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Virginia’s rule on legislators leaving districts could add more intrigue to 2023 elections



The Virginia Senate. (2020 file photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)


After past redistricting cycles, the number of Virginia General Assembly members having to switch districts was kept to a minimum because legislators were allowed to draw careful lines around each other’s homes to avoid damaging incumbents.

That wasn’t the case last year when experts appointed by the Supreme Court of Virginia effectively reset the state’s legislative maps with little regard for keeping incumbents comfortably installed in conflict-free seats. That means an unusually high number of legislators face the prospect of moving to position themselves for the next election cycle.

Those maps are also drawing new attention to a little-known provision in the Virginia Constitution that says any delegate or senator who moves out of their current district to run in a new one automatically forfeits the office they hold. But legislators also have to prove their residency in the new districts in order to qualify as valid candidates, a process that takes place long before the current legislative terms are over.

With the electoral landscape still taking shape for the high-stakes 2023 General Assembly elections, when all 140 state legislative seats will be on the ballot, there have been no residency challenges yet. Still, the question of how the constitutional rule might affect the legislature next year is already being discussed in hushed tones around the Capitol.

“I think it’s making some people nervous,” said Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax.

Under the new maps approved last year, half of the state’s 40 senators were drawn into a district with one or more other senators, according to the Virginia Public Access Project analysis. In the House, 44 of 100 delegates were paired with at least one colleague. Some of those pairings have already been resolved, partly because the maps also created dozens of new districts with no incumbent. Legislators paired with each other have a few basic options: a head-to-head election matchup with a colleague, resignation, or running for a different seat.

Due to the uncertainty over which specific members the rule could impact, some legislators and aides seemed reluctant to discuss the issue candidly.

“I’ll just say I’m aware of it,” House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said with a smile in a brief interview on the House floor earlier this month.

The issue has also been raised in Senate Democratic Caucus meetings as members should be aware of as they plan for next year.

Unlike members of Congress, Virginia General Assembly members are required to live in the districts they serve or are running to represent. And the state constitution is clear on what happens if someone moves out of their district.

“A senator or delegate who moves his residence from the district for which he is elected shall thereby vacate his office,” the key section says.

That rule came into play in 2015, when then-Del. Joe Morrissey filed paperwork to run for the state Senate that listed a Richmond address outside his Henrico County-based district. At the time, Morrissey, now a state senator, agreed to vacate his former office and allow a special election to take place but said he would continue to serve his constituents in an unofficial capacity out of his law office.

Over the next six months, an errant move by a lawmaker or an intentional decision to step down early could have a similar impact. Significantly, an empty seat could deprive a political caucus of a vote in the 2023 legislative session, even if the person who vacated it might go on to win and return in 2024 from another district.

It won’t be a problem for General Assembly members who move to run in a new district without leaving their current one. For example, Democratic Sen. Creigh Deeds is able to move from rural Bath County to Charlottesville to run in a redrawn district because Charlottesville is part of the area he represents now.

“They just have to move to an overlapping area,” said Jeff Ryer, a longtime Senate GOP aide. “And I cannot recall a circumstance where there was not an overlapping area.”

The new districts for 2023 are strikingly different than they have been, thanks to the redistricting reform amendment Virginia voters approved in 2020. The overhauled redistricting process led to maps being drawn by court-appointed experts instead of incumbent legislators who could protect themselves by maintaining the status quo as much as possible.

It’s difficult to track which lawmakers live where at any given moment because General Assembly members aren’t required to file that information on a real-time basis. The full scope of the reshuffling may not become clear until next spring when General Assembly candidates have to file campaign paperwork listing an address in the district that matches their voter registration records. That deadline usually falls in late March, after the General Assembly has finished its regular session but before lawmakers reconvene to take up vetoes and amendments from the governor.

“You may have some folks that have to decide how badly do you guys really need me at reconvene,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax.

Even though the law is fairly clear, controversies about political figures’ residency are often clouded by ambiguity. Lawmakers can have multiple homes, and it can be difficult to determine whether an address listed on official paperwork is where they’re spending most of their time.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, questions were raised last year about whether Republican candidate Mark Earley Jr. really lived in the Richmond-area House district he was running in. But a special prosecutor cleared him of wrongdoing after concluding Earley had made a simple paperwork mistake by not disclosing the house he owned outside the district as he moved in with his parents to run for the seat.

Mandatory financial disclosure forms General Assembly members have to file each year require legislators to disclose real estate holdings, but they don’t have to report their “principal residence.” The forms, which are overseen by the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, also advise state and local elected officials not to list exact addresses for their real estate holdings. However, that information can usually be obtained through searches of local property records.

The General Assembly’s two clerks oversee the legislature’s administrative side and keep lawmakers’ home mailing addresses on file. But there’s nothing requiring lawmakers to notify the clerks when they move. And the lists kept by the clerks aren’t made public.

“It’s considered a personnel record,” said House Clerk G. Paul Nardo.

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: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.


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Virginia Proposes Adding 12 Plants, Including Kudzu, to Noxious Weeds List



Virginia is considering adding 12 more plants to its noxious weeds list, a compilation of species that are banned from use in the state because of the damage they provide to ecosystems.

On Thursday, the Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services held a public hearing on the proposed additions. No one spoke during it, but one comment was submitted via the state’s online regulatory Town Hall website from Chesapeake resident Rogard Ross, who said he “strongly agrees” with the additions.

