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Virginia midterms could be early sign of whether GOP can match ‘megawave’ hype

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin greets supporters during a Fredericksburg-area campaign rally for Republican congressional candidate Yesli Vega. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

As he took the stage last month at a 90s nostalgia restaurant in central Virginia — next to a mural that said: “It was all a dream” — Gov. Glenn Youngkin assured an enthusiastic Republican crowd his 2021 victory was no off-year fluke.

“Can you feel it?” Youngkin said. “It’s happening again.”

Youngkin told the veteran-heavy audience at Gourmeltz, a Fredericksburg-area sandwich shop that made headlines for defying COVID-19 mask mandates, that Virginia’s sharp turn rightward was a preview of what could happen nationally in the midterm elections.


The governor gave one of his signature red vests to the event’s co-star, Republican congressional candidate Yesli Vega, who told supporters no amount of “lies” or media bias can stop her from beating Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger and becoming the first Latina to represent Virginia in Congress.

“What’s been predestined for us in heaven, no man or liberal can take from us,” said Vega, a former police officer, and daughter of Salvadoran immigrants who serves on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

At a campaign stop in the clubhouse of Prince William’s sprawling Potomac Shores development a week earlier, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine described what a wild few years it’s been since he was on the ballot with Spanberger during her first run for office in 2018.

Spanberger, a former CIA officer, famously flipped a Republican district that year by beating former GOP congressman and Tea Party favorite Dave Brat, who had shocked the political world himself by ousting former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary. Then came two presidential impeachment trials, Kaine said, a pandemic that led to a million American deaths, and an attack on the U.S. Capitol “orchestrated by a commander in chief” that forced members of Congress to barricade themselves in as rioters breached the building.

“I got nerves about this election,” Kaine told an overwhelmingly female crowd at a roundtable discussion on jobs and health care. “Because I think a lot’s at stake for our country.”

Asked in an interview what lessons she took from Virginia’s 2021 election, Spanberger said, “a lot of voters in Virginia just kind of thought, ‘Oh look, we’re a blue state.’”

“And we’re not,” she said. “But I’ve never represented a blue district. I’ve always run for Congress in, frankly … a red district.”

Rep. Abigail Spanberger speaks to the media at an early voting stop in Prince William County (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

 

With no U.S. Senate race or other statewide contest on the ballot, Virginia isn’t as close to the center of the national political conversation as it was in 2021. Democrats control seven of the state’s 11 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, a majority they gained after flipping three GOP-held districts in 2018 when suburban voters revolted against former President Donald Trump.

This year, the overarching question is whether Republicans will regain some or all of that lost ground as the party looks to retake a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and potentially flip the U.S. Senate.

Three Democratic women who ousted Republicans in suburban battlegrounds in 2018 are playing the most defense in Virginia this year, with money pouring into their districts from both sides.

Spanberger is trying to hold off Vega in the redrawn 7th District, which 2021’s redistricting process shifted north from the Richmond suburbs to focus more on rural central Virginia, the Fredericksburg area, and Prince William.

In the Virginia Beach-anchored 2nd District, Republican state Sen. Jen Kiggans, a nurse practitioner and former Navy helicopter pilot, is running against Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, a former Navy commander.

In Northern Virginia’s 10th District, Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a lawyer and former state senator, is being challenged by Republican Hung Cao, a retired Navy captain who came to America as a Vietnamese refugee.

Political analysts rate the 2nd and 7th Districts as virtual tossups, with Luria facing a slightly tougher challenge than Spanberger because of her swing district’s stronger Republican tilt. The 10th is seen as more safely Democratic but potentially in play if the GOP has a surprisingly strong night.

Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said that with no statewide race on the ballot, Virginia’s turnout picture is unclear. But if it’s close to what happened in Virginia in 2021, he said, it could be another good year for the GOP.

“That’s a world in which Luria loses. Spanberger is in big danger of losing,” Kondik said. “And Wexton is probably really close.”

Though Virginia is getting less attention than other bellwether states, Kondik said the early returns in the three competitive races could predict whether the country will see a Republican “megawave” (if all three districts flip) or mixed results more in line with typical midterms. If Democrats manage to hold all three Virginia seats, it would show Republicans may be falling flat in areas where they had high expectations.

The party that controls the White House almost always loses seats in the midterms, and numerous polls have pointed to growing GOP momentum in the late campaign season, with voters consistently rating economic concerns as a top issue. In some respects, Kondik said, that’s “a return to the basic fundamentals.”

