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'A new torch is being passed today,' says Filler-Corn, first woman to serve as Virginia House speaker

More than 400 years after its founding, the Virginia House of Delegates elected the first woman as its speaker, as Del. Eileen Filler-Corn assumed power on a day of firsts in a chamber now under Democratic control for the first time in more than 20 years.

Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, took the oath of office from Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Lemons at 12:27 p.m. on Wednesday to begin a 60-day General Assembly session that she promised would deliver Democratic priorities — ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, undoing discriminatory laws and practices, imposing new restrictions on firearms, and addressing the threat of climate change.

“A new torch is being passed today, one that ushers in a modern era, representing all Virginians,” she said in a nearly 20-minute address to a chamber packed with almost 200 dignitaries and guests who applauded loudly and often.

Filler-Corn’s ascension crowned an opening day session that also included the election of the first woman as House clerk — Suzette Poupore Denslow, a Richmond-area native who has served under five governors — and the inaugural performance of House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, the first woman and first African American to hold the job.

Herring, who nominated Filler-Corn to become speaker, heralded her election as a momentous day “for all young girls in Virginia and this nation.”

“After 400 years they will now see on that dais a woman leading the way in the most prestigious legislative chamber in the nation,” she said. “The political ‘herstory’ of Virginia is now, and forever will be, changed.”

Filler-Corn and Herring on Wednesday faced their first political challenge by Republicans, who have been reduced to a minority of 45 delegates in the 100-member chamber a little more than two years after holding a two-thirds majority.

Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, questioned why the House leadership chose to adopt the old parliamentary rules temporarily before introducing new rules for public debate and adoption on Thursday.

“Everybody has known this day was coming for a couple of months,” Gilbert said.

Herring replied, “They are not ready.”

The temporary rules also allowed Democrats to postpone a potentially divisive debate on a ceremonial occasion over potential restrictions on carrying firearms in the Capitol and other legislative buildings. The assembly session is likely to be thronged by gun-rights advocates opposed to gun control measures proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam and the new majority.

“A lot of things happened today that have never happened before,” said Jake Rubenstein, spokesman for Filler-Corn. “We made this decision in order to ensure the smooth transition of power on this historic day.

“It is a new day,” Rubenstein said. “As we are now in the majority, the practices of Republican majorities-past are no longer relevant. This is how we decided to best govern the House.”

After the House adopted the temporary rules, 95-0, with five members not voting, Gilbert challenged Filler-Corn’s direction for Herring to inform the Senate that the House had organized itself.

Without a set of permanent rules, “it is premature to alert the Senate we are organized,” he said.

After conferring briefly with Denslow and new Deputy Clerk Mark Vucci, previously the director of legislative services, Filler-Corn ruled tersely, “We have rules. We are organized.”

William Leighty, who served as chief of staff to then-Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, watched approvingly from the House gallery.

“They’re testing her,” Leighty said of Filler-Corn, whom he recalled as a member of the Virginia liaison office staff in Washington during Warner’s and Kaine’s terms. “Whether they’re temporary or permanent, they adopted rules.”

Gilbert told reporters early Wednesday that Republicans had not received copies of the rules package, which he expects to include committee assignments for Republican lawmakers and rules about gun possession in and near the Capitol.

“It means that the taxpayers are paying for us to be here right now. And we’re not going to be working until a day after we’re supposed to start, at the earliest,” he said.

The decision delays the assignment of delegates to committees, including the formal naming of chairs and vice chairs. Filler-Corn has picked seven African Americans as committee chairs, including four women.

Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, who will become the first African American chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said some committees were still being organized but he expects that membership on most is “going to be proportional” to political party representation.

Torian recalled that his predecessor as chairman, Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, had taken “a very bold step” by naming him as chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee in a Republican-controlled House.

Jones was defeated in November by Democrat Clint Jenkins, who took the oath of office on Wednesday with 16 other new delegates, including nine fellow Democrats.

Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who was succeeded as speaker by Filler-Corn after one term, took Jones’ corner seat at the back of the chamber. Cox also was one of seven delegates — including three Republicans — who escorted Filler-Corn to the dais after taking the oath of office.

She praised him as the “first public school teacher” to serve as speaker, and also honored outgoing House Clerk Paul Nardo, whom she replaced with Denslow.

Denslow, a Richmond resident who grew up in Henrico County and graduated from Hermitage High School, took the oath of office from Supreme Court Justice William Mims to become the 22nd House clerk and keeper of the rolls as members of her family watched from the back of the chamber.

Before becoming clerk, she served as deputy chief of staff under Northam, as she had under previous Gov. Terry McAuliffe. She also worked in the policy offices of Warner and Kaine, as well as deputy secretary of education under Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the first elected black governor in the country.

