Newly diverse Virginia House convenes for its first day

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Virginia General Assembly convened its 2018 session Wednesday with a host of new faces in the House of Delegates and pledges of bipartisanship from both parties.
Nineteen new members were sworn into the lower chamber, which was dramatically reshaped by Democrats’ big gains in the November election. Of the new members, 16 are Democrats, 12 are women and many made history for their diversity.
Virginia now has its first Latina and female Asian-American delegates. Del. Dawn Adams is the first openly lesbian member, and Del. Danica Roem is both the state’s first transgender lawmaker as well as the first openly transgender person to be elected and seated in a state legislature in the United States.
“This body looks like our communities now. It’s amazing,” said newly seated Democratic Del. Kathy Tran, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam as a child and brought her 11-month-old daughter with her Wednesday.
Roem, a former reporter who unseated one of the longest-serving and most socially conservative Republican House members, at first quipped that it was about time the House got more journalists when asked about the historic nature of her win, which grabbed headlines around the world.
Then she continued, saying the election of a transgender person means “you can follow your dreams because of who you are, not despite it.”
“If you set your mind to it, no matter what you look like, where you come from, how you worship or who you love, this is your America too. This is your Commonwealth too, and this is your House of Delegates too,” she said.
Despite Democrats’ big gains, Republicans held on to a 51-49 majority in the House after winning a two-month recount battle in one district and staving off legal actions in another. The Senate, which didn’t hold elections last year, also remains in GOP control by a razor-thin margin.
After the new House members were sworn in, the chamber elected Republican Del. Kirk Cox as House speaker. The former government teacher from Colonial Heights replaces retiring Speaker William J. Howell.
Cox acknowledged that the makeup of the House is much different than it’s been for nearly two decades.
“We are not two parties, we are one House tasked with the responsibility of governing one Commonwealth, improving the lives of one group: the citizens we serve. As we come together as a body to heal the wounds of an election season that lasted longer than any of us expected, I pray we will renew the commitment to governing,” said Cox, who received a standing ovation from members of both parties.
Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who was barred by Virginia law from seeking a consecutive term, gave his annual State of the Commonwealth Address to lawmakers Wednesday evening, during which he touted his accomplishments over his past four years in office and suggested priorities for the road ahead.
Incoming Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, a doctor who served as a state senator and for the past four years as lieutenant governor, will be sworn in Saturday.
Northam has promised to unite Republicans and Democrats at the General Assembly and pass a bipartisan agenda. On Tuesday, he said Medicaid expansion and legislation to implement universal background checks for gun buyers are among his top priorities.
Lawmakers will also be tasked with passing the biennial state budget during the 60-day session.
House Democratic Leader David Toscano said he was delighted to have so many new members in his caucus and was more excited Wednesday than on any other opening day since he was first seated in 2006.
“You know, we’re going to fight like cats and dogs on a number of things, but we’re going to find ways we can work together too on things that are important, like the budget, hopefully on Medicaid expansion,” Toscano said. “We’ll see.”