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George Copeland Jr.

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Virginia Swears In Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A new voice formally joined Virginia’s government Saturday afternoon as Justin Fairfax was sworn in as lieutenant governor, and a familiar figure, Mark Herring, took the oath of office to continue his role as attorney general.

The two, alongside newly instated Gov. Ralph Northam, headlined an inaugural ceremony attended by approving guests.

Rita Williams, who had worked with Fairfax’s campaign when he lost the Democratic nomination for attorney general to Herring in 2013, said she was proud of his accomplishments.

“He is a very, very intelligent young man, a gifted young man, and he will make an excellent lieutenant governor,” she said.

Fairfax is the second African-American elected to a Virginia state position, following Douglas Wilder as governor in 1989. He was sworn in by former U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee. Before retiring, Lee oversaw a number of high profile cases, including the convictions of Brian Patrick Regan for espionage and Ahmed Omar Abu Ali for conspiracy to assassinate then-President George W. Bush.

Thomas Horne, a former judge and commonwealth’s attorney from Loudoun County, returned to administer the oath of office for Herring as he had done four years ago. Herring spent his previous career as a lawyer in Horne’s Loudoun County courtroom.

Mia Masten, director of advocacy and professional relations for Pfizer in Washington, D.C., attended the event. She said she was unfamiliar with the two politicians but was enthusiastic about Virginia’s future with “the new influx of new energy, new blood, new excitement.”

Charles Cockrell, communication and business director at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, was also optimistic.

“I think we have great leadership in Virginia,” he said.“We see a lot of progress in technology and what we’ve done to foster economic growth in the Commonwealth. We look forward to seeing that continue in the next administration.”

Senate Panel Rejects Bill Banning Utility Campaign Donations

By George Copeland, Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A senator’s repeat attempt to prohibit campaign donations from Dominion Energy and other regulated monopolies was struck down by a Senate committee Tuesday.

Senate Bill 10 would have banned candidates from soliciting or accepting donations from any public service corporation, and any political action committees those corporations created and controlled.  The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee effectively killed the bill by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, on a 12-2 vote.  Sens. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, opposed.

Petersen’s bill, co-patroned by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, was nearly identical to legislation the Fairfax lawmaker filed last year.

 "Sen. Petersen will continue the fight to keep monopoly money out of Virginia politics," said Alex Parker, the senator’s political director.

In his statement to the committee, Petersen said he sought the ban because of the electricity-rate freeze approved by the General Assembly in 2015 that resulted in “transferring several hundred million dollars in wealth from rate-payers to the profits, the shareholders of these companies.” On Monday, Petersen's attempt to roll back the freeze, which applied to Dominion and Appalachian Power Co., also failed in committee -- though the issue could be pushed in legislation by other lawmakers this session.

 “I felt like one of the root causes why my legislation was not successful, why we passed these underlying bills, was money had corrupted the process,” Petersen said.

Petersen didn’t name any specific corporations during his statement, but the legislation’s largest impact would have been on the role of Dominion, the largest corporate donor to Republican and Democratic legislators, governors and other elected officials in Virginia.

Several committee members critiqued Petersen’s bill and its potential effects.  Petersen himself admitted the bill wasn’t perfect, and was resigned to its failure. But he also made clear that he believed the legislation had broad public support.  Recalling a 2017 town hall meeting where he discussed the bill, Petersen said, “It remains the only time that I’ve been in politics, 20 years, that I’ve gotten a standing ovation.”

He added, “Until you take the money from public service corporations out of this body, you will continue to get flawed legislation like the rate freeze.”

Hundreds Celebrate Legacies of Dr. King, VUU

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and hundreds of other people gathered Friday morning for Virginia Union University’s 40th Annual Community Leaders Breakfast, praising the school’s mission and legacy while urging Virginians toward acts of public service.

Along with figures including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, the event also celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which has its 50th anniversary on Monday.

Despite the heavy rain outside the Marriott Hotel, guests were in high spirits about Virginia Union – founded in 1865 to serve newly freed slaves – and the future of the state in general. Corshai Williams, president of the VUU Student Government Association, was honored at the event, while the school’s choir performed.

“I think it’s an awesome reflection on the legacy of Martin Luther King,” said Joseph L. Lyons, associate director of career services for Virginia State University, a historically black school in Petersburg. “I think the fusion of educators and persons in the community, as well as students together will continue the dream.”

Pamela Tolson Turner, director of communications for VSU, agreed.

“I look forward to this event each year,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful opportunity to honor the legacy of such a great man, a man that stood for all.”

Former Varina High School teacher Reginald Bassette Sr. was enthusiastic about the state’s prospects in the coming year: “I think Virginia is moving forward in more ways than we know. The good things that are happening are generally overshadowed by the things that are not as positive as they could be.”

Less positive topics nonetheless found their way into the celebration through the speakers’ remarks. Among the topics was last year’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville.

Northam condemned the “white supremacists” responsible for the event, which led to the death of activist Heather Heyer and two Virginia State Police officers. Northam promised support for “inclusivity and diversity” throughout the state under his administration.

McEachin made repeated references to President Donald Trump’s administration when talking about King’s philosophies and the opposition he faced.

“The trouble that we have now is because we have leaders who do not keep the needs of the people holy,” McEachin said. He listed such developments as the failed attempts to expand Medicaid in Virginia, Congress’ failure to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and passage of a federal tax bill that many believe will hurt the poor.

McEachin summarized his thoughts on the current state of the country with: “Indeed, these are troubled times.”

But the speakers and guests made an effort to keep the breakfast centered on a more positive outlook.

