Bills to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment have quickly cleared both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly with support from Loudoun’s state representatives—and, for the first time, its Board of Supervisors.
The House of Delegates version of the bill passed the House 59-41 on Wednesday with every local delegate except Del. Dave A. LaRock (R-33) voting in favor. The state Senate passed the bill 28-12 with every local senator voting aye. The House bill has now been sent to the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections.
The bills go with the support of the Board of Supervisors, which on Jan. 7 set its stances for the General Assembly, taking new positions on topics including the Equal Rights Amendment and driver privilege cards for undocumented immigrants.
Many of the board’s new positions are on topics on which the boards previously declined to stances, such as the Equal Rights Amendment, or which weren’t being considered by previous assemblies. And all of the board’s split votes—except for a vote on local authority over war monuments—were along party lines.
The Equal Rights Amendment is an amendment to the U.S. Constitution first introduced in 1921 and since reintroduced that seeks to outlaw discrimination based on gender. Its supporters say Virginia would be the 38th and finalstate needed to ratify it, but others say there are as few as 31 states supporting the amendment, and that the deadline to ratify has expired.
In 2018, Republican supervisors blocked the board from taking a stance, arguing the county board should stick to strictly local issues and avoid politically divisive topics on the state and national stage. At that time, County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) was the amendment’s only champion on the county board, with current supervisors Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) and Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) voting not to include it in the board’s legislative package, and Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) absent for the vote.
But this year, the Democratic majority voted to direct the county’s lobbyists to support the amendment in the General Assembly.
“I know there has been some discussion that this is not a county-level issue that we should be taking up, however I would strongly disagree with that,” said Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian). “70 percent of the women in my district are part of the labor force, and they are struggling with being able to pay for food on their table, their electric bills, their mortgages, and child care for that matter, making 82 cents on the dollar.”
Letourneau repeated his vote against, adding “I also don’t think it matters one iota in the General Assembly” what stance the Loudoun board adopts.
“I will be consistent in my opposition, not on the substance a certainly not on the language, but on simply the scope of what the county board takes a position on and what it doesn’t,” Letourneau said. “The argument is essentially that because we have women in the county, it’s relevant to us.”
Meanwhile, Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) said the Equal Rights Amendment would be “duplicative” to other laws.
“In terms of this board and the things that we are asking our highly paid lobbyist to go and work on, I think, ultimately, we need to ask them to work on things that would be highly beneficial to this particular county,” Kershner said.
But they were voted down by the Democrat majority. Randall said that, as a black woman, “I don’t always feel like the 14th Amendment applies to me.”
“We do not feel we are treated equally,” Randall said. “We don’t always talk about I, because when we do, we are shrill, we are whiny, we are not tough enough, we are not smart enough, we should suck it up, maybe we should be home—all those types of things.”
She pointed out that Supreme Court justices credibly accused of sexual harassment have been confirmed, and the country has had more than one president credibly accused of sexually assaulting women and having lied about it. “If anyone thinks women are treated equally in this country, I am confused,” Randall said.
“I will not miss this historic moment for the sake of always being consistent,” Randall said. “That’s not a good enough reason for me.”
Supervisors voted to encourage the state legislature to pass the Equal Rights Amendment 6-3, with supervisors Kershner, Letourneau and Buffington opposed.
It was not the only vote of the evening to do with challenges facing women—specifically, women leading county boards.
The board will, for a second year, push to amend state law to allow Randall and other presiding officers to be called “chairman,” “chairwoman,” “chair,” “chairperson” or “chair at-large.”
Currently, the state refers to all such elected officers only as “chairman”—thus, Randall’s title under state code is formally “County Chairman” Phyllis Randall. She refers to herself as “Chair Randall” in most instances.
Supervisors were surprised when a seemingly routine bill on the topic introduced by Del. David A. Reid (D-32) died in committee last year over apparently unironic concerns of “gender confusion.”
Driving Privilege Cards
Supervisors were also divided on a proposal to create a driver privilege card conferring the same privileges as a typical driver’s license and requires the same driving exam, but which does not function as a voter ID.
The cards would allow people who cannot produce proof of legal presence in the United States to obtain a type of driver’s license as long as they have reported income in Virginia on a tax return in the past year and have met the insurance requirements for registering a vehicle.
Supporters said the cards would improve public safety.
