RICHMOND, Va. - A host of new faces took their seats as newly sworn members of the House of Delegates Wednesday, and the chamber unanimously elected a new leader, Del. Kirk Cox from Colonial Heights. The first day of work for the 2018 General Assembly session was heavy on procedural moves and even heavier on talks of common ground.
Following Novembers election in which Virginia Democrats picked up 15 seats in the House, Republicans longstanding control of the chamber has shrunk to a 51-49 majority. The group of 19 newcomers have the chance to impact the kinds of issues lawmakers tackle in 2018.
The freshmen class of delegates has been praised for its youth and diversity, and several of new members have grabbed national headlines.
Del. Dancia Roem (D - Prince William) became the first transgender woman elected to the House of Delegates. Wednesday, before taking the oath of office, lawmakers from both parties congratulated and hugged Roem.
Del. Dawn Adams (D -Richmond) became the first openly lesbian delegate in Virginia history Wednesday. A record number of women now serve in the state legislature, a total of 24 this year tops the previous high of 19 in 2013.
Wednesday newcomers from both parties said they believe the November election showed most Virginians want their elected officials to work together.
“There is more that brings us together than separates us. We all care about the people of the Commonwealth. We want to make sure to continue economic growth, job opportunities, funding education," said Debra Rodman (D - Henrico), who unseated veteran lawmaker John O'Bannon.
"My whole life has been about teamwork and leadership. I want to bring people together and get things done as a team. I’d like to improve education, I’d like to improve the business climate, maybe work as a team to solve this opioid problem," said John McGuire (R - Goochland), who founded the popular SEAL Team training program.
Civics teacher to the Speaker
With a vote of 99-0, Del. Kirk Cox was elected the next Speaker of the House of Delegates. Cox, who was first elected to the House in 1989, was a civics teacher before becoming a state lawmaker.
Cox was designated the "Speaker in waiting" by his colleagues last year, but the political make up of the party he now leads was not expected prior to last November.
During his first remarks as Speaker, Cox told the chamber they sit in the Capitol to do the work of the people, not to get Facebook shares or likes. Cox said the first duty of the House of Delegates was to set party aside and work across the five foot aisle in the middle of the chamber that separates Republicans and Democrats.
Despite the message of bipartisanship, multiple sources who work at the General Assembly said they expect the good will between the parties to fade quickly, especially since the margins are much tighter in 2018 session. CBS 6 asked the Speaker about those critiques following adjournment.
" We’re going to work across the aisle. I will say we are in the majority; it’s 51-49. We also feel like we have a mandate. We feel like we have done a lot of great initiatives over the past few years, so we’re certainly not going to back down from that. But we’re certainly going to work with the Democrats were we can," Cox said.
The Speaker told CBS 6 he thinks Republicans will be willing to work with Democrats on issues like economic development, K-12 and higher education funding, workforce development, veterans issues, and combating the opioid crisis.
Cox pushed back against the idea of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Democrats feel emboldened following November's election, and many believe expansion is now a reality. Cox said Republicans may be open to working on improving portions of Medicaid, but said federal funding for expanision is not guaranteed, and Republicans will not rely on federal dollars if the move threatens a balanced state budget.
Governor-elect Ralph Northam, who takes office on Saturday, met with Speaker Cox Wednesday evening to discuss areas where they can make progress this session. Cox said Northam's experience serving in Virginia's Senate and as Lt. Governor is beneficial how this session plays out.