women’s monument for Capitol Square in 2010. 

“These women rose to the occasion and made significant achievements,” Whipple said. “They were from all walks of life. From different times and places. They were famous and obscure. Real women. Even imperfect women. Who have shaped the history of this commonwealth.” 

Clerk of the Senate Susan Clarke Schaar spoke about the decade-long process for the design and realization of the monument. She worked with professors and historians to design the structure. 

“No pedestals, no weapons, no horses,” Schaar said. “They wanted it to be approachable. They wanted it to be warm and welcoming. And they wanted to convey a sense of consensus building. And they wanted young women and young men to know that they could do anything they wanted to do with their lives.”

Gov. Ralph Northam said the monument is long overdue. 

“For far too long we have overlooked the transformative contributions of women and other underrepresented groups,” said Northam. “Until recently that has been the case on Capitol Square as well.”

Capitol Square is also home to the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, opened in 2008, and “Mantle,” a monument dedicated to Virginia’s Indian tribes in 2018. 

Artist Kehinde Wiley last month in Times Square unveiled “Rumors of War,” a statue of a young African American man on a horse in a pose modeled after Confederate monuments. The statue will be permanently moved to the entrance of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Arthur Ashe Boulevard in December.

2019 is the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America. It also marks the 400th anniversary of the first slaves arriving in Virginia. 

Sen. Ryan McDougle, a Republican running for reelection in the 4th District, brought his daughter Reagan on stage with him. He said the monument was about inspiring the accomplishments of women yet to come. 

“It’s about Reagan, and all the girls here today, and all the girls that will come; whether they have those role models in their families or not, they will be able to see that women that have come before them have achieved tremendous things,” McDougle said.

When the monument is completed it will feature a dozen bronze statues on a granite plaza and an etched glass Wall of Honor inscribed with 230 names of notable Virginian women and room for more. For a future honoree to qualify for the wall, she must be a native Virginian or have lived mostly in Virginia and must be deceased for at least 10 years.

The granite wall features a quote excerpted from a 1912 address that Mary Johnston, a 20th century Virginian author, made to an all-male Richmond conference of state governors:

“It did not come up in a night, the Woman Movement, and it is in no danger of perishing from view. It is here to stay and grow … It is indestructible, it is moving on with an ever- increasing depth and velocity, and it is going to revolutionize the world.”

The seven completed statues are Anne Burras Laydon, a Jamestown colonist; Cockacoeske, Pamunkey chieftain; Mary Draper Ingles, a frontierswoman; Elizabeth Keckly, seamstress and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln; Laura Copenhaver, an entrepreneur in the textile industry; Virginia Randolph, an educator; and Adèle Clark, suffragist and artist. 

Five more statues will be added as they are funded and completed — Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, America’s inaugural first lady; Clementina Bird Rind, the first female printer in Virginia; Sally Louisa Tompkins, a hospital administrator; Maggie L. Walker, a civil rights leader and entrepreneur; and Sarah G. Boyd Jones, teacher and physician. 

The statues, which each required a $200,000 investment, were sculpted by New York-based Ivan Schwartz, who also crafted the Capitol’s Thomas Jefferson statue.

Schwartz spoke about the lack of statues to, for, or about women. According to the Washington Post, of the estimated 5,193 public statues depicting historic figures on display on street corners and parks throughout the United States, 394 are of women. 

“Women have been excised from the marble pedestal of history,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz has recently worked on other sculptures of notable women around the country. He mentioned projects highlighting Susan B. Anthony, Anne Frank and Harriet Tubman.

“I still make sculptures of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington,” Schwartz said. “I don’t turn my back on these good gentlemen. But their gentlemen’s club, which has occupied our national living room, our nation’s public spaces, has at last started to admit women, African Americans and Native Americans.”

Girl Scouts unveiled the structures, pulling back a blue cloth as the name of each statue was announced by Susan Allen, chair of the Virginia Capitol Foundation and former first lady of Virginia. The Girl Scouts represented councils from the Commonwealth of Virginia, Virginia Skyline and the Colonial Coast. 

Allen gave closing remarks, calling the occasion “a monumental day.”

“Let us recognize our diverse past, and those on whose shoulders we stand so proudly today and be inspired to work on for a better future for our daughters and the young leaders of tomorrow like these lovely young women here today,” Allen said.

Virginia Ranks Among States With Lowest Crime Rates

 

By Jaclyn Barton, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia had the fourth lowest violent crime rate and 13th lowest property crime rate in the United States last year, according to new data from the FBI.

The commonwealth had 200 violent crimes per 100,000 residents in 2018, the data showed. Only Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire had a lower violent crime rate. Nationally, there were 369 violent offenses per 100,000 population.

Virginia had about 1,666 property crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. A dozen states — topped by New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont — had lower property crime rates. Nationwide, the rate was 2,200 property crimes per 100,000 population.