“You’ve got an unpopular president in the White House,” Kondik said. “There are problems out there that the opposition party has a fairly easy time pinning on Democrats.”

‘People are ready for change’

As Election Day approaches, the two parties are presenting starkly different visions of the country’s most pressing problems, let alone how to fix them.

At Democratic events, reelecting the incumbent congresswomen is portrayed as a bulwark against an election-denying, abortion-banning Republican Party that offers no coherent governing vision and remains in thrall to a lawless former president.

At Republican events, ousting the nearest Democrat, regardless of their moderate branding, is pitched as the most direct way for voters to stop the pain of high inflation and restore common sense to a country awash in “woke” ideology that’s upending schools and public safety.

Republican candidates are trying to tie Virginia’s front-line Democrats to the economic policies pursued by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings have deteriorated in Virginia since his double-digit win in the state two years ago.

“Our gas bill last month was triple what it was when Trump was in,” said Cheryl Gates, a Spotsylvania County resident and Vega supporter who owns a paving company with her husband, Chris. “Try filling some dump trucks. Try filling ’em in this economy.”

Terry Barratt, a Prince William retiree on a fixed income who was working the Republican booth at an early voting site in the county, said a GOP Congress would “balance things.”

“Inflation has taken its toll,” Barratt said. “Every month I need to take more out of savings.”

Speaking to reporters after her rally with Youngkin, Vega said that “Virginians want more money in their pocket,” and higher taxes and more federal spending aren’t making life less expensive for everyone “feeling the squeeze right now.”

“People are ready for change,” Vega said. “And we’re going to give them that change.”

Spanberger, who regularly spotlights provisions in the Democratic Inflation Reduction Act designed to lower prescription drug costs for seniors and make health insurance cheaper for families who buy plans through government-run exchanges, said she empathizes with people who are “feeling uneasy” about the country’s direction.

“I recognize it every day,” Spanberger said. “Because I’m actually trying to do something about it.”

Spanberger said she wants to return to Congress so she can continue working to find solutions, and she gave a broad defense of the steps Democrats took to help the country through the pandemic and toward recovery.

“We would have never done these various pieces of legislation if things were normal,” Spanberger said. “When you look at our recovery, compared to peer nations, while I don’t like where we are yet, we are many, many paces ahead … because of the hard choices that we made.”

How to vote

The deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail has already passed, but in-person early voting continues through Saturday.

On Election Day, the polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., and anyone in line when the polls close will still be allowed to cast a ballot.

Virginia is implementing same-day registration for the first time this year, meaning anyone who’s not currently on the voter rolls can register in person and cast a ballot at the same time. However, those ballots are provisional, meaning they’re set aside for further vetting and will only be counted if all the registration info checks out.

Voters can check their registration status, find their polling place and see what’s on their ballot by visiting the online citizen portal from the Virginia Department of Elections.

‘I’m not your candidate’

The Democratic incumbents have sought to portray their opponents as extreme and out of step with the swing districts they hope to represent, particularly on election conspiracies that helped fuel the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and abortion policy.

Ted Harris, a retired engineer from Prince William who attended a campaign event with Spanberger during early voting at a local Department of Motor Vehicles office, said the choice to vote against Republicans isn’t a remotely close call.

“When they praise a fascist demagogue, what do you expect?” Harris said.

Luria, the only Democrat on the House’s Jan. 6 committee who is facing a tough reelection bid this year, has made protecting democracy and fair elections a hallmark of her closing campaign message. In an ad reiterating arguments she made in a debate against Kiggans, Luria says flatly she’s “not your candidate” if you believe the 2020 election was stolen, “support insurrectionists,” or “attack the FBI and defend Donald Trump.”

“If standing up for what’s right means losing an election, so be it. If you’re looking for someone who will just say anything to win, I’m not your candidate,” Luria says in the video ad.

The Kiggans campaign riffed on that theme in a response posted to Twitter.

“If you’re struggling under 8.5% inflation, she’s not your candidate,” Kiggans said. “If you’re worried about crime in your neighborhoods, she’s not your candidate.  If you think Biden and Pelosi are wrecking the country, she’s not your candidate!”