“You should also add English Ivy, Japanese Stilt Grass, and Linden Viburnum,” wrote Ross.  “These are all terribly invasive plants in our local parks in Chesapeake, Virginia.”

Invasive plants have spread all over Virginia. Some groups say that needs to stop.

The public comment period is scheduled to end Friday, Dec. 8.

The plants proposed to be added to the list are:

  • Two-horned trapa
  • Garlic mustard
  • Chinese yam
  • Autumn olive
  • Lesser celandine
  • Bicolor lespedeza
  • Amur honeysuckle.
  • Japanese honeysuckle
  • Common reed
  • Kudzu
  • Japanese knotweed
  • Siberian elm

Two-horned trapa would be added as a “tier 2” noxious weed, a classification given to plants that can be suppressed or eradicated. The rest would be added as tier 3 noxious weeds, those that experts say can’t reasonably be wiped out.

A house in Dickenson County covered in Kudzu. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia also compiles an invasive plant species list that is used for informational purposes. There’s no restrictions for the vast majority of plants on that list if they are deemed “commercially viable.” But when the negative ecological impacts of an invasive plant are deemed to outweigh its economic benefits, officials can place it on the noxious weed list.

The state began the process of considering the latest additions in 2021. Larry Nichols, director of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Consumer Protection, said the species were recommended by the state Noxious Weeds Advisory Committee.

The 12 plants “are highly adaptable to their environment, are copious seed producers, and can overwhelm native plant species through rapid growth and spread, resulting in the displacement of the native, desirable plant species,” Nichols said. “Controlling these plants is costly and long term once they become established.”

Following the public comment period, the Board will vote on the regulation, and pending approval, it will continue through the review process.

This article was updated with information on the next steps for the regulation to be enacted.


by Charlie Paullin, 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: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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This Land is Our Land: States Crack Down on Foreign-Owned Farm Fields



Andy Gipson gets concerned even when American allies such as the Netherlands and Germany invest in large swaths of Mississippi’s farmland.

“It just bothers me at a gut level,” he said.

For Gipson, Mississippi’s commissioner of agriculture and commerce, the growing trend of foreign ownership could threaten what he views as the state’s most valuable asset: the land that grows its forests, rice, and cotton.

“It is our ability as a country, as a state to produce our own food, our own fiber, and our own shelter,” he told Stateline. “And I think every acre that’s sold to anybody outside of this country is one less acre that we have to rely on for our own self-interest, our own national food security.”

Gipson has spent recent months studying the growing amount of his state’s farmland being bought up by foreign interests. He chaired a study committee that just issued a 363-page report on the issue requested by the legislature after a lawmaker had offered a bill to ban foreign purchases completely.

Since its constitution was approved in 1890, the state has had provisions restricting land ownership by “nonresident aliens,” the report noted. But the committee concluded current state law “lacks a clear, workable enforcement mechanism.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that foreign interests held some 757,000 acres of Mississippi’s agricultural land, about 2.5% of the total. Gipson hopes the Republican-led legislature will stiffen the law in the upcoming session.

“I think the time is going to be right in 2024 for the legislature to tighten these laws up,” he said.

If the legislature acts, Mississippi will join a growing group of states seeking to ban or further restrict foreign ownership of farmland. Lawmakers are targeting nations considered hostile to U.S. interests, such as China and Russia, and looking for new enforcement measures. Many see Arkansas as leading the latter push; officials there invoked a new law in October that bans certain foreign owners and ordered a Chinese seed company to divest its land.

Nearly half the states have some restrictions on the books, some dating back to the 1700s.

While the debate is as old as the nation itself, the issue has been reinvigorated in recent years after Chinese firms purchased land near military installments in North Dakota and in Texas, said Micah Brown, an attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas who tracks the issue.

Brown said lawmakers in 36 states proposed some sort of legislation on the issue this year, ranging from caps to bans to targets on certain countries, with measures passing in about a dozen of them. More bills are expected in upcoming sessions.

Some lawmakers and experts warn that such laws could go too far, making it difficult for some farmers to sell their land, discouraging economic development, or even leading to discrimination against certain groups of people, such as Asian Americans.

Foreign ownership of U.S. farmland probed at U.S. Senate hearing

Foreigners held an interest in about 40 million acres of U.S. agricultural land at the end of 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Canadian investors own the largest share of that acreage, followed by investors from the United Kingdom and Europe. Foreign ownership represents only about 3.1% of all privately held U.S. agricultural land. But the number is quickly rising: Foreign ownership has increased more than 50% in the past decade, Brown said.

But USDA data shows Chinese ownership is still relatively rare: Chinese interests own less than 1% of the nation’s foreign-held agricultural acreage.

Federal law currently does not regulate foreign ownership of land beyond requiring foreign buyers to register with the USDA. But there is bipartisan interest in Congress in tighter restrictions and reporting on foreign ownership.

At the state level, much of the legislation has been proposed by Republicans, though Brown said it’s largely enjoyed bipartisan support — particularly when bills target ownership by nations considered hostile to American interests.

“It’d be pretty difficult for someone to step out and say, ‘Hey, I don’t think we should restrict North Korea.’ … That’s kind of where some of the politics come into this. It looks like you’re achieving something. There’s been a lot of bipartisan support on these efforts.”