“She really has given her career to the people of the commonwealth of Virginia,” said her sister, Laura Poupore Merrell, who came from Ashburn to attend the ceremony with her brother, Ralph Poupore of Richmond, and their families.

“I will run the office in a fair, professional and evenhanded way, without drama,” Denslow promised the House.

However, the day belonged to Filler-Corn, who joined the House after a special election in 2010. In addition to being the first woman to serve as speaker, she also is the first Jewish person in the position.

Fittingly, she was almost upstaged by her rabbi, Rabbi Bruce Aft of Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield. He donned a Washington Nationals yarmulke for the opening blessing after asking the audience to choose between the Nats and the Chicago White Sox, his favorite team.

Aft quoted from “The Lion King,” former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Nationals manager Dave Martinez in a message of hope that the historic day would move the state forward in “a unifying and inspiring way.”

Filler-Corn echoed the sentiment. “We have an opportunity today to reach new heights and think beyond just right now,” she said. “I want to seize that opportunity.”

PHOTOS: Wednesday, Jan. 8 at the Virginia General Assembly

Northam cites a changing Virginia as Democratic majority takes charge in Richmond

Gov. Ralph Northam described a changing Virginia that is increasingly diverse and progressive Wednesday night, vowing in his annual address to the state legislature to lead the state according to that change.

It was Northam’s first State of the Commonwealth address to a Democratic-controlled state legislature after voters gave his party majorities in both chambers in November. He delivered his nearly hourlong speech before a chamber presided over by the first female House speaker, and the most racially and ethnically diverse legislature the state has ever convened.

It was a celebratory occasion for Democrats, and Northam twice stepped aside to turn the focus to Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax County and President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, the first woman and African American elected to that post.

“The changes in this General Assembly reflect the changes in Virginia,” Northam said, arguing that embracing an evolving state led to his party’s advance. Failing to do so, Northam said, meant that “you fell behind.”

Northam said the last decade saw growth in the state’s population, changing views on environmental protection, and demands from Virginians recovering from the 2008 recession to make economic growth more accessible.

Northam did not vacillate when it came to proclaiming the proposed policy changes Virginians can expect to see out of the gate under Democratic control — a slew of liberal propositions from gun control to abortion access that would have had little chance of succeeding in a GOP-controlled legislature.

Addressing a joint session of House and Senate lawmakers, most of whom called for him to leave office 11 months ago, Northam made no direct mention of the blackface scandal that nearly toppled his administration.

“When I’m down,” he said, “I search for new ways to carry out my responsibilities.

“Believe me, I’ve found some over the past year.”

True to form, Northam spoke amply of maintaining the state as an attractive place for business and increasing its financial reserves to protect state assets in the event of a downturn. He touted the Amazon deal that brought the company’s next headquarters to Northern Virginia, and spoke at length about his pitches to make Virginia a leader in offshore wind manufacturing and to offer free community college to people willing to fill high-demand jobs.

Treading lightly, Northam talked about the need to “reform transportation funding,” and “adjust the cigarette tax” — he has proposed a 12-cent increase to the gas tax and a doubling of the cigarette tax from 30 cents a pack to 60 cents — as ways to pay for big-ticket initiatives on transportation and health care.

“Let’s always remember that good conditions for workers depend on a strong economy and a strong business climate,” Northam said.

At the same time, Northam all but guaranteed an increase to the minimum wage — long suppressed by Republicans who argue it would deal a blow to business growth.

“Just because you have a job doesn’t always mean you can survive on it. The people who are building our economy should benefit from it, too,” Northam said. “The companies that recognize this will get ahead. So let’s work together to raise the minimum wage.”

He also called for letting localities decide what to do with the Confederate monuments in their communities, adding: “They know the right thing to do.”

In the official Republican response, Sen. David Suetterlein of Roanoke County and Del. Roxann Robinson of Chesterfield County warned that Democrats’ plans could damage the state’s growing economy, which they said could largely be credited to Republican leadership.

Robinson said that “onerous burdens to Virginia businesses” could cripple the state’s economy, while Suetterlein said that tax increases will “have a profoundly negative effect on Virginia’s working families.”

The response also included offerings of bipartisanship on issues like driver’s license restoration for people with unpaid fines and fees, which Northam has championed. Robinson also praised a “day of historic firsts” that saw a handful of female lawmakers elevated to positions of power that women had never held before.

“Regardless of party, today is a day all Virginians can be proud of,” she said.

Bipartisanship will remain a long shot on a ream of proposals Northam proclaimed as Democratic priorities that have little to no GOP support.

Without using the word abortion, Northam said that the state would no longer “be telling women what they should and should not be doing with their bodies.”

