Representing the underdogs
Republican House leader aims to be ‘voice of reason’
Although it’s hard to think way back to January 2020, a time before a year of social unrest, pandemic and economic peril, that’s when Virginia’s legislature and executive branch became majority-Democrat for the first time since 1993. However, even if some Virginians forgot about this significant shift, Republican lawmakers have not.
Just before Thanksgiving, Virginia Business spoke to the House of Delegates’ minority leader, Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. A Texas-born attorney with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia, the 50-year-old Gilbert has held his seat since 2006, representing sections of Rockingham and Warren counties, as well as the counties of Page and Shenandoah. He serves on the House’s agriculture, rules and finance committees and was majority leader from 2018 to 2020. Democratic control of the House and Senate now makes it difficult for the GOP to pass legislation and set priorities in Virginia, but Gilbert says Republicans aim to “try and be a voice of reason for the business community.”
This year’s General Assembly session comes on the heels of the longest special session in memory, an 84-day session held from August to mid-October that was mainly focused on policing reforms and COVID-19-related economic relief measures. Gilbert and his fellow Republican legislators say they will not join Democrats in approving a 15-day extension of the 2021 regular session to 45 days, as is customary, but nonetheless requires a two-thirds majority vote. Gilbert says there’s no need for more than 30 days since much of the budget work was accomplished in the fall. On that front, Republicans retain some power.
Virginia Business: What legislation will be top of the agenda this session?
Del. Todd Gilbert: Well, I certainly think that the agenda in the General Assembly is obviously being driven by the one-party rule that we currently face in Richmond. We just had what I believe to be the worst legislation [passed] for business in the history of the commonwealth if you look at it as a whole. Virginia is, at least at the moment, still in the position of being the No. 1 state in which to do business, according to  CNBC rankings.
I think it’s very much a collective effort [by Democrats] to undermine the business environment. I mean, there are any number of ways that businesses are going to be able to be sued now, untold new liabilities in that regard, any number of additional costs of doing business — from increasing minimum wage to having to pay prevailing wages in public-works contracts — [to] being able to be sued for nonpayment of wages, for discriminatory behavior, for misidentifying employees as independent contractors and on and on.
VB: The state Senate tempered some of the stronger measures with support in the House, such as killing a measure that would have repealed the right-to-work law last year.
Gilbert: That’s correct, but I think that’s only a temporary reprieve. The Democrats as a whole have made it extremely clear that Virginia’s almost sacred right-to-work law is in their sights, and they intend to get rid of that. The unions to which they are beholden expect them to do that. I think the only reason that we did not see it happen in the last session is because the House and the Senate differed on how they chose to eliminate right-to-work. I don’t think the goal of the House and Senate is ultimately different; it’s just how they intend to get there.
… One of the top reasons we are an attractive place to do business nationally, that people choose to come here, is because we don’t have the system where you have to belong to a particular union in order to work in a particular business or factory or industry.
VB: Where do you stand on marijuana legalization, and where does your party stand on it?
Gilbert: I don’t know if there’s a collective opinion of our party. We’re made up of … diverse individuals, and the members of my caucus probably have varying opinions on it. I continue to oppose legalization without any guidance as to where this is all headed.
My contention through the years has been that before Virginia even contemplates going down that road, we should let all these other states that have done so make all the mistakes first. I’m not saying I would never support it, but I certainly think it’s prudent for those who do support it to let other states make all those mistakes and try to learn from them. If you look at California, there’s still an enormous black market for marijuana. They legalized it out there, but their regulatory scheme, their tax scheme, is so onerous that there’s still a tremendous black market and all the crime that goes along with it. You’re not going to eliminate that unless you’re thoughtful about it. Colorado has had any number of public health impacts in terms of usage and driving under the influence and you name it.
Nobody has yet presented a real plan or vision of the structure that that would take. [Editor’s note: This interview took place before Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration released a 400-page report on the impact of legalizing marijuana.] How would it be regulated? How would it be taxed? How would it be implemented? Are they going to sell it at 7-Eleven? Are we going to have dispensaries? Anyway, I just think it’s moving awfully fast for it to be done right.
