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Special Session, Charges for Louise Lucas, and an Investigation into Mayor Stoney: Political Analysis for Friday, August 21, 2020

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

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins VPM News Director Craig Carper for this week's political analysis. Topics include this week's special session of the General Assembly, charges against state Senator Louise Lucas in the wake of a Confederate monument being torn down, and calls for an investigation into Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney over the awarding of a statue removal contract to a campaign donor.

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

Jeff Schapiro: Hi there, Craig. We've got to stop meeting like this.

Carper: Yeah, someday. [laughing] Jeff, the General Assembly is back, called into special session by Governor Ralph Northam to balance the COVID-racked budget and to take the first steps toward police reform. Perhaps it's no surprise that the legislature quickly erupted into partisan squabbling.

Schapiro: So, we started on Tuesday with the governor who gave his budget report to the assembly, making official all the bad news that we've been hearing for weeks, if not months now. A huge hole, $2.7 billion, and we can talk about that, as well. The legislature convenes in special settings, in which the members are socially distanced - the Senate at The Science Museum of Virginia, the House at the Siegel Center, home of the VCU Rams basketball team, your alma mater, basically a free-throw shot from one venue to the other. And it was not long before procedural fusses erupted in the House and the Senate, with the Republicans suggesting that the Democrats are needlessly trying to control the narrative, maybe even leaving open the possibility of getting into lots of issues and areas that have nothing to do with COVID, the budget, and police reform. The Senate was in session for several days. That included virtual meetings of committees and in-person meetings of the Senate itself. The House was in session very briefly, then quit. It'll return to Richmond next week, though, that meeting is expected to be virtual, over the objections of Republicans. What is clear in all of this is that there is no consensus among Democrats on how to proceed on police reform and some of these steps demanded by the COVID pandemic. For example, the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, which is a fairly business-friendly though Democrat-dominated committee, killed by a lopsided vote a bill proposed by a Northern Virginia Democrat Barbara Favola that would allow paid sick leave for those recovering from COVID or who have members of their family struggling with the disease. The House is expected to consider a similar bill. The Republicans, again, out of power, really focused on COVID and police reform. They had been pushing for greater accountability by the Parole Board, arguing that the new narrative under Democratic hegemony is that violent, dangerous criminals are being cut loose. And Republicans are also demanding that in this budget-balancing plan, that money be moved around to the public schools, making it easier for them to reopen safely. This is a big talking point for the former speaker and a retired school teacher, Kirk Cox, also an all-but-official candidate for governor in 2021. And by the way, Terry McAuliffe has officially filed with the state Board of Elections to run for a second term as governor in 2021, of course as a Democrat. And Tim Hugo, the last Republican to represent Fairfax County until his defeat in 2019 has indicated he's going to be running for lieutenant governor. Back to the current governor - so Northam lays out this plan for closing this hole in the budget. He's talking about giving up, as Doug Wilder would call them, “the niceties.” That includes free community college for those Virginians performing public service. He also diverts about $500 million that was supposed to go to public schools elsewhere. It's interesting in this special session setting, particularly on police reform, Northam is not as strong a presence, as say, other governors have been. You know, Jerry Baliles was a strong presence in 1987, when the legislature was coming up with new ways to finance transportation. George Allen, a Republican in 1994, had a strong hand when the legislature convened to all but do away with parole. I suspect here Northam is trying to give himself maximum flexibility, and also given his special sensitivity on racial issues, read “blackface calamity”, he's going to be particularly aware of the concerns of black legislators.

Carper: Speaking of black legislators, one of the state's most powerful black politicians has been charged with a felony for her supposed role in the toppling of a Confederate statue in her hometown. The allegations against Senator Louise Lucas are raising a lot of questions, including whether this case has only to do with politics.

Schapiro: Now, Senator Lucas is among a “Who's Who” of community and political leaders who have been charged by the city's police chief. This includes, for example, the head of the local chapter of the NAACP. The timing of this announcement coming on the eve of the special session has aroused a considerable suspicion that perhaps this was a determined effort to generate not only maximum exposure for these allegations, but maximum embarrassment, particularly for Senator Lucas, who is the president pro tempore of the Senate. And there are all sorts of questions, as well, about the case. Lucas was nowhere near the statute when it was pulled down by protestors. The city prosecutor is not involved in the case, apparently is identified by the police chief as a witness to all of this. So, everyone in Richmond political circles, particularly in Richmond political circles, and that includes Terry McAuliffe, Democratic legislators, (by the way, Lucas is McAuliffe's campaign treasurer), they're all rallying around the Senator and say this is nothing but, you know, just a cooked-up case. Louise Lucas is a fighter, and in a city like Portsmouth, most of the time when you're fighting, you're fighting with fellow Democrats. And over the years, Louise Lucas has battled it seems with everyone - the commonwealth’s attorney, the mayor, city council. In 1991, when she was first elected to the Senate, Lucas tells this story, her enemies on city council, she was a member at the time, first black on city council, all pushed for her election to the legislature, just because they insisted they had to get her out of the way, or at least this is the story that Louise Lucas tells.

Carper: And Jeff finally, the mayoral election in Richmond is taking another wild turn with one of the candidates demanding a criminal investigation into a no-bid contract to remove Confederate monuments that was awarded to a firm tied to a $4,000 donor to Mayor Levar Stoney's campaign.

Schapiro: This candidate, of course, is Kim Gray, a member of city council. She submitted this request to Colette McEachin, the city commonwealth's attorney, earlier this week. The Times-Dispatch’s Mark Robinson has been piecing together this story, connecting the dots, if you will. The mayor's office insists nothing is wrong with this, that the mayor, Mr. Stoney, was operating under emergency conditions, given the chaos and the upheaval that we were seeing around the city. That the reason this package was put together, this $1.8 million package was put together, is because the city was going to have to bring in crews from outside Virginia to do this politically sensitive job. The administration says local firms, at least six of them turned it down, fearing reprisals and worries about the safety of staff, as well. In this crowded mayoral field, you know, there are five people who want to replace Stoney as mayor, Gray needs to make this a two-person race. And perhaps this kerfuffle over this contract is a way to do it. It sort of bundles together all of the concerns that one hears about Stoney - that he's bungled the protests, the management of the police, protection of property, that he cuts corners. He's a transactional politician, who is thinking only of running for governor one day. And certainly the unrest and COVID has changed the focus of this campaign. But, of course, it all comes back to Stoney, and as they say in politics, “you don't hire a challenger, you fire an incumbent,” and that really is Gray's challenge.

Carper: Alright, thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Jeff, we will catch up again next week.

Schapiro: Good weekend to you.

Carper: You as well.