Virginia governor calls raid on Trump club a ‘stunning move’ by feds

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin called the federal raid on former President Donald Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago a “stunning move by the DOJ and FBI” and implied it could be politically motivated.

In a tweet posted Tuesday morning, Youngkin drew a connection between the news of the search in Florida and prior events in Virginia.

“This same DOJ labeled parents in Loudoun County as terrorists and failed to enforce federal law to protect Justices in their homes,” read the post from the governor’s political account. “Selective, politically motivated actions have no place in our democracy.”

A stunning move by the DOJ and FBI.
This same DOJ labeled parents in Loudoun County as terrorists and failed to enforce federal law to protect Justices in their homes. Selective, politically motivated actions have no place in our democracy.
— Glenn Youngkin (@GlennYoungkin) August 9, 2022

The governor’s claim about the events in Loudoun has already been widely refuted by fact-checkers. A controversial letter from the National School Boards Assocation mentioned the arrest of a Loudoun father upset over his daughter’s sexual assault in a school as an example of aggressive behavior toward school boards that could be “the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism.” When Attorney General Merrick Garland responded by saying he would investigate and prosecute threats against school boards, he didn’t mention terrorism or Loudoun.

In response to protests over the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Youngkin and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan asked the Department of Justice to enforce a law that bars picketing outside justices’ houses in their states, but no federal prosecutions followed.

Youngkin’s statement didn’t reference Trump specifically, but it was an unusually direct show of support from a Republican figure who kept the ex-president at arm’s length en route to his close win last year in a purple state. Youngkin has been downplaying speculation about whether he might run for president in 2024, a move that could put him in competition with Trump for the GOP nomination.

Controversy over federal law enforcement agencies has particular resonance in Virginia due to the high numbers of federal employees who live in the state.

Facts have been scarce about why the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, what agents were looking for and what federal authorities believe Trump may have done. But Virginia Republicans didn’t hold back expressions of outrage over the move.

“The dangerous precedent the Democrats set yesterday by weaponizing the FBI should anger and frighten every American,” state Sen. Jen Kiggans, the Republican nominee in a close congressional race in the Hampton Roads area, said on Twitter. “All to settle old political scores and silence their political opponents – it’s corrupt and it’s flat out unacceptable.”

The dangerous precedent the Democrats set yesterday by weaponizing the FBI should anger and frighten every American. All to settle old political scores and silence their political opponents – it’s corrupt and it’s flat out unacceptable.
— Jen Kiggans (@JenKiggans) August 9, 2022

Kiggans was responding to an earlier statement from her opponent, Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, a member of the congressional Jan. 6 committee who was pointing to Republican threats to investigate the Department of Justice if the GOP wins back control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“There is no way to defend Trump, only to deflect,” Luria said.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

Free-speech groups and book world fight back in Virginia obscenity case

Book publishers, booksellers, authors and free-speech groups are pushing back against a Virginia law that allowed obscenity claims to proceed in court against two books that have come under fire from conservatives who say they’re inappropriate for young readers.

The ACLU of Virginia, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and numerous bookstores and book proponents are getting involved in the legal case playing out in Virginia Beach, where a retired judge made an initial ruling indicating the LGBTQ-themed memoir “Gender Queer” and the fantasy novel “A Court of Mist and Fury” could be considered obscene for minors due to explicit sex scenes. The case has drawn national attention due to the seemingly unique attempt to restrict sales of the books by private bookstores as opposed to simply removing them from public-school libraries.

Michael Bamberger, a top First Amendment lawyer based in New York, worked with the ACLU to file a motion to dismiss the case on behalf of the Authors Guild, American Booksellers for Free Expression, Association of American Publishers, American Library Association, Virginia Library Association the Freedom to Read Foundation and a handful of small, independent Virginia bookstores. The groups, according to court filings, have “a strong interest in ensuring that a broad selection of non-obscene fiction and non-fiction reading material be made available to readers, including material that challenges them.”

“I believe that children should be encouraged to read whatever interests them, whatever they find meaningful,” Bamberger, senior counsel at the Dentons law firm, said in an interview. “And setting up these sort of baskets that say no minor can read this book is not the way to go.”

Attorneys for the publishers and authors of the two books are also seeking to have the case dismissed, arguing the Virginia law is unconstitutional and the books themselves cannot be considered obscene based on sex scenes that only make up a portion of a larger literary work.

Virginia law defines “obscene” as material that has sex as its “dominant theme” and “taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

“Under the law, these books are not obscene,” said Darpana Sheth, FIRE’s vice president of litigation. “Obscenity is a legal term of art. And the First Amendment simply does not allow banning books simply because they may be read by minors.”

FIRE, which began as a civil liberties group focused on college campuses but recently broadened its mission into broader issues of free expression, isn’t formally intervening in the case but is planning to file a brief to inform the court, according to Sheth.

