RICHMOND, Va. – Joe Preston has moved into his office on the fourth floor of the General Assembly Building, but his walls and desk are still fairly clean – like the clean slate he represents as the delegate for the 63rd House District.
For more than 30 years, Preston has practiced law, including as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Petersburg. Now he will help write the Commonwealth’s laws. During a half-hour interview on Thursday, his second day as a legislator, Preston expressed enthusiasm for working with his new colleagues.
“The people here have been extremely welcoming to me,” he said. “It has been a wonderful experience to have access to these people because these are the people that make a difference in our community.”
Preston, 58, hopes to make a difference, too. So far, he has submitted nine bills and two proposed constitutional amendments for consideration by the General Assembly.
One of Preston’s proposals, House Bill 1971, concerns special elections to fill vacant legislative seats. It would require that the public be given a two-week notice before such an election.
“Voters deserve a minimum of two weeks notice,” Preston said. “That keeps local parties and insiders from manipulating the process and disenfranchising a lot of voters.”
Preston himself was elected in a special election, on Jan. 6, to represent the 63rd District, which includes Petersburg, part of Hopewell and parts of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie and Prince George counties. He succeeded fellow Democrat Rosalyn Dance, who had been elected to the Senate last fall.
Preston joined other legislators as the General Assembly convened Wednesday for its 2015 session, which will run through Feb. 28. That evening, he heard Gov. Terry McAuliffe deliver his State of the Commonwealth address.
“I thought he made a fantastic speech,” Preston said. “In fact, I think so far the record is clear that Gov. McAuliffe is maybe our best governor ever for economic development.”
In his speech, McAuliffe said his administration last year successfully completed 267 economic development deals, increased international trade and set a record for agriculture and forestry exports.
Preston applauded those accomplishments, saying they help diversify Virginia’s economy, which has been heavily dependent on federal government spending.
“Virginia is the No. 1 state in the nation in terms of the federal dollars that are spent in our state,” he said.
Preston has submitted a couple of bills involving business:
HB 1973 would allow a local government to “reasonably limit the number of motor vehicle title loan businesses, payday lenders, check cashers, and precious metals dealers that may be operated at any one time within its territorial limits.”
HB 1976 has the same intent, but would affect only Petersburg.
Preston also sponsored a constitutional amendment – HJ 620 – to allow voters to elect local and statewide judges, including the justices of the Virginia Supreme Court. Currently, judges are appointed by the General Assembly.
Preston also introduced HB 1977, which would prohibit “any member of the General Assembly actively serving a term of incarceration for a felony or misdemeanor from attending any floor session of the House of Delegates or the Senate. This bill also denies such members the privileges of the floor in either house, whether in the General or Special Session.”
If passed, that bill would affect legislators like Del. Joe Morrissey of Henrico, who resigned in December after a sex scandal and then won re-election last Tuesday. Morrissey entered an Alford plea to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He is serving six months in jail. A work-release arrangement has allowed Morrissey to attend meetings at the Capitol.
“This is a bill that would have prevented Joe Morrissey from coming to the floor,” Preston said. “I am not designing this bill for him, but anyone who is under an active jail sentence.”
Legislators who have been convicted of a crime have lost the public’s trust, Preston added.
“What confidence does the public have in a lawmaker when the lawmaker is breaking the law? It doesn’t encourage democracy, it doesn’t encourage belief in the process and it actually looks like we have a bunch of special people up here that make special rules for themselves,” he said.
Preston said he believes his biggest struggle in the General Assembly will be trying to get Republicans to see that Democrats are not bad people.
“I think they know that, but I think trying to achieve a consensus for the betterment of the commonwealth has become too partisan,” Preston said. “We are becoming more and more like Washington, instead of less and less like Washington.”
Preston said most issues are not Democratic or Republican – they are people issues. He vowed to help reduce partisanship at Capitol Square. “Maybe that will be some of the personal satisfaction that I get out of the job.”
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