Criminal Justice Reform
The fight for social and criminal justice reform is very personal to me. As the first public defender ever elected to the General Assembly and as a former magistrate judge, I’ve witnessed the systemic flaws that define our criminal justice system, flaws that disproportionately impact Virginia’s most vulnerable communities. For years, I have advocated for those who could not advocate for themselves, and on behalf of those for whom our justice system is broken. But the impact isn’t limited to the courthouse — these inequities set too many up for a lifetime of being left behind. We see the impact in our schools, in the jobs available to Virginians, in access to housing and healthcare, and so much more.
So I found my protest is passing legislation – I ran for Delegate to fix our broken criminal justice system and create a Virginia that treats all people equally. While serving in the House of Delegates I:
- Sponsored legislation to address cash bail reform, the ban on parole, and the issue of “driving poor” — all of which contribute to mass incarceration and cyclical patterns of joblessness and poverty within minority communities
- Sponsored a bill prohibiting the use of neck restraints, such as chokeholds, by law enforcement.
- Passed legislation to repeal the Habitual Drunkard law, which unfairly punishes the homeless and those struggling with substance abuse, and
- Led the charge to create a much-needed public defender’s office in my district, which includes Prince William County
- Introduced legislation to legalize marijuana, which is key to putting an end to the mass incarceration of Black and Brown communities
- Created an initiative to recruit and train minority judge candidates so residents of our Commonwealth face qualified and thoughtful legal minds of various backgrounds
- Launched an initiative to clarify the process of applying, to create a network of mentors and champions for the applicants, and to inform our legislators about the importance of diversity and inclusiveness
- Introduced legislation requiring school authority officials to handle minor disciplinary issues at school instead of referring students to the police
- Co-sponsored a bill to limit the maximum number of days of school suspension from 365 to 45.
- Successfully sponsored the Dress Code Equity Act, the first bill in the nation to codify protections in school dress codes against religious and ethnic discrimination to combat school pushout for Black girls
In my first year at the Virginia Military Institute, I had tutors in almost every class because I was unprepared for college. Growing up in Petersburg, we didn’t have textbooks to take home, certified teachers in our classrooms, and counselors who kept up after us. I was an exception to the rule: the vast majority of my high school classmates didn’t graduate or go to college. Many of the inequities we faced persist today, and it shouldn’t be luck that gets a kid like me into college.
The coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the systemic inequities within our system. In the transition to online learning, we witnessed significant disparities with respect to technology and the internet by our most vulnerable learners.
We need to ensure that all Virginia students don’t just have a chance at success, but a likelihood of success. First, we must work to strengthen our public schools by preparing and supporting our teachers. I believe that if we get teachers the benefits and wages they deserve, and the tools they need to help our kids succeed, we will revitalize our classrooms. Second, we must prepare our students for the global economy and meet the growing demand by employers for skills to power a modern workforce. Third, having a diverse set of educators is vital to creating a compassionate and understanding student body, and will make for a stronger Commonwealth.
As a Delegate, I:
- Proudly supported efforts to give teachers a five percent pay increase and passed legislation removing politically-motivated, anti-teacher tenure rules and was named a Legislative Champion by the Virginia Education Association in 2019 and 2020 as a result
- Passed legislation making it easier for students to take computer coding courses in high school
- Spearheaded efforts to help teachers secure credentials to teach computer coding
- Passed a bill allowing local school divisions to enter into College and Career Access Pathways Partnerships with community colleges. In recognition of this work, I was named 2020 Policymaker of the Year by the Virginia Association for Career and Technical Education.
- Passed my Dress Code Equity Act, ensuring that all school dress codes promote a safe school environment that respects students’ religious and ethnic backgrounds.
- Advocated for reducing the number of days a child can be suspended, and ensuring that discipline infractions are dealt with in-schools rather than in the courtroom.
- Dedicated years to breaking the school to prison pipeline — so that students of color spend less time in the courtroom and more time in the classroom
- Passed my Diversifying the Teacher Workforce Act, helping to eliminate unnecessary barriers to gaining a teacher certification that disproportionately hurt minority educators
- Supported bills to increase teacher mentorship programs and Grow Your Own recruitment efforts that recruit more teachers of color
- Sponsored legislation to prioritize school safety measures
- Put forward an amendment to the state budget to restore all of the K-12 direct aid funding initiatives that were unallotted due to the pandemic and eliminated in the introduced budget.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed life for all Virginians. It goes without saying that this crisis has exposed what was just beneath the surface: that too many don’t have what they need to get by. The time is now to support our neighbors, our workers, and our families.