Arkansas leads on enforcement

In October, Arkansas Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders invoked the war between Israel and Hamas as she announced her state was taking its first action against foreign ownership of agricultural land.

Sanders described America’s “enemies,” naming not just Hamas, but also China, Iran, and Russia as “on the march.”

“Yet for too long in the name of tolerance we’ve let these dangerous governments infiltrate our country,” she said. “Arkansas will tolerate them no longer.”

The state ordered seed and pesticide maker Syngenta to sell 160 acres of land it owns in Northeast Arkansas and uses for research. Legislation passed during the 2023 session barred certain foreign countries from owning farmland and enabled the state to seek judicial foreclosure for those found in violation. The attorney general’s office said it was to date the only known property covered by the new law.

China Owns Little US Farmland, But Many Lawmakers Are Worried

Syngenta, which was given two years to sell its property, did not respond to a Stateline request for comment. The company previously criticized the Arkansas action as “shortsighted.”

Last month, Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, a Republican, announced that Syngenta had paid a $280,000 civil penalty for failing to register with the state as required under legislation passed in 2021.

“This serves as a warning to all other Chinese state-owned companies operating in Arkansas — I am investigating these types of properties throughout the state and will exercise all powers afforded to my office under the law,” he said in a statement last month. 

Based in Switzerland, Syngenta was bought by ChemChina, a state-owned entity, in 2017.

Republican state Sen. Blake Johnson said he was unaware of Syngenta’s acquisition when he sponsored both pieces of legislation. He said the laws were broadly aimed at protecting national security.

“Our food safety is paramount to the national defense, in my opinion: feeding, clothing ourselves and our military if need be in the future,” he said. “That can be done by our own land. We don’t need to outsource that to our enemies.”

Johnson said he was careful to target the legislation at unfriendly nations. It applies to the same countries named in the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, federal rules that restrict weapons from certain adversarial nations. He noted that friendly nations are exempt: Canada, for instance, owns large swaths of timberland in southern Arkansas.

“That’s not a problem under this law,” he said.

The Arkansas action was closely watched by officials in neighboring Mississippi.

“To date, Arkansas is the only state that has actually enforced a law like this,” said Gipson, the Mississippi agriculture commissioner. “I like the way they did it.”

But he said there are plenty of complications.

Mississippi doesn’t want to hinder important agricultural research, Gipson said. Nor does it want to dissuade investments such as Japanese-based Nissan’s giant assembly plant in Canton.

“Some of the states have had unintended consequences, and we don’t want to have those, obviously,” he said.

Republican state Rep. Bill Pigott, who also served on the study committee, said he’s working on legislation he thinks will pass in 2024.

A farmer who raises peanuts, corn, and cattle, Pigott said he has not heard from other farmers about the issue, though he said many constituents are concerned.

“People who listen to the news and watch TV — they seem to be more concerned about it than actually the farmers themselves,” he said. “I do get people ask if we are doing anything.”

Pigott said the legislation will aim to target hostile nations such as China and Russia. Currently, investors from the Netherlands are the largest foreign owners in Mississippi, followed by Germany.

“Almost nobody has any concern with that,” he said. “It is the hostile nations, and No. 1 on that list is China.”

Striking a balance

In opening a U.S. Senate hearing in September, Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow acknowledged that the nation’s food system is an integral component of national security.

With more foreign entities buying up land, she said, the issue deserves scrutiny. But she offered a warning:

“We must also be cautious of our history of barring immigrants from owning land in our country and ensure efforts to protect our national and economic security do not encourage discrimination,” she said.

During hearings on foreign-owned agricultural land in Topeka, Kansas, state Rep. Rui Xi, a Democrat and the only Chinese American in the state House, in September warned about rhetoric casting suspicion on Asian Americans such as grad students lawfully admitted to the United States.

“If we want to take a look at foreign investment in ag land and it’s narrow, that’s great,” Xi said. “If you try to cast a shadow and it continues to cast suspicion on people who are here innocently, who are just trying to learn, who are trying to attend our universities, I think that’s where we really, really need to urge caution.”

While more American agricultural land is being bought up by foreign interests, it’s generally not governments that own it, said David Ortega, a food economist at Michigan State University. Syngenta garnered plenty of attention in Arkansas, but it’s more common for foreign individuals and firms to buy land as investments, he said.

So far, Ortega said, there’s no evidence that foreign purchases have raised ag prices or pose any threat to American food security.

Ortega said policymakers should consider carefully the potential effects of new laws on the broader agricultural economy. China, for instance, is often targeted by legislators. But it’s also the largest buyer of American agricultural exports and could retaliate against American farmers.

“It’s far easier for China to find a new source to buy [from] than it is for us to find new export markets,” he said in an interview.

Ortega said there are specific, local concerns about foreign ownership worth addressing. And while there are many good-faith debates occurring, he does worry that the conversation could lead to discrimination against groups such as Chinese Americans.

Youngkin halted Ford battery plant efforts in Virginia over concerns about China

“I don’t think that the root cause of lawmakers’ concerns over this issue is rooted in xenophobia,” he said. “But I am worried that the way this issue is talked about can lead to xenophobia and those types of issues. And that’s why I and others are urging caution.”

