WASHINGTON — The Equal Rights Amendment, a Republican bill to force local governments to do more to help federal immigration officials and the ongoing concerns about admissions the governor and attorney general have worn blackface combined Tuesday to spark particularly sharp fights on Virginia’s House floor.
“If our friends in the Democratic caucus want to talk about racism, they need to clean up their own house first, and we’re waiting for you to do that,” Republican Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said, to some “oohs” in the chamber.
The issues facing the state’s top leaders, and others including Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, who was linked to a yearbook at the Virginia Military Institute with blackface photos and numerous slurs, had largely been referred to on the floor only through allusions or euphemisms up to this point.
Del. Sam Rasoul, for example, a Democrat, talked Tuesday about “recent events” that showed wounds that appeared to be scabbed over have not fully healed, as he raised concerns about pipeline construction in a historically black community.
Gilbert was responding to Democratic challenges to a bill, expected to be vetoed, that would require additional cooperation between local governments and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It passed along party lines.
“It requires a locality to choose between complying with an ICE detainer or unlawfully detaining someone past their release date,” Arlington Democrat Alfonso Lopez said. “It will drain money from our localities and send the worst kind of message about Virginia.”
Gilbert bristled at Lopez’s statement the bill was about “dog whistle” politics.
“For the last week, we have heard by implication suggestions that we are racist in some respect or another, and I am tired of it,” Gilbert said.
Since Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted wearing blackface in college in the 1980s, several lawmakers have more explicitly called out what they see are disparate impacts of policies on minority and low-income groups. That included part of the fight over a significant tax bill that has now been signed into law.
The issue has also been raised as part of the debate over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would provide in the U.S. Constitution a guarantee of equality under the law based on sex.
While several Republicans in the state Senate joined Democrats to back ratification, Republican opponents in the House of Delegates kept it from reaching the House floor.
“Another barrier is put up to prevent women from achieving full equality under the law,” House Democratic leader Eileen Filler-Corn said.
Democrats are attempting to change House rules to force a vote on the ERA by the end of the week. A vote on the House rules changes is expected Thursday.
“I can think of no better time for justice than right now,” Del. Lee Carter said.
Opponents such as Del. Chris Collins argue equality is already the law, and the new amendment could be used to support abortion rights.
“This is not about equality,” Collins said. “The Equal Rights Amendment will be used to eliminate those bipartisan protections that we have put into place.”
Virginia would be the 38th state to ratify the amendment, the last one needed to make it law, but legal challenges are expected if the amendment is ratified since it is far beyond the deadline for ratification set by Congress.
The ERA is far from the only bill that appeared to have majority support apparently killed in the House that was a priority for Democrats — protections for LGBTQ people against discrimination also got stuck there.
Not all bills are as contentious, though.
The Senate gave final approval Tuesday to a bill allowing food trucks to cross city or county lines without needing additional licenses, and to a bill requiring pets have shade in the heat and some type of shelter in the cold. The bill also added some safety requirements for animals tied to a post or tree.
The House unanimously gave final approval to a bill barring registered sex offenders from driving certain taxicabs in Virginia. That bill originally proposed including a ban on serving as a driver of other vehicles that carry riders as well, including Uber or Lyft, but that portion was removed through amendments.
No hearings, impeachment for leaders
The verbal back and forth is as close as lawmakers are going to come to addressing the issues facing the state’s top leaders, with the session ending by Saturday night.
General Assembly leaders have been skeptical of any rush to legislative action or hearings about any of the state’s leaders, even as the two women accusing Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of separate sexual assaults 15 to 20 years ago ask for a public hearing.
Virginia House Democrats confirmed Tuesday afternoon they want to let law enforcement take the lead on the accusation against Fairfax tied to a 2004 encounter, even as they maintain their call for him to resign.
Republican leaders have expressed similar views against any rush to action.
There have been no similar calls for hearings about Northam or Herring.
Northam is facing many calls to resign, but plans some type of listening or apology tour over the next few weeks.
Herring issued an apology before any photo came out, and has been generally given more leeway.
Northam and Fairfax have said they have no plans to resign. Herring has maintained an even lower profile the last two weeks than Northam, but put out a statement as he joined a lawsuit Monday against the Trump administration’s declaration of a national emergency over a border wall.
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