Additionally, we know that minority communities bear the brunt of this unprecedented pandemic, facing higher rates of infection and mortality. Fewer than one in five Black workers and nearly one in six Hispanic workers are able to work from home, putting these Virginians at higher risk. We are also facing a crisis of housing insecurity. Many are struggling to pay their rent and mortgages, and without relief, they fear eviction. Now is not the time for families to be homeless or moving into overcrowded spaces with family or friends.
As Delegate, I:
- Proposed a comprehensive Working Families Bill of Rights, offering fresh ideas to improve workplace safety standards and ensure stronger benefits for workers and the unemployed during the pandemic and beyond
- Advocated on behalf of many of our dedicated frontline workers — including grocery store workers, bus operators, and airline service personnel.
- Led the call for comprehensive paid sick leave so workers and their families can get the care they need, which is more critical than ever during COVID-19
- Led the Prince William County Delegation to submit a letter to Chief Judge Coleman extending the moratorium on eviction proceedings in my district
- Introduced an amendment to the state budget to restore funding for additional civil indigent defense attorneys to represent individuals in eviction cases
- And after listening to my constituents and Latinx community leaders, I called on Governor Northam to ensure greater outreach on Spanish radio and television and bilingual contact tracers
Supporting Immigrant Communities
Immigrants are what make our Commonwealth great. In Prince William County nearly 25% of the population are immigrants AND FAIRFAX STATS. Virginia’s immigrant families strengthen our communities, undergird our local economies, and bring incredible diversity and dynamism to our Commonwealth.
The ways we leave immigrant families behind are unconscionable. This is evident in the significant disparities in COVID-19 outcomes, with Latinx communities among the hardest hit.These disparities stem largely from longstanding. systemic inequities such as disparate access to healthcare, inadequate housing, and jobs that don’t have paid medical leave or an option to stay home to stay safe during this pandemic (roughly one in six Hispanic workers are able to work from home compared to nearly 1 in 3 white workers).
As Delegate I:
- Called on Governor Northam to ensure broader outreach to Latinx families during COVID-19
- Called for greater rent support for all Virginians, regardless of their immigration status
- Fought for increased funding for rent relief programs and representation for eviction proceeding cases
- Worked to pass the Virginia Dream Act, bringing higher education to all our Virginians regardless of their immigration status
- Supported legislation to make it possible for undocumented residents to acquire driver’s licenses
- Proposed a budget amendment to repeal the 40-Quarter rule, an outdated work restriction that prevents many from accessing the healthcare that they need
As a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, I have the utmost respect for our veterans and their commitment to putting service before self. With nearly one in ten Virginians being a veteran, our Commonwealth is a proud home to many returning to civilian life. We must do all that we can to support our veterans like they do for us.
In the House of Delegates, I:
- Passed legislation allowing service disabled veteran-owned businesses to purchase property (i.e. computers, desks, and other equipment) that the government no longer needs. This effort, inspired by feedback from veteran-owned businesses in Prince WIlliam County, made it possible for nearly 311 certified service-disabled Veteran-owned small businesses in Virginia to access the capital needed to launch their businesses confidently.
- Proposed amendments to the state budget to restore two key workforce development programs that help veterans enter the workforce — Virginia’s Job Investment Program and Virginia’s Talent Accelerator Program.
- Co-sponsored legislation expanding access to alternative treatment options for those experiencing PTSD and related conditions.
- Led efforts to raise funding for programs and initiatives geared towards women veterans
- Supported a bill to name the last full week of March as Women Veterans Week, highlighting the unique challenges women veterans face, especially around pregnancy and childbirth
Jobs and the Economy
The past year has been one of the most challenging in our Commonwealth’s history. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated our communities and our economy, throwing hundreds of thousands of us out of work, shutting the doors of thousands of businesses, forcing our children to learn remotely, and most tragically, causing dire health consequences for over hundreds of thousands of Virginians who have fallen sick. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Virginians have faced record rates of unemployment, our small businesses have struggled to survive. And no one has been hit harder than women and people of color. With more than 800,000 unemployment claims filed in Virginia since March 2020, it’s clear that we must do everything we can to get our economy back up and running safely and that starts by electing leaders with a proven record of results.
I have earned a reputation in Richmond for working across the aisle to get things done. My training at Virginia Military Institute has instilled in me an ability to work with everyone to execute the mission at hand, including people from different backgrounds and with different ideologies. And, groups across the political and ideological spectrum have recognized my work.