‘There’s a recording of her saying it’

This June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned the constitutional right to abortion seemed to give Democrats a potent issue to run on, reminding voters of the real-world consequences for women if anti-abortion lawmakers get power. However, its prominence as a decisive issue appears to have faded over time, with polls consistently showing independent voters are more concerned about the economy and inflation.

Kiggans, Vega, and Cao have all said they’re pro-life, but all three have tried to avoid talking about the topic at length by insisting abortion policy is now a state decision, not a federal one.

Vega has received particular scrutiny for her views on abortion after a recording surfaced of her saying there might be some “truth” to the idea women are less likely to get pregnant from rape. Vega now insists her words were misconstrued, but Spanberger has called the comment “an affront to women who have been victims of sexual violence.”

“There is a recording of her saying it,” Spanberger said in a news release last month.

After state Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, recently announced she’ll push for a strict abortion ban in Virginia next year, Democrats seized on the prospect of the state bill to argue the GOP will indeed pursue draconian abortion policies if given the chance.

At the Spanberger campaign stop in Prince William, Del. Candi Mundon King, D-Prince William, talked up the importance of electing more women to office with a caveat.

“Women change things,” Mundon King said. “But let me just say that not any old woman will do.”

‘A problem with parents’

Just as Democrats are highlighting state-level abortion legislation that could be coming, GOP candidates have sought to emphasize what they say is Democratic extremism on issues of transgender rights.

After Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, suggested in a TV interview that she would reintroduce a child abuse bill creating specific protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, conservatives seized on comments she made that seemed to suggest the law could be used against parents who don’t allow a child to change their gender identity.

Guzman insists that’s not what her bill was intended to do, and numerous Democrats, including Wexton, have said they don’t support it.

That hasn’t stopped Republicans from drawing connections between Guzman and the Democrats they’re targeting in the midterms.

“Jennifer Wexton has a problem with parents. And parents have a problem with Jennifer Wexton,” the narrator says in a Cao ad on Guzman’s proposal.

Wexton has sought to portray Cao as an extremist, running ads that reference his past comments calling global warming a “boogeyman” and saying he’d like to “punch Dr. Fauci in the face.”

A special election in the state Senate?

The narrowly divided Virginia General Assembly isn’t up for election for another year, but a Kiggans victory would set off a new special election battle to fill her state Senate seat.

Democrats currently hold a 21-19 majority in the Senate, which they say is the only thing stopping Republicans from passing stricter abortion regulations. A state Senate vacancy in a competitive district would give Democrats an opportunity to grow that advantage and create more of a buffer against GOP legislation. A Republican win would simply maintain the status quo.

The timing of a special election could be a point of contention because Republicans and Democrats are locked in a procedural disagreement over whether the legislature is or isn’t in special session. That distinction matters because if the General Assembly isn’t in session, Youngkin would have the power to set the date of the election as opposed to Democratic Senate leaders.

In 2019, Kiggans won the state Senate seat by about 500 votes.

 

by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Hampton Roads ships recovering spy balloon wreckage and more Va. headlines

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The State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• Ships based in Hampton Roads were recovering the wreckage of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon after it was shot down off the South Carolina coast over the weekend.—Virginian-Pilot

• Newly released emails shed more light on prosecutors’ decision to drop a prostitution-related case against a Virginia Beach pastor.—WRIC

• A push to give Petersburg a chance at a casino development could be in jeopardy after the enabling legislation failed in the state Senate.—Richmond Times-Dispatch


• The Orange County Board of Supervisors pulled funding for a local arts center after backlash to a design class taught by a drag performer.—Culpeper Star-Exponent

• A bipartisan pair of lawmakers in the House of Delegates appear to be succeeding in ending the use of solitary confinement in Virginia prisons.—Washington Post

 

by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Failed Bills: Eliminated divorce period, sexual harassment education, wrongful death and shorter absentee vote period

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Elected officials serving in the Virginia General Assembly have a short amount of time to potentially discuss thousands of proposed measures that are either defeated or signed into law.

Over 1,900 bills were introduced this session, in addition to joint resolutions and legislation carried over from last year. So far, over 100 bills have failed to advance in the House and over 300 in the Senate. Over 1,000 bills are pending in the House and over 500 in the Senate, with the session midpoint approaching.

Here are a few of the bills that failed to advance this session.

