The General Assembly agreed on Monday to budget $1 million for an independent investigation of alleged racist practices at Virginia Military Institute, with the support of Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, one of the institute’s most powerful graduates in the legislature.
However, Norment chastised Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring — all Democrats who faced racial or sexual scandals last year — for rushing to judgment based on media accounts of alleged mistreatment of Black students at VMI.
“We can’t let the media lynch VMI,” he said, recalling a speech that Fairfax made from his Senate podium last year. Fairfax alleged a “political lynching” over sexual assault allegations two women made against him.
The $1 million appropriation, one of 10 amendments that Northam proposed to the two-year budget that the assembly adopted last month, passed the Senate 37-2 and the House of Delegates 52-46.
Former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, opposed it, saying he did not trust the investigation would be independent. He cited the resignation of VMI Superintendent Binford Peay under pressure from Northam, and the Democratic governor’s appointment of members of the institute’s board of visitors.
“Of course I think there should be a full investigation, but it has to include VMI’s own actions and response to those incidents,” said Cox, who is considering running for governor next year. “I just don’t have a lot of confidence in an independent — that is key — investigation conducted by this administration.”
The assembly rejected half of the governor’s proposed budget amendments. That included his attempts to regain authority over spending of federal CARES Act aid to help Virginia weather the COVID-19 pandemic and setting priorities for coronavirus testing and eventual distribution of a vaccine.
Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Northam’s amendment would have deleted language from the budget giving the legislature oversight over future federal emergency aid.
“They would rather spend money without our input, and we believe that we are in charge of spending general fund and non-general fund dollars, essentially whatever goes through the state’s coffers,” Sickles said.
The House also rejected his attempts to restore a water quality enhancement fee and broaden eligibility for investment in research of new drugs to address the pandemic.
The Senate restored $2 million that Northam had cut from the budget for construction of an aircraft hangar at Accomack Regional Airport to boost economic development on the Eastern Shore near the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility.
They failed to restore $10 million for an extension of Nimmo Parkway in Virginia Beach — which supporters said is necessary to safely evacuate residents and visitors from Sandbridge during flooding without intruding on Oceana Naval Air Station — after Fairfax broke a 19-19 tie to approve the governor’s action.
“Governor Northam looks forward to carefully reviewing the General Assembly’s action on the budget,” spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said.
The legislature then adjourned a special session that began on Aug. 18, primarily to address a projected revenue shortfall of $2.8 billion and criminal justice reforms in response to public unrest during the summer that arose over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
“Over the course of this Special Session, we responded to this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic by passing a budget and passing laws to help Virginia rebuild in the wake of this health crisis,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said in a statement after the assembly adjourned at 6 p.m. “We reformed the way our communities are policed and made our criminal justice system more fair and equitable.”
The delayed action on the budget the assembly adopted on Oct. 16 allowed time for Virginia voters to act on a constitutional amendment to establish an independent commission for political redistricting. The constitutional amendment passed with two-thirds of the vote, prompting Northam to introduce a budget compromise to direct the creation of the commission of lawmakers and citizens to redraw state and congressional political districts next year.
The issue had divided House and Senate Democrats, but the compromise passed both chambers unanimously on Monday. Most House Democrats, now in the majority after elections last year, had opposed the redistricting amendment, but they all backed the budget compromise on Monday to set out in detail how the new redistricting process will be conducted, including a timeline.
Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, one of the most vocal opponents of the amendment, said the language sent down by Northam helps address some of her concerns, but not all.
Price praised language mandating diversity among the citizen members of the commission that will lead the redistricting process and language banning legislative leaders from serving on that commission, but she criticized the way the enabling language was negotiated.
“The negotiations happened behind closed doors, without public input . ... This goes against the transparency so many of us have prioritized,” she said.
Price joined Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, another vocal opponent, in urging lawmakers to adopt ethics requirements for commissioners.
Levine said members should disclose political contributions and gifts. Also related to transparency, Levine said he is concerned that the Virginia Supreme Court does not livestream its proceedings or deliberations, and that if the redistricting process winds up in the hands of the high court, the public would be shut out.
Levine also said the commission should hold additional public hearings as it moves ahead with redistricting, arguing that three will be insufficient. He also wants public hearings after the maps are drawn so the commission can receive public input then, too.
“There’s a lot to fix here, and I’m determined to do as much as I can. I do ask for the help of supporters as well as opponents who say they want transparency, to support legislation that I or someone else proposes in the 2021 session,” Levine said.
The constitutional amendment will shift map-drawing duties to a 16-member bipartisan commission of lawmakers and citizens and, if they deadlock, to the right-leaning Virginia Supreme Court.
Most of the drama of the session’s final day arose from the investigation of VMI, which Northam ordered on Oct. 19 after The Washington Post published a story alleging a racist culture there. The governor, a 1981 VMI graduate, the lieutenant governor and attorney general signed a letter to the VMI Board of Visitors, as did eight legislative leaders, including Filler-Corn, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and the heads of the assembly’s money committees.
Norment reminded legislators who signed the letter that they had called for Northam’s resignation after the revelation of a picture on his 1984 medical school yearbook page that showed a person in blackface with another person wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Northam initially acknowledged that he was in the photo and apologized, and then reversed himself the next day, leading to an outside investigation that was inconclusive about who was in the photograph.
(Norment was one of the leading editors of the 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook that included at least one image of people in blackface and some racially offensive language. In a February 2019 statement, Norment said: “The use of blackface is abhorrent in our society and I emphatically condemn it. As one of seven working on a 359-page yearbook, I cannot endorse or associate myself with every photo, entry, or word on each page.”)
On Monday the minority leader used language of Black Lives Matter protests to illustrate VMI’s history of supporting accomplished Black students, such as Michael Lokale, a Rhodes scholar whom alumni helped send to medical school, and Annika Tice, a Fulbright scholar who graduated in the spring. “Say her name!” Norment said.
In the end, however, Norment thanked the governor for including money in the budget to pay for an independent investigation that he said VMI welcomes.
“All of us from the VMI family are looking forward to that investigation,” he said.
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