RICHMOND, Va. - What's wrong with this picture: Democrats leaping to their feet to give Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell a standing ovation. The ACLU praising him. Tough-on-crime GOP legislators denouncing perhaps the most significant criminal justice initiative of the final year of his term.
Welcome to Virginia's version of Bizarro World _ the 2013 General Assembly.
McDonnell opened the session by advocating legislation that would allow nonviolent felons to regain their civil rights, including the right to vote, once they finish their sentences. By doing so, he co-opted a perennial Democratic issue and clashed with conservative Republicans bent on preserving their law-and-order credentials in an election year.
"I don't agree with that approach," Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle and a candidate for the GOP nomination for attorney general, said minutes after McDonnell made his surprise announcement in his annual State of the Commonwealth speech. "The current system allows an individual review. If someone has gone straight and gotten their life in order, they can get their rights restored."
Virginia and Kentucky are the only two states that permanently strip felons of their rights to vote, serve on a jury, hold public office and serve as a notary public. In Virginia, the power to restore those rights lies solely with the governor.
McDonnell has made good on his promise to accelerate the process, setting a nonbinding 60-day deadline for administration officials to act on petitions. As a result, he has restored the rights of more than 4,400 felons _ eclipsing the previous high mark set by his predecessor, Democrat Tim Kaine.
According to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group that advocates for sentencing reform and alternatives to prison, about 350,000 Virginia felons who have completed their sentences are barred from voting. That's second only to Florida's 1.3 million.
Despite the governor's efforts on this issue, Democrats were surprised by his plea that they support a proposed constitutional amendment to make restoration of rights even easier.
"I was shocked," said Del. Charnielle Herring of Alexandria, the state Democratic Party chairman who was among the first to stand and cheer McDonnell's announcement Wednesday night. "I knew this was an important issue to him personally, but I did not see that coming."
She and other Democrats noted that automatic restoration of rights was long championed by state Sen. Yvonne Miller, D-Norfolk, who died last year.
"She would have been pleased to see the governor putting his weight behind it," Herring said.
Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, suggested the legislation should be named "The Yvonne B. Miller Voter Restoration Act."
McEachin said in an interview that McDonnell "has done magnificent work on restoring rights." He said he was excited the governor supports the change.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has butted heads with McDonnell over women's reproductive rights and a host of other matters, joined in the praise.
"Governor McDonnell deserves credit for the efforts that he has already made to increase the number of felons who have had their rights restored and praise for becoming an advocate for reform of Virginia's antiquated law denying for life felons' civil rights," said Claire G. Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.
But Virginia governors, who are constitutionally barred from seeking re- election, typically lose clout in the final year of their term. Combine that with the fact that all 100 House of Delegates seats are up for election in November, and the proposal's approval is far from certain.
"We think it will pass the Senate," said Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who supports the proposal and has the power to cast tie-breaking votes in the evenly divided, 40-member chamber. "The question is will we be able to get it through the House of Delegates."
Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William, described his first reaction to the idea as "chilly."
"My big concern is drug crimes," he said. "People's lives are destroyed by the drug trade. There are consequences to being an offender."
Under Virginia law, crimes considered nonviolent include DUI manslaughter, extortion, child abuse, selling drugs to children and abusing the mentally ill. Bell said he has concerns about restoring rights to people convicted of those crimes without individually reviewing the cases.
Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, supports easier restoration of rights only for offenders who committed what he calls "lower-level" nonviolent felonies _ many of which were once misdemeanors.
He wrote in an email that "we ought to make it easier for those who have committed certain nonviolent offenses and served their punishment to regain their place in society."
Even if the General Assembly approves a change, it is just the first step. Constitutional amendments must be approved in two separate legislative sessions, with a House of Delegates election in between, so another vote would be required in 2014. Then the matter would go to the voters for approval.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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