Senate Bill 1288: Petition for defendant to pay child support due to wrongful death of child’s guardian resulting from driving under the influence


The measure introduced by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, would allow the court to consider child support payment in an instance of wrongful death of a child’s parent or legal guardian that was caused by driving under the influence. The legislation was passed indefinitely with a 14-0 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee and is likely dead for the session. Committee members felt the bill did not add additional value to the current scenarios in wrongful death civil cases. Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, questioned the legislation because it is not “a policy solution to a specific problem.” “It’s not clear to me why we would say ‘you pay child support if somebody dies by drunk driving instead of murder,’” Surovell said during the committee.

Senate Bill 880: In-person absentee voting period shortened to a week prior to any elections

The measure, introduced by Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, would shorten the in-person absentee voting period to seven days prior to the election. Currently, absentee voting in person begins 45 days before the election. The bill would create a burden at high-volume localities, Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, said during the committee hearing. “They would need hundreds of people [staff] to get those people not having to wait for hours and hours in line,” Ebbin said. The legislation was passed by indefinitely with a 10-4 vote in the Senate Privileges and Elections committee.

House Bill 1720: Eliminates one-year divorce waiting period due to cruelty, bodily hurt

Del. Nadarius Clark, D-Portsmouth, introduced a measure to eliminate the one-year period spouses wait to be pronounced divorced and legally separated. A separation or divorce would be granted before the one-year period in cases of spousal abuse such as cruelty, reasonable apprehension of bodily harm, abandonment or desertion, and more by either party. The bill would have applied to divorce filings on or after July 1.

A divorce is currently permitted if the parties lived apart without interruption for one year, or entered into a separation agreement, had no minor-aged children born or adopted, and lived apart without interruption for six months.

An anti-human trafficking advocate and victim of spousal abuse offered testimony on behalf of the bill. “Right now, this does not solve the problem that Del. Clarke wants to solve,” said Richard Garriott, with the Virginia Family Law Coalition, in opposition to the bill. “We have a solution for that, called an emergency and permanent protective order.” The House of Delegates Courts of Justice subcommittee defeated the bill with a 5-3 vote.

House Bill 2003: Enforcement of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination training and education

Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, introduced a bill to require employers with 50 or more employees to provide annual interactive sexual harassment and workplace discrimination training and education. Employees in a supervisory role would be required to complete at least two hours of training. Other employees would be required to complete one hour.

A provision in the bill called for migrant and seasonal agricultural workers to have the one-hour training to start on Jan. 1, 2024. Employees would receive a certificate of completion. A House Commerce and Energy subcommittee recommended the bill not advance with a 5-3 vote.

Still to come

There will be plenty of other failed bills this session. In fact, gridlock is to be expected when “voters put one party in charge of one chamber and the other party in charge of the other,” according to Stephen Farnsworth, director of the University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies and a political science professor.
“From guns to abortion to taxes to schools, Republicans and Democrats in Richmond demonstrate over and over again that there is little interest in compromise in these polarized times,” Farnsworth stated in an email.

The session is approaching the midpoint with “crossover day” on Feb. 7, when a bill must have passed its respective chamber to advance, or it will be left behind.

By Anna Chen
Capital News Service


Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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First Lady Suzanne S. Youngkin names first Spirit of Virginia Award for 2023

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Governor Youngkin and First Lady Suzanne S. Youngkin presented a 2023 Spirit of Virginia Award to Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation, a metro area community development corporation focused on cultivating housing and financial self-sufficiency for primarily Black, Hispanic, and Latino and women-led households.

First Lady Suzanne S. Youngkin gives remarks. Photo by Shealah Craighead Photography.

“For more than 30 years, Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation have helped countless Richmonders prepare for and achieve home ownership. If ‘home is where the heart is,’ then Glenn and I laud the hearts that are forever changed by the good works of SCDHC,” said First Lady Suzanne S. Youngkin.

“SCDHC appreciates the honor of being a recipient of the Spirit of Virginia Award. We are elated that the arduous work we do to ensure the equity in housing for people of color is recognized by the First Lady of Virginia,” said Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation President & CEO Dianna Bowser.


Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation is Central Virginia’s oldest, historically Black-led community development corporation. Their mission is to build viable, thriving, sustainable communities through affordable housing and wrap-around support services.

Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation have built homes in over a dozen neighborhoods and developments throughout the Richmond area, totaling over 750 units of affordable housing, with 450 as single-family affordable homes. In 2022, the organization served nearly 800 clients through its housing counseling and educational services, including foreclosure prevention, rent relief, and workforce development tools.