From 2017 to 2018, the violent crime rate decreased 3% and the property crime rate fell 7% nationwide and in Virginia.

All of Virginia’s metropolitan areas had violent crime rates below the nationwide level, and most were below the national rate for property crimes.

The Winchester and Harrisonburg metro areas had the least violent crime — fewer than 140 offenses per 100,000 population.

The metro areas with the most violent crime were Roanoke (235 offenses per 100,000 residents), Richmond (239), Washington-Arlington-Alexandria (265) and Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News (307).The Virginia metro areas with the least property crime were Harrisonburg (1,137 offenses per 100,000 population) and Lynchburg (1,350). The metro areas with the most property crime were Richmond (2,156 offenses per 100,000 residents), Roanoke (2,378) and Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News (2,405).

Under the FBI’s definition, violent crimes include murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Property crimes include burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft.

Although Virginia’s overall statewide and metro-area crimes rates generally were low, the data revealed some trouble spots — especially regarding homicides.

Nationwide, there were 5 murders for every 100,000 people last year. Virginia’s murder rate was 4.6 per 100,000 population.

Most Virginia metro areas had murder rates below the national average. For example, the Winchester area didn’t report any homicides last year; the Blacksburg-Christiansburg area had just one; and the Charlottesville area had three (for a rate of 1.4 per 100,000 population).

But the murder rates in the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria and Lynchburg metro areas were at the national average of 5 killings per 100,000 residents. The murder rates exceeded the national level in Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News and the Roanoke metro areas (about 7 murders per 100,000 residents) and the Richmond area (almost 8 murders per 100,000 population).

Murder rates were well above the national average in several Virginia cities, the FBI data showed. The murder rate last year was 44 killings per 100,000 population in Petersburg, 27 in Danville, 23 in Richmond, 21 in Portsmouth and 15 in Norfolk.

Of the 490 U.S. cities with a population between 25,000 and 35,000, only three had a higher murder rate than Petersburg. (One of the three was Parkland, Florida, where a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in 2018.)

Of the 31 U.S. cities with a population between 200,000 and 250,000, only two (Birmingham, Alabama, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana) had a murder rate higher than Richmond last year.

Among cities in Virginia, Portsmouth, Newport News, Richmond, Norfolk and Roanoke all had violent crime rates and property crime rates above the national average.

The Roanoke Police Department is active in community outreach programs created to reduce crime. They include neighborhood watch groups, a summer youth basketball league and programs to help students read and do their homework. Police officials attend as many as 30 community events each month.

“There is no way to determine causation factors for a potential decrease in crime. It could be a number of different reasons, and we cannot determine that any of our community outreach or crime prevention has impacted the crime rates,” said Caitlyn Cline, who does community outreach, public information and crime prevention for the Roanoke Police Department.

In 2018, Richmond reported 52 murders — more than any other city or county in Virginia. Still, that was a far cry from two decades ago.

“I don’t think Richmond or Virginia has a particularly high murder rate relative to places like Maryland and Baltimore,” said Patrick Lowery, assistant professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University.

He said that in 1994, the number of murders in Richmond “peaked at 160. In 2014, we were down to 43, so that’s about four times less homicides relative to 10 or 15 years ago.”

Overall, violent crime in every major American city has decreased since the early 1990s. Lowery attributes that to many factors, such as community outreach programs and changing sentencing laws.

The FBI data release, from an annual report called Crime in the United States, represents statistics reported by about 16,700 law-enforcement agencies last year.

In June, the Virginia State Police issued a state-level report called Crime in Virginia. The State Police report covered additional crimes such as kidnapping and abduction.

A total of 1,696 kidnapping and abduction offenses were reported in 2018. That number was up 6% from 2017. Prince William County had the most kidnappings last year — 111.

“It’s not as if random people are getting snatched off the street,” said Sgt. Jonathan Perock, supervisor for the Prince William County Police Department. “The majority of the time, it’s a domestic incident in which both parties are known to one another.”

 

 

Schools With the Best and Worst Graduation Rates

By Sravan Gannavarapu, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Three small rural school districts had 100% graduation rates this year, and the Brunswick County, Manassas and Richmond school systems had the state’s lowest graduation rates, according to data released by the Virginia Department of Education.

Colonial Beach and Charles City, which each had fewer than 50 students in their 2019 graduation classes, and Highland County, which had just 14, graduated all of their seniors. Twenty-seven district had rates of at least 95%, including such larger school districts as York, Montgomery and Hanover counties.

The proportion of Virginia high school students graduating on time dipped from 91.6% in 2018 to 91.5% in 2019, the data showed.

Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said Virginia’s on-time graduation rate has risen by more than 10 percentage points in the decade since the department began reporting graduation rates that account for every student who enters the ninth grade.