“I would love to know what county law enforcement feels about this as opposed to having drivers with no insurance, no examination of any kind, no accountability of any kid, driving on our roads here in Loudoun County,” said Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn).
And Randall pointed out that many of Loudoun’s service industries and signature agricultural venues—especially wineries—rely on cheap migrant labor for their businesses.
“Whether or not people who are working in the county, epically working in one of our most profitable industries in the county, can get to work, I think is a county issue and one that directly impacts our economy,” Randall said.
Other opposed it in part, they said, because it works around the federal government’s failure to address immigration reform.
“I appreciate the work that they [undocumented immigrants] do, I appreciate the homes that they have, I appreciate the lifestyle they want to bring, but essentially by encouraging this, we are basically telling the feds who have failed to act on this appropriately that our way is better than theirs,” Kershner said. “And we are going to provide a means and source for these individuals to come to our county despite the fac that they continue to break federal law.”
“To me, when states do things like this, it actually creates a disincentive for the federal government to address it, because it’s a workaround now, so it makes it easier to ignore this issue,” Letourneau said
“I simply can’t support this, because I feel it encourages people to come here illegally, and I can’t support anything that’s going to encourage that,” Buffington said.
Supervisors voted 6-3 along party lines to support creating driver privilege cards. A bill on the issue introduced by Mt. Vernon Sen. Scott A Surovell (D-36) has been referred to the Senate Committee on Transportation.
City of Leesburg… Again
Supervisors also cast their perennial vote to oppose lifting the state’s moratorium on granting new city charters, which would allow the Town of Leesburg to seek city status.
Virginia cities are unusual in that they are county-equivalent, meaning they are not technically in the county that usually surrounds them. Incorporated towns in Virginia are more akin to cities in most other states.
Leesburg, a town with a population smaller than the City of Danville but larger than the City of Charlottesville, has each year asked for an exception to a moratorium in place since 1987 on new city charters that would allow towns with a population greater than 50,000 to consider becoming a city. That would open the door only for Leesburg, with a population of more than 54,000; the next-largest town in Virginia, Blacksburg, has a population of about 44,500.
“We keep having this discussion,” Letourneau said. “This has come up several times, and at this point it’s almost a poke at the county.”
County staff members and supervisors have generally opposed the idea, citing in part the costs of disentangling the county’s services such as schools and law enforcement from the town, taking that land out of the county’s tax base, and compelling town residents to bear the full cost of those services inside Leesburg.
“I fail to understand the ultimate, end-game advantage to the Town of Leesburg,” Turner said.
Letourneau pointed out he has also said before he does not support the county seat being outside the county. Currently, the Board of Supervisors meets in Leesburg—and removing the county government center from downtown Leesburg, he said, could have “significant impact” on Leesburg’s town budgets and local economy. He also suggested the county should pause annexation discussions with the town on land surrounding it while the bill is live, since it holds the possibility of taking that land out of the county.
Only Umstattd, the Leesburg supervisor and former mayor of the town, defended the bill, arguing it would allow the town to study the possibility of becoming a city.
“My suspicion was often that we wouldn’t do any better for our taxpayers as a city than as a town, but I felt we owed it to our taxpayers to find out whether we could offer services at a lower tax rate than the combined tax rate that they pay for,” Umstattd said. Letourneau argued the town doesn’t need the bill to conduct a study.
Del. Wendy W. Gooditis (D-10) has introduced a bill to make that exception to the moratorium, which has been sent to the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns. Supervisors voted to oppose it 8-1, with Umstattd dissenting.
Equal Taxing Authority
Supervisors also will ask the General Assembly for the same taxing authority cities and towns have.
Currently, cities and towns often have broader authority to tax than counties. In addition to the taxes that counties can levy, for example, cities and towns can levy a cigarette tax, admissions tax, and a meals tax. Counties can levy a meals tax only by referendum, and cannot levy the other taxes.
Exceptions to those laws have already been made for other counties.
“It has been a quirk of Virginia law that makes absolutely no sense, and I would go as far as to say discriminates against counties and the options available to them,” Letourneau said. Supervisors voted unanimously to ask for that authority.
This article was updated Thursday, Jan. 16 at 12:56 p.m. to correct an error regarding the House of Delegates vote on the Equal Rights Amendment, and again at 1:04 p.m. upon request to clarify a statement by Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).