by Dick Hall-Sizemore
I appreciate Jim Sherlock providing a positive view of two members of the General Assembly. He is right that we often dwell on the negative aspects or members of the legislature and neglect the good ones. In that vein, I am offering a supplementary list of legislators who are conscientious and smart and who work hard to advance the interests of their constituents and the Commonwealth. Taking another cue from Jim, the list is bi-partisan.
Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, is one of the longest-serving legislators, having first been elected in 1981. In fact, she is the longest-serving woman in the history of the House of Delegates. She is also the only current member who has served as a Cabinet Secretary. (She interrupted her service in the House to serve as Secretary of Transportation and Public Safety under Governor Baliles. At that time, the two areas were combined in one secretariat.) She is a true data wonk. She is well-known for her charts and graphs that she uses in floor debate. She has one of the best, if not the best, understandings of the tax code of all the members. Her focus on tax policy and her grasp of the details are evident here in her presentation of her bill reinstating the estate tax in Virginia. From my perspective, she has a tendency at times to seem like a school marm lecturing her charges. That persona has probably prevented her from advancing in party leadership roles. To her credit, however, she can be quite passionate in her defense of people who are hard- working, but less fortunate. That passion comes across in this video of her opposing the tax bill that would increase tax deductions.
Del. Robert Bell, R-Albemarle, is one of those whom I respect although I often disagree with his policy positions. He is smart and quite knowledgeable about criminal law. He is one of the most conservative members of the General Assembly concerning criminal law, but, as I know from personal experience, he is open to different ideas and perspectives. He also thrives on data. A person who has access to a large amount of crime data has told me that Bell frequently calls them with requests for data relating to specific bills and issues. Bell is most effective in committee work. Over the course of several years as I sat in on meetings that he chaired, I was impressed with his active concern that proposed legislation, with which he was sympathetic on its face, would not result in unintended consequences. Despite being faced with a heavy docket, he insisted on careful deliberation, often going over those bills line by line, sometimes word by word. (I can’t say that has been the approach taken by the Democrats now in charge of the House Courts of Justice Committee.) Although he is not one of those who jumps to his feet on the floor in order to listen to his own oratory, he can be quite passionate when he does take the floor, as shown in this video (which also demonstrates his use of research and data). Another factor in his favor: I have been told that Bell and David Toscano, the former Democratic caucus leader in the House, have law offices in the same building in Charlottesville and share a mutual respect.
Sen. Scott Surovell, Fairfax, is familiar to regular readers of this blog as a sometimes commenter on posts. (That shows the extent to which Bacon’s Rebellion is being read.) He is smart and has demonstrated a wide range of legal experience and expertise. It is evident that he has done his homework. In the last two sessions, he was obviously the coordinator of the Senate Democrats’ criminal justice reform legislation, as shown in this video. In the past two years, in fact, the man seems to have been everywhere. If I have any criticism, it is regarding the sheer number of bills he introduces. In the 2020 regular session, he was the chief patron of a whopping 61 bills! It is a wonder he was not hospitalized from sheer exhaustion after the session. He is not a great orator or even a smooth public speaker. But, ever since I began to observe him in floor debates when he was in the House of Delegates, I was impressed with how much of what he said was plain speaking and based on common sense, rather than a lot of empty rhetoric.
Sen. William Stanley, R-Martinsville, is another one of those with whom I often disagree, but have great respect for. He is a strong defender of the right to possess and carry firearms, but his opposition to bills that would curtail that right is rooted in appeals to law and due process. See his floor speech opposing the “red flag” legislation in which he defends the legal profession and makes a bipartisan appeal. Naturally a conservative, he can be a maverick, especially on criminal justice matters. He often bucks his party with bills that would serve to protect defendants or former offenders. One of his long-running crusades has been against the use of “junk science” in criminal trials. He has introduced legislation that would give people convicted on the basis of discredited forensic methods an avenue to get a new trial. Here is his presentation of that legislation on the Senate floor in 2018. (The video also includes a few of the lesser lights in the Senate, but also has the advantage of including Surovell.) That bill was opposed by most of his Republican colleagues in the Senate that year and died in the Republican-controlled House Courts of Justice Committee. He has introduced it every year since. By this past session, he had gotten all of his Senate colleagues (Republican and Democrats) on board and it sailed through the House Courts of Justice Committee with strong bi-partisan support, only to die in the House Appropriations Committee. Stanley has also been the perennial champion of providing state financial assistance to local school districts to replace or renovate obsolete school buildings. Finally, he is somewhat of a clown in the Senate, providing welcome, light-hearted levity to the proceedings at times. The Republican Party would do well to put him forth as a statewide candidate. He could have widespread appeal.