During the 2023 General Assembly in Richmond, Dogwood caught up with Virginia’s youngest lawmaker to learn more about what happened in the legislative session and to learn more about his most essential priorities.
During his “day job,” Del. Nadarius Clark works as a mental health counselor, and he sees serving in the General Assembly as a “blessing” for him, given his age and background.
“I love being able to bring high schoolers and middle schoolers and elementary schoolers up here and just really be that voice for young people. That starts by communicating with them and meeting them where they are and getting to know them and their issues firsthand to make sure that they do have a voice.”
He enjoys being a youth advocate, as well as bridging the gap between the different generations such as the boomers and millennials, even in the face of some ageism in the General Assembly.
“Those are real nuances that exist in this body, and it’s something that people will just have to adjust to and get used to, because having young people here is the new thing.”
To Del. Clark, this year’s General Assembly session was described as “very eventful” and fraught with “petty politics” – not atypical during an election year.
During the 2023 General Assembly, Clark and his Democratic colleagues focused on issues that would make life in the commonwealth a little better: issues like affordable housing, mental health, and medical debt. Lawmakers also focused on issues that garnered more attention across the state (and country) like Virginia’s public education system, as well as reproductive rights and women’s health.
For Clark’s constituents, affordable housing was one of the topics he heard more about in a post-pandemic world.
“Last year, we carried a bill for rent stabilization. This year, we got more progress done with that…We did have localities that were supporting it this time around, and we had a lot of stakeholders involved. It’s a bigger need that we see and there’s more support coming along,” he said.
Clark hopes that the General Assembly will be in a better position to get legislation around issues like rent stabilization passed in next year’s session.
Earlier this year, Clark gave a powerful speech on the House floor where he discussed gun safety in the wake of a recent shooting in Newport News.
“Sadly, in our reality right now, with the current state of who’s in the majority and minority, I don’t see commonsense gun legislation moving forward,” he said, adding “We’re still going to continue to fight for it and push it forward.”
A member of the Public Safety Subcommittee, his experience in those meetings had him feeling a little bit of despair for how things ended up in the House and for Republicans’ clear reluctance when it comes to passing new gun safety laws.
“I [saw] there’s no appetite for this on the other side; they have continued to constantly do nothing around this issue. We had great common sense [gun] laws, like mandatory safety training when you buy a firearm, or if you have a minor in your house and you need to have some type of way to properly secure simple things; that is not infringing on your rights, but making sure that we are responding to what we are seeing every day here.”
While the General Assembly was engaging in a debate about gun laws, a shooting took place literally simultaneously on nearby Broad Street in broad daylight.
“This is something that’s getting out of hand, even in Chesapeake; we had the Walmart shooting on top of the six-year-old in Newport News taking a gun to school. It’s an important move,” Clark said of Democrats’ gun safety proposals. “This is something I want to continue to fight about and hold the other side accountable for their lack of accountability to have action.”
In this year’s session, legislation allowing guns in more places, including at public rest areas and rest stops, passed through the GOP-controlled House but was stopped by the Virginia Senate Democrats’ “brick wall.”
Clark understands that people have a right to support the Second Amendment; he has a conceal-carry permit himself and owns multiple guns.
“A lot of the times the pushback is [because] we’re scared of guns, and we don’t understand guns, and that’s not true. Many members on [our] side of the aisle are gun owners and have their concealed carry license. We support the Second Amendment, but we also understand that something needs to be done for public safety,” he said.
The State of Education
Education was one of the hottest topics in this year’s session, especially when a miscalculation by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Department of Education blew a $201 million hole in school budgets all across the commonwealth. Clark says that this funding shortfall will have a huge impact on what can get done, which is all the more frustrating because it was avoidable.
“We’re already burdened with teacher workforce and retention and other issues that we’re facing now, when there were flags raised last year to make sure we were doing things right; money affects schools. All of these alarms were sounded” even before the Youngkin administration disclosed the school funding calculation error to the legislature.
Clark also believes that there should be more mental health counselors in school,an issue he’s pushed for years.
“We understand that [schools] have their guidance counselors and other things, but we really need a mental health professional there because the guidance counselors are already burdened with so much that they have to take on; we need a designated mental health counselor there.”
The Next Generation
Despite being the youngest lawmaker in Virginia’s General Assembly this year, Del. Clark, a “cusper” straddling the line between Millenials and Gen Z, believes that younger lawmakers will help bring change and a new perspective to their older colleagues.
“They will definitely bring a different perspective [to the General Assembly] because they are living in a different day and time and going through some things that I didn’t experience in high school,” he said, noting that he’s only ten years out of high school.
“I didn’t have to do the shooting drills when I was in high school; that was something that came after me. Even when I meet with students here, and they tell me about how they lost their friends, or their father, a loved one [to gun violence], or how they don’t feel safe in school just by doing these drills.”
He said Virginia could use more mental health resources, because kids today are “being programmed to be desensitized.
“We don’t know who’s going to bring a gun today; all we can do is prepare and hide in a corner in a classroom or something. Mentally, that is hurting our children right now. I think it will take for that generation to become members of this body to start enacting some change, because they will have that [lived] experience as well.
His Message To Young Virginians
“Sometimes we are so deterred from voting because of so much of the misinformation and disinformation that’s out here, that it can be a turn off to get involved,” Clark continued. “What will get you involved? What issues will you care about?”
In Virginia, there’s an election every year, and Clark understands that “voter fatigue is real” and that lawmakers have to meet people where they are and find out what’s important to them.
Clark wants people to know that when he first ran for office, his goal was to make sure that there was meaningful representation for his constituents and that they had a delegate who reflects the community they’re representing.
When Clark first ran for office, he was disgusted by the lack of sense of community demonstrated by the then-incumbent member of the House of Delegates. Instead, he decided to run to bring a voice that had been missing to the General Assembly.
“I said, ‘The time is now, let’s go for it. Let’s hold people accountable.’”
In that first run for office, Clark sought to represent a district with many people of color, with the goal of uplifting the voices of communities that often went unheard. He went door-to-door to meet people and discuss local issues with voters.
“So many people were like, ‘Who’s my delegate? You’re the first person who talked to me and came to my house.’ It was like a breath of fresh air when we got out there. It just took off like a wildfire. We got a lot of support, and the community stepped up for us. And I’m thankful for it, because that’s how I got here today.
Though his move to a new Hampton Roads neighborhood required him to resign his current seat, Clark looks forward to lifting up the voices of his new community in his campaign to represent House District 84, which is made up of the city of Franklin, parts of the city of Suffolk and Isle of Wight County, and a sliver of Chesapeake.
After a 28-day lawmaking sprint, the Virginia General Assembly will be convening again in just a couple of short weeks for a veto session. The legislature will be without one of its youngest members for the one-day veto session, although this lawmaker aims to rejoin the state House again this fall.