A multitude of attorneys from several different law firms are now working to defend the free flow of books and block the suit filed in late April by Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, on behalf of Tommy Altman, a former Republican congressional candidate from Virginia Beach who finished third in a four-way GOP primary last month.

Anderson, an attorney and Trump-style firebrand serving his first term in the House of Delegates, had sought a temporary restraining order against Barnes & Noble that would have prevented the bookstore chain from making the books accessible to minors. That request has not yet been acted upon. Retired Judge Pamela Baskervill, who’s overseeing the case after Virginia Beach judges recused themselves because the legislature appoints judges, set the next hearing in the case for Aug. 30.

In an interview Wednesday, Anderson said the fact that more than 20 lawyers are lining up against him is a sign of the seriousness of his case and not the type of response you’d see in a “slam dunk First Amendment case.” The request for age restrictions on media content, he said, is “narrow” and not as novel as headlines about “book banning” suggest.

“I think the majority of society accepts that they don’t want a 12-year-old going to an R-rated movie at AMC,” Anderson said. “They don’t want a 9-year-old buying an extremely violent video game without their parents knowing what’s going on.”

In the meantime, lawyers representing Barnes & Noble have argued allowing the case to proceed would be a dangerous step toward the type of book bans the country seemed to have left behind.

“There was a time in American history, before the development of contemporary First Amendment doctrine, when best-selling and critically-acclaimed books faced the risk of being declared obscene,” a team of lawyers from the D.C.-based firm Davis Wright Tremaine wrote in a May 30 letter to Baskervill on behalf of Barnes & Noble. “But no mainstream books by established publishers have been found to be obscene in the past 60 years.”

The attorneys fighting the use of the obscenity law have argued it has severe procedural flaws, including authorizing courts to issue restraining orders against books without any notification or involvement from the businesses selling them. The obscene-book law creates a civil proceeding against the book itself, but the criminal penalties involved can fall on anyone who sells or distributes a book deemed obscene.

“That’s a bizarre procedure to start off with,” Bamberger said. “But then what is most troubling to retailers and publishers is that if in this hearing in Virginia Beach some book is held obscene, that applies to the entire state. And so a bookseller who’s in Arlington and knows nothing about the case and has received no notification and is not involved in the case in any way suddenly can be charged with a felony for selling the book.”

The defense has also pointed out the law doesn’t have any clear provision for deeming books obscene for children but suitable for adults. It does, however, allow judges to carve out a specific category of people “to whom the book is not obscene.”

From a legal perspective, the cases are virtually identical, but “Gender Queer,” a story about LGBTQ identity in a comic book-style format, has drawn stronger criticism from some parents due to an illustration depicting oral sex and other explicit content. Members of the Virginia Beach School Board chose to remove “Gender Queer” from school libraries after a review deemed the book “pervasively vulgar,” going against a staff recommendation to keep the book in school libraries.

Anderson said the illustrated depiction of oral sex in the book is “harmful to a child’s mind.”

“They shouldn’t have access to that material without adult supervision,” he said. “And that’s it.”

Bamberger said the obscenity law, as written, was meant to apply to material the courts felt no one should read and it cannot be used to let any Virginia resident go to court to try to restrict what all children can read.

“That’s not what the law says,” Bamberger said. “And neither of these books are obscene for adults. Clearly.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

Judge dismisses restraining orders against Democrat Joe Morrissey over 'unhinged' radio show outburst

A Republican delegate and a Democratic senator huddled in the corner of a courtroom Tuesday afternoon, trying to make out what was said on a garbled audio recording that captured some of the expletives hurled in a heated altercation last month in a Richmond radio studio.

“Is that: ‘I will f**king knock you down’?” asked Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, a lawyer who was representing two radio producers seeking restraining orders against Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond.

As a judge looked on, Morrissey acknowledged he had said “Get the f**k out of my office” and called the station manager a “fat f**king pig.”

“At no time did I ever say ‘I’ll kick your ass,’” Morrissey insisted on the stand, contradicting the testimony offered by the radio employees, who said Morrissey’s May 4 studio outburst made them fear for their safety.

After a hearing that lasted more than four hours, retired Arlington County judge Thomas Kelley Jr. dismissed the preliminary restraining orders that had been granted against Morrissey over the studio incident, leaving Morrissey free to continue showing up to the South Richmond building that houses both the radio station and his Senate district office.

In an interview afterward, the senator said being Joe Morrissey often means “you have a bullseye on your back.” But he said he prevailed because “multiple observers” backed up his version of the story.

Kelley said he too heard the knockdown comment on the recording but concluded it didn’t rise to the level of overt threat necessary for a permanent restraining order, noting the setup of having a Democrat host a show on a right-wing talk radio network “at the very least is designed to generate controversy.”