As a legislator, I was proud to work with both my Republican and Democratic colleagues and Governor Northam to maintain our AAA bond rating, increase our rainy day fund, achieve the lowest unemployment rate in recent history, and attain the recognition by CNBC as the number one state in the nation for business. In 2018, I received the Champion of Enterprise Award from the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and in 2020, I was named 2020 Policymaker of the Year by the Virginia Association for Career and Technical Education.
As Delegate, I:
- Fought to maximize job creation and give small businesses access to capital and resources they need to succeed.
- Passed bipartisan legislation to give veterans greater access to the capital they need to start and grow a business
- Co-sponsored a bill that rewards companies for creating jobs in underserved communities
- Passed legislation to give small minority-owned businesses more opportunities to secure contracts with utilities
- Passed legislation to provide greater access to coding courses in high school, preparing our students for the 21st Century economy
- Passed a bill allowing local school divisions to enter into College and Career Access Pathways Partnerships with community colleges. Because of these efforts, I was named 2020 Policymaker of the Year by the Virginia Association for Career and Technical Education, and received a Free Enterprise Award from the Virginia Chamber of Commerce in 2018.
Unions and Working Families
The feeling of living paycheck to paycheck is one I know well. Growing up in Petersburg, we scraped to get by, budgeting every penny that we earned, working hard day after day. Members of my family still make the minimum wage, and I know how difficult it is for them to survive on what’s in their bank account. My story isn’t unique. Virginia’s working families aren’t getting a fair shake. In fact, Oxfam ranks Virginia the worst state in the country for workers. And the issues we’ve always faced have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Working families deserve a living wage, benefits, and a voice.
That’s why I’ve never been shy in standing with working families. I’ve stood on the picket line with bus drivers on strike and attended rallies with our airport workers. In the last legislative session, Jennifer led the charge to reverse decades of anti-working family, anti-teacher legislation and passed the biggest expansion of labor rights in decades.
As Delegate, I:
- Passed groundbreaking legislation instituting a prevailing wage on all state-funded construction projects
- Co-sponsored legislation repealing the “Comstock rule” that banned the use of Project Labor Agreements, which will help thousands of construction workers get quality health coverage
- Sponsored legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour
- Passed a bill that cracks down on companies that don’t pay their workers
- Sponsored legislation to ensure that firefighters who contracted cancer on the job were covered by workers compensation
Transportation and Infrastructure
Let’s be blunt: transportation in Virgina feels like a daily disaster. Northern Virginians face some of the worst traffic in the entire country, public transportation experiences constant setbacks, our infrastructure is wildly out of date. These challenges aren’t just a frustration working families must confront on the way to a job or school – they can cost Virginians thousands of dollars in lost productivity. At the same time, we must look towards the future. The nature of work is changing with the rise of technology and computer science industries — and increasingly so as more Virginians work from home during this pandemic. As Virginia urbanizes and grows, we need policies that can keep up.
As Delegate, I:
- Voted to create a dedicated source of funding for WMATA in 2018
- Supported the Major Transportation Plan patroned by Speaker Filler-Corn, which includes robust improvements to our transportation system and reinvestments in our communities to raise public safety
- Voted to keep Virginians safer by establishing a Virginia Highway Safety Improvement Program and “prohibiting the use of handheld cell phones while driving, banning open containers of alcohol in vehicles, making failure to wear a seatbelt a primary offense, enhancing speed enforcement, and allowing localities to lower speed limits.”
- Voted to modernize Virginia’s transportation funding model by cutting vehicle registration fees in half, raising the gas tax, and indexing it to inflation
- Voted to increase funding for:
- Smart Scale, the data-driven model for new capacity transportation projects;
- Interstates, secondary and city streets to meet safety and performance targets;
- Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, to ensure resources and staff to address regional priorities
- Voted to establish the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, an agency responsible for promoting, sustaining and expanding the availability of passenger- and commuter-rail service in Virginia. Moving forward, the VPRA will also administer all capital expansion projects, infrastructure, and land acquisitions related to Governor Northam’s $3.7 billion Transforming Rail in Virginia initiative, which will double Amtrak and VRE service in Virginia over the next decade
- Voted for the issuance of bonds to assist with the construction of a new rail next to Long Bridge and crossing the Potomac River
- Voted to allow the issuance of transportation bonds to complete the final section of Corridor Q of the Appalachian Development Highway System, and improvements in the Interstate 81 and Interstate 66 corridors
As a mother and former foster parent, I believe that protecting our environment is one of the most important things we can do for the future of our children. Climate change is not a distant threat, but rather an immediate danger that’s impacted the lives of all Virginians. When I learned in 2017 that water in my district was being contaminated with lead and arsenic from a Dominion Energy plant, I vowed to lead the clean-up effort — for my two boys, Xander and Alex, and for my neighbor’s children. My bipartisan legislation forced Dominion Energy to clean up the coal leaks in my district and across the Commonwealth.