Since Congress has not enacted any legislation, state lawmakers say they are willing to act.

“While I would prefer we send one message from our Congress to address this issue, that’s beyond the scope of what I can do,” said Georgia state Rep. Clay Pirkle, a Republican. “What I can do is formulate a state response to this issue.”

Pirkle grows cotton, peanuts, rice, and butterbeans on about 1,000 acres in southern Georgia. Earlier this year, he introduced legislation in Atlanta that would prevent nonresident aliens from purchasing farmland near military bases if they were from nations deemed adversarial by the U.S. Department of Commerce — a list that currently includes China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The bill didn’t progress, but Pirkle plans to pursue it again next session.

He said crafting legislation on the matter is complicated because he does not want Georgia to dissuade purchases from people who have fled other countries for the United States.

“I really made every effort to avoid unintentional consequences of folks from these countries that have come to the United States because they really desire liberty and freedom,” he said. “And I wanted to make sure that I did not unduly burden them.”

But Pirkle believes something needs to be done. American agricultural land is not a renewable resource. Developers continue to encroach on farmland for the development of new housing and industry.

“The land that we have that we grow crops on to feed the world is the land that we have in ag production,” he said. “We’re not making any more, and it is a scarce resource.”


by Kevin Hardy, Virginia Mercury

Stateline is a sister publication of the Virginia Mercury within States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott S. Greenberger for questions:

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: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Pedestrian-Involved Crashes, Cyclist Fatalities Increase From Last Year



RICHMOND, Va. – Alcohol, distraction, or speeding were the most deadly factors for pedestrians and cyclists in Virginia for at least the past three years.

Those factors contributed to nearly 3 in 4 pedestrian deaths and 2 in 3 cyclist deaths between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30.

Crash statistics were initially trending down but rose enough in the past month that this year has not been an improvement. Total pedestrian-involved crashes are up this year at 1,487, while cyclist-involved crashes remain slightly down at 529. Virginia traffic data is collected using the Traffic Records Electronic Data System.

State data shows pedestrian deaths this year, through November, decreased from 172 to 117, but cyclist deaths have increased.

Carla “Jonah” Holland was one of 11 cyclists killed in Virginia in 2022. She and Natalie Rainer were hit by an intoxicated driver while biking on a rural road in Henrico County. The driver was 18 at the time and was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“The cost ends up being so much greater than just one person,” Rainer said. “In my story, it’s Jonah’s life, but it’s also [the driver’s] life. His life is altered as well.”

Rainer woke up four days after the accident to discover her friend was gone. Even as she heals and gets back on a bike, the scars remain – on her chest, arms, abdomen, legs, and pelvis.

“My life has been touched, but I will still have the privilege to live out my life in a full manner,” Rainer said.

The cost goes beyond just the loss of a loved one – there is a loss of safety and peace in the community, she said.

“It creates an atmosphere where people do not feel safe to exist in space and that is unacceptable,” Rainer said. “Maybe people are willing to kind of brush the issue to the side because it doesn’t personally affect them.”

Across the nation: How does Virginia compare?

Pedestrian fatalities increased in Virginia between 2021-2022. It was the fifth highest percentage increase in the nation, according to data from the national Governors Highway Safety Association.

Overall, Virginia ranked 24th in total pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people last year.

Drivers nationwide hit and killed just over 7,500 pedestrians in 2022 – the highest since 1981, according to GHSA data. Unreported Oklahoma data could make the toll higher.

This means that, on average, about 20 people a day are struck and killed on American roads.

Pedestrian fatalities in Virginia may be down this year, but total injuries are higher, with one month still left to go. Conversely, cyclists are seeing less injuries and more deaths as a result of these crashes.



Infrastructures: Progress in Alexandria

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, stated in an email that these “preventable tragedies” result from a number of factors, such as impaired driving or road design. He added that while legislation such as his “hands free” law has helped, the complicated issue needs further investment.

“There’s no one silver bullet,” said Alex Carroll of Alexandria’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.

Carroll manages the Complete Streets program for Alexandria. The program aims to make it safer to work and travel in the region.

Infrastructural needs are a large piece of the puzzle, according to Carroll.

“There are probably very few crashes where you can say there was nothing about the infrastructure here that could have prevented this,” Carroll said.

A recent five-year analysis found that 70% of fatal and severe crashes in Alexandria occurred on 10% of the city’s streets. This data allows programs like Complete Streets to focus where change is needed most, Carroll said.

Localities need money and resources to implement better infrastructure. However, low-cost starting options are available, which Carroll said can provide “90% of the benefit at 10% of the cost.”

Options include giving pedestrians more time to cross at intersections, adding “no right turn on red” signs and lowering speed limits, among others. Reducing speed limits is often controversial, but even small decreases in speed have produced positive results in Alexandria, Carroll said.

A more expensive option is something called a “road diet,” when travel lanes are removed and replaced with measures such as crosswalks or bike lanes to reduce driver speed and traffic. It has helped in places where crossing pedestrians felt like they were in the video game “Frogger,” Carroll said.

Several Virginia localities, including Alexandria, adopted Vision Zero – an international design philosophy that began in Sweden in the 1990s. Its central goal is to reduce traffic fatalities to zero through the belief that pedestrian deaths are preventable.

“We can’t accept the status quo of people continuing to die and be severely maimed on our streets,” Carroll said.

