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Guns, gaming, budget highlight session as Democrats take charge

The start of a new decade is propelling Virginia into a new era of political control, a reality that will be on full display Wednesday when lawmakers return to Richmond for the start of a 60-day General Assembly session.

Democrats who will take over the House and Senate are eager to move ahead on their agenda, as Republicans work to push back while exploring how they might chart a return to power.

It will be the most racially and ethnically diverse legislature in Virginia’s history, and for the first time, a woman will be at the helm of its lower chamber.

Here’s a look at some of the key issues lawmakers will grapple with in the session.

Guns

Democrats enter the session with what they perceive as a mandate from voters to take broad action on gun control. That has sparked furor from some conservatives who have moved quickly to decry some of the proposals as unconstitutional “gun bans.”

As gun rights activists warn of far-reaching measures, Gov. Ralph Northam has said without deviation that he plans to back what he terms eight “common sense” proposals that have broader support. The day after the Nov. 5 elections, Northam said he plans to reintroduce measures he proposed after a Virginia Beach city employee fatally shot 12 people May 31.

One measure is the expansion of background checks, which even some Republicans back. So-called red flag laws that would allow courts to quickly remove guns from people deemed a risk to themselves or others have been enacted in dozens of other states, including some under Republican control.

Northam is also proposing a ban on assault weapons to include suppressors and bump stocks, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and to restore a state law, repealed in 2012, to restrict handgun purchases to one a month, among other measures.

Expect tension among Democrats regarding proposals outside of the ones backed by Northam, like training requirements for firearm purchases, firearm prohibitions in more places and events, and an expanded definition of “assault weapon.”

Don’t expect gun activists to go along quietly. Motivating their base are highway billboards and signs warning about the governor’s gun control efforts, and “Second Amendment sanctuary” proclamations adopted in more than 100 counties, cities and towns.

Leaders of gun rights groups are banking on the tension to yield a massive grassroots demonstration that they say will draw tens of thousands of people to the Capitol grounds on Jan. 20, the legislature’s lobby day.

“We are going to pound them like they’ve never been pounded,” Philip Van Cleave, head of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said recently.

The budget

The centerpiece of the legislative session will be the passage of a two-year state budget setting spending priorities under Northam and the new Democratic majority. That includes $200 million the governor proposed for the legislature to spend as it likes. The proposal is part of the $135 billion budget that he unveiled last month, including $47.5 billion in general fund spending for core state services such as public education, safety and health care.

Northam has proposed two tax increases, one on motor fuels and another on cigarettes — in a state in which tobacco was a mainstay of Virginia’s economy dating to the Colonial era.

The motor fuel tax would rise 4 cents per gallon annually for three years — for a total increase of 12 cents per gallon — and then be tied to inflation. The increase would bolster the state’s transportation trust fund against a projected decline in fuel tax revenues because of electric and hybrid vehicles that use less gas but still rely on Virginia’s road network.

Northam is betting that Virginians will support the tax increase to see improved roads and less traffic, but there’s also a sweetener.

The gas tax increase would be partly offset for Virginia residents by the governor’s proposals to eliminate annual state vehicle inspections and halve the yearly vehicle registration fee. Northam says those measures would save consumers $280 million a year, while shifting more of the cost of transportation improvements to out-of-state drivers.

The governor proposes to double the state’s 30-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes — the second-lowest in the country — and use the money to lower health insurance premiums through a new state insurance marketplace and a reinsurance program to cover high-cost health care consumers.

Henrico County-based Altria, the largest tobacco company in the country, already came out in opposition of the plan. Expect it to wield its influence as the plan moves through the legislature.

Gaming

Northam and state lawmakers are also looking to protect existing sources of state revenues, such as the Virginia Lottery, which contributed more than $600 million in profits last year for public education. Northam called for state regulation and taxation of unlicensed electronic “skill” games that have proliferated across the state and cut sharply into lottery sales, revenue that he wants to offset by $125 million over two years in new taxes.

Northam is leaving it up to legislators to figure out exactly how.

The assembly also will consider banning the machines entirely, even as it debates legalizing casino gambling in Virginia. Legislation already has been filed to re-enact measures adopted last year to allow casinos in as many as five cities — Richmond, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Danville and Bristol — but a new state study shows the biggest potential payoff in Northern Virginia. If casino gambling is allowed, the lottery is likely to be tasked to devise a system for licensing the operations, regulating and taxing them, and potentially sports betting and online gaming.

