Democrats won, but now Virginia GND backers need support beyond the progressive vacuum.
“The phone’s ringing off the hook,” said Lee Williams, co-chair of the Green New Deal Virginia coalition and a member of the Sierra Club, Virginia Chapter. “Everyone’s trying to figure out how the Green New Deal’s gonna fit into this new political landscape,” she said.
Last week, Del. Sam Rasoul pre-filed The Green New Deal Act, HB 77, for the 2020 session of the Virginia House of Delegates. It’s a big bill that includes measures like mandates for clean energy, labor protections, job training programs, and moratoriums on certain fossil fuel projects.
It’s also a reminder that winning doesn’t guarantee everyone gets along and everything gets done right away.
Democrats will have control of the full government in Virginia for the first time in a generation in January. The newly elected caucuses in the state House and Senate are expected to move quickly on issues like ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment and passing gun safety legislation. But other issues of top priority for some Democrats, like the Green New Deal, won’t come as easily.
An earlier version of the Virginia GND first appeared last winter, but the buzz didn’t pick up until the spring, when organizers convened at a 2-day conference that brought lawmakers, advocates, and dozens of organizations under the same roof to form the contours of the bill introduced last week.
Then, as races for all 140 seats of the General Assembly kicked into high gear, the Virginia Beach shooting happened and gun policy became the top issue for voters. Healthcare and education issues took center stage, too
“The election season took a lot of air out of the room,” Williams said, with regards to the GND coalition. “But we’re all starting to come back and work together and getting in lockstep on trying to figure out how we can not compromise on the demands that we’ve been making for years.”
Over the 2020 General Assembly session, Williams expects centrist Democrats will try to pass “softball” bills on issues of equity and climate “that don’t have the target dates needed to actually respond with the urgency that the climate crisis demands and our equity issues demand.”
As a simple example of the disconnect within the party, many Democrats and activists have lauded Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposal to transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy by 2050. But some GND advocates prefer a quicker transition. As Del. Ibraheem Samirah said in an interview, “by 2030, not 2050.”
With majorities in both chambers and a pile of legislation that enjoys broad support, like gun safety bills, there is a lot of “low-hanging fruit,” waiting for the majority party in 2020, Williams said.
While Williams said those initiatives are important, she made clear they “cannot be seen as the ultimate goal of the 2020 legislative session … that needs to be the starting point of what we expect from our elected officials.”
Leadership recently elected in the House of Delegates consists of “mostly centrist Democrats,” said Chris Le Menestrel, co-leader of VA Democracy Forward, which is a member of the Virginia GND coalition.
“There are real concerns that they won’t be aligned with the grassroots and advocacy organizations which worked hard getting the majority, and with the new generation of 2017/2019 recently elected Democrats.”
To that end, Virginia Grassroots, a separate coalition of Virginia advocacy groups that includes many of the same organizations backing the GND, sent a letter to House Speaker-elect Eileen Filler-Corn late last month. The letter serves as a “clear reset of expectations,” Le Menestrel said.
The GND would also have to clear the Senate, which will be led by Majority Leader-elect Dick Saslaw, whose age and moderate politics could clash with the parties’ younger, more progressive flank.
The Senate is not necessarily a dead-end for the GND, though. At a town hall yesterday, state Sen. Creigh Deeds said the 2020 General Assembly will have new opportunities to discuss topics that weren’t given “due diligence” in the past, when Republicans were in control.
In an email, Deeds called the GND complex and expensive, but said that he thinks “components of the bill could be seriously considered” in the Senate.
“Its goals are important, there may be differing ideas about how to achieve those goals,” Deeds said.
The GND was popularized by the national youth-led Sunrise Movement, which has been involved in the Virginia ground game from the start. It mirrors legislation that passed the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year, and a bill that became law in New York State. But organizers want to make clear that the Virginia version is uniquely Virginian.
“The major focus of the Green New Deal, Virginia, was to be developed by the people and to be powered by the people,” said Karen Campblin, who co-chairs the GND Virginia coalition with Williams.
The coalition includes dozens of Virginia-based advocacy groups like the Sierra Club, Virginia Chapter, and the NAACP Virginia state conference as well as small businesses like Ellwood Thompson’s grocery in Richmond and Apple Ridge Farm in Roanoke. Together, the coalition has collaborated with lawmakers, including Del. Rasoul’s office, to craft and build support for the GND Virginia for over a year.
Despite their efforts, some critics denounce the GND as wishful thinking. Campblin retorts that argument, and said it’s not overly ambitious legislation. “We looked at a very multi-year approach … We tried to be very realistic in what we were asking,” she said.
Nationwide, the federal-version of the GND is popular among voters.
In Virginia, “when you describe to people that the goal of the GND is to create jobs, to create an economy that is sustainable for many generations to come — I have a hard time believing that a majority of Virginians are against such a proposal,” Samirah said.
Ultimately, to move forward, the Virginia GND needs to move outside the progressive vacuum in which it was conceived.
Though the GND was founded by “people who are considered progressive, politically, this is a goal that will ultimately serve everybody … especially rural communities,” Samirah said.
But consensus-building never comes quick or easy, he conceded.
Campblin echoed those remarks: “It’s a multi-phase project and 2020 is not the end of it — it’s just the beginning.”