Vision Zero work is like “trying to turn a ship around,” Carroll said – results are not always immediately apparent. While the goal is rather ambitious, she says it’s worth the effort.

“It’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, those numbers are people,” Carroll said.


Traffic enforcement and humanizing the statistics

Lt. Robert Netherland of Henrico Police’s Traffic Enforcement Unit knows how it feels to receive a death notification.

His sister was a University of Virginia student when she was hit and killed by a drunk driver.

“I remember like it was yesterday– and we're talking back in the early 1980s,” Netherland said.

Death notifications are a part of the job, and his experiences allow him to empathize with the over 100 families he’s had to contact.

A number of factors, from impairment to distraction to visibility, contribute to pedestrian and cyclist incidents, according to Netherland. Legislative changes like the “hands-free” law have had reasonable success, but others have made his job a bit more difficult, he said.

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, patroned a 2020 bill that made several changes to traffic enforcement law when it passed, including a shift in how jaywalking can be penalized. Virginia law now prevents officers from stopping a pedestrian solely because they are jaywalking.

“People just kind of walk where they want to,” Netherland said, and added it has contributed to an increase in pedestrian fatalities.

Netherland said it decreases the chance of a crash if pedestrians cross at designated intersections. Pedestrians and cyclists are less likely to be seriously injured because vehicles typically slow down at intersections.

Pedestrians do not hold all of the responsibility, Netherland said. All parties sharing the roadways need to increase their awareness, remove distractions, and slow down.

Carroll agreed that “victim-blaming” language does not help and emphasized that Vision Zero’s philosophy assumes that people will make mistakes – such as crossing where they shouldn’t.

“If you rely on people to not make mistakes in order to improve your safety goals, you’re never gonna get there,” Carroll said.

Harsher penalties and more direct messaging could push through the “numbness” and encourage all travelers to be safer, Netherland said.

VCU Police began efforts to increase campus traffic enforcement following the January crash that killed university student Mahrokh Khan while she crossed the street. This initiative resulted in over 800 traffic citations between February and May, according to data provided by VCU Police.

Virginia State Police recently launched Operation DISS-rupt, a campaign to target unsafe and distracted drivers. Interstate 64 enforcement on Oct. 19 and 20 resulted in 362 speeding violations, according to data provided by VSP. Additionally, there were 200 instances of reckless driving and 75 violations of the “hands-free” law.

Deaths decreased over Virginia’s Thanksgiving holiday compared to last year, according to VSP. The number of driving under the influence arrests were about the same, though reckless driving and speeding citations were up.

Education and rejecting ‘status quo’

The acceptance of these fatal and severe crashes as “the cost of doing business” cannot be allowed, said John Saunders, director of highway safety for Virginia DMV.

“If we had as many people die in airplane crashes as we see dying on our highways, no one would fly,” Saunders said.

According to Saunders, the DMV targets its messaging using crash and law enforcement data. It distributes safety messages about crossing streets, maintaining visibility, and practicing safe driving habits through many partners.

Drivers’ tests ask applicants how to share the road safely, but the DMV does not design test questions. The Virginia Department of Education does, according to Saunders. The VDOE did not respond to a request for a statement.

He said that drivers often only take one test to get a license, so continued education is important.

“It’s sometimes awhile since folks have really taken a close look at pedestrians, and being a pedestrian, and how dangerous that is,” Saunders said.

He said it would take a continued beating of the drum to raise awareness and improve safety.

“We have a responsibility, especially as drivers, to make every effort to do all that we can to ensure that everyone gets home safely each and every day,” Saunders said.

Ending traffic violence as a community

These statistics represent neighbors, family, and friends.

“Ultimately, we can't separate cycling incidents from pedestrian incidents, and even other drivers being involved in crashes,” Rainer said. “We're talking about traffic violence, which is on the rise.”

Local governments have started to tackle the problem, but it won’t help unless people take accountability, she said, from putting down cell phones to taking the foot off the gas.

“We've got to start to find ways of helping people to understand that we are connected,” Rainer said. “When you see a cyclist on a bike on the road, they're not an obstacle in your way, right? That's a human being … we need to look at each other as valuable.”


By Ryan Nadeau/Capital News Service
Video by Reiley Matthews/VCU InSight

VCU InSight reporter Reiley Matthews contributed to this article. 

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. VCU InSight is the capstone broadcast news program.

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Virginia’s Thanksgiving Roads: Safer This Year



Dramatic Drop in Fatal Traffic Crashes Over Thanksgiving 2023.

In a remarkable turn of events, Virginia has seen a significant decrease in traffic-related fatalities during the Thanksgiving holiday of 2023. Compared to the previous year, the state experienced a 53% reduction in fatal traffic crashes, a promising indicator of improved road safety. This development has brought relief to many and highlights the effectiveness of stringent traffic enforcement and public awareness campaigns.

A Safer Holiday Season

According to preliminary data, only nine people lost their lives in traffic incidents over the five-day holiday period, a stark contrast to the 19 fatalities recorded in 2022. A notable aspect of these tragedies was the absence of seat belts in most cases, underscoring the continued importance of basic safety measures.

Colonel Gary T. Settle, Superintendent of the Virginia State Police, expressed optimism about the reduction in traffic crashes. He emphasized the role of responsible driving in ensuring safety during the holidays and urged Virginians to maintain these habits as the winter season approaches.

