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Kal Weinstein

Attorney General Mark Herring supports bill to make D.C. the 51st state

By Kal Weinstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is urging support for federal legislation to make Washington, D.C., the 51st state.

Herring joined 19 other state attorneys general -- all Democrats -- in issuing a “first-of-a-kind” statement in favor of the idea.

The statement was issued Monday just ahead of D.C.’s April 16 Emancipation Day celebration. It cited the holiday as a reminder of limits on the District’s freedom and autonomy.

“The District’s over 700,000 residents work hard, raise families and pay the highest federal taxes per capita, and yet they are deprived of the fundamental right to participate meaningfully in our representative democracy,” the statement read.

U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting delegate representing D.C. in Congress, introduced H.R 51 in January. More than 200 House members are  co-sponsoring the proposal.

Holmes has previously introduced legislation to make D.C. a state; however, this marks the first time that state attorneys general across the country have united to support the idea.

“The District’s residents deserve equal voting rights and autonomy under the law. We support Statehood for the District of Columbia and urge passage of H.R. 51 to accomplish this goal,” the statement read.

In the statement, Herring announced he is pleased to stand beside Karl Racine, the attorney general for D.C., and 18 other state attorneys general to support the initiative.

“Washington, D.C., already acts as an important state in so many ways, and it is well past time that their contributions to our country are reflected in statehood,” Herring said. “District residents are hardworking, taxpaying Americans who deserve to have their voices heard and their votes counted.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has also expressed support for Holmes’ proposal.

“Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton has been a tireless voice on this important issue, and her introduction of H.R. 51 is a critical step in righting this historic wrong,” Pelosi said.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, head of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, has pledged to hold a hearing on the bill later this year. If it passes, D.C.’s addition as a state would add two senators and one representative with full voting rights to Congress.

Those who oppose the nation’s capital earning its statehood argue that it would inherently create a conflict of interest for legislators who serve in D.C. to represent constituents back home in their respective states. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison stated that if D.C. were to become a state, its voting members would wield higher power than other states through its proximity to Congress.

In 1971, passage of the 23rd Amendment gave members of the District votes in the electoral college. If renewed support fails to pass H.R. 51 when it comes up for a hearing later this year, the federal government will continue to maintain jurisdiction over the capital city, just as it has since its founding in 1790.

Assembly OKs Limited No-excuse Absentee Voting in 2020

By Kal Weinstein, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Kal Weinstein, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Efforts to Ratify ERA Fail on Tie Vote in House

By Kal Weinstein, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advocates Still Pushing for Virginia to Ratify ERA

By Kal Weinstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- You would never know from the gathering of more than 50 ERA advocates this week that resolutions to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment died in a House of Delegates committee last month.

Despite opposition to the ERA from House Republicans, legal and business experts are still making the case that the U.S. Constitution should be amended to guarantee that women are treated fairly.

At the head of a large conference room in the law offices of Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP,  attorneys from the advocacy group VARatifyERA and the solicitor general’s office held a panel discussion titled “The Equal Rights Amendment: Law and Policy.”

“There are a lot of laws currently protecting women, but those are subject to change,” said Deputy Solicitor General Michelle Kallen. “It’s a lot easier to change laws than it is to change the Constitution.”

Confronting objections to the ERA head-on, Kallen cleared up the misconception that the 14th Amendment, adopted after the Civil War to address the citizenship rights of former slaves, provides equal protection from sex-based discrimination.

“There is a difference between the level of protection that we have with discrimination on account of sex versus discrimination on account of other protected groups,” Kallen said. She  argued that the Reconstruction-era amendment places the classes of race and national origin above classes of sex and gender with regard to scrutiny under the law.

Patricia Wallace, an attorney working closely with VARatifyERA, said she wanted to become involved after examining discrepancies between the prison systems for men and women. As a member of the panel, she explained the role of attorneys in replacing the current “male-centric model” with a “rights-based model.”

“Our responsibility as attorneys is to consider this seriously,” Wallace said. “We have this whole 200 years of court cases built on a premise that is male-centric so we need to be able to think creatively as attorneys and help courts.”

Much of the hour-long discussion was permeated with legal language and terminology, but members of the audience showed up prepared to listen and engage with the panel.