Northam said the state would invest heavily in “combating climate change,” a concept Republicans at the state and federal level have not embraced as Democrats speak of it as a present crisis.

And Northam is pushing for the decriminalization of marijuana, swapping misdemeanors for a civil penalty in cases where people are found with small amounts.

Democrats’ plans in Virginia contrast starkly with federal policy, with Republicans controlling the U.S. Senate and President Donald Trump the White House.

Northam ended his speech by looking ahead at the “long and painful” election year, deriding the president without uttering his name.

“In Virginia, we treat each other with respect. We know that nasty tweets and name-calling are wrong,” Northam said.

“I think we all want to live in a country where we’d be proud if our young child can look to our country’s leaders and say, ‘I want to be like that person when I grow up,’ ” he continued. “We don’t have that now. But we can get it back, and we must.”

US, Iran step back from the brink; region still on edge

WASHINGTON — The U.S. and Iran stepped back from the brink of possible war on Wednesday as President Donald Trump signaled he would not retaliate militarily for Iran’s missile strikes on Iraqi bases occupied by U.S. troops.

No one was harmed in the strikes, but U.S. forces in the region remained on high alert.

Speaking from the White House, Trump seemed intent on de-escalating the crisis, which arose after he authorized the targeted killing last week of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani.

Iran responded overnight with its most direct assault on the U.S. since the 1979 seizure of its embassy in Tehran, firing more than a dozen missiles at two installations in Iraq. The Pentagon said Wednesday that it believed Iran fired with intent to kill.

Even so, Trump’s takeaway was that “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”

Despite such conciliatory talk, the region remained on edge, and American troops, including a quick-reaction force dispatched over the weekend, were on high alert.

Last week, Iranian-backed militias besieged the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and Tehran’s proxies in the region remain able to carry out attacks such as the one on Dec. 27 that killed a U.S. contractor and set off the most recent round of hostilities.

Trump’s televised statement Wednesday morning was his first formal effort to explain the situation to the country since ordering the drone strike that killed Soleimani on Friday. He has fired off tweets and spoken with reporters a couple of times since then without making an official speech outlining his thinking.

The administration’s messages had at times been conflicting and confusing. The president was forced to walk back threats to target Iranian cultural sites after his defense secretary made clear that would be a war crime. The American headquarters in Baghdad had drafted a letter saying it was withdrawing from Iraq, only to have the Defense Department say it was a draft document with no authority.

And the administration has not given a detailed public explanation of its reasoning for the timing of the strike, given that Soleimani has been responsible for killing American soldiers and stirring trouble in the region for many years. Officials at times have asserted that the administration was acting to forestall an “imminent” threat and at others have stressed that it was responding to his past actions.

There is no obvious path to diplomatic engagement with Iran, as Trump pledged Wednesday to add to his “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions. He said the new, unspecified sanctions would remain in place “until Iran changes its behavior.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the overnight strike was not necessarily Iran’s complete response.

“Last night, they received a slap,” Khamenei said. “These military actions are not sufficient [for revenge]. What is important is that the corrupt presence of America in this region comes to an end.”

Trump credited the minimized damage to an early warning system “that worked very well” and said Americans should be “extremely grateful and happy” with the outcome.

In his nine-minute televised address on Wednesday, Trump spoke of a robust U.S. military with missiles that are “big, powerful, accurate, lethal and fast.” But then he added: “We do not want to use it.”

He said the United States was “ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.” That marked a sharp change in tone from his warning a day earlier that “if Iran does anything that they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences, and very strongly.”

Members of Congress were briefed on the situation Wednesday afternoon in closed sessions on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and some Republicans expressed dissatisfaction with the administration’s justifications for the drone strike on Soleimani.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said it was “probably the worst briefing I’ve seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.” He said it was distressing that officials suggested it would only embolden Iran if lawmakers debated the merits of further military action.

“It is not acceptable for officials within the executive branch of government ... to come in and tell us that we can’t debate and discuss the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran,” Lee said. “It’s un-American, it’s unconstitutional and it’s wrong.”

Lee and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., announced their support for a war powers resolution proposed by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., that would limit Trump’s military action regarding Iran.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced after the briefing that the House would vote Thursday on a war powers resolution of its own.

Because of a procedural dispute between the two parties, it was unclear whether Thursday’s vote would be a step toward binding Trump’s hands on Iran or a symbolic gesture of opposition.

Republicans say the proposal — a special type of resolution that does not get the president’s signature — does not have the force of law. Democrats say that under the 1973 War Powers Act, it would be binding if also approved by the Senate. The matter has not been definitively decided by federal courts.

Trump opened his remarks Wednesday at the White House by reiterating his promise that “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.” Iran announced after Soleimani’s killing that it would no longer comply with any of the limits on uranium enrichment in the 2015 nuclear deal crafted to keep it from building a nuclear device.