Impact of Operation C.A.R.E.

A key element in this year’s traffic safety was Operation C.A.R.E. (Crash Awareness and Reduction Effort), an annual, state-sponsored initiative. During the 2023 Thanksgiving period, state troopers increased their presence and traffic enforcement, resulting in significant law enforcement activity. This included citing 4,520 drivers for speeding, 1,840 for reckless driving and arresting 89 individuals for driving under the influence. Additionally, 427 citations were issued for seat belt violations.

Traffic Statistics: A Positive Trend

The overall number of traffic crashes also saw a decrease, with state troopers responding to 1,359 incidents—a reduction of nearly a hundred compared to 2022. Out of these, 137 crashes resulted in injuries. This decrease is a testament to the heightened enforcement and public awareness efforts.

It’s also noteworthy that the fines collected from these summonses contribute to Virginia’s public welfare, with funds going towards court fees and the state’s Literary Fund, which supports public school construction, technology funding, and teacher retirement.

The 2023 Thanksgiving holiday has positively changed Virginia’s roads, marked by a significant decrease in fatal crashes and overall accidents. This improvement is a result of collective efforts in enforcing traffic laws and promoting road safety. As Virginia moves into the winter holidays, the lessons and successes of this period serve as a blueprint for continued vigilance and responsibility on the roads.

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Abortions Increase in State Since Roe Overturned; Virginia Border City Remains a Refuge 



RICHMOND, Va. – The twin Bristol cities share a name and a state line, but abortion accessibility changes just over a 1-mile span.

Abortion is illegal in Bristol, Tennessee, but down the road in Virginia, a clinic provides abortions. The Bristol Women’s Health Clinic relocated to Virginia after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn an almost 50-year decision that protected a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.

The number of abortions administered in Virginia has increased since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022, according to analysis of data from the state health department and the Society of Family Planning.


“It was started because of the need,” said the clinic’s administrative director, Karolina Ogorek. “It wasn’t anything other than the fact that a mile and a half down the road, the services we provide are illegal.

The majority of the clinic’s patients are from out of state. All of the states that touch Virginia have completely banned or restricted abortion except Maryland, which drove travel to the last Southern state where access remains.

Reproductive choice also drove voters to the polls in Virginia and other states. Turnout was high in Virginia at almost 40%, though not as high as the last time in 2019 when all the Virginia General Assembly seats were on the ballot.

Kentucky and Ohio voters also signaled strong support for abortion access. Kentucky re-elected a Democratic governor whose opponent strongly opposed abortion, and Ohio voters supported a referendum to enshrine access in the state’s constitution.

Virginia Democrats picked up a slim majority they will have for the next two years. They delivered on their campaign promise and pre-filed an amendment to the state’s constitution on Nov. 20 that would secure reproductive freedom and protection — but it has a long, procedural way to go.

For now, Virginia remains a refuge for women whose choice has been restricted in other states.

The ‘hardship’ of travel for medical help

Tennessee had a trigger law to ban abortion, meaning they had a law in place to ban abortion weeks after Roe was overturned completely. It slipped through a budget negotiation late at night.

That led to an influx of patients from Southern states. People visit the clinic from as far away as Louisiana, according to Ogorek.

“There is not a single person that ever thinks they are ever going to make this decision until you have to,” Ogorek said.

She wishes more people understood the hardship of such a journey.

“Not just for the women but their entire family,” Ogorek said. “It has such a big effect on more than just one person.”

About 55% of women at Ogorke’s clinic are at or below the poverty line, she said.

“The decision to terminate a pregnancy is not for everyone, and we recognize, and we support that,” Ogorek said. “Unfortunately, people who are anti-choice will never support a choice.”

She said that abortion restrictions are not a good idea because a 12 or 15-week restriction usually turns into an outright ban.

Protesters outside of Ogorek’s work are nothing new. The office provides patient escorts and security to help women get into their clinics.

Other help offered

Anti-abortion protesters who gather almost every day outside of Bristol Women’s Health Clinic hope to connect women with other resources.

David Gerrells lives in Tennessee. He considers abortions a murder that goes against God’s will. His church hopes to convince women that they are already a parent and not to go through with the procedure.

“It makes us angry and sad and hurt for the ones that are lost – not just the babies but for the mothers, the fathers,” Gerrells said.

His church, Christ Bible Church, and other groups want to help through various ministries and organizations. They provide money, homes, support, and community to women, according to Gerrells.

“We want these people to raise their own children, but we’re very big on walking alongside them,” Gerrells said. “But, more importantly, they need to understand what it is to walk with Christ.”

Orville Fisher has spoken against abortion for about 15 years. He works with the international organization 40 Days for Life. An abortion ban would be positive for Virginia and its citizens, he said.

Fisher recommended the Pathways Pregnancy Resource Center across the Tennessee border, which helps pregnant women.

The resource center was contacted multiple times but said they could not do an interview until next year.

Enshrining abortion into the state constitution

Del. Rodney Willett, D-Henrico, is “absolutely in favor of choice of” and access to abortion.

“Anecdotally, we also know women are flying into Virginia or driving long distances into the state to get these services,” Willett said.

The option for medical services in Virginia is fortunate, he said, although anything but convenient.

