Morrissey talks Aug. 2 special session, November state House races

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The No. 1 topic that will be decided during a special session of the General Assembly that begins Aug. 2 is spending $4.3 billion of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan.

State Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) said that various cities and counties are vying for money for capital projects.

He said that the second biggest item would be appointing members to the state court of appeals. Recent legislation expanded the court from 11 to 17 members, but there have also been two retirements, Morrissey said, so legislators will have to appoint a total of eight new members.

The legislation, SB 1261, was needed because the state is also changing state law to give the right of automatic appeal in civil lawsuits.

Chesterfield judicial seats

Also of note is the recurring issue of replacing retired Judge Timothy J. Hauler on the Chesterfield-Colonial Heights Circuit Court and Judge Pam O’Berry on the district court.

Hauler retired at the end of 2019, but legislators could not come to complete agreement on a replacement. Although seven or eight of the 10 legislators who represent parts of Chesterfield reached a consensus last year to appoint Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Jayne A. Pemberton to the circuit court, Dels. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) and Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) balked. The consensus involved appointing Travis Williams, a black attorney, to Pemberton’s J&DR seat.

A more recent iteration of the consensus involved Pemberton and attorneys Curtis Hairston and Shameka Harris, the latter two who are black. However, the Chesterfield Bar Association — in a recent vote of its membership — rated Harris as “unqualified” for the district court seat. In fact, 94 percent of its voting members did so. Meanwhile, Williams and Hairston were rated “highly qualified” for district court by 82 and 53 percent, respectively.

This may have put a damper on Harris being part of the judicial mix.

On Saturday, July 10, Morrissey said the CBA’s recommendations “should be considered, and will be considered … and given great weight.”

If the Chesterfield delegation doesn’t come to an agreement during the special session, Morrissey said the “opportunity may be lost for two very qualified African American jurists to get on the bench.”

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that only 18 attorneys took part in the bar association’s balloting, which represents less than half of those who normally do. It was speculated that lingering concerns about COVID-19 and the vote taking place in the summer could have affected turnout.

For the J&DR seat, the bar association recommended, in order, attorneys Williams, Erik Baines and Tara Hatcher with 72, 66 and 55 percent, respectively. Baines and Hatcher are white.

The fact that only one judge out of 15 in the county’s three courts is black is an obvious factor on legislators’ minds, even though the bar association doesn’t consider race or sex in its recommendations.

The black community was split last year when the legislature chose not to renew O’Berry, who is black, to the district court bench. It was Morrissey, a white man married to a black woman, who led the fight to not renew O’Berry based on concerns about her qualifications.

Upcoming election

Although no Senate seats up are for election on Nov. 2 this year, control of the House of Delegates is on the line.

Democrats currently have a 55-45 seat majority, but Morrissey notes that could disappear based on the outcome in 10 competitive races across the state.

Five races in the Richmond metro area will be competitive, Morrissey said. He specifically cited District 66 where longtime incumbent Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) is retiring. Mike Cherry, a Republican on the Colonial Heights Council, is squaring off against Democrat Katie Sponsler. Sponsler defeated Linnard Harris Sr. in the Democratic primary on June 8, 60 to 40 percent. Sponsler lost to Cox in 2017 — 63.5 to 36.5 percent — in a district that was heavily Republican. Democrats have a narrow advantage in the current district based on presidential voting patterns. Cox won in 2019 with 51.7 percent to Sheila Bynum-Coleman’s 47 percent. Harris, then an independent candidate, garnered 1.2 percent.

Both Cherry and Sponsler served in the Air Force. Cherry was born in North Carolina and is a pastor and head of a school. Sponsler was born in Ohio and has been a waitress, cook, personal trainer and park ranger.

Del. Carrie Coyner (R) seeks re-election in District 62, a race she won over Lindsey Dougherty in 2019, 55 to 45 percent. This year, Coyner faces Democrat Jasmine Gore. Gore won the nomination after Gena Lashley withdrew from the race, according to Ballotpedia.com.

In other Richmond-area races, Morrissey said that Dels. Dawn Adams (D), Roxann Robinson (R), Rodney Willet (D) and Schuyler Van Valkenburg (D) will face competitive races.

Adams and Robinson represent parts of Chesterfield.

Adams is being challenged by Mark Earley Jr., the son of the state’s former attorney general, while Robinson is going up against Debra Gardner, who lost a close race for county commissioner in 2019 to incumbent Chris Winslow (R-Clover Hill).

In House District 70, McQuinn faces token opposition in independent David Vaught.

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