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Rosemarie O’Connor

Database Chronicles 400 Years of Virginia House of Delegates

By Rosemarie O’Connor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A singer crooned “La Paloma” as a Norfolk crowd showered two “legislative debutantes” with flowers and sent them off to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1924. Sarah Lee Fain and Helen T. Henderson were the first women elected to the General Assembly. To celebrate, the Democratic Women’s Club organized a bon voyage party at Roane’s Old Colonial Tea Room in Norfolk.

Virginians can now explore the history of who has served in the House, which is marking its 400th anniversary as America’s first law-making body. The House Clerk’s Office has launched an online database dubbed DOME (Database of House Members), chronicling the people elected to the House of Delegates or its predecessor, the House of Burgesses, over the past four centuries.

Set against today’s national conversation over gender equality, the database shows a stark disparity: It contains more than 9,000 men — but just 91 women.

Database reflects state’s political players

The ambitious, years-long project offers biographical and legislative information on every delegate as well as information on House speakers, clerks, legislative sessions and Capitol locations.

From 1619, when the House of Burgesses met in Jamestown, until 1923, the legislative body was all-male. Since Fain and Henderson joined the House in 1924, the number of female delegates didn’t crack double digits until 1983, when there were 11 women in the House. The number stayed in the teens through 2017.

But that year, a record number of women were elected to the General Assembly, taking 11 seats formerly held by men. As a result, 28 women currently serve in the 100-member House.

Glass ceilings, then color barriers

Sixty years after Henderson and Fain shattered the glass ceiling, Yvonne Miller of Norfolk broke the color barrier. She became the first African-American woman elected to the House in 1984 and the first elected to the Senate four years later. Miller died in office in July 2012.

In an interview with the Library of Virginia, Miller said other legislators initially thought she was a maid and told her as much. She said she realized those delegates who offended her were “operating on their history.” Miller said she had to figure out how to interact with those who did not respect her simply because of her race.

Miller called her time in the General Assembly exciting and said she thoroughly enjoyed politics. “I have enough wins to keep it interesting,” she said. “I have a lot of losses to keep me humble.”

‘Long overdue’ project may inspire more research

Laura van Assendelft, a professor of political science at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia, called the DOME project “long overdue.”

“The typically limited and inconsistent availability of data at the state and local levels is such a source of frustration for scholars in the state and local subfield,” she said. Van Assendelft said she believes the database will inspire more research into the history of women in Virginia’s government.

Brian Daugherity, a U.S. history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that when completed, DOME will help citizens “see the ways in which participation in the state’s decision-making processes has expanded over time — a reminder of the importance of ensuring access for all.”

G. Paul Nardo, the clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates, said he welcomes contributions from the public to help write the “ongoing history of the House of Delegates and those who have been elected to serve in it.” He said the database will be officially released this spring.

More women and more diversity in the House

The history of women in Virginia politics is still being written.

“But if I do anything worthwhile in the General Assembly,” Fain declared in 1924, “to the women will belong the credit.”

In 2017, the House of Delegates saw an increase not only in the number of women but also in other diversity.

Danica Roem of Prince William County became Virginia’s first transgender legislator. Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman also won House seats in Prince William County, becoming the first Latinas elected to the House.

Kathy Tran’s win in Fairfax County made her the first Asian-American woman to serve in the Virginia General Assembly. And Dawn Adams of Richmond was elected as the first openly lesbian legislator.

Legislators Discuss Evictions, Schools and Other Issues With Constituents

By Rosemarie O’Connor, Capital News Service

HENRICO — Democratic legislators representing parts of the Richmond area touted proposals Sunday designed to increase the number of school counselors, reduce gun violence and give tenants more time to reconcile before being evicted.

More than 100 constituents gathered to hear Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, who hosted the town hall meeting in Henrico County, along with Sen. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg; Dels. Dawn Adams, Jeff Bourne, Betsy Carr and Delores McQuinn of Richmond; and Dels. Debra Rodman and Schuyler VanValkenburg of Henrico.

Education reforms and school counselors

Lawmakers emphasized the importance of increasing the number of counselors per student in Virginia’s K-12 schools. Currently, there’s one counselor for about every 329 students, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Legislators hope to incentivize schools to have a counselor for every 250 students, utilizing a proposed $36 million spending increase from Gov. Ralph Northam.

McClellan and Bourne also discussed their companion bills, Senate Bill 1107 and House Bill 1685, that would limit schools’ ability to refer students to law enforcement for lower-level disruptive behavior. The schools would still be able to refer students to law enforcement in many circumstances, including when there’s a threat of violence, among other things.

McClellan referenced 11-year-old Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and felony assault of a police officer after kicking a trash can during a tantrum in 2014. Both charges against Kayleb, who is diagnosed as autistic, were eventually dropped by a Lynchburg judge.

“This behavior needs to be corrected,” Bourne said, “not criminalized.”

Bourne recently filed HB 1921, to allow school divisions to put end-of-year surplus funds toward school-related capital renovations and maintenance, instead of having to return that money to the state.

“It may not be a whole lot of money,” Bourne said, “but every little dollar we can give a school division to maintain their buildings and upgrade their HVAC systems so their students can have safe, clean, healthy environments to learn in is a dollar well-spent.”

Affordable housing crisis

Legislators also said they will focus on housing affordability and evictions. McQuinn filed HB 1860 to amend the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, which would extend the “pay or quit” period tenants have to pay rent after the landlord serves a written notice of termination of the rental agreement. This bill would extend the period from five to 14 days.

“We’re at a crisis,” McQuinn said.

Five Virginia cities are among the top 10 in the U.S. with the highest eviction rates, according to the recent “Eviction Lab“ study by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond.

Richmond has the second highest eviction rate in the country, the report said. Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake are also in the top 10. Carr said she’s presenting six bills focusing on evictions during the legislative session that begins Wednesday.

McClellan emphasized the need for affordable housing for low-income residents and “teachers, firefighters and officers who can’t afford to live in the neighborhoods they serve.”

Firearms and Gun Safety

Bourne said the “greatest failure” of the 2018 General Assembly session was not passing legislation to reduce gun violence.

For the 2019 session, with 18 co-sponsors, Bourne has filed HB 1644, which would require owners to report lost or stolen firearms to state police within 24 hours, punishable by a $50 civil penalty on the first offense.

Another McQuinn bill, requiring localities to prohibit firearms in libraries, did not pass in the past two sessions. McQuinn said she will “keep pushing that forward.”

McQuinn drew applause from the crowd with her closing statement about her proposed House Joint Resolution 617, which would declare 2019 a year of “reconciliation and civility.”

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