“For a lot of women, it’s an absolute hurdle they can’t clear because of the expense,” Willett said.

He said they have to pay for transportation, take off time for work, and find someone to travel with them.

Willett voiced concerns about the state losing doctors and women’s health care providers if the 15-week restriction proposed by state Republicans went into effect.

“What you’re seeing in other states where abortion is heavily restricted or outright banned, a lot of the states are also putting criminal penalties in place for the providers,” he said.

Ogorek recalled how healthcare providers were “cautiously optimistic” before the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case that overturned Roe.

“After Roe fell, we were devastated,” Ogorek said. “Clinics closed.”

She shut down her Knoxville practice, which she said was “flourishing.”

“I think what is sad is that, just we’ve lost a lot more lately than we won,” Ogorek said. “That’s the hard part.”

Ogorek will keep her eyes on the General Assembly and continue to encourage people to vote.

“If they impose a 15-week ban, I will do whatever I have to do to keep us open for as long as we can stay open,” Ogorek said. It’s just not a question. Until that very last minute that somebody tells me I have to shut my doors, I won’t.”


VCU InSight journalist Brigette Kelly contributed to this report.

By Sahara Sriraman/Capital News Service

Video by Brigette Kelly/VCU InSight

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. VCU InSight is the capstone broadcast news program.

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State News

Virginia War Memorial and Navy League to Host 82nd Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony



The Virginia War Memorial and the Navy League of the United States, Richmond Council, will co-host the 82nd Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony at 11 a.m., Thursday, December 7, 2023.  The annual ceremony will be held outdoors in the Memorial’s Shrine of Memory – 20th Century at 621 South Belvidere Street, Richmond, VA 22330. The public is invited and encouraged to attend.

Keynote speaker will be Commander Dennis Bussey, U.S. Navy (Retired), the son of career Navy Chief Petty Officer Joseph Bussey, who was aboard the battleship USS California in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Commander Dennis Bussey is a Civil Engineering graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.  After graduation in 1969, he found himself leading a group of “Seabees” in Da Nang, South Vietnam. He and his wife, a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, retired to Richmond after active duty, where he founded the James River Hikers and is a noted historian.

The 82nd Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony will include the presentation of wreaths in memory of the Virginians who died on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941 when the forces of Imperial Japan attacked U.S military bases in Hawaii. More than 2,400 Americans died and more than 1,100 were wounded during the surprise attack. Of those killed, 41 were listed as native Virginians.

“The name of each Virginian who perished on that fateful day will be read and remembered with the tolling of the ship’s bell from the guided missile cruiser USS Virginia (CGN-38), which was decommissioned in 1994,” said Dr. Adam J. “Jay” Fielder, president of the Navy League’s Richmond Council, who will serve as Master of Ceremonies for the annual program. The bell is on permanent display at the Virginia War Memorial.

“We are pleased to continue the tradition of co-hosting the Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony with the Navy League here at the Virginia War Memorial for the 82nd consecutive year,” said Virginia War Memorial Director Dr. Clay Mountcastle. “We hope many of our fellow citizens will join us to honor and remember our fellow Virginians and all Americans who died during the surprise attack which led to the United States entering World War II. As the ceremony is an outdoor event, we suggest attendees dress accordingly.”

The Memorial will be open to the public from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. on December 7.  The Virginians at War documentary film Pearl Harbor will be shown all day in the Reynolds Theater and visitors can visit the Medal of Honor Gallery, Veterans Art Gallery and other exhibits.

For more information about the 82nd Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony, please call the Virginia War Memorial at 804.786.2060 or visit or There is no admission charge to the Memorial or for this event. Parking is available at the Memorial and visitors should arrive by 10:45 a.m. to attend the ceremony.

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Aders Insurance Agency, Inc (State Farm)

Aire Serv Heating and Air Conditioning

Apple Dumpling Learning Center

Apple House

Auto Care Clinic

Avery-Hess Realty, Marilyn King

Beaver Tree Services

Blake and Co. Hair Spa

Blue Mountain Creative Consulting

Blue Ridge Arts Council

Blue Ridge Education

BNI Shenandoah Valley

C&C's Ice Cream Shop

Card My Yard

CBM Mortgage, Michelle Napier

Christine Binnix - McEnearney Associates

Code Jamboree LLC

Code Ninjas Front Royal

Cool Techs Heating and Air

Down Home Comfort Bakery

Downtown Market

Dusty's Country Store

Edward Jones-Bret Hrbek

Explore Art & Clay

Family Preservation Services

First Baptist Church

Front Royal Independent Business Alliance

Front Royal/Warren County C-CAP

First Baptist Church

Front Royal Treatment Center

Front Royal Women's Resource Center

Front Royal-Warren County Chamber of Commerce

Fussell Florist

G&M Auto Sales Inc

Garcia & Gavino Family Bakery

Gourmet Delights Gifts & Framing

Green to Ground Electrical

Groups Recover Together

Habitat for Humanity

Groups Recover Together

House of Hope

I Want Candy

I'm Just Me Movement

Jean’s Jewelers

Jen Avery, REALTOR & Jenspiration, LLC

Key Move Properties, LLC

KW Solutions

Legal Services Plans of Northern Shenendoah

Main Street Travel

Makeover Marketing Systems

Marlow Automotive Group

Mary Carnahan Graphic Design

Merchants on Main Street

Mountain Trails

Mountain View Music

National Media Services

Natural Results Chiropractic Clinic

No Doubt Accounting

Northwestern Community Services Board

Ole Timers Antiques

Penny Lane Hair Co.

