About 70 community members gathered on Sunday for a mid-session legislative review hosted by Delegate Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, at the Charlottesville downtown Cityspace. Hudson, who is also an assistant professor of Public Policy, Education and Economics in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, spent the evening responding to questions from audience members about various pieces of legislation that are currently moving through the General Assembly and how they will affect the Charlottesville community.
Hudson recognized the timeliness of hosting such an event in light of crossover day occurring Tuesday — the day all bills must be voted on by the House and the Senate and will then swap chambers to be voted on again. If both chambers pass versions of the same bill, members from the House and the Senate will come together in conference committee to produce an agreed upon proposal that will then be presented as a bill to both chambers for ratification.
A segment of the night’s conversation centered on two bills that recently passed through the House and the Senate Friday regarding local authority over war memorials.
The House bill, HB-1625, states that localities should have authority to remove, relocate or alter any war memorial on public property. The Senate bill, SB-620, would require communities to go through a historical review process and offer the memorial up for removal to local museums, historical centers or other provisions.
Hudson voiced her support for the House bill, recognizing the steps the Charlottesville community has already taken in the push to remove the war memorials for Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
“I mean, we've been at this for three years plus at this point, and we've already jumped through all of the hoops that are specified there,” Hudson said. “And so the challenge for us going forward is trying to make those two paths converge.”
One community member voiced concerns that removing the monuments would erase Charlottesville history. Hudson responded by affirming her stance that the statues do not represent the historical values of the community.
“There's a difference between honoring the deaths of the rank and file soldiers and exalting the leaders of a movement, and that's what the statues in our community do,” Hudson said. “I think it's important that communities have the right to decide what we celebrate.”
The legislation will not have an effect on the George Rogers Clark statue that has been a center of controversy on Grounds and was most recently vandalized in November 2019.
Kiera Goddu, a third-year College student and president of University Democrats, attended the session and expressed her doubts that the legislation will influence University decisions regarding the statue.
“The bill may give students and community members more leverage in negotiations with the University, but the reality is that U.Va. has been doing next to nothing about this issue, despite having more latitude to remove and recontextualize statues on its own property than the City of Charlottesville given the Dillon Rule,” Goddu said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.
Dillon’s Rule currently restricts the power of localities by only granting them specific authorities given by the local government. The rule has been the major barrier in Charlottesville activists’ attempts to remove war memorials.
Hudson also answered questions on gun legislation, noting that seven bills have already passed regarding gun reform, including universal background checks before all gun sales and local control over firearm regulations.
A final bill, HB-961, concerning gun reform passed Tuesday in the House. The bill bans the sale and transport of assault weapons in Virginia and requires all current owners of assault weapons to obtain a permit from the Virginia State Police. The bill will now cross over to the Senate floor, where a similar bill regarding bans on assault weapons died in the committee in January.
The movement of these bills through both House and Senate sparked the pro-gun rally Jan. 20, an event in which 22,000 demonstrators descended on Richmond in protest against gun restrictions.
Hudson voiced her concerns about the safety of the Richmond community and surrounding neighborhoods during the rally. She related the feeling of fear Richmond lawmakers must have experienced to the emotions felt by the Charlottesville community during — and following — the acts of violence committed during the Unite the Right rallies of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017.
“I think one of the most important things that came out of that conversation was it was the first time that a lot of my colleagues had that ability to experience that feeling in your stomach that we've been feeling here for three years now,” Hudson said. “I think that that helped that elevate the conversation around the war memorials.”
Additionally, Hudson responded to a community member’s question concerning the decriminalization of marijuana. The bill, HB-972, passed in the House Monday, and the Senate version, SB-2, passed Tuesday. The bills will move forward to the conference committee to be amended, before being presented to Gov. Northam for approval.
Decriminalization means that offenders of the law that bans recreational marijuana in Virginia would now face a fine instead of jail time. However, when an offender no longer faces jail time for a crime, they are no longer entitled to an attorney. Hudson expressed her unease with this policy as she feels its disproportionately benefits the upper class and hinders communities of color.
“If you are concerned about law enforcement being able to stop someone because they smelled pot, which may have nothing to do with an odor and have everything to do with profiling, then you could then be subject to a fine, and you would not be entitled to have counsel help you get out of that,” Hudson said.
For this reason, Hudson voiced her support for the drug’s legalization. However, the process to legalize marijuana is a lengthy one as legislatures must look into regulations regarding the selling of the drug and presence of the medical marijuana industry. Therefore, a legalization bill will not be voted on during this upcoming cycle.
Goddu commented on how the passing of the decriminalization bill, if approved, could affect U.Va. policy and agreed with Hudson’s concern about the protection of marginalized communities.
“The University could continue to ban marijuana from University housing and buildings even if it were decriminalized,” Goddu said. “Decriminalization does not do enough to protect low-income communities and communities of color that have already been targeted by drug enforcement and could still be at risk of prosecution for possession fines under decriminalization.
This article has been updated with additional information.