“The court is put in the position of looking at what happened,” Kelley said, stressing that he had to look at Morrissey’s comment as one piece of a larger incident.

The incident last month occurred in the middle of a live-streamed episode of the “Fighting Joe Morrissey Show” on WJFN Radio, the network operated by conservative commentator John Fredericks. The show’s branding evokes Morrissey’s combative tendencies, featuring boxing gloves on its logo and incorporating the “Rocky” theme song.

After a newly hired producer, David Pascoe, pressed Morrissey on his stance on abortion rights and the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade, Morrissey lashed out at both Pascoe and the station manager, Derek Clark. The episode has since been removed from the show’s Facebook page, but the video showed a visibly angry Morrissey yelling at coworkers offscreen and his legislative aide at one point grabbing his arm to try to pull him away.

“We saw Mr. Morrissey’s unhingedness. That enough is a threat,” Anderson said, adding that the two men who filed the complaints against Morrissey were raising legitimate “red flags” about disturbing behavior.

The judge denied a request from Morrissey’s lawyer, James Maloney, to collect attorney’s fees from the complainants, indicating he felt there was at least some validity to their claims even if they fell short legally.

During Tuesday’s hearing at the Richmond courthouse, Morrissey and his lawyer characterized the incident as a boisterous workplace reprimand of a new hire who was “undermining” the star of the show. Morrissey compared the incident to “an underling telling Tom Brady” how to play quarterback. Pascoe testified Morrissey threatened to “ruin” and “destroy” him, but Morrissey denied making the remarks.

“The words never came out of my mouth,” the senator said on the stand.

The blowup happened on Pascoe’s first day working on Morrissey’s show. While Pascoe claimed that there had been an agreement between Morrissey and himself to have a debate live on air, Morrissey said he had been taken aback by Pascoe’s unexpected interjections.

As someone who had just moved to the area but was aware of Morrissey’s checkered history, which includes a 1991 courthouse fistfight when Morrissey was Richmond’s top prosecutor, Pascoe said he was “sitting there aghast” watching a state senator erupt over being asked a political question.

“I’ve never had anybody in a professional setting act like this before… I left the studio because I didn’t feel safe,” Pascoe said.

The judge quickly dismissed Pascoe’s request for a restraining order but allowed a more in-depth examination of Clark’s request since the two producers claimed Morrissey made more direct verbal threats toward Clark.

Clark said he had called the police to the studio after an incident he believed could amount to assault. But after police said he would have to take further action to try to bring charges against Morrissey, he chose to wait and seek advice from lawyers and his employer. He and Pascoe ultimately sought preliminary restraining orders on May 20. The station also briefly brought in armed security guards for their protection, according to court testimony. Morrissey dismissed the guards’ presence as “bizarre.”

Many of the arguments presented in court hinged on video and audio recording evidence of the altercation, including the clip of the Facebook Live stream that was being broadcast at the time, as well as recordings captured by a reporter present outside the studio. Both sides agreed that the speech in question was sometimes “inaudible,” and that the video recording didn’t fully capture what occurred.

The dispute also centered on the question of who stood up from their chair first and who moved farther around the desk to confront the other person. Morrissey initially chastised Pascoe for suggesting the senator supported overturning Roe “in a roundabout way” but turned his ire toward Clark after Clark told Morrissey his behavior toward Pascoe was out of line.

Morrissey’s lawyer conceded the senator had used “colorful language” and said the episode may show a less-than-harmonious workplace, but argued there had been no serious threat of violence because Morrissey never touched the two men even though they were only separated by a desk.

“There was nothing preventing Mr. Morrissey from doing any kind of assaultive behavior he wanted,” Maloney said.

Clark testified that he had intervened to defend an employee who was being berated and calm the situation down.

“I was scared,” Clark said. “I thought he was going to hit me.”

But Morrissey and a witness called by Morrissey’s side, whose testimony the judge said he didn’t find credible, insisted it was Clark and Pascoe who had been the aggressors.

“It looked like Morrissey was about to get beat up by two guys,” said Tiffany Wilson, who testified she had been in the studio that day with a guest set to be interviewed in a later segment.

Morrissey and Wilson both claimed the aide who took Morrissey by the arm had been trying to get the senator out of the studio to prepare for the upcoming interview, but Anderson argued it didn’t make sense for the show’s host to leave the room during a brief commercial break.

Wilson said she had not watched the video of the incident she was testifying about.

Two other people at the radio station that day, a receptionist and a man who works for Morrissey’s jury consulting business, testified they never heard Morrissey make any threats, though both acknowledged they didn’t see or hear the entire incident.

Morrissey’s team tried to argue a size difference between Morrissey and Clark meant Clark had no reason to feel intimidated, but the judge said he felt physical stature was irrelevant.

“A small person can be intimidating,” Kelley said. “A big person can not be intimidating.”

