Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, prides himself on being a schemer.
One of the most powerful men in Virginia’s government, he cast a mischievous vote on Wednesday to engineer a tie that forced what Republicans hoped would be a controversial vote for Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam on a volatile issue — immigration.
Norment initially voted with Democrats on a Republican bill — meant to bar localities from adopting so-called “sanctuary” policies — in order to create the 20-20 tie. Northam — who presides over the Senate — needed to break it. He did so, siding with his fellow Democrats to kill the bill.
Norment immediately moved to reconsider the vote, then voted with fellow Republicans to pass the bill 21-19 — the standard party-line vote in the Senate.
Within minutes, the communications director for Republican Ed Gillespie’s gubernatorial campaign sent reporters to a news release attacking Northam — a candidate for governor on the Democratic side — for his vote.
How did the Gillespie campaign react so quickly?
By colluding with the Senate Republicans to play games, according to Northam’s team.
“This is the sixth time Republicans pulled off this stunt in this General Assembly session,” read a Northam news release sent later in the afternoon. “The other times, Ed Gillespie didn’t have the gall (to) send a prewritten press release out moments after Lieutenant Governor Northam’s tie-breaking vote.”
The vote in question came on House Bill 2000 from Del. Charles D. Poindexter, R-Franklin County. The bill is what’s known in election years as a “brochure bill” — it would certainly be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe but it generates emotion over an issue that lawmakers can then campaign on — and reference in fundraising emails — for the fall election. All 100 House seats are up for election this year, as are the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
The one-sentence bill says: “No locality shall adopt any ordinance, procedure, or policy that restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws.”
It’s not clear if any Virginia locality has adopted an ordinance or policy to stop U.S. officials from enforcing federal law, but the senators debated immigration for about 40 minutes before the vote. Following federal controversies over President Donald Trump’s attempted travel ban and restrictions on refugees, the debate in Virginia will certainly become part of the fall election.
The news release from Gillespie, a longtime political strategist, arrived about 15 minutes after the two votes were taken:
“Lieutenant Governor Northam voted for sanctuary cities in the commonwealth. Ralph Northam is out-of-step with Virginians who believe that enforcing our nation’s long-standing immigration laws is common sense.
“We shouldn’t have sanctuary cities in Virginia. Local governments should not be able to ignore federal immigration laws. As governor, I would support and sign Delegate Poindexter’s HB 2000 because it is a reasonable measure to keep Virginians safe and enforce the law.”
Norment declined to comment, and later grinned as a reporter tried to coax out information on whether the Senate majority leader was colluding with the Gillespie campaign to set up the lieutenant governor.
Northam was quoted in his statement saying Norment and his Republican colleagues were elected to do a job, not play games:
“Donald Trump, Ed Gillespie and Richmond Republicans march in lockstep in wanting to cruelly tear families apart. Ed Gillespie is proud to support Donald Trump and his extreme policies on immigration.
“The fact is, Ed Gillespie and Richmond Republicans know there are no sanctuary cities in Virginia. They want to demonize immigrants for political gain. That’s wrong. I will stand up to Donald Trump and Ed Gillespie trying to scapegoat immigrants.
“Instead, I will work to give local law enforcement all the tools they need to keep our communities safe without Richmond Republicans or Donald Trump tying their hands.”
Gillespie spokesman Matt Moran — who sent the news release — later denied that the campaign was in communication with Norment on the vote.
“At the end of the day, this was about Ralph Northam’s vote, not about anything else,” Moran said. “We did not ask them to do it. We did not know it was going to happen.”
Northam is in a primary race with former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello. Gillespie is the front-runner in a four-man GOP primary that includes state Sen. Frank W. Wagner of Virginia Beach, Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, and distillery owner Denver Riggleman. The primary election is June 13.
Earlier Wednesday, the ACLU of Virginia and several other advocates called on McAuliffe to veto Poindexter’s bill, along with two others that they say create anxieties among immigrant communities.
“These bills just incite fear and a sense of unwelcomeness to the immigrant communities, driving many to leave entirely or to move further into the shadows,” said Tram Nguyen, co-director of the New Virginia Majority during a news conference Wednesday.