It came more or less as an afterthought, an example pulled up to illustrate another point, in comments that Democratic freshman State Del. Marcus Simon made to the annual “Richmond report” luncheon of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce Tuesday. But his story of how he caught and reversed a slimy piece of disguised legislation turned out a highlight, and perhaps the most important thing the young first-term replacement for the retired Del. Jim Scott did in Richmond this session.
Senate Bill 555, even though authored by conservative State Sen. Dick Black, seemed innocuous enough, which is why it sailed through the Democratic-controlled Senate by a unanimous 37-0 vote and a House subcommittee, 8-0.
“If a bill comes with that kind of unanimous, bi-partisan support, it is usually a slam dunk from there,” Simon said, using the case as an illustration of occasional bipartisanship. This one was labeled as prohibiting “censorship by state government officials or agencies of the religious content of sermons made by chaplains of the Virginia National Guard and Virginia Defense Force…so long as such content does not urge disobedience of lawful orders.”
The unanimous House subcommittee vote on Feb. 20 included four “yea” votes from prominent Northern Virginia Democrats.
However, as is too often the case when a veritable blizzard of bills gets introduced to be dispatched in a two-month session, almost no one read beyond the title of this one, Simon suggested. “It seemed simple enough to be against censorship.”
But by the time the bill came before the full Militia, Police and Public Safety committee (one of those committees that freshmen legislators get assigned to, Simon noted) the next day, something changed. The bill there, in the overwhelmingly Republican controlled body, received its first “no” votes, six of them.
That’s because, Simon explained, in the meantime, he’d had some spare time on his hands, and decided to actually read and think about the bill.
“Well,” he recounted, “It became pretty self-evident that the bill would allow for active proselytizing within the ranks by a chaplain, and if that chaplain was a strident evangelical, for example, it could create a very coercive environment.”
So, Simon got five Democratic colleagues to vote “no” with him when the bill came before the full committee.
Then, in the week before it came before the full House, he rallied civil liberties groups like the ACLU along with Jewish and Islamic advocacy groups to weigh in against it.
There was no doubt the bill would pass the full House, with its 68-32 Republican majority, as it did handily. The margin was 69-29 on February 25.
But the strong opposition by the Democrats in the House, rallied by Del. Simon’s initiative, caught the attention of Governor Terry McAuliffe, and he vetoed it on April 1.
It is unlikely a bill like that will come to close to passage in Richmond again, at least as long as a Democrat is in the state house and someone in the House or Senate is paying attention.
Del. Simon told of other accomplishments in the legislative session, the ones he’d prepared to talk about, including the bill to allow hunting on Sundays. He warned of the consequences of the continuing Republican intransigence to allow the Medicaid gap to be closed in Virginia, such as the closing of rural hospitals.
He said the legislature is caught in a partisan vice whereby any moderation in the GOP threatens a legislator with a right wing primary challenge. He said it will take the effects of “demographic shifts” to change the current deadlock, citing the shift away from the far right already evident in Prince William County, for example.
He said that the growing numbers of “new Americans” in the state will make a difference, but that the next state legislative elections in 2015 will be in a “dead” political year, when no other candidates will be on the ballots, making it doubly difficult to get out the vote.