After the hearing, Anderson said his clients would consider an appeal.

“It’s an unfortunate circumstance that we had to all go through this,” he said.

After denying under oath that he threatened Clark, Morrissey expressed no remorse over the incident while speaking to reporters in a courtroom hallway.

“If a 350-pound bully gets in my face… yeah, I’ll knock him down,” Morrissey said.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

A Virginia gun bill had support from gun-control groups and the NRA. It still failed.

At a legislative hearing last month, something so unusual happened some in the room joked it should go down as an important moment in history: The NRA and gun-control groups agreed a Democratic gun bill was good enough to make it through a Republican committee.

“So Jesus is coming any minute,” quipped Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, as the committee advanced the bill creating clearer punishments for people caught with firearms that have been made untraceable by having their serial numbers filed off.

But the miracle turned out to be a mirage.

The bill had passed both legislative chambers in some form, but efforts to reach a final deal broke down last week as lawmakers realized they couldn’t agree after all, even on a relatively small tweak to the state’s gun laws.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said the conference committee of six lawmakers working on the bill had failed to produce a final version.

State law already makes it a misdemeanor offense to remove a firearm’s serial number or other identifying marks. But, according to the bill’s backers, authorities were having a hard time proving who exactly had done the removing.

“If somebody’s found with the gun that’s had the serial number clearly filed right off, you’ve got to prove that they’re the one that did it,” Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said while presenting his bill to expand and clarify the law. “And that’s the problem that commonwealth’s attorneys have had.”

The proposed law made it a violation to “knowingly” possess or sell a gun defaced in a way that prevents authorities from tracking its origin or ownership history. It would’ve brought state law more in line with federal law, which already makes deliberately unmarked guns illegal as long as authorities can prove a tie to interstate commerce.

Republican legislators had tried to fine-tune the proposal to create more legal protections for gun owners. Democrats felt those changes would defeat the bill’s purpose, leaving prosecutors with a law that would be too difficult to apply since the offense often involves someone deliberately trying to hide their tracks.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, testified for the bill in legislative hearings, suggesting it would clean up a clunky, outdated law that could potentially get gun owners in trouble for inadvertent damage to their firearm.

“If you were hunting and your gun fell and it scratched across barbed wire that would deface it,” Van Cleave said. He also applauded a carveout in the bill that exempts antique firearms, suggesting someone might want to scratch a Nazi emblem off a World War II-era pistol.

As of Monday, the website for VCDL, which organizes and hosts pro-gun demonstrations in Richmond each year, still listed the serial-number bill among legislative proposals it supports.

Andrew Goddard, a gun-control advocate with the Virginia Center for Public Safety, told legislators making guns untraceable should be a “serious offense.”

“We don’t want to have burner firearms,” Goddard said. “We don’t want a firearm that someone can use and drop and walk away and never be caught for that offense.”

Though a misdemeanor charge for altered serial numbers can be tacked on to other gun crimes, legislative researchers identified 28 cases over the last five years where it was the most serious offense someone was convicted of. Nearly 40 percent of those offenders didn’t get jail time. The rest served a median sentence of about 15 days.

The version of the bill filed in the Republican-led House of Delegates sailed through in a 94-3-1 vote, inspiring jokes on the floor about how a gun bill with unusually broad political support might scramble post-session legislative scorecards on gun issues.

The bill filed in the Democratic Senate, which differed from the House version’s misdemeanor punishments by making it a felony to give, sell or distribute firearms with missing serial numbers, drew stronger GOP opposition during debate on the floor.

Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, raised concerns that anyone who wanted to put a Teflon coating on a gun to change its color could potentially face criminal charges if it obscured the gun’s identifying marks.

“Some of us really like our different colors,” DeSteph said. “And that’s OK.”

DeSteph offered his own version of the bill that would’ve required prosecutors to prove a serial number was “willfully” destroyed or tampered with.

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said that change would still leave prosecutors having to determine and prove the motives of whoever changed the gun instead of being able to charge the person who currently has it.

“The changer is likely to be a mystery,” Ebbin said during the Senate debate. Ebbin’s bill cleared the Senate on a 21-19, party-line vote, but stalled in the House.

By the time Ebbin’s bill got back to the subcommittee chaired by Freitas, some House Republicans said they now saw problems with the proposal that weren’t apparent when they approved Simon’s bill.

Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge, said he “forgot” he has a shotgun that was damaged by a rock when he fell off a log that had fallen across a creek.

“I’ve got two numbers on that gun that are pretty much destroyed. So I would have an illegal shotgun at this point,” Campbell said, referring to the implications of the proposed law.

Ebbin told Campbell his shotgun might already be a problem under federal law. If Campbell was concerned about it, Ebbin said, he could go to a gun store and have new serial numbers applied.

“I think guns falling on rocks and having their serial numbers defaced is perhaps an unusual one-off situation,” Ebbin said. “We were targeting criminals.”