“I believe this long-term, upward trend will continue as school divisions and the commonwealth adopt equitable policies and practices that provide instructional and support services tailored to the unique needs of every learner,” Lane said.

During the past school year, 74 of the state’s 131 districts had graduation rates above the statewide average. That was true of 197 of Virginia’s 327 high schools.

Eleven high schools — most of them with 50 or fewer students — had 100% graduation rates in 2019. Six of those schools achieved perfect rates the previous year as well: Chincoteague High in Accomack County; Highland High in Highland County; Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News; Open High and Franklin Military Academy in Richmond; and Chilhowie High in Smyth County.

Greensville County Public Schools, which covers both Greensville County and the City of Emporia had a dropout rate of 9.1% and a graduation rate of 86.6%.  The graduation rate for the previous year was 88.8% while the dropout rate was 8.6%.

Among high schools with at least 400 seniors, three had graduation rates of 99% or higher: Thomas Jefferson High for School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County; Cosby High in Chesterfield County; and Rock Ridge High in Loudoun County.

Analysis of the data also showed that:

  • The Lunenburg County, Colonial Beach and Charles City County school divisions registered the most improvement in their graduation rates in 2019. Each district’s rate jumped by more than 10 percentage points from 2018.
  • The Brunswick, Amherst and Sussex County school divisions saw the biggest drops in graduation rates — at least 7 percentage points.

Many of the students who did not graduate on time are still pursuing their high school diploma or a GED. Other students, however, have quit school and are considered dropouts.

Statewide, the dropout rate rose from 5.5 in 2018 to 5.6 this past year. The dropout rates varied among demographic and socioeconomic groups. The rate was:

  • 4% for female students and 7% for male students
  • 2% for Asian students, 3% for white students, 6% for African American students and 17% for Hispanic students
  • 8% for economically disadvantaged students, 9% for students with disabilities, 22% for homeless students and 26% for English language learners
  • The Richmond Public Schools had the highest dropout rate in 2019 — more than 24%.

“We are of course deeply disappointed by the latest graduation numbers, but as we shared last spring, we knew a decline was possible — if not likely — as we stopped a number of inappropriate adult practices that were artificially inflating our rate,” Jason Kamras, superintendent of the Richmond school district, said in a statement.

“We clearly have more work to do, but I’m confident we are now heading in the right direction.”

Chesterfield County, which had a dropout rate of 7%, planned to do a “complete audit” of every student who had quit school, said Superintendent Merv Daugherty.

“This involves making personal contacts with each family with a goal of having the student re-enroll,” Daugherty said. “Additional student support services are also being incorporated to work with students who may be vulnerable to dropping out.”

Virginia To Develop Four New Solar Energy Projects

By Jimmy O’Keefe, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Permits were issued Thursday for the construction and operation of four new solar projects that are expected to offset carbon dioxide emissions in the state by 459 million pounds — the equivalent of driving more than 44,000 cars for a year.

“Virginia is adopting solar technology at record rates, and we are building an economy that is cleaner and greener as a result,” Gov. Ralph Northam stated in a press release announcing the permits, issued by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

The four new solar projects will produce an additional 192 megawatts of electricity. On average, 1 megawatt of solar energy can provide 190 homes with electrical power, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The newly announced solar projects will consist of the following:

  • Danville Farm, which is being developed in Pittsylvania County by Strata Solar Development and will generate 12 megawatts of electricity.

  • Dragonfly Solar, which is being developed in Campbell County by Apex Clean Energy Holdings and will generate 80 megawatts of electricity. 

  • Grasshopper Solar Project, which is being developed in Mecklenburg County by Dominion Energy Services and will generate 80 megawatts of electricity. 

  • Turner Solar, which is being developed in Henrico County by Cypress Creek Renewables and will generate 20 megawatts of electricity.

“Over the last five years, Virginia has seen a dramatic increase in installed solar developments,” DEQ Director David Paylor stated in a press release. “As of August this year, there are nearly a dozen small projects in Virginia producing 357 megawatts, enough to power more than 86,000 homes.”

Last month, Northam issued Executive Order 43, which calls for 100% of Virginia’s electricity to come from carbon-free sources by 2050. The executive order also calls for 30% of the state’s electricity to be powered by renewable energy resources by 2030. In 2018, 7% of Virginia’s electricity was generated from renewable energy sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration

“This Executive Order will help ensure that Virginia remains at the forefront of clean energy innovation, meets the urgency of the challenges brought on by climate change, and captures the economic, environmental, and health benefits of this energy growth in an equitable way that benefits all Virginians,” Northam stated in a press release when the executive order was issued. 

Solar energy developments can save taxpayers money. Partnering with Sun Tribe Solar, a Charlottesville-based company, Libbie Mill Library in Henrico County began installation of a rooftop solar system in September. The 122-kilowatt system is projected to save Henrico taxpayers $150,000 over the next 25 years. 

