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COVID-19 Complications, Confederate Monuments, and Trump Tweets: Political Analysis for Friday, July 31, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Schapiro with a microphone between the two.

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins VPM news host Benjamin Dolle for this week's political analysis. Topics include reimposed restrictions for the Hampton Roads area and debate over an eviction moratorium amid the pandemic, the ongoing battle over Confederate monuments in Richmond, and reaction to a tweet by President Donald Trump about delaying the November election.

Benjamin Dolle:  From VPM news in Richmond, I'm Benjamin Dolle.  Joining me now is Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist and VPM’s political expert, Jeff Schapiro.  Jeff, good morning.

Jeff Schapiro:  Good morning, Ben.

Dolle:  Well Jeff, COVID-19 continues to shape policy and politics in Virginia where beach resorts are facing renewed restrictions.  And the Virginia Supreme Court is being asked for another moratorium on evictions.  How's that shaking out?

Schapiro:  Our governor, Ralph Northam, is smack-dab in the middle of both.  He announced that because of a spike in infections in Hampton Roads, this is his home of course, that he is ordering that bars, in effect, be closed, that restaurants operate at only 50% capacity, and that no more than 50 people can gather indoors or outdoors at one time.  You know, Hampton Roads along with the rest of the state had seen an easing of restrictions, but in the eastern half of the state, which includes Virginia Beach, the big resort city, we've been seeing double-digit increases in positive test results.  So, Hampton Roads is again on lockdown, and this is clearly a blow to the tourist economy there.  The tourist economy, along with military spending, and traffic through that great natural port, are the three legs of the Hampton Roads economy.  As for the supreme court, Northam has turned to it, asking for direction, for an order actually, to the local courts to back off on evictions again, this time until early September.  The first moratorium, you may remember, ran from April through June.  The governor says that renters, particularly those who are out of work because of the pandemic, need help.  Now, this will also give the legislature an opportunity when it returns in mid-August to come up with some type of renters’ relief program.  And, the governor is also steering a big piece of cash to local government, about $670 million.  These are federal COVID relief funds.  They will be going to county and city governments, and it will be a source of some relief, some short-term relief.  Local government is seeing its budgets, like those of the states, full of holes.  You know, the economic collapse attributed to the pandemic is just cutting deeply into tax revenue.

Dolle:  And here in Richmond, they've cleared Robert E. Lee from the state Capitol, but his statue still stands on Monument Avenue.  How much longer could be decided soon by a Richmond judge.

Schapiro:  Yes, last Thursday under cover of darkness on orders of the Speaker of the House, Eileen Filler-Corn, private contractors pulled down that statue of Lee.  It was standing in the old House Chamber.  Gone, as well, the busts of seven Confederate leaders.  Now this old House Chamber, because I guess depending on one's perspective, you know, is either a shrine to, you know, the Old South, simply a museum of the Confederacy and Richmond's role as its capital, or maybe a menacing reminder that the Civil War was really all about slavery.  Now, the Speaker, the Majority Leader of the House, Dick Saslaw and Governor Northam are going to have to make some decisions about some of the other Confederate icons at the Capitol and reminders, as well, of Virginia's segregationist past.  You know, there's this statue of Harry Byrd.  You know, he fought desegregation by supporting the closing of schools, but as governor, you know, also modernized Virginia's government.  And there's a portrait, too, of Mills Godwin, the only governor twice elected by the people.  As a legislator, he favored closing schools rather than desegregate, but as a governor, he put in place the sales tax, which, you know, helps keep schools open.  So, the complexities and nuances of Virginia history are very much on display at the Capitol, and this is something that the politicians are going to have to address.  As for Lee on Monument Avenue, a circuit court judge, W. Reilly Marchant, heard arguments in the first of two cases that would block the state from removing Lee.  Governor Northam had ordered Lee taken down.  Remember, it is state property.  The judge could have a ruling today, Friday.  But the injunction that was put in place by another judge, blocking Lee's removal, could remain in place until that second suit is heard.  And, of course, this matter could end up before the Virginia Supreme Court.  The Lee monument, certainly since the death of George Floyd, of course that death at the hands of police triggering this vast national push for racial equity, the Lee monument has become something of a reconciliation symbol, with that colorful coat of graffiti.  And this week, projected above Lee, was a hologram of Floyd.  Floyd's family, or some of Floyd's relatives, were in attendance for that.  They said that they loved it, and that George Floyd would too.  But that moment of harmony stands in contrast with last weekend's burst of street violence.  Law enforcement and the city's mayor, Levar Stoney, are saying that these disturbances fall to far-right agitators, however, they're not offering any substantive evidence to support that claim.  Remember, of course, Stoney is running for reelection.  He's trying to walk a very tight line between demonstrators and residents who have had it with the unrest and the vandalism.  Another reminder of the political filter through which Stoney is viewing all of these things, he announced a $50 million monument to black slaves that would go up in Shockoe Bottom, where there once was a vast slave market.  But we're hearing from some Republicans that this is inconsistent on the mayor's part.  How could one fully tell Richmond's story by erecting a tribute to the enslaved, but removing reminders of those who fought to preserve slavery.

Dolle:  And President Trump is still the gift that keeps on giving for Virginia Democrats.  He did it again yesterday with a tweet suggesting the election should be delayed, because he claims that voting by mail means fraud at the polls.

Schapiro:  You know, every year since Trump was elected, Democrats have scored big gains, largely because of a big protest vote in this increasingly blue state against the president.  There was a statewide sweep in 2017.  The Democrats have taken back the legislature.  They now have the majority in the state's congressional delegation.  Virginia, of course rejected Trump in 2016 and is likely to do so again this year.  Now the governor had some fun with Trump's latest tweet, saying that it's another sign that he's, and these are Northam's words, that he's “lost touch with reality”.  Now, this slam did not go unanswered by Republicans.  The House Minority Leader, Todd Gilbert went after the governor, noting that Northam on his own because of the pandemic rescheduled the primaries in June and tried to push local elections from May to November.  So, sauce for the Republican elephant is sauce for the Democrat donkey.

Dolle:  Alright, thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Jeff, we’ll see you again next week.

Schapiro:  Stay safe.