In response to questions from the Mercury, Freitas,said the conference committee deliberating on the bill ran into “issues with how broadly it was written,” with Republicans trying to “limit it to deliberate destruction of serial numbers and sale.”

In an interview Monday, Simon said the main sticking point for the conference committee was whether the bill should also outlaw possession as well as the transfer and selling of such weapons.

“They wanted to get rid of all the possession pieces and just leave us with the parts that they like,” Simon said. “That’s not really a compromise anymore.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

Virginia lawmakers hoping to unseat Democratic congresswomen use Ukrainian crisis to blast Biden

As the world was still coming to grips with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Virginia Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, used the crisis to raise money for his congressional run in what could be one of the country’s most competitive districts.
The subject line of the email that went out Thursday just before 9 a.m. read: “America’s Enemies Know Biden is Weak.”

“No leader respects Joe Biden and no enemy of America fears him,” said the email, which solicited $25, $100 or $250 donations to “take back Congress and force Joe Biden to rebuild our military and restore America’s credibility.”

Like Reeves, Sen. Jennifer Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, who is also a strong congressional contender hoping to flip a Democratic-held district, also took aim at Biden. In a statement posted to Twitter Wednesday afternoon, Kiggans said Biden “only has himself to blame” for Putin’s refusal to “back down.”

“America, our allies, and the world are less safe with President Biden in the White House,” Kiggans said. “The American people must fight back against this weak administration and demand change this November.”

That drew a rebuke from Kiggans’ would-be opponent, U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk.

As Ukraine, Europe, and the U.S. face a crisis not seen for 80 years, this former Naval officer running against me would like to score political points,” Luria, a Navy veteran herself said, referring to Kiggans’ background as a former Navy pilot.

U.S. Rep Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico, whom Reeves would face if he wins a crowded Republican nominating contest, issued a statement Wednesday night reiterating support for “America’s values of freedom, peace and democracy” while avoiding partisan shots.

“We must be united in condemning Putin’s war, an act of aggression that serves only the irrational self-interest of one man,” Spanberger said. “In the hours and days ahead, he must feel the sting of unprecedented sanctions from the United States and our partners around the world.”

With a large segment of the Republican base still strongly loyal to former President Donald Trump, who recently called Putin’s aggression against Ukraine “smart” and “genius,” the prospect of full-blown war on Europe’s eastern edge has drawn mixed responses from Virginia Republicans.

By contrast, instead of condemning Biden, Gov. Glenn Youngkin kept his focus on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an assault on a sovereign nation and will have devastating consequences for Ukrainian citizens,” Youngkin said on Twitter. “This senseless, unprovoked attack undermines democracy worldwide and we must hold Russia accountable.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

Censured Virginia senator says AG’s office took her election fraud claims ‘very seriously’

Fifteen months after the 2020 election, Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, is taking her still-unproven claims of election fraud to the office of new Attorney General Jason Miyares, a Republican with the power to pursue alleged violations of election law.

In a Facebook post Tuesday afternoon, Chase published photos of what she said was a meeting with the attorney general’s office to discuss “gross election irregularities.”

In an interview Wednesday night, Chase, who was censured by the state Senate last year for repeating baseless election conspiracy theories and expressing support for rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol in January 2021, called the meeting “very productive.”

“I would say it was very eye-opening to the people that were in the room,” Chase said. “I think they took it very seriously. They’re very interested.”

The attorney general’s office did not give a direct answer when asked if any action would be taken in response to Chase’s information.

“Senator Chase requested a meeting with staff in the Office of the Attorney General, which oversees election law,” said Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita. “Our team met with her, as they would any sitting state senator who requests a meeting. The OAG does not comment on specifics of internal meetings.”

A deputy attorney general hired under Miyares to oversee election issues resigned earlier this month after the Washington Post reported she had a history of social media posts praising the Capitol riot and claiming the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

In response to this week’s meeting, Senate Democrats noted Chase had failed to offer any evidence of fraud during a recent legislative hearing on her bill seeking an extensive audit of the 2020 election.

Contrary to what is spewed on far-right cable news, there has never been evidence of significant voter fraud in the commonwealth or the United States,” Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, said in a news release. “Senator Chase refuses to accept that truth, and wastes our time and taxpayer dollars on unfounded, politically-motivated attempts to subvert the will of the electorate.”

Just before last year’s elections, former Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, called on Chase to submit any purported fraud evidence to his office, saying Chase “has an obligation to bring it to the attention of authorities who can do something about it.”

The attorney general’s office was given new oversight over election issues through a Democratic-backed law creating state-level voting rights protections. That law, approved last year before Democrats’ electoral losses, empowers the attorney general to file civil suits whenever the office has “reasonable cause to believe that a violation of an election law has occurred and that the rights of any voter or group of voters have been affected by such violation.”