The president, who pulled the U.S. out of the deal in May 2018, seized on the moment of calm to call for negotiations toward a new agreement that would do more to limit Iran’s ballistic missile programs and constrain regional proxy campaigns like those led by Soleimani.

The European Union, however, said Wednesday that it “will spare no efforts” in its attempts to keep the international nuclear deal alive.

Trump also announced he would ask NATO to become “much more involved in the Middle East process.”

Like the U.S. troops in the region, NATO forces have temporarily halted their training of Iraqi forces and their work to combat the Islamic State group.

The president spoke of new sanctions on Iran, but it was not immediately clear what those would be. The primary agencies involved in implementing such penalties — the departments of Commerce, State and Treasury — do not preview those actions to prevent evasion.

Since withdrawing from the nuclear deal, the administration has imposed harsh sanctions on nearly every significant portion of Iran’s economic, energy, shipping and military sectors.

Soleimani’s death last week in an American drone strike in Baghdad prompted angry calls for vengeance and drew massive crowds of Iranians to the streets to mourn him.

Iranians fired a total of 16 missiles in the latest strikes, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday. Eleven hit the Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq’s Anbar province and one targeted a base in Irbil in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region. Four failed to detonate, they said.

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Richmond delegate's bill would devote state sales tax to $1.5B Navy Hill Plan

The $1.5 billion Navy Hill plan hinges on a special tax zone, the size of which has become a major sticking point for opponents of the downtown development proposal.

A bill introduced Wednesday at the Virginia General Assembly could allow the city to shrink the zone by giving it access to state sales taxes, the bill’s patron and the project’s backers say.

Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, introduced a measure to allow Richmond to keep a portion of the state sales tax collected in an area bounded by Leigh Street, Franklin Street, Third Street and 10th Street. The area is slightly larger than a 10-block area north of Broad Street, where the mixed-use project would rise if it wins approval from the Richmond City Council next month.

If state lawmakers sign off on Bourne’s bill, sales tax revenue tallying in the millions over 30 years would be diverted from the state to pay back bondholders for the project’s centerpiece: a publicly financed arena to replace the Richmond Coliseum.

“I put it in to give the city another tool in the toolbox should they decide to go forward with this project,” Bourne said, noting that the state approved a similar carve-out for Virginia Beach in 2018 as officials there pursued a major development project.

Bourne and the plan’s backers say the additional tax money — financial projections weren’t immediately available — could help the city reduce the size of the proposed tax increment financing zone, an integral part of the plan’s financing. As proposed, the district would encompass 80 downtown blocks, spanning from First Street to 10th Street, and Interstate 95/64 to Byrd Street.

All future real estate tax revenue within the district, either from new construction or natural assessment growth, would go to pay down the project’s bonds. A smaller zone would mean less city real estate tax revenue would be obligated to paying off debt for the project. Those dollars would otherwise flow to the city’s general fund, used to pay for basic services like schools and road maintenance.

Over the course of 30 years, the city would owe bondholders $600 million for the arena. NH District Corp. has said it would privately source $900 million for the first phase of construction.

The size of the tax increment financing district, or TIF, has become a major sticking point for some on the City Council. A council-appointed citizen commission that reviewed the plan suggested reducing the district’s size in a report issued last month.

Jeff Kelley, an NH District Corp. spokesman, said the development group viewed Bourne’s bill as a “viable” option for addressing concerns about the size of the TIF zone. New financial projections would be provided to the council that reflected how Bourne’s bill would affect the project’s financing, he added.

“We are interested in all options available to allow us to shrink the size of the [tax] increment financing area, which is the primary concern we have heard about the project from the community. We agree that Richmond should have the same options available for financing economic development projects that other localities do.”

Stoney’s administration spent 18 months negotiating the terms of the project with NH District Corp., the development group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II.

“This legislation presents a significant opportunity to address concerns we’ve heard from the council and the community about the Navy Hill project,” said Jim Nolan, a spokesman for Stoney. “At a minimum, we believe that if this option was available to assist Virginia Beach, Richmond residents should have the same opportunity.”

The Navy Hill proposal calls for a 17,500-seat arena that would replace the Richmond Coliseum; more than 2,000 apartments and condominiums; a high-rise hotel; 1 million square feet of commercial and office space; 260,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; renovation of the historic Blues Armory; a new transfer plaza for GRTC Transit System bus riders; and infrastructure improvements.

If approved, Bourne’s bill would take effect upon council approval of an agreement between the city and the developer and last for 35 years, or as long as it takes the city to pay off the bonds. The Stoney administration has said it aims to do so in as few as 21 years.

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