In Virginia, a changing climate has meant more frequent storms and flooding that wreak havoc on our communities, and vulnerable communities, especially communities of color, are often hit hardest by environmental stressors that can have devastating effects on our health.
That’s why as a Delegate, I proposed legislation to protect our environment, and by extension, the health and safety of Virginians. Since elected to the House of Delegates, I:
- Passed legislation to clean contaminated water ponds around the Commonwealth
- Helped to secure $8mil+ funding to protect Widewater State Park
- Co-sponsored legislation to reward businesses and homeowners for investing in renewable energy.
- Co-sponsored legislation to reward property owners who switch to renewable energy
- Pushed for the creation of new, green jobs on wind farms
I believe that every Virginian deserves access to quality, affordable healthcare. But for decades, prescription drugs and healthcare premiums have been out of reach for far too many. When I was young, my aunt and I had to cut my grandmother’s life-saving prescriptions in half because the cost was simply too high. When I lived in Petersburg, I saw too many lives overtaken by drug addiction and mental healthcare issues that went untreated.
Many of the issues I saw up close still persist today. Virginia has some of the most expensive healthcare costs in the nation, putting quality care out of reach for too many. The opioid crisis is ongoing and drug companies keep profiting while everyday Virginians struggle to make ends meet. And the coronavirus pandemic has only further exposed the inequalities that are staring us in the face. Black and Brown communities are suffering higher rates of infection and mortality due to disparate access to information, testing, and treatment. In May, nearly three of every five hospitalized due to coronavirus were Latinx in Prince William County.
We cannot ignore the significant and systemic flaws in our healthcare system. That’s why as Delegate, I:
- Successfully supported the expansion of Medicaid to 500,000 newly insured Virginians
- Advocated for a paid family and medical leave program in our Commonwealth
- Led efforts to eliminate the 40-quarter rule, an unnecessary barrier that denies some immigrant populations from accessing basic healthcare services
- Passed legislation to assess the feasibility of medicaid reimbursement for doula care — an effective practice to combat the alarmingly high Black maternal mortality rates — and ensuring that donated breast milk is covered by all private insurance.
- Voted to ensure safer opioid dispensing practices, and to provide immunity to those community members who courageously report overdoses and help citizens get the aid they need
- Sponsored legislation asking the Department of Social Services to better track opioid usage among parents to better understand and target solutions for the foster care system.
- Led the call for comprehensive paid sick leave so our low-wage and frontline workers can get the care they need without fearing a loss of income
- Encouraged Governor Northam to expand Spanish-langauge access to COVID-19 information and contact tracing
Gender Equity and Reproductive Rights
Women can do all things if given the opportunity. I was in high school when Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion that allowed women to attend Virginia Military Institute, the previously all-male institution. It was that opinion that allowed me to attend VMI, where I eventually became one of the institute’s first women graduates; it was that principle that drove me to lead the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and refuse to take no for an answer.
Alongside my work leading the charge and cementing Virginia as the 38th and final state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, I’ve made concrete changes to advance equality for all Virginians. As Delegate, I:
- Worked to protect reproductive freedom, helping to lead the Reproductive Health Protection Act which removed medically unnecessary, politically-motivated restrictions on a patient seeking a safe and legal abortion.
- Pushed forward legislation to establish equality in our school dress codes, ensuring restrictions that promote a safe, disciplined school environment that respects students’ religious and ethnic differences
- Boldly advocated for paid family and medical leave
- Passed the Pregnant Worker Fairness Act, requiring all employers to offer commonsense accommodations to pregnant workers
But let’s be clear, there are still far too many barriers in the way for women, particularly women of color, to achieve their dreams. Women are still treated as second class citizens, especially in Virginia, where we face attacks on our ability to plan a family, get paid equally, and be treated with respect in the workplace. So while I’m proud to have served on the frontier fighting for gender equity here in Virginia, our work is far from over.