Ben Barkin-Wilkins, who drove from Charlottesville with his wife, said he learned a lot from Tuesday’s event.

“As I was growing up, the idea of an ERA seemed redundant,” Barkin-Wilkins said. “Why would you need a special amendment to protect women’s rights when everybody’s rights are protected in the Constitution?”

Barkin-Wilkins said the point the panel made that resonated with him the most was that not everyone interprets the Constitution the same.

“People have idiosyncratic readings of the Constitution,” he said. “So it’s important to make things like this very explicit.”

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

With the General Assembly still in session, ERA advocates remain hopeful that the issue will be brought to the House floor for a full vote.

The Senate passed a resolution to ratify the ERA on Jan. 15. This week, that resolution -- along with three similar House proposals -- died in the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

However, ERA proponents say it may be possible for House Speaker Kirk Cox to have the full House of Delegates vote on the Senate measure. Others say it is unclear whether Cox, a Republican from Colonial Heights, has the authority to direct such a vote.

Kati Hornung, a campaign coordinator for VARatifyERA, asked ERA supporters to call their legislators.

Hornung noted that Virginia’s image has taken a tumble from a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2018 and, during the past week, a furor over a racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his medical school yearbook.

“We’ve been known nationally and internationally through the Charlottesville events, and now through our governor’s yearbook picture,” Hornung said. “Right now, given the narrative, it’s time for Virginia to step out of the past and move toward the future.”

On Thursday, nine days before the legislative session ends, VARatifyERA will host a rally at the Virginia Capitol in a final plea for the General Assembly to approve the ERA.

    Virginia would be the 38th state to approve the ERA -- the number needed for ratification.

However, the deadline to ratify the amendment has passed, and experts disagree whether the ERA can be ratified at this point.

Panel Kills Bill to Shield Older Kids from Secondhand Smoke

By Rodney Robinson and Kal Weinstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A legislative subcommittee has killed a bill intended to shield older children from the effects of secondhand smoke.

Subcommittee No. 1 of the House Courts of Justice Committee voted 5-3 to indefinitely postpone consideration of HB 2091, which sought to outlaw smoking in a motor vehicle containing minors under age 16. Currently, it’s illegal to smoke in a car if there are passengers under 8.

The five Republicans on the subcommittee voted in favor of killing the measure; the three Democrats on the panel voted against killing it.

The bill was sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William.

“As a mother, it was of great surprise to me to learn that children over the age of 8 can be exposed to secondhand smoke in vehicles,” Guzman said in a press release when she introduced the bill on Jan. 7. “Virginia needs to update its code to reflect the evidence-based results of medical studies.”

According to the American Lung Association, secondhand smoke is the cause of more than 41,000 deaths per year, and about 37 percent of children in the U.S have been exposed to such smoke.

Guzman’s bill would have applied not only to tobacco smoking but also to vaping.

“Children under the age of 16 should also be protected from the smoke originated from vaping,” she said. “It is so popular right now in high schools.”

Current state law does not address protecting minors from nicotine vapor emitted through the use of electronic cigarettes.

As a social worker and a mother of four, Guzman said protecting children is her No. 1 priority. She said teenagers 16 and older can speak up or remove themselves from a car where the driver or passengers are smoking. However, younger children do not have that power, Guzman said.

Other states have changed their laws on secondhand smoke.

In Kansas, it’s illegal to smoke in a vehicle with minors under 14, and in Louisiana, under 13.

Changing the law could reduce smoking, she said.

“In Kansas, for example, in 2011, 27 percent of adults say that they were smoking,” Guzman said. “In 2016, after this law passed, the amount of adults smoking reduced to 23 percent.”

Guzman said smokers “need to understand that secondhand smoke is the most dangerous part. And it is not fair that children are voiceless, that they cannot do anything to protect themselves.”

Although Guzman’s bill is likely dead for the session, Virginia legislators will have another chance to consider the issue. Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, is sponsoring a bill similar to Guzman’s.

Rasoul’s proposal, HB 1744, would make it illegal to smoke in a motor vehicle in the presence of minors under 18. It also has been assigned to Subcommittee No. 1 of the House Courts of Justice Committee.

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