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Culture Shock

Virginia's legislature veers right on abortion, leaving Democrats scrambling.

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Hundreds of protesters surround the State Capitol Monday to protest, among other things, the “personhood” bill that’s been widely satirized, including on “Saturday Night Live.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Hundreds of protesters surround the State Capitol Monday to protest, among other things, the “personhood” bill that’s been widely satirized, including on “Saturday Night Live.”

Rachel Maddow seems positively gleeful.

It's Feb. 14, and the Virginia House of Delegates has just passed the controversial "personhood" bill to grant embryos legal status as people — without amending the bill to protect legal contraception.

"Ban birth control? Sure! Sounds like a plan," jokes Maddow, a liberal MSNBC talk show host. In a crescendo of incredulity, Maddow moves on to another bill that passed the Virginia House the same day, which would require a transvaginal ultrasound for any woman seeking an abortion.

"So Republicans in Virginia — seriously! — want a government so big that it can literally get inside individual citizens' genitals," she says. "By force, and without their consent."

Virginia has been a liberal punch line before — remember the bill banning saggy pants? Or the one Maddow brings up from 1997, when Delegate Bob Marshall (today's personhood champion) sought to ban swearing in emails?

But never before has the commonwealth seen so many controversial, socially conservative bills advance through the legislature to potentially become law.

This tidal wave has been a long time coming. For years Republican lawmakers have pitched bills relaxing handgun purchase limitations, restricting abortion and targeting undocumented immigrants, only to see them consigned to unfriendly "kill committees" by the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Then in 2011 Republicans won half the Senate's 40 seats. Democratic legislators wrongly assumed that both sides would be forced to forge a consensus, says political observer Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. "And the Republicans weren't interested in playing that kind of game." Instead, the Senate reorganized its committees, and got Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling to cast tiebreaking votes.

Democrats are frustrated, Kidd says, because the Republicans aren't playing along with the "civil, Virginia way of consensus-oriented politics." The Republican response, according to Kidd: "There's legislation that we care about that you guys have bottled up for a long time."

The list of Republican-sponsored legislation that's already passed the House, the Senate or both includes: bills prohibiting state funding for abortions of fetuses with serious disfigurements, bills that require drug screening for welfare-to-work participants, bills that require police officers to ascertain drivers' immigration status at traffic stops, and bills allowing agencies to deny adoptions to gay and lesbian couples.

Though outnumbered, Democrats are marshaling a counterattack. "We're just trying to keep the crazy at bay right now," says David Mills, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia. A fundraising email the group sent on the heels of the personhood bill's passage — which urges supporters to "get these right-wing lunatics out of the halls of power" — immediately raised thousands of dollars, Mills says.

High on the Democrats' hit list are bills that would require voters to present government identification. Virginia doesn't have a problem with voter fraud, Mills says; the bill is just a method of suppressing the votes of elderly people and minorities.

These issues are too important to be relegated to partisan bickering, he says: "This is different. This isn't whether or not we pay for roads with tolls, or we pay for roads with some other tax. This is about someone's fundamental rights."

Sen. Donald McEachin, the Senate Democratic Caucus chairman who represents Henrico County and Richmond, says his constituents aren't focused on the social issues. "What they're concerned about is jobs," he says. "What they're concerned about is the value of their homes" — and the shape of their schools.

Democrats do have one card left to play: the ace of dollar signs. Bolling isn't permitted to cast a tiebreaking vote on budget bills. So the Senate's Democrats could say, "We're pissed, and we're going to hold up all the budget amendments," Kidd says — denying the governor what he wants. Several of Gov. Bob McDonnell's signature initiatives, such as diverting a fraction of the sales tax to transportation and introducing one-year contracts for teachers, have failed.

The real question is, what will McDonnell do? The governor hasn't hidden his desire to become the Republican vice-presidential nominee, and signing his name to controversial bills could be dangerous. As for the biggest lightning rod, the personhood bill, McDonnell plans to wait it out "If the bill passes the General Assembly, he will review it at that time," McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin tells Style Weekly.

"I think there are some risks for him," Kidd says. Although a social conservative, McDonnell long has been known for his moderate style and a focus on business. "He's worked so hard to cultivate that image," Kidd says. And it could be undone by something like a personhood bill."

Maddow, too, wonders what the governor might do. She's invited him to come on her show and received no response as of Feb. 14. "I would like to ask him about how his take on those issues fits into his vice-presidential hopefulness," she says.

She isn't the only one. S

On the Table

These are some of the high-profile bills stirring up controversy that have passed at least one house as of Feb. 17.

• HB-1 would assign to unborn children upon conception the legal rights of persons.

• SB-484 would require transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions.

• HB-62 would eliminate state funding for abortions for low-income women in cases when the fetuses have an incapacitating physical deformity or mental disability. (Democrats have added an amendment providing for Medicaid
funding for the care of children born to affected women.)

• HB-940 would allow Virginians each to purchase more than one pistol per month.

• SB-4 would codify what is known as castle doctrine, which allows homeowners to use deadly force against intruders in their dwellings.

• HB-189 and SB-349 would allow agencies to deny applicants for adoptions or foster-care placements because of religious or moral convictions.

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