The Spirit of Virginia Award recognizes unique qualities and standout achievements across the Commonwealth and salutes Virginians for their uncommon contributions to private industries, education, culture, the arts, and philanthropy.

Governor Youngkin and the First Lady will name five more Spirit of Virginia Award recipients in 2023. Learn more about the award here. To learn more about Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation, visit the organization’s website. All recipients of the Spirit of Virginia Award are recognized during a holiday reception at the end of the year at The Virginia Executive Mansion.

Follow the First Lady on Facebook and Instagram as she celebrates Virginians across the Commonwealth.f

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Three interesting bills of the week: implicit bias training, geriatric parole and furloughed feds

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The Virginia General Assembly convened for its 2023 session in Richmond on Jan. 11, 2023. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

 

Hundreds of bills are filed for General Assembly consideration each year. In this occasional series, the Mercury takes a look at a few of the proposals that might not otherwise make headlines during the whirlwind legislative session. 

House Bill 1734 – Implicit bias training for practitioners working with pregnant persons

This legislation from Del. Chris Head, R-Roanoke, is part of a bipartisan effort that would require practitioners who have direct contact with persons who are or may become pregnant to complete two hours of continuing education related to implicit bias and cultural competency in health care.


The Virginia Board of Medicine would adopt and implement the policies and require that the education be completed at least once every other license renewal cycle, which is every two years. The bill defines implicit bias as “a bias or prejudice that is present but not consciously held or recognized.”

An identical version of the bill introduced this year by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, was struck in committee Thursday, with the panel agreeing to send a letter to the Task Force on Maternal Health Data and Quality Measures asking for a study.

Advocates have been calling for solutions to narrow the gap in racial disparities in maternal mortality for years. Multiple studies have confirmed that many medical professionals hold implicit biases that affect the quality of care.

Black women in Virginia are more than twice as likely to die in childbirth than white women, according to a 2017 Virginia Department of Health report. In 2020, non-Hispanic Black women nationwide experienced maternal mortality rates nearly three times higher than those of their white counterparts, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

This is the eighth piece of legislation brought before the General Assembly to require implicit bias training for health care providers since 2022.

House Bill 1458 – Limiting certain geriatric prisoners from petitioning the Parole Board for release

This bill from Del. Jason Ballard, R-Giles, would expand the list of offenses that prohibit a person from petitioning the Parole Board for conditional release as a geriatric prisoner.

Current law allows any geriatric prisoner serving a sentence for a felony offense other than a Class 1 felony — the most serious type of crime, such as capital murder — to petition the Parole Board for conditional release. The designation includes any person who has reached the age of 65 or older and has served at least five years of his or her sentence or anyone who has reached the age of 60 and has served at least ten years of his or her sentence.

Ballard’s legislation would expand the list of felony offenses that prohibit geriatric prisoners from petitioning the Parole Board to include crimes such as the murder of a pregnant woman, killing a fetus, lynching, acts of terrorism, kidnapping or abduction, robbery or carjacking, and treason, among others.

Lawmakers voted along party lines to move forward with the bill in subcommittee this week.

Senate Bill 1545 – Eviction and foreclosure relief for furloughed federal agency employees during a shutdown

SB 1545 from Sen. Aaron Rouse, D-Virginia Beach, would provide temporary relief from eviction and foreclosure proceedings for certain Virginians who are furloughed or lose wages or payments as a result of a partial closure of the federal government. Eligible residents would include employees of U.S. government agencies and contractors for those agencies.

Under these circumstances, an employee would be granted an extra 60 days of protection from eviction for nonpayment of rent if he or she provides written proof of being furloughed.

Additionally, a 30-day stay will be granted if an employee owns a one- to four-family residential property and faces foreclosure or if the property’s owner has a tenant who the federal government furloughed within 90 days of the closure or 90 days following the end of the closure.

The bill defines the closure of the U.S. government as a “closure of one or more agencies of the United States federal government for a period of 14 consecutive days or longer as a result of a lapse of appropriation.”

Senate lawmakers unanimously moved forward with the bill in a subcommittee last week and full committee this week.