Philip Vaught Real Estate Management

Phoenix Project

Reaching Out Now

Rotary Club of Warren County

Royal Blends Nutrition

Royal Cinemas

Royal Examiner

Royal Family Bowling Center

Royal Oak Bookshop

Royal Oak Computers

Royal Oak Bookshop

Royal Spice

Ruby Yoga

Salvation Army

Samuels Public Library

SaVida Health

Skyline Insurance

Shenandoah Shores Management Group

St. Luke Community Clinic

Strites Doughnuts

Studio Verde

The Arc of Warren County

The Institute for Association & Nonprofit Research

The Studio-A Place for Learning

The Valley Today - The River 95.3

The Vine and Leaf

Valley Chorale

Warren Charge (Bennett's Chapel, Limeton, Asbury)

Warren Coalition

Warren County Democratic Committee

Warren County Department of Social Services

Warren County DSS Job Development

Warrior Psychotherapy Services, PLLC

WCPS Work-Based Learning

What Matters & Beth Medved Waller, Inc Real Estate

White Picket Fence

Woodward House on Manor Grade

King Cartoons

Front Royal, VA
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Upcoming Events

8:00 am Breakfast with Santa @ Rivermont Volunteer Fire Department
Breakfast with Santa @ Rivermont Volunteer Fire Department
Dec 9 @ 8:00 am – 11:00 am
Breakfast with Santa @ Rivermont Volunteer Fire Department
Rivermont Volunteer Fire Department is having a Breakfast with Santa on Saturday, December 9th, from 8:00 a.m.- 11:00 a.m. Adults are $10.00 Kids are $5.00 Children 5 and under are free!
12:00 pm Christmas Lunch for Kids, Vets a... @ Front Royal Elks Lodge
Christmas Lunch for Kids, Vets a... @ Front Royal Elks Lodge
Dec 9 @ 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm
Christmas Lunch for Kids, Vets and Seniors @ Front Royal Elks Lodge
The Front Royal Elks Lodge will hold it’s annual Holiday Lunch for Kids, Veterans and Seniors on Saturday, December 9. Festivities will begin at 12 noon. Mr. and Mrs. Clause are said to be coming!
4:30 pm Astronomy for Everyone @ Sky Meadows State Park
Astronomy for Everyone @ Sky Meadows State Park
Dec 9 @ 4:30 pm – 7:30 pm
Astronomy for Everyone @ Sky Meadows State Park
Historic Area. Discover our International Dark-Sky Park! Our evenings begin with a half-hour children’s “Junior Astronomer” program, followed by a discussion about the importance of dark skies and light conservation. Then join NASA’s Jet Propulsion[...]
7:30 pm American Legion Community Band C... @ Boggs Chapel at R-MA
American Legion Community Band C... @ Boggs Chapel at R-MA
Dec 12 @ 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm
American Legion Community Band Christmas Concert @ Boggs Chapel at R-MA
The American Legion Community Band, located in Front Royal, Virginia, was formed in 1986 and has been playing concerts in the area ever since. The conductors and band members are all volunteer musicians from the local[...]
6:30 pm Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Dec 13 @ 6:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Front Royal Wednesday Night Bingo @ Front Royal Volunteer Fire Deptartment
Bingo to support the American Cancer Society mission, organized by Relay For Life of Front Royal. Every Wednesday evening Early Bird Bingo at 6:30 p.m. Regular Bingo from 7-9:30 p.m. Food and refreshments available More[...]
7:00 am Pancake Breakfast @ Riverton United Methodist Church
Pancake Breakfast @ Riverton United Methodist Church
Dec 16 @ 7:00 am – 10:00 am
Pancake Breakfast @ Riverton United Methodist Church
Join us for pancakes, sausage, scrambled eggs, biscuits, sausage gravy, and juice/coffee! All are invited for this FREE event. Offering will be accepted.
10:00 am 10th Virginia Infantry Encampment @ Sky Meadows State Park
10th Virginia Infantry Encampment @ Sky Meadows State Park
Dec 16 @ 10:00 am – 4:00 pm
10th Virginia Infantry Encampment @ Sky Meadows State Park
Historic Area. Journey back in time and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells of a Civil War Encampment during the holidays. Interact with the 10th VA Infantry, also known as the Valley Guards,[...]
1:00 pm The Nutcracker @ Skyline High School
The Nutcracker @ Skyline High School
Dec 16 @ 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm
The Nutcracker @ Skyline High School
Italia Performing Arts is pleased to announce its own student production of The Nutcracker, a Christmas classic to be enjoyed by the whole family! When: Saturday, December 16th at 1:00 PM and 5:00 PM Where:[...]
10:00 am 10th Virginia Infantry Encampment @ Sky Meadows State Park
10th Virginia Infantry Encampment @ Sky Meadows State Park
Dec 17 @ 10:00 am – 2:00 pm
10th Virginia Infantry Encampment @ Sky Meadows State Park
Historic Area. Journey back in time and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells of a Civil War Encampment during the holidays. Interact with the 10th VA Infantry, also known as the Valley Guards,[...]