WASHINGTON — Virginia delegates have begun hashing out how an evenly split House of Delegates could be run and who might serve as speaker, even as the final balance of power following the Nov. 7 elections remains unclear.
A random drawing of names from a bowl, which had been scheduled to decide a tied Newport News race — and control of the House — Wednesday was postponed after Democrat Shelly Simonds asked a three-judge recount court to reconsider accepting a ballot for Republican Del. David Yancey that led to the tie result. If Simonds wins the race in the end, the House of Delegates would be split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.
The court has not indicated when it might rule on that request, or whether it will schedule a hearing before ruling, but the General Assembly convenes Jan. 10.
Fifty votes would only be enough to take control or pass party-line legislation if one delegate from the other party is not present for the key votes — something Republicans in the State Senate took advantage of in 2013 to pass a redistricting bill when a Democratic senator was in Washington for President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Other routes to a majority that have been used before in Virginia include convincing a member of the opposite party to switch sides or leave the General Assembly for a full-time government job often appointed by the governor. Incoming Governor Ralph Northam has suggested he has no plans to do that.
With no certain majority, preliminary discussions over possible power sharing had occurred even before the recount in the 94th District, Democratic leader Del. David Toscano said.
“The question really comes as to what do you do with the powers of the speaker and how do you allocate them across the parties,” Toscano said.
Del. Kirk Cox, who had been describing himself as “Speaker-designee,” given the Republicans’ 66-34 majority before Nov. 7, was instead described, in a statement from his office after Simonds initially appeared to win the recount by one vote last week, as simply one of the House’s “Republican leaders.”
The GOP tried to show some open arms in that statement, but acknowledged that their complete power in the House of the last 17 years had appeared to slip away.
“We stand ready to establish a bipartisan framework under which the House can operate efficiently and effectively over the next two years,” the GOP leaders said. “As we have said for the last six weeks, we are committed to leading and governing alongside our colleagues.”
Democrats still hold out slim hope that a federal judge might order a new election in the 28th District in parts of Stafford and Fredericksburg due to 147 voters who cast ballots in the wrong races in that area. Reversing Republican Bob Thomas’s 73-vote win there would give Democrats a chance at a majority, but Democrat Joshua Cole decided not to press the issue in the House of Delegates for fear it could backfire. The next hearing in that federal lawsuit is scheduled next week.
Republican House Speaker Bill Howell chose to retire this year from that 28th District seat.
The speaker appoints delegates to boards and committees and traditionally has significant power over the fate of bills. The speaker does not have the power to break a 50-50 tie though. Instead, the bill is considered to be voted down.
“I don’t think the emphasis should be so much on who actually holds the gavel up there at the dais, but rather how do we share the power in a way that’s going to be equitable based on the numbers of delegates we have in the chamber,” Toscano said. “There’s going to be some accommodations that need to be made on both sides to get the business of the House done [in the event of a 50-50 split].”
First, the House must approve rules for the two-year session and elect a speaker — each of which requires a majority vote. Any rules on power sharing could cover what would happen if special elections or other changes shift power to 51-49 or 52-48 over the two-year term, Toscano said.
Besides Toscano, Del. Ken Plum, a Democrat from Reston who first served in the House in 1978, has been floated as a possible new House Speaker from that side of the aisle in the event of an even split.
“If you can’t get more than 50 votes, you can’t pass the rules, and therefore cannot run the place. So we’re going to have to figure out what rules we can all agree on so we can get 100 votes for the rules, and we’re going to have to figure out what powers are going to be allocated across both parties that the speaker has traditionally occupied,” Toscano said.