The gaming debate also will require the state to consider how to protect vested interests such as Colonial Downs, which was first out of the gate in opening gaming parlors in Richmond and three other localities for “historical horse racing” devices that look like slot machines. The Pamunkey Indian tribe also is looking to protect its ability to operate a casino in Norfolk or Richmond under federal law.

Education

As Virginia schools continue to face funding levels below what they were before the Great Recession, legislators will consider increasing education spending and making community college free for some students.

Northam’s budget calls for a 3% raise for teachers, free community college for low- and middle-income students pursuing careers in high-demand fields, and raising the number of state-funded preschool slots for 4-year-olds, among other things.

Beyond funding, lawmakers will weigh how to address the disproportionate discipline rates students of color face and the decrepit nature of many school buildings.

A Democrat-led effort to prohibit students from being found guilty of disorderly conduct for actions in school was killed last year and is again proposed this year. Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, is renewing his call for a special state fund for schools to repair or replace roofs, as well as his push for a statewide referendum on whether the General Assembly should take out $3 billion in bonds in the name of improving school facilities — roughly 60% of which are more than 40 years old.

Redistricting

Ahead of the 2021 redistricting process, lawmakers are due to take a second stab at a proposed constitutional amendment that would shift power over the drawing of legislative and congressional districts from the General Assembly to a 16-member commission of legislators and citizens.

In order to take effect, a proposed state constitutional amendment has to pass the legislature in separate years, then pass in a statewide voter referendum.

When in the minority, many Democrats championed nonpartisan redistricting and majority Republicans opposed it, but a compromise measure passed overwhelmingly last year. Some members of the Legislative Black Caucus opposed the proposed amendment, saying that the measure does not require any of the members on the redistricting commission to be African American or from other minority communities.

The future of the amendment — which had seemed like a done deal, or a likely possibility — is now anyone’s guess. House Speaker-designee Eileen Filler-Corn won’t say where she stands on the measure. Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker proclaimed on Twitter, “We want non-partisan redistricting but this is not it.”

Advocates of the measure say a messy approach could push the amendment through with a mishmash of Democratic and Republican support strung together on the House and Senate floors.

If the measure is tossed for good, Democrats could pitch legislation to create a bipartisan process that addresses concerns from some members and isn’t as binding as a constitutional amendment.

Expect Northam to pay close attention to the wheeling and dealing, since he has a campaign promise to live up to. On the campaign trail in July 2017, he pledged: “I will not sign a map unless it is drawn by a nonpartisan redistricting commission.”


Local
Richmond City Council to vote on Confederate monuments resolution at special meeting Monday

Should Richmond leaders have the authority to decide the fate of the Confederate monuments lining Monument Avenue?

The Richmond City Council will deliver its third answer to that question in 25 months at a special meeting scheduled Monday. The council is slated to weigh a resolution requesting control of the statues from the Virginia General Assembly.

“As local legislators, we should want to have local control to decide our fate on any topic,” said Michael Jones, the 9th District councilman who put forward the resolution.

A long-standing state law limits local governments’ power to remove or modify war memorials. Attempts to overturn the law in recent years, following a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, have failed. The Democratic-led efforts met resistance in what was then a Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Democrats will control the statehouse for the first time in nearly three decades when the assembly convenes this week. Proponents of removing or contextualizing the monuments — Jones among them — expect the upcoming session to spell changes for the state law that has protected them.

At the local level, Jones has led the push on the issue. He has said he views the statues as symbols of racism and white supremacy that need to be removed. He has proposed a similar resolution twice before, arguing that city leaders are in no position to lead a public reckoning about the statues if they can’t decide to change or remove them.

The council rejected Jones’ two previous attempts, in December 2017 and October 2018. His third bid appears headed for a split vote Monday.

The representative for most of Monument Avenue, Kimberly Gray, said she will not support a resolution she called “divisive.” She questioned Jones’ motives in putting the measure forward for a third time, calling it “political gesturing.”

Separately, Gray introduced a resolution seeking city support for a coalition of citizens that want to build a monument honoring the 14 African American soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery at the Battle of New Market Heights in Henrico County.

“I’m interested in telling a more complete history,” she said.

