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Early Voting, the Special Session, and the Richmond Mayoral Contest: Political Analysis for Friday, September 18, 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 Editor Craig Carper for this week's political analysis. Topics include the start of early voting in the upcoming election, the special session of the General Assembly, and the race for Richmond's Mayor.

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. 

Carper:  Jeff, it’s about to start feeling like the movie Groundhog Day because for the next 45 days in Virginia it's Election Day.  That's right, 45 days of early voting begins today, and it's being encouraged because of the pandemic.

Schapiro:  So, it starts today and it continues after that, after that, after that.  And again, all of this is because of COVID-19, and it will continue up until Election Day, November 3rd, when Virginians can vote the old-fashioned way showing up in person at their precincts.  Now, the options for early voting are to:

  1. show up at the registrar's office, present identification, exercise the franchise, and away you go, or
  2. request and submit, as many Virginians have for several weeks now, an application for an absentee ballot, and those will be going in the mail today and early next week.

 Governor Northam asked the legislature to, and it accommodated him with a budget amendment, a tweak to the state's spending plan of $2 million to pay for postage for those mail absentee ballots, also to erect lockboxes where Virginians could deposit those mail absentee ballots.  It's interesting; the Republicans have been largely silent about this.  One can only assume it has to do with President Trump's baseless, fact-challenged claims that all of this early voting, whether in person or by mail, but particularly by mail, is just a way of perpetuating fraud at the polls.  But I suspect as well, Republicans recognize, at least at the statewide level, that this is not a state going their way, that Joe Biden is likely to hold this state for the Democrats at the presidential level.  Mark Warner is anticipated to win easily a third term for the U.S. Senate.  But you know, there are some sharply contested congressional races, here in the Richmond area, down in south Hampton Roads, out in the Charlottesville area.  So, the early voting, whether in person or by absentee mail ballot could be very important.  Now, the Democrats who have been giving this a huge push are also including, if you will, sort of demonstrations today on how all of this is done.  Governor Northam will be voting in person at the registrar's office in Richmond, and Senator Warner will be voting early as well.  One should note that Mark Warner and his Republican opponent, Dan Gade, will be meeting in their first debate on Wednesday, virtually out of Northern Virginia.

Carper:  And Jeff, this special legislative session that we've been in for the past month is so far special for what it hasn't accomplished.

Schapiro:  Now, the General Assembly has been at it since August 18th, and at this point it appears that the General Assembly will be at it until October.   And we should talk a little bit about the timing here.  Now the House and the Senate have separately approved some police reforms.  They're going to have to resolve some differences.  This includes banning choke holds by police, authorizing citizen oversight of police departments, and we will be seeing the House and Senate begin to work out the differences in their legislation starting next week.  But some of the more disputed proposals didn't go anywhere, and that includes, as we've discussed a number of times, legislation that would remove legal protections for police officers against lawsuits, alleging abuse, alleging racial bias.  We have seen a number of other bills not related to this post-George Floyd environment go down as well.  On COVID, for example, a business lobby was successful in killing paid sick leave for the coronavirus.  We've only seen somewhat limited protections against eviction and unpaid utility bills.  For younger Virginians, you might've been anticipating the outright legalization of cannabis - not this year.  Preston Bryant, who is a former cabinet secretary, former Republican legislator, occasionally active on Twitter, noted that all of these defeats may be a commentary on the efficiency, or maybe I would suggest the inefficiency, of one-party government, one-party government in this case being the Democratic government.  And keep in mind, we still haven't heard anything close to agreement on the issue that originally brought the legislature back to Richmond last month, and that's closing a $2.7 billion hole in the budget attributed to COVID-19.

Carper:  And Jeff, finally, the money raised for Richmond mayor suggests the campaign is a two-candidate, perhaps three-candidate affair.

Schapiro:  Yeah, the incumbent, Levar Stoney, is still ahead, and in July and August raised another $250,000.  Kim Gray is in second place; in this lap she raised about $162,000.  And Alexsis Rodgers, who was the late entry, she is in third with another $122,000.  I’d suggest that the names behind these numbers are really what's telling.  The mayor is drawing a lot of money from outside the city, and that includes Northern Virginia.  That friendship, those ties with the former governor, Terry McAuliffe, are yielding some big dollars for Stoney.  Locally, a lot of money from developers, lobbyists, as well, including those who were pushing that proposed casino that would go up in south Richmond.  They are digging deep for Stoney.  Gray has got a lot of West End Republican money, and these donors include former Congressman Tom Bliley and former member of the House of Delegates, Manoli Loupassi.  This is clearly a signal of, if you will, establishment distaste for what's going on, or not, at city hall.  Alexsis Rodgers, you know, this self-styled people's candidate, a third of her dollars, about $75,000, have come from two donors - a Charlottesville billionaire, Michael Bills, and his wife, Sonjia Smith.  I guess, you know, even billionaires have a say in politics, as we have seen.  Even Elizabeth Warren, who had very little charitable to say about billionaires, she even had a few supporting her presidential candidacy.

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

Schapiro:  Stay safe.