According to the governor’s executive order, at least 3,000 megawatts of electricity will be generated from solar and onshore wind sources by 2022. And by 2026, up to 2,500 megawatts of electricity will be generated by offshore wind sources. Currently, the state does not generate any large-scale electricity through wind farms, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  

Dominion Energy announced last month that it is building a 220-turbine wind farm off Virginia’s coastline. The project, projected to cost $7.8 billion, will be the largest offshore wind development in the U.S. Once the wind farm is complete, Dominion claims it will power 650,000 homes at peak wind. 

“Governor Ralph Northam has made it clear Virginia is committed to leading the way in offshore wind,” Mark Mitchell, vice president of generation construction for Dominion Energy, said in a press release. “We are rising to this challenge with this 2,600-megawatt commercial offshore wind development.”

DEQ is responsible for administering state and federal environmental policy in Virginia. The agency issues permits to regulate levels of pollution throughout the state.

Unemployment Drops in All Virginia Metro Areas

By Andrew Riddler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Staunton-Waynesboro area had the lowest unemployment rate in August of all metropolitan areas in Virginia — and one of the lowest in the country, according to data released this week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Unemployment in Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County was 2.5% in August. Of the approximately 390 metro areas in the U.S., only 21 had a lower unemployment rate.

All Virginia metro areas were below August’s national unemployment rate of 3.7%. Unemployment was below 3% in the Charlottesville, Winchester, Harrisonburg, Roanoke, Richmond and Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford metro areas. The rate was 3.1% in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News areas and 3.2% in the Lynchburg and Washington-Arlington-Alexandria areas.

All metro areas of Virginia saw their rates drop from August 2018 to this past August. The Harrisonburg area had the biggest decline — from 3.2% to 2.7%.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released the metro-level data for August on Wednesday. That was a follow-up to an announcement on Sept. 20 that the national unemployment was 3.7% and Virginia’s statewide unemployment rate was 2.8% in August.

Also on Wednesday, the Virginia Employment Commission released the August unemployment rates for the state’s cities and counties. The data showed that compared with the previous year, unemployment rates went down in 124 of the 133 localities.

Even so, 27 cities and counties had unemployment rates at or above the national average in August. The localities were largely in the southwestern and southern parts of Virginia.

The highest levels of unemployment in August were in Buchanan County (5.7%), Petersburg (5.4%) and Danville and Dickenson and Wise counties (all at 4.9%). Emporia, Lexington and Lee County all had unemployment rates above 4.5%.

Arlington County continued to have the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 1.9%. The city of Fairfax was at 2%, and Alexandria and Falls Church were at 2.1%.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Friday that the national unemployment rate had dropped even lower — to 3.5% — in September. “The unemployment rate is the lowest it has been since May 1969 — over 50 years ago,” the White House said.

 

 

 

Virginia Attorney General Sparks Up Conversation on Legalizing Recreational Marijuana

By Jeff Raines, Capital News Service

RICHMOND –Attorney General Mark Herring tweeted his support for the legalization of recreational marijuana in Virginia Tuesday night. 

“Virginians know we can do better. It’s time to move toward legal, regulated adult use,” Herring said in his retweet ofa studythat revealed more than half of Virginians agree with him. 

The study, published by the University of Mary Washington last month, showed that 61% of Virginians support legalization of recreational marijuana, while 34% oppose legalization. The remaining respondents said they were uncertain.

 This is a noticeable uptick from a UMW study conducted in 2017 that showed 39% of Virginians supported legalizing marijuana for personal use. The 2017 question was worded differently, asking if marijuana should be legalized in general, for personal or medical use, or remain illegal. A plurality said medical marijuana should be legal and the rest (17%) were opposed to legalization. 

Recreational use of marijuana is becoming an increasingly popular issue for Virginia politicians as they go into the November State Senate elections and the upcoming 2021 gubernatorial elections. 

Stephen Farnsworth, a UMW political science professor, said he believes legalization is several years away, but the timeline could change if a Democratic majority is elected in November. Eighty percent of the Commonwealth’s youth (25 and under) are in favor of recreational marijuana, Farnsworth said. “Winning the support of younger voters can be key.” 

Herring, a candidate in the 2021 gubernatorial elections, has long voiced his support for decriminalization of marijuana. 

Micheal Kelly, director of communications for Herring, said in an email the attorney general believes “Virginia needs to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, take action to address past convictions, and a move towards legal and regulated adult use in Virginia.”

Almost all marijuana-related arrests last year (90%) were for possession alone, and arrests for marijuana possession have increased 115% from 2003 to 2017, according to a press release from the attorney general’s office. First time marijuana convictions in Virginia have risen 53% from 2008 to 2017, with enforcement costs estimated to be nearly $81 million a year.

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