Jones has said the Democratic takeover at the General Assembly prompted his current attempt to sway his colleagues on the matter. Asked for a response to Gray’s comments, he said: “Someone who supports the monuments standing will say anything to the contrary is divisive.”

Andreas Addison, who also represents a portion of Monument Avenue, said Friday that he was on the fence about the measure. Addison, who represents the 1st District, also participated in Mayor Levar Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission.

The commission recommended removing the statue honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It also recommended, among other things, adding context to four other statues on the famous Richmond street.

Addison said he was weighing how the council could take steps toward following through on the commission’s work.

“It could be a step in that direction,” he said of Jones’ resolution.

Three others — Council Vice President Chris Hilbert, 4th District Councilwoman Kristen Larson and 8th District Councilwoman Reva Trammell — did not return requests for an interview Friday. Each has voted against the measure twice in the past.

Supporting Jones’ resolution is 5th District Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch and 6th District Councilwoman Ellen Robertson. Council President Cynthia Newbille supported Jones’ previous bid.

The council is scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. Monday.


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66 lives were lost to violence in Richmond in 2019

Eric Wheless told his grandmother one morning last April that he wanted a place of honor if he died. Hours later, he’d be slumped over in a car with another man, the 14th and 15th to be killed last year in a city that experienced 66 homicides in 2019.

The morning of her 21-year-old grandson’s untimely death, Lydia Lundy was admiring a memorial display she’d arranged for a longtime friend who had passed away earlier last year. It included the friend’s ashes and a photo, assembled below a mantel in her Chesterfield County home.

“I don’t want to be on the floor, I want to be on the mantelpiece,” Lundy remembered Wheless, her only grandson among nine grandchildren, saying the morning of April 15.

She didn’t think anything of it at the time. They were always kidding around.

“I told him: ‘If you keep playing out there, you will be on that mantel,’ ” she said.

By 12:51 p.m., Wheless was dead. A shooter has not been arrested.

His photo now rests on Lundy’s mantel. Two white, ceramic prayerful hands sit in front of the frame that stands nearly 3 feet tall.

Lundy and her family, like 65 other families who lost someone to violence in Richmond during 2019, struggled through their first Christmas and New Year’s without their loved one.

Richmond police reported 60 homicides in 2019. Three more are still considered death investigations, a classification city police use when they don’t know exactly what happened. Another three were considered justified, or killings performed in self-defense.

The death toll represents a 13.8% increase over the 58 slayings that occurred in 2018, and the second-highest total of the decade.

Violent crime — murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults — is up 2% over 2018, but all major crime, which includes violent and property crimes, is down 3%.

The city’s homicides typically outpace surrounding localities. Chesterfield and Petersburg reported similar increases last year, while Henrico and Hanover counties saw their numbers fell.

Chesterfield reported 13 homicides in 2019, nearly triple the record-low five slayings in 2018. Petersburg set a record with 20 killings, topping its record of 17 set in 2018.

Henrico police recorded eight homicides; two of Henrico’s homicides were deemed justified, including the fatal shooting of a woman by police in her home. That’s down from 12 deaths in 2018. Hanover had no killings last year, versus two the year before.

***

While each case “is unique in and unto itself,” said Richmond Police Chief William C. Smith, “the commonality across almost all of our homicides is an inability to handle conflict.”

Early on in 2019, Smith said crime — especially shootings and killings — was fueled by two rival gangs. Police focused efforts on them. As the year progressed, a series of issues with entirely different neighborhoods or gangs cropped up.

Many conflicts were “magnified because of social media inflammatory language and threats,” he said. The disagreements ranged from drug transactions or family or neighborhood disputes to arguments among friends.

“They’re the dumbest thing in the world, but if you don’t have the ability to manage what other people say about you and what other people think, oftentimes the response is violent, and increasingly violent.”

While yellow crime scene tape spread to nearly every part of the city, including neighborhoods like the Fan and Stratford Hills that rarely see it, 15 of 2019’s homicides — or 22% — occurred in the city’s public housing neighborhoods. An argument or retaliation was listed as the motive in 20 of the 37 homicides — or 54% — in which police have determined a motive.

Police monitor these squabbles among neighborhoods, or rival gangs, and focused manpower where it might effectively deter violence, Smith said. But it doesn’t seem to matter.

