Members of Subcommittee #3 of the Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety. From top left to bottom right, Delegates Will Morefield (R-Tazewell), Nick Rush (R-Christiansburg), Rick Morris (R-Carrollton), Buddy Fowler (R-Ashland), Mark Berg (R-Winchester), Kaye Kory (D-Falls Church), Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) and Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington).
As expected, a bill that would have classified crimes or acts of violence committed against people because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity died in a Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee Monday afternoon, striking another blow against the commonwealth’s LGBT community and marking the first defeat for LGBT-related legislation in the General Assembly’s lower chamber. The Senate previously killed a similar hate crimes bill, as well as three other bills that would have prevented discrimination against LGBT people in housing, allowed for second-parent adoption for non-biological parents who are raising children in a same-sex marriage or relationship, and prohibited the practice of so-called “reparative” or conversion therapy on LGBTQ-identified individuals under the age of 18, respectively.
Subcommittee #3 of the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety is controlled by Republicans over Democrats by a 5-3 spread, compared to the full committee, which Republicans control by a 15-7 margin. Nonetheless, the bill failed to gain bipartisan support, allowing the majority party to kill the measure by a voice vote, a common move in the lower chamber’s subcommittees. The bill always faced an uphill battle due to the partisan makeup of the House of Delegates, where Republicans hold two-thirds of the seat, but some had hoped that the hate crimes bill — HB1494, patroned by Del. Rip Sullivan (D-McLean, Arlington) — would gain support as a law enforcement bill. Besides classifying crimes committed due to anti-LGBT animus as hate crimes, more importantly, Sullivan’s bill would have required local law enforcement authorities to collect data on such crimes and report them to the Department of State Police, which could then analyze the data to better combat such crimes. Virginia already reports such crimes to the FBI, so Sullivan’s bill merely would have made it standard practice to report such crimes to state police as well.
The measure failed on a 5-3 partisan vote. Voting in favor of the bill were Delegates Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church City, Merrifield, Pimmit Hills), Kaye Kory (D-Falls Church, Lake Barcroft, Annandale), and Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington, Bailey’s Crossroads, Seven Corners). Voting to defeat the bill were Subcommittee Chairman Will Morefield (R-Tazewell, Grundy, Bastian) and Delegates Nick Rush (R-Christiansburg, Pulaski, Floyd), Rick Morris (R-Carrollton, Suffolk, Sussex), Buddy Fowler (R-Ashland, Ruther Glen, Spotsylvania), and Mark Berg (R-Winchester, Gainesboro, Stephens City).
Simon, a freshman House legislator, said he voted for the bill because the Virginia State Police had testified that it would be a “useful tool” for them to use to proactively police. But he said some of his fellow colleagues caved to the wants of right-wing organizations such as the Family Foundation of Virginia.
“It’s outrageous that people would compromise public safety for their ideology,” Simon said.
Simon recounted that at the hearing, a representative from the Family Foundation stood up, introduced himself, said the organization opposed the bill, and then sat down, prompting Simon to question the man as to why the Family Foundation opposed the bill.
“He provided some stumbling, incoherent response as to ‘all crimes are hate crimes’ or something like that, but would not support his position,” Simon told Metro Weekly. “…They often oppose bills without trying to articulate their opposition to them.”
Simon also said it appears that many of his colleagues have either fallen into a certain pattern of behavior, or, in some cases, are too unwilling to speak up on issues, particularly when being lobbied by right-wing activist groups like the Family Foundation.
“I’m a new legislator, but it seems that these hearings tend to have the ‘usual suspects’ in attendance,” Simon said. “Equality Virginia will stand up in favor of the bill, then the Family Foundation will speak against, and the people on the committee don’t say anything. I suspect that is because nobody wants to engage them. Maybe because they’ve heard it all before. But I think there’s value in making them feel uncomfortable, in making them answer questions.”
Simon also added that committee members often come to hearings with instructions from party leadership to kill bills that have to do with LGBT issues, meaning they are unlikely to oppose the wishes of Speaker Bill Howell (R-Fredericksburg, Stafford, Aquia Harbor). That does not bode well for Simon, who has introduced three LGBT-related bills dealing with housing discrimination, repealing the now-defunct statutory ban on same-sex marriage, and changing all gender-specific references in the Code of Virginia, such as those relating to marriage, adoption or inheritance rights, to gender-neutral terms in light of the changes in law that now allow LGBT Virginians to marry and adopt children. While Simon said he believes his bill revising the Code of Virginia’s gender-specific references — HB1600 — may get some support from the legal community because it clarifies the law, Republicans are likely to oppose it, even though it serves a “pragmatic purpose.”
When asked if he could lobby other Northern Virginia lawmakers, such as Republicans who attempt to portray a reasonable or moderate image, to support his bills, Simon said that he and other legislators try, but are often unable to make inroads, even with members of the majority party from nearby districts.
“In some ways, proximity doesn’t breed affinity,” Simon said. “For instance, Delegate [David] Ramadan and I see each other at events, usually on the opposite side of issues, where I’m arguing in favor of the Democratic candidate or policy and he’s arguing in favor of the Republican, so it’s a little more adversarial. We [Democrats] often have better relationships with Republicans we don’t see that often.”
When asked what the remedy is to counter the influence of groups like the Family Foundation, which have been able to get lawmakers to defeat bills they oppose at their request, Simon said that time — and the election of a younger generation of lawmakers — would be a remedy, particularly since younger Republicans are generally more attuned to or more sensitive to LGBT issues. But then, while saying he did not want to sound too partisan, he spoke more plainly:
“The remedy is to elect better and different representatives.”