Though Republicans campaigned against looser voting laws passed under Democratic control, the 2021 election held under those laws produced a stunning GOP comeback, with the party sweeping contests for statewide office and regaining a majority in the House of Delegates. Republicans lawmakers have still tried to roll back new policies like early voting, ballot drop boxes and looser ID rules, but those efforts have failed in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Chase said she filed numerous amendments to the state budget Wednesday seeking to add more money for “election integrity,” including a proposed $70 million for a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election.

A risk-limiting audit state election officials conducted a year ago overwhelmingly confirmed President Joe Biden’s 2020 10-point victory in Virginia, finding only a 0.00000065117 percent chance the state’s voting system could have produced an inaccurate outcome.

When asked to describe the information she presented to the attorney general’s office, Chase said she’s planning to hold a news conference soon with all the details. That event, she said, could involve “data engineers” who can better describe her claims.

“It’s highly technical and I don’t want to get anything wrong,” she said.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

After crushing loss, 'gimmicky' anti-Trump strategy draws criticism from Virginia Democrats

Virginia Democrats were so confident their anti-Trump strategy was going to work they spent their own money to promote Republican Glenn Youngkin's biggest endorsement.

To some who didn't read closely, the fliers featuring all the nice things Trump said about Youngkin looked like pro-Youngkin messaging. But the fine print revealed it was an effort by the Democratic Party of Virginia and former governor Terry McAuliffe's campaign to tie Youngkin to Trump.

“Virginia is very very winnable, but everybody has to go out and vote," the mailer quoted Trump as saying.

If the mailer was meant as clever subterfuge or a subtle joke, it wasn't Democrats who were laughing Tuesday night, when election results showed huge Republican turnout in Trump-friendly rural areas and suburban battlegrounds swung hard toward Republicans.

“Most people didn't believe it would happen," Trump told Virginia-based conservative radio host John Fredericks in an interview Wednesday morning. “But Virginia is a different state than people think."

“If there was no Trump in this election," Fredericks chimed in, “there's no Glenn Youngkin as governor-elect."

As that harsh reality set in for Democrats Tuesday night, the Trump-Youngkin mailer was circulated online as an emblem of what many feel was a self-defeating strategy: focusing too much on a polarizing ex-president and not enough on a positive message about what continued Democratic governance would mean for Virginians.

“I think we spend entirely too much time talking about Donald Trump and not articulating not only our vision for the future but spending time genuinely connecting with people and with their needs," said Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, who unsuccessfully sought the party's nomination for lieutenant governor this year but won re-election to the House of Delegates Tuesday. “We need to rethink the way we campaign in Virginia."

Rasoul resigned from a Democratic leadership post following the party's loss to Trump in the 2016 presidential race, protesting what he saw as reliance on “hate and fear" to fight hate and fear. Five years later, the party is again wrestling with the limits of Trump-centric messaging.

“When we won last year, there was a great desire for normalcy among Democrats," said Caitlin Bennett, chairwoman of the Fredericksburg Democratic Committee. “By tying Youngkin to Trump, it's a reminder that we're not back to normal. And that is true. But there's a way to go about talking about what Youngkin's saying specifically without necessarily being gimmicky about Trump."

A different type of candidate at the top of the ticket might have been better able to articulate a positive vision, Bennett said, and the extent of the misfire shows in the fact that the two other Democrats running for statewide offices, lieutenant governor nominee Hala Ayala and Attorney General Mark Herring, who, despite losing their races, ran slightly ahead of McAuliffe in the election results.

“It's unusual. And I think it should be noted. He was a weak candidate," Bennett said. “I do think it was a mistake for the party establishment overall to embrace him before anyone had even announced they were running. There was a kind of feeling that this was a done deal."

The McAuliffe campaign and the state party declined to comment for this story.

Several Democrats have argued the Trump emphasis came at the expense of reiterating what Democratic majorities have accomplished since he left office in early 2018. Those policy achievements included Medicaid expansion, legalizing marijuana, making it easier to vote and passing new voter protections, stronger gun control, a sweeping new anti-discrimination law, beginning to tackle climate change, abolishing the death penalty and making other reforms to criminal justice and policing and raising the minimum wage for the first time since 2009.

“Virginia Democrats had an exceedingly strong record of policy achievements to run on. And yet still resoundingly lost," said Lauren Baer, managing partner at Arena, a Democratic group that helped staff several contested House races in Virginia this cycle. “Which to me signals that something is being lost in communication to voters."

McAuliffe was campaigning to build on that list by raising the minimum wage to $15 faster than planned, ban assault weapons, boost education funding and teacher pay and require employers to provide paid sick leave and family medical leave.

But many feel those issues were lost in the shuffle of a campaign that featured too many reminders of Trump and allowed Youngkin to dictate the terms of the debate over education.