“We try to maintain an understanding of what’s going on in our neighborhoods, and so that we can be in place when things occur,” he said. “But we’ve found that even when we have people in place, we’re doing everything we can. We have been literally a few hundred feet from where a homicide has occurred.”

Several officers have saved victims who have been shot because they’ve been close at hand when called to a scene, or heard the gunfire themselves and went to investigate.

“A young lady was shot over on Nine Mile [Road] and officers were immediately there and applied a tourniquet and were able to save her life. She would have bled out had she not received that immediate medical attention,” Smith said. “But again, we’re there because we know there are issues and gun violence in that area.”

Access to guns is a large part of the issue, Smith said. About 91% of the slayings were shootings. Police received reports of more than 450 guns reported stolen last year, and more than half of those were taken from vehicles that were left unlocked.

This year, Smith intends to add outreach coordinators to extend their reach into those communities most affected by gun violence, opioid addition and domestic violence, including in public housing communities and in South Richmond along Jefferson Davis Highway.

Smith said most people “are victimized by people who look and are the same age as they are.” There is a logical and societal reason for that, he said: We tend to hang around with people like ourselves, and more often than not, crime victims know the perpetrator.

Harry D. Seigler, 67, and Ernest A. Price Jr., 51, had been friends for more than 20 years when Price was arrested and charged with Seigler’s homicide.

Seigler was found dead on a front porch in the 1600 block of North 23rd Street. He had been shot, police said.

But it’s particularly tragic when a homicide victim has no tie to their alleged killers.

Such was the case of 9-year-old Markiya Dickson, who was a bystander playing in Carter Jones Park in South Richmond in May when she and an 11-year-old boy were shot after a fight broke out among a group of people at the basketball courts across the park. The boy survived; Markiya did not.

“While Markiya’s death is a horrendous loss, there was a lot of attention paid to that homicide, but there are a lot of other homicides,” Smith said. “They’re still dead, their family is still experiencing a loss. But it is not viewed the same way by the community.

“We view every homicide the same way. We put in the same level of effort to try and resolve that for the family,” Smith said. “The community should be outraged every time someone is killed in their neighborhood.”

***

Police had “cleared by arrest” 25 homicides from 2019. That’s a closure rate of about 42%.

Detectives have made pleas for help in two recent cases in which they believe the communities where these shootings took place could have information they haven’t shared with police.

On Nov. 19, Carlos Delgado, 65, was found shot in the doorway of his home in the 2900 block of Jefferson Davis Highway. Police believe Delgado, a father of three and grandfather to five, was targeted as part of a robbery because he was well-known in the community and often opened his home to those in need. Police believe neighbors may have seen the shooter but said they think people in the predominantly Hispanic community may be nervous about talking to police.

“You’re safe,” said Detective K. Hughes. “Nobody is looking to get anything but closure for the family.”

On Christmas Day, three people were injured and Kenneth I. Lawson, 37, was killed in a shooting at the Wing Bar in the 1800 block of East Main Street in Shockoe Bottom. The club was full, yet detectives said they’ve received few tips and have asked anyone at the club to come forward.

Tips can be provided anonymously to Crime Stoppers by calling (804) 780-1000.

No one has been charged in Wheless’ death.

He and Tijuan D. Davis, 20, were found shot to death in a vehicle in the 1800 block of Southlawn Avenue in Hillside Court.

Lundy, his grandmother, said Wheless wasn’t the target. Police said the pair’s deaths were drug-related.

“No matter if he was the intended victim, he’s still gone,” she said. “Just 21.”

Wheless had just moved back to the area four months before his untimely death. He was getting ready to attend classes at John Tyler Community College and had plans to start his own landscaping business.

“With so much going on in the city, you never know what could happen,” Lundy said.

Chief Smith said it will take more than law enforcement intervention to turn the tide of violence. He’s seen it starting in middle school, where police are most often called to break up fights, to high schools, where the fights occur less often but are more severe, to the streets, where police are called after blood has been spilled.

He said the police department is working with Richmond Public Schools, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and the city’s recreation programs to help, but the community needs to step up as well.

“We should all feel outrage,” said Major Crimes Lt. Faith Flippo.

She’s disheartened when she sees children watching them work at crime scenes. That shouldn’t be the norm, she said, for any part of Richmond.