ASCH: Despite gains in the legislature, Virginia Democrats have to be cautious

It’s important Democratic legislators fight for progressive values without over-exaggerating their mandate


It is essential for Democrats and the Northam administration to be realistic in terms of what they can accomplish, so eventually these policies can become reality.

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

2017 has been a landmark year for Virginia Democrats. In the 2017 general election, Virginia Democrats, along with electing Gov. Ralph Northam (D), enjoyed stunning gains in the House of Delegates, and were agonizingly close to becoming the majority party. Unfortunately, the Republicans’ slim majority in the House will remain due to the results of a random drawing in the 94th District, where Del. David Yancey (R) was declared the winner over Shelly Simmonds. Remaining in the minority makes it nearly impossible to pass some of the progressive legislation that would be beneficial for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Northam have released a plan with a number of wide-ranging proposals from strengthening background checks on gun sales to expanding Medicaid. While it is important that our elected officials bring to the forefront issues that are important to progressive voters, they should be cautious. Many of these newly elected Democratic delegates won by slim margins and face tough reelection races in 2019. It is essential that Democrats balance their progressive priorities with pragmatism, ensuring that they are actually making progress for the constituents who propelled them to office.

Calling for pragmatism does not imply advocating for Democrats to abandon their agenda. The Democrats’ gains in the Commonwealth make it clear that their policies are winning ideas for a large number of Virginians. Democrats should continue to advocate for policies like Medicaid expansion, climate change legislation and reproductive rights. They should especially move to promote policies which will help working families, such as raising the minimum wage, reforming higher education by making community colleges free and expanding paid family leave. These are policies which would do an incredible amount of good for Virginia, but it seems unlikely that many of these proposals will see the light of day, especially with House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox (R) saying Republicans will be a check on an “extreme liberal agenda.” It is essential for Democrats to be realistic in terms of what they can accomplish, so eventually these policies can become reality. 

Given that Republicans are still in the majority, I expect Democrats will be on the defensive instead of being advocates for progressive priorities. Historically, Republicans in the House of Delegates have attempted to pass many bills which threaten the diverse coalition that propelled Democrats to victory. These include socially conservative bills which seek to restrict abortion rights, defund Planned Parenthood and legalize discrimination against LGBTQ Virginians. In addition, legislation attempting to dismantle the already-weak gun laws in Virginia should be prevented at all costs. McAuliffe spent much of his tenure protecting these laws through vetoes, and I expect Democrats will have to follow suit. The reality of what previous Republican legislatures have attempted to pass should make it clear Democrats have their work cut out for them if they want to faithfully represent their constituents. 

That being said, there’s no reason why the new legislative session cannot be productive. There are several areas where compromise could be made between Republicans and Democrats. Important issues which could draw bipartisan agreements include tackling the opioid crisis, dedicating more resources to repair infrastructure, increasing college affordability and dealing with the effects of climate change in areas like Norfolk. Democrats should also help pass a version of Republican Gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie’s proposal to slash licensing fees for workers seeking to gain a credential and eventually gain employment in a new field. Ensuring the progress is made in theses issues would not mean rolling over on important progressive issues, but effectively legislating so that Virginians can see real improvements in their lives. 

Essentially, we need a legislature which will continue to fight for liberal values, while also making positive changes in Virginians’ lives. This is a careful balance Democrats strike when the new legislative session starts. Though it is tempting to be optimistic about all the changes which can be made in Virginia after the Democrats’ impressive electoral victory, it is important they are not blinded by idealism. Unfortunately, there is a limit to what can be achieved while in the minority, so Democrats have to legislate effectively, while simultaneously defending their values. While the Republican majority in the legislature is slim, the margin for victory for many of these delegates remained close and could be endangered by legislative grandstanding and gridlock. Compromise is necessary in order to govern effectively and it is important for Democrats to be able to balance their priorities and move Virginia forward. The last thing we need in this state is another legislative term characterized by partisan gridlock.

Jacob Asch is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He may be reached at

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