The last federal government closure was in December 2018 and lasted 35 days – the longest in the country’s history.

by Meghan McIntyre, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

Three interesting bills of the week: Pound charter, stillborn child tax credit and private police

Three interesting bills of the week: declawing cats, antidepressants and the UDC

Three interesting bills of the week: journalism tax credits, negligent fires and cyclist exemptions

 

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Despite public pushback, Board of Ed accepts draft history standards for first review

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A speaker holds up a sign supporting a draft of the history standards different from the version completed by the staff at the Virginia Department of Education. (Nathaniel Cline / Virginia Mercury)

 

The Virginia Board of Education voted to accept for first review the newest draft of Virginia’s hotly debated history and social science standards Thursday on a 5-3 vote.

President Daniel Gecker, Vice President Tammy Mann, and board member Anne Holton, all appointees of former Govs. Ralph Northam and Terry McAuliffe, opposed moving forward with the proposal over concerns that the introductory pages were too “political.”

“I did take my time and read through the January revision,” said Mann during a Wednesday work session, referring to the latest draft. “It is improved, but it is difficult to constantly have to navigate through these coded ways of dealing with elements of our history.”


Despite the concerns, board member Andy Rotherham, an appointee of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, on Thursday made a motion to move forward with the new standards.

“This process is not over,” he said, calling the proposal “good at this point in the process.”

The vote, which followed four hours of public comment, came after months of pushback by Virginians who criticized a lack of transparency in the authorship of changes that appeared in a November draft and the absence from it of influential figures and events. The final draft will set Virginia’s expectations for student learning in history and social science in K-12 schools, as assessed through the Standards of Learning tests.

Complicating the process was the decision to separate the standards from an accompanying curriculum framework. Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow has said the combination led to “vague” and “confusing information,” although one board member said the separation “created the conditions for confusion.”

The controversy over the standards, which under state law must be revised at least every seven years, has bled over into the General Assembly. Last week, legislation that would have required the Board of Education to publish a list of any consultants used in revising the standards and how much they were paid at least 30 days prior to a public hearing on a revision failed in a House subcommittee.

“This process is too important to our kids to leave it to conversations behind closed doors without transparency about who is deciding what will be taught in our schools,” said the bill’s patron, Del. Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun.

On Thursday, Balow urged speakers to assess the standards and not base their opinions on “a specific set of talking points.”

“It’s not a long document, and it’s meant to be public-facing,” Balow said. “So I really hope that people take a look at the standards and find themselves, find their cultures, find their interests reflected in the standards because they are representative voices and work over the last two years. This is not a standalone document that was stood up over the last couple of weeks.”

January draft vs. alternative version

The board heard from dozens of speakers Thursday criticizing the newest draft, which they accused of “whitewashing” parts of history, requiring a high rate of memorization and excluding various issues such as geographical themes and the American labor movement.

“I’m concerned that this new revised standard is going to set education back in this commonwealth,” said Milton Hathaway, a parent of public school graduates. “There is no question about your commitment to education in the Commonwealth, but to pass this January standard is going to set our commonwealth back, and your name will be on the documentation.”

Martin Brown, Virginia’s chief diversity officer and director of the state’s Office of Diversity, Opportunity, and Inclusion, was a rare supporter to speak on Thursday.

“We believe the good, the bad, and the ugly have actually been communicated in the standards,” Brown said.

He added that the standards are “more robust” and have “more expanded content” about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Indigenous people’s movement in America.

Additional remarks by Brown that the standards honored recommendations issued by the African American History Education Commission, however, stoked pushback from former commission members in attendance.

One member, Makya Little, told the Mercury no one on the commission knew Brown.

“We literally had no idea who he was,” said Little, who served as the commission’s parent advocate and is running for the House District 19 seat as a Democrat.

“What the Youngkin administration is doing is what the DeSantis administration is doing,” she added, referring to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has publicly criticized what he calls “woke” ideas and “indoctrination” in schools. “They are just being more underhanded about it.”

The January draft included content from earlier drafts produced in August and November.

An alternative version was published by the Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium, Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and American Historical Association in December.

Many speakers and groups urged the board to accept that alternative version, which its crafters said aimed to “ensure that content was accurate, age-appropriate, inclusive, and vertically articulated in a manner that supports a natural progression of content, depth, and skill acquisition.”

However, a motion to substitute the alternative draft for the administration’s latest version failed 3-5, with Mann, Holton, and Gecker in favor.

Board member Anne Holton, a former Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointee, at the Virginia Board of Education business meeting on Feb. 2, 2023. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

 

‘Restoring excellence’

On Wednesday, the board spent significant time debating the opening pages of the January draft, which included a discussion of the standards’ guiding principles, background, and context.