The McAuliffe campaign spent at least $55 million, an eye-popping sum for a gubernatorial race. Some of that money, Baer said, would've been better spent defending Democrats' House majority, which many Democrats felt was achievable even with a McAuliffe loss. Republicans appear to have flipped seven Democratic-held House seats, enough to win back the control they lost in 2019. Many of those contests were decided by just a few hundred votes.

“There has been a guiding theory that pouring resources into the top of the ticket will lead to both top-of-the-ticket victory and downballot victories as well," Baer said. “We in fact saw the opposite here where Terry McAuliffe was not able to carry a state in which Biden won by a resounding margin a year ago."

Baer's group spent a little over $165,000 in Virginia for the cycle.

Democrats' struggles Tuesday weren't unique to Virginia, suggesting McAuliffe's loss can partly be explained by broader national headwinds rather than Virginia-specific strategy decisions. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy came close to losing in New Jersey, where a powerful Democratic senator was defeated by a Republican truck driver who ran his campaign on a shoestring budget.

Democratic-aligned organizations' Trump-heavy messaging began immediately after Youngkin secured the GOP nomination for governor in May, winning a party-run convention with several Trumpier candidates, including firebrand Sen. Amanda Chase, in the running.

McAuliffe and his allies labeled him “Glenn Trumpkin," a taunt repeated throughout the campaign. The Trump emphasis backfired in embarrassing fashion late in the campaign when The Lincoln Project, an organization run by disaffected Republicans who oppose Trump and have worked to elect Democrats, staged a stunt in Charlottesville meant to tie Youngkin to the tiki torch-wielding white supremacists who terrorized the city four years ago. The group posed fake White supremacists in front of Youngkin's bus, a plan widely condemned as dishonest and distasteful in light of an ongoing civil trial in Charlottesville meant to bring justice for victims of real White supremacists. But according to new reporting by The Intercept, the plan backfired when Democrats on Twitter, including several McAuliffe campaign staffers, mistook the actors as real Youngkin supporters.

In interviews, several Republican voters said they saw the constant Trump-themed attacks as a stretch since Youngkin never campaigned with the former president and had a far less incendiary political style. Kelly Heskett, a 41-year-old dental hygenist who attended a Youngkin rally in Henrico County last month, said the same guilt-by-association tactics could be used against McAuliffe for campaigning with Herring and Gov. Ralph Northam.

“That would be like me saying so you're for blackface because you support Northam and Herring?," Heskett said. “Like it's just so ridiculous that they're trying to link him to that. To me, it shows that they're just desperate."

The Democratic Governors Association sought to put a positive spin on the outcome in a statement released Wednesday morning, saying McAuliffe ran “a strong, positive campaign focused on the issues that matter most."

“The central goal of his campaign — to build a better Virginia that works for everyone — resonated with voters, and despite the outcome of the race, we saw that reflected in last night's close results," said DGA Executive Director Noam Lee.

In Virginia, some Democrats feel the downballot losses could've been worse and were only avoided by House candidates running stronger than the top of the ticket.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, one of Virginia Democrats' rising stars who won re-election to a third term Tuesday, said the party needs to campaign on “day-to-day quality of life issues." When she knocked on doors in her district, she said, she talked about her efforts to block above-ground transmission lines in her community, secure funding for commuter buses and provide free school lunches.

According to her review of election data in her district, Roem said, there were a significant number of Youngkin-Roem voters. So what does it mean, she asked, that people who wanted a Republican governor also voted to keep “the trans metalhead from Manassas" as their delegate?

“It means that I show up," she said. “I'm accessible. And I care."

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McAuliffe concedes defeat to Youngkin

Democrat Terry McAuliffe conceded defeat to Republican Glenn Youngkin Wednesday morning, acknowledging there's no path remaining for him to overtake Youngkin as vote-tallying continues in Virginia's closely watched race for governor.

“Congratulations to Governor-Elect Glenn Youngkin on his victory," McAuliffe said in a news release. “I hope Virginians will join me in wishing the best to him and his family."

McAuliffe was seeking a second term as governor after serving in the job from 2014 to 2018. In his concession statement, he reiterated the broad themes of his campaign.

“While last night we came up short, I am proud that we spent this campaign fighting for the values we so deeply believe in," he said. “We must protect Virginia's great public schools and invest in our students. We must protect affordable health care coverage, raise the minimum wage faster and expand paid leave so working families have a fighting shot. We must protect voting rights, protect a woman's right to choose, and, above all else, we must protect our democracy. While there will be setbacks along the way, I am confident that the long term path of Virginia is toward inclusion, openness and tolerance for all."

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Redistricting commission implodes as Republicans reject compromise and Democrats walk out

The Virginia Redistricting Commission's first-ever attempt to draw fair political maps collapsed in spectacular fashion Friday, when frustrated Democrats walked out of a meeting after Republicans rebuffed their suggestions for reaching a compromise.