Accepting an MLK Lifetime of Service award from the group he helped create, the Rev. Taylor C. Millner Sr. of Morning Star Holy Church said, “This breakfast is not just about Trump. This breakfast is also reminding you that when you go out of that door at 9 o’clock, you have to live the dream. You have to fight for justice. You have to make an opportunity for everyone else. Go after the gold, but also serve somebody!”

Mr. Lyons, when asked for his thoughts on Richmond and Virginia’s place in 2018, said “I think we are survivors, I think we persevere, I think we move forward. So regardless of the climate, regardless of the political outlook, I think we’re always going to move forward and be optimistic.”

Like Florida, Virginia Seeks Offshore Drilling Exemption

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov.-elect Ralph Northam asked Thursday that Virginia be exempt from the Trump administration’s plan to open almost all of America’s offshore waters to drilling.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Northam cited his childhood growing up on the Eastern Shore as testament to the region’s worth to Virginia and the country at large.

“The Chesapeake Bay and the Commonwealth’s ocean and coastal resources are every bit as ecologically and economically valuable as those of Florida,” Northam said.

Last week, Zinke proposed allowing offshore oil and gas drilling in nearly all coastal waters of the United States. But on Tuesday, following objections from Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Zinke said Florida would be exempt from the plan.

Northam’s letter asked “that the same exemption be made for the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

The letter follows Northam’s previous statement condemning the Trump administration’s drilling proposal. Governors of other East Coast states – including Maryland and North and South Carolina – have also voiced objections.

Northam said offshore drilling would pose financial risks to Virginia. He said he was concerned about military assets in Hampton Roads, which account for “nearly half” of the region’s economy, and about the tourism and seafood industries. Northam said Virginia is “the leading seafood producer on the East Coast, the third largest producer in the country, and the national leader in hard clam aquaculture.”

Zinke has called the drilling plan part of “a new path for energy dominance in America.” In a press release last week, he said oil and gas drilling would have vast financial benefits, providing “billions of dollars to fund the conservation of our coastlines, public lands and parks.”

The Trump administration will take public comment on its proposals from Jan. 16 through March 9.

Northam called on the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to hold public hearings in Hampton Roads and on the Eastern Shore. He noted that the bureau has scheduled a public meeting for the proposal in Richmond, “nearly 100 miles from the coastal communities that would most feel its impacts.”

Legislative Black Caucus aims to help disadvantaged

By George Copeland, Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus pledged their commitment Wednesday to legislation that would help underprivileged Virginians by bringing improvements in education, health care, the economy and the criminal justice system. 

Outlining their agenda on the first day of the 2018 General Assembly session, caucus members said at a news conference that increased Democratic representation in the House of Delegates and the election of Justin Fairfax as lieutenant governor were a boon for the group’s goals.

“We are in a great position to pass some legislation that will benefit all Virginians,” said Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance, D-Petersburg, who presented the caucus’ policies for health care.  “Not only is Medicaid expansion the right thing to do, but it will save Virginians money. Right now, we have the opportunity to be on the right side of history.”

Newly elected  Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge, announced 10 criminal justice bills stemming from her experience as  a public defender to ensure a state that was “smart on crime” rather than punitive.

Del. Delores L. McQuinn, D-Richmond, emphasized the importance of  healthy and affordable food for marginalized communities.She pledged the caucus’ support for the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund, which she said would also create jobs in the private sector.

“We know that it works; it has worked across the country,” said  McQuinn, “and we are pushing this as one of the ways of bringing economic prosperity and wellness to the various communities.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, summarized the caucus’ slate of education policies. She said caucus members “would fight any legislation that diverted public school funds to private schools.”

Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, said caucus-backed voting rights bills would make voting a constitutional right for non-violent felons and lower the voting age to 16 for local elections. The caucus is also supporting redistricting reform, and said that ballot confusion in the 28th District led to an “injustice” in the defeat of Democratic hopeful Joshua Cole.

“We want to ensure something like that doesn’t happen again, said Del. Rasoul.  “We firmly believe that voting is not a privilege, rather that it’s our due as Americans and Virginians.”

Near the start of the conference, new Caucus Chair Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, introduced Lt. Gov.-elect Fairfax as the “21st member” of the caucus.  Fairfax highlighted the caucus’ part in the November Democratic victories and described his future role in the Senate as “breaking ties in favor of progress.” Fairfax said he was looking forward “to working with every single one of these brave leaders.”

Governor Declares Emergency As Snowstorm Nears

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – State officials on Wednesday urged Virginians to prepare for a winter storm that could dump up to a foot of snow on parts of the commonwealth over the next few days.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency at 2:20 p.m. Wednesday, authorizing state agencies, including the National Guard and Virginia State Police, to assist local governments in responding to the storm, which may impact roads and bridges.

The sudden cold snap follows temperature drops across the Southeastern United States, including a rare snowfall in South Carolina. Parts of Eastern Virginia, including Hampton Roads, the Northern Neck and Eastern Shore, are expected to receive the most snowfall – up to 12 inches.

“With this forecast in mind, all Virginians should take the necessary precautions now to ensure they are prepared for the travel disruptions, power outages and other threats to health and safety that could arise during this significant weather event,” McAuliffe said in a press release.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is already at work, according to Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne.

“VDOT has already taken measures to pre-treat roads and preposition equipment, crews and materials to treat roads in advance of the storm and will work throughout the storm to plow roads,” Layne said. “Driving conditions during the storm are expected to be hazardous, and motorists are urged to stay off the roads until the storm passes.”

State officials encouraged residents to keep track of road conditions by accessing the 511virginia.org website, using the free VDOT 511 mobile app or calling 511. VDOT also has a Snow Plow Tracker that shows the location of most plows.

Other help and assistance during the storm can be reached by dialing 211 or #77 on mobile phones for vehicular emergencies. Virginians with hearing impairments can call 711 for the Virginia Relay Center and then 1-800-230-6977.

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