Mann urged the board to remove the section, which she said: “has a tone that is [more] partisan than is needed in this kind of document.” She particularly objected to a statement that the new draft would “restore excellence” to Virginia education.

“The standards are not our problem, in my humble opinion,” Mann said. “This is a revision of 2015 [standards]. If we have issues with how students are performing on assessments, that deserves to be understood because that may not be due to our standards lacking, but it actually may also be associated with the fact that they may not have access to instruction that is qualified to teach the high standards.”

Holton also expressed opposition to the phrase, which she said could be interpreted as a reflection on current and future educators.

“How are we going to retain qualified teachers when we tell all the teachers across the commonwealth and all the curriculum educators that we need to restore excellence because they’ve decimated it?” Holton asked. “I think it’s the wrong way to start out this document.”

Youngkin appointees Suparna Dutta and Bill Hansen disagreed, with Dutta calling the draft “fantastic” and Hansen saying he viewed the introductory pages as “a call to action” after the recent drop in assessment scores statewide.

“I’m viewing this as more of a call to action, a call to help change things because if we keep going on the trajectory we’re going, it’s not a good one,” Hansen said.

Public hearings are scheduled to begin on March 13 and run to March 21 at five locations in Virginia, according to Virginia Department of Education staff. Final approval is expected on April 20.

Gecker said he expects line edits to be conducted after public comments.

 

by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Elite cross-country runners race in Virginia for Team USA spot

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Top distance runners in the country recently competed at Pole Green Park in Hanover County for a chance to land a spot on Team USA in the upcoming World Athletics Cross Country Championship in Bathurst, Australia.

Over 450 participants participated in the USA Track, and Field Cross Country Championship held on Jan. 21 as part of the Richmond Cross Country Festival. There were 12 qualifying Team USA spots between the men’s and women’s teams.

Professional runner Emily Durgin, who represents Adidas, competed in the women’s 10K and punched her ticket to the World Championships.

“I did not really prepare much for this race, but I think that’s what made it just so fun and exciting,” Durgin said.


Durgin dropped out of the New York City Marathon last November for personal reasons, she said. She decided to take care of her body and rested until three weeks before the championship qualifier race.

“Not that I was necessarily planning on putting pressure on making the team and moving forward, but I knew I just wanted to compete, and I love to front run,” Durgin said.

Her training runs felt good, and she was ready to return to her cross-country roots, she said.

“I was like, ‘all right, let’s just kind of brush off the end of last year and start on a positive note and run hard from the front,’” she said. “I knew if I did that, it would produce a good result.”

Durgin has competed in national championships, but this will be her first time competing in the World Championships. She wants to ensure she does everything to set herself up for a good performance and represent USATF, USA, and her brand Adidas.

Runners were divided into sex and age brackets for the long distance 6 kilometers, 8 kilometers, and 10 kilometers races.

The six women who placed on Team USA in the 10K category were, in order: Ednah Kurgat, Makena Morley, Durgin, Emily Lipari, Weini Kelati, and Katie Izzo.

The six 10K runners who placed on the men’s Team USA were: Emmanuel Bor, Andrew Colley, Anthony Rotich, Leonard Korir, Sam Chelanga, and Dillon Maggard.

Pole Green Park has hosted cross-country championships more than five times, such as the Atlantic 10 Conference Championships, according to the Collegiate Running Association. The USATF Championship has never been held in Virginia, according to Steve Taylor, the race organizer. Taylor founded the Collegiate Running Association and coordinates with the USATF national development team.

Taylor was excited to see six years of planning become a reality.

“Yesterday, I was out at the course, and there were Olympians out there,” Taylor said. “Just jogging the course, and they’re right here in Richmond.”

Track and field fans came out to watch and buy Team USA gear from the onsite shop.

Organizers wanted this to be a community event, Taylor said.

“We wanted it to be free so people could come in and see our nation’s best cross country runners compete and earn a spot on Team USA,” Taylor said.

The day’s first race was a community 6K race, which brought 12 people to the starting line. A race for ages ten and under followed. The competitive races were underway by 10:30 a.m., with the last one at 2:50 p.m.

Top athletes from around the globe will compete in the World Championships in Bathurst, Australia, on Feb. 18.

By Janae Blakeney
Capital News Service


Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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