Virginia Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City — whose disdain for the media has roots in the political and personal — on the first day of the 2016 General Assembly used a newly affirmed GOP majority to ban reporters from the Senate floor, where they have covered the chamber for decades.
Norment instructed Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar to have press tables removed from the chamber as part of a change to the Senate rules approved Wednesday that effectively revokes media privileges from the floor of the Senate when it is in session.
Historically, the vantage point has provided an opportunity for reporters to directly observe proceedings on ground level, review floor amendments, obtain copies of votes and observe interaction among lawmakers in real time.
Instead, a tight space in the far corner of the upstairs balcony with limited sight lines of the chamber was cordoned off for media, offering no writing space and minimal access to electrical outlets for their laptops.
Asked about barring reporters from the Senate floor, Norment said: “You’ll get used to this refrain during the session. I have no comment.”
The move, which Senate Democrats did not support, drew objections from the party’s top lawmakers.
Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, a Democrat who presides over the state Senate, criticized the change.
“We need more transparency in the General Assembly, not less,” he said in a statement.
“The media plays a very important role here at the Capitol as we conduct the people’s business. Removing members of the press from the floor only makes their jobs more difficult and, in the end, is a disservice to Virginians.”
U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., a former Virginia governor, wrote on Twitter that he agrees with Northam. “@LGRalphNortham is exactly right: no justification for limiting media access to the Virginia Senate.”
The move stands in stark contrast to changes implemented by Norment’s House of Delegates counterpart, Speaker of the House William J. Howell, R-Stafford. In recent days Howell has implemented reforms to make House procedures more transparent — from implementing a 48-hour review period before the final budget vote, to doing away with unannounced committee meetings at delegates’ desks.
“While I know this is an inconvenience to members, it is an important signal to the public that we are committed to openness,” Howell said.
Norment — a lawyer who has served in the Senate since 1992 — has had a rocky relationship with the media for years. For the most part it has resided just beneath a mannered public persona, rococo Senate floor oratory and shocking pink ties.
But during last year’s session, he famously blamed reporters as the reason for further consideration of ethics legislation following the federal corruption convictions of former Gov. Bob McDonnell, saying further debate on reform was happening because “the media is on our backs.”
The relationship hit a low point when a legal matter involving his law firm led to the public disclosure of a past romantic involvement between Norment and a lobbyist who does business with the General Assembly.
Then, late last year, details and correspondence of Norment’s internal power play for Senate leadership posts leaked to the press.
Norment ended up securing the legislative prizes he coveted — co-chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee and retention of his position as majority leader, making him the most powerful member in the 40-member chamber, which the GOP controls 21-19.
Richmond Times-Dispatch editors lodged a formal complaint about the restrictions with Norment’s office Wednesday.