Senate Power Shifts Yet Again

Despite Republicans regaining control of Virginia’s upper chamber, LGBT bills may still gain traction

Virginia Senate chamber (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo credit: Waldo Jaquith).

Virginia Senate chamber (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo credit: Waldo Jaquith).

Virginia Republicans seized control of the state senate on Tuesday, Aug. 19, giving them complete power over the operations of the state’s General Assembly and further thwarting Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) legislative agenda, after Del. Ben Chafin (R-Dickenson, Russell, Washington, Wise counties) defeated Democrat Mike Hymes and left-leaning independent Rick Mullins in a special election for an open seat in Southwestern Virginia. 

Although this gives the GOP a 21-18 edge in the Senate for the next year — widely expected to be a 21-19 edge following another special election in the Richmond area on Nov. 4, as no Republican has yet filed to run for that seat — Republican control does not damn the hopes of LGBT rights bills for next year’s legislative session. In fact, the reshuffling of committees places Democrats in charge of a key Senate committee that is poised to hear one of those bills.

During the past few years’ legislative sessions, the party in power of the Senate, whether Democrat or Republican, has stacked key committees like Finance or Commerce and Labor with its own members, giving them a 9-6 or 10-5 edge while most other committees are split 8-7 in the almost-always closely divided Senate. In exchange, the party in power has typically given the minority party more seats on a “minor” committee that does not deal with controversial issues, such as the budget or a proposed expansion of Medicaid, for example. As a result, the committee most often “given” to the minority party in sheer numbers, even though a Republican remains chair, has been the Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services, which now, due to Republican-led reshuffling, stands 8-7 in favor of the Democrats. It is that committee, specifically, that will take up a bill that would allow second-parent adoption, in which an adult, whether gay or straight, who is not the legally recognized spouse of a parent would be able to adopt the children they are raising together.

Earlier this year, in January, SB 336, a bill patroned by Sen. Janet Howell (D-Arlington, Fairfax counties), which sought to allow second-parent adoptions in Virginia, was defeated in the Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services. However, the bill was heard when some Republicans who have been friendlier to the commonwealth’s LGBT community were not present, and prior to the seating of two key committee members, Sens. Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudoun, Fairfax counties) and Lynwood Lewis (D-Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Northampton, Mathews, Accomack counties), who had both won special elections but whose victories had not been recognized by the body at that time, as they eventually tipped control of the Senate temporarily to the Democrats.

James Parrish, the executive director of LGBT rights organization Equality Virginia, says that second-parent adoption is “definitely” a priority for next year’s legislative session, scheduled to start in January. Throughout the months of July and August, Equality Virginia has been posting blog entries dealing with second-parent adoption and the problems associated with denying health insurance benefits to same-sex partners of state employees — another bill championed by the organization — in order to educate people about the issue and rally them to support the cause.

“It’s a no-nonsense bill,” Parrish says of the second-parent adoption measure. “It’s straightforward, and Virginia already recognizes the parental rights of those who have legal out-of-state adoptions and then move to Virginia. It would have passed last year, had that full committee been seated.”

Parrish believes that next year’s session — after a year filled with four special elections that kept the balance of power in the state in question — could be more favorable to his organization. While any bill that passed the Senate, even with bipartisan support, would face an uphill climb in the Republican-dominated House of Delegates, Parrish hopes that if the organization can get several Republicans to vote for the bill, it will create enough momentum to at least apply pressure to House lawmakers and force them on record as opposing or supporting it.

“We have measured expectations that both the nondiscrimination and second-parent adoption bills will receive floor votes,” he said. “And we expect bipartisan support.”

While no other senators co-patroned Howell’s bill on second-parent adoption in January, all 19 Democrats — including Del. Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg, Hopewell, Dinwiddie, Chesterfield, Prince George counties), the presumptive favorite to win November’s special election — are thought to be supportive, leaving the organization with only one more vote needed to force a tie that could then be broken by Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), an LGBT rights supporter. Some of the Republican senators who could provide additional votes include the chamber’s four “moderate” members, or those who represent “swing” districts where President Obama either won or narrowly lost in 2012 and where voters are not as socially conservative.

As for a proposed employment nondiscrimination bill, Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester, Frederick, Clarke, Loudoun, Fauquier, Culpeper, Stafford counties) has been a consistent vote for the legislation over the past few sessions, and sits on the committee in charge of the bill. Three other Republican members — Senate President Tommy Norment (R-James City, New Kent, King William, King and Queen, Gloucester, York, Poquoson, Suffolk, Hampton, Isle of Wight, Surry counties); Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach, Norfolk); and John Watkins (R-Richmond City, Powhatan, Chesterfield counties) — have previously voted in favor of nondiscrimination protections in sessions when the bill has received a floor vote.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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