The commission, which has been holding regular meetings for more than a month, never came close to reaching an agreement on final General Assembly maps. Partisanship dominated the process from the start, with the commission hiring two teams of overtly partisan consultants and repeatedly failing to agree on how to merge two sets of maps.

The process now appears headed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, unless the three Democratic walkouts change their minds and agree to meet again. But that appears unlikely based on how Friday's meeting ended.

The gridlock reached a breaking point as the commission failed to agree on which maps to use as a starting point for its final push for a deal. The commission's eight Democrats voted to begin with a Republican-drawn House of Delegates map and Democratic-drawn Senate map. Republicans voted against that offer and suggested keeping both a GOP and Democratic Senate map alive — a proposal all eight Democrats voted down.

That prompted Democratic co-chair Greta Harris to call it quits. If the commission is going to work in 2031, she said, it shouldn't have any legislators on it and all members should be required to take a history class to understand why Black commissioners felt so strongly about protecting minority voting power.

“I think our work is done," Harris said. “And what a shame it is."

After a brief recess, Democrats motioned to adjourn the meeting. That effort failed when two Democrats voted with Republicans to continue working toward compromise. But Harris and two other Democratic citizens, James Abrenio and Brandon Hutchins, simply left the room, making clear they felt further negotiations with Republicans would be useless.

Harris and Abrenio appealed directly to the Supreme Court, saying they hope the justices, who lean conservative, will do a better job of living up to the principles of fairness the commission was supposed to embody.

“I never want to be involved in this again. Because this is not right," Abrenio said. “I'm sorry to you all that I couldn't get the job done."

Republicans said they objected to working with the Democratic-drawn Senate proposal because it was only unveiled Friday morning, after a week's worth of public hearings where citizens were unable to see it.

“Last I checked there were no public comments on that map," said Republican commissioner Jose Feliciano.

Though it was clear the commission was only voting on which maps to use as a starting point, Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said he wanted to compare and contrast two Senate proposals instead of being tied to one.

“I don't understand how the spirit of compromise and working together is not looking at what those differences are, talking about those differences, and trying to come to a resolution on them," McDougle said.

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, urged the commission to keep going.

“I'm reminded that when they pick a pope there's a lot of tie votes before they get to the white smoke," Stanley said. “They don't give up."

Democrats said the Republican speeches rang hollow, calling for a spirit of compromise that was nowhere to be found when it was time to vote.

“Let's not kid ourselves about what's happening here," said Democrat Sean Kumar, who voted to continue working and stayed in the room as other Democratic citizen members left. “I'm sorry but that speech was inconsistent with what we've seen. There has not been a willingness to really try to even start with a mutual starting point."

The commission convened at 9 a.m. Friday. The meeting's abrupt end came at around 2:45 p.m., leaving the remaining commissioners at a loss for what to do.

The remaining commissioners were told they probably should not continue to conduct business without a quorum. Republican co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko opined aloud that she alone could perhaps call another meeting without Harris, her partner in coordinating the commission's work.

“Whether we will have a quorum at that time, that remains to be seen," she said.

Though the commission had only discussed re-drawing General Assembly maps, it was supposed to follow that up by redrawing Virginia's congressional maps later this year. It's unclear if commissioners have the appetite to even attempt that task or will simply ask the Supreme Court to take over redistricting altogether.

The commission, made up of eight sitting legislators and eight citizens nominated by General Assembly leaders and selected by retired judges, was the result of years of advocacy from redistricting reformers who wanted to strip the legislature of its powers to gerrymander. Though many called for a completely nonpartisan commission with no legislators involved at all, that concept didn't have enough support to pass the General Assembly.

The hybrid commission passed the General Assembly two years in a row and voters overwhelmingly approved it last year.

Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus were vocally opposed to the commission, arguing it wouldn't do enough to protect minority voting rights. Race proved to be a key sticking point, with partisan lawyers offering conflicting advice on when the commission could and couldn't use racial demographics to guide it's map-drawing decisions.

After winning a majority in 2019, many House Democrats turned sharply against the commission idea, saying it would inevitably result in a deadlock that would hand redistricting to the conservative-leaning Supreme Court.

But some Democrats felt that outcome wouldn't be as disastrous as predicted, and may actually move the state closer to the goal of removing legislators from the process altogether.

The court has to follow criteria requiring geographic compactness and racial and political fairness. Instead of justices drawing maps themselves, the process calls for the court to select two outside experts, from lists of nominees submitted by each political party, who will present plans to the court for approval.

The state's high court has already sided with Democrats in the first redistricting lawsuit of the 2021 cycle, rejecting a Republican attempt to overrule a new Democratic law requiring prisoners to be counted as residents of their hometowns, not where they're incarcerated.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.