VB: Broadband access has come up a lot this year. What does the state needs to do to expand access, especially in rural areas?
Gilbert: I think there was some legislation recently where broadband was going to be able to tag along on existing easements that utilities have. I think I had some concerns about some of the constitutional aspects of that as … basically running these [fibers] across somebody’s private property. I love the goal of it, especially when you’re using existing infrastructure and existing easements, but there were some constitutional concerns.
At the same time, you look at what the private sector is doing. I think Elon Musk and company are currently deploying satellites all around the atmosphere that will bring high-speed internet access everywhere without the need for that physical wire or broadband in terms of the way we think of it now. I think in the future, we’re going to see … innovation, and the efforts that we’re making in state government provide those additional opportunities.
VB: House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn has said the session will be held remotely due to the pandemic. You’ve said it’s not the best way to go because constituents and lawmakers won’t have the same level of access. What would you do instead?
Gilbert: The Maryland legislature is also run by a robust Democratic majority. They rolled out a plan recently to meet in person, and I think they intend to meet in person. It is doable with just a little less timidity and a little more creativity. I loved what [Filler-Corn] did initially last special session when we met in person at the VCU Siegel Center.
The question is, to what degree do we intend to be willing to limit public participation and hinder the legislative process in such a dramatic way simply to try to stay shuttered in our homes and not having any interaction with anybody? Believe me, I don’t want to get [the coronavirus] and I don’t want to bring it home to my family. I’ve got two small children.
I guarantee you, if [Republicans] were in charge, we would try to find a way to safely conduct this session in person and allow for maximum safety and participation simultaneously, and do it very thoughtfully. None of us are suggesting that this is some hoax or that it isn’t real, or it doesn’t have negative health consequences for lots of people. That doesn’t mean, I think, we just close up shop and do this over the computer until it all passes. I think we have to get on with our jobs and our lives and just be thoughtful and safety-conscious as we do it.
VB: You’ve said you won’t vote to extend the 30-day session to 45 days. Why?
Gilbert: The Constitution of Virginia [says] that in the off year — and by off year, I mean a nonbudget year — that the legislature was always intended to meet for 30 days. By tradition and custom and practice, it has typically extended to 45 days. The reason for that is that we usually need that time to work on the budget.
[However], we just spent 2½ months in special session, and we came out of that with those very adjustments to the budget. I don’t see why we need to extend the session past the constitutional mandate when we’ve already made those adjustments.
Nobody currently serving intended that this would be a full-time professional legislature, even though I’m seeing a growing number of Democrat members suggest that’s the direction we should head.
Certainly, the days in session can wear on citizen legislators who need to be paying their own mortgages. I don’t want to minimize it. There are good reasons. We’re all ready to step up and do our job at a moment’s notice when it’s necessary. I don’t know how necessary 2½ months of special session was when, frankly, all Democrats did was make life a lot harder on police and a lot easier on criminals in that special session.
VB: In a time of so much division, do you think that bipartisan cooperation still exists here?
Gilbert: It is far more rare than when I began 15 years ago. I think, at least [in 2020], there were bills … where [Republicans] raised concerns or made suggestions, and those were dismissed out of hand. They were ignored. Debate was cut off.
Then, lo and behold, the Senate in many instances ended up requiring the same suggestions that we had suggested or making the same changes that we had said would be beneficial to have a common-sense bill instead of something very extreme. I’m concerned that there are no real opportunities for bipartisanship anymore, at least in this current environment.
Right now, I think [Virginia Democrats are] feeling very much like they can do whatever they want, and they don’t need to worry about what Republicans think. That’s unfortunate because we represent millions of Virginians ourselves.
VB: We are seeing a lot of rural counties in Virginia consider measures to endorse the assembly and training of militias. How does the GOP feel about this on a state level?
Gilbert: I think what you’re seeing is some level of angst that is well-deserved by people who value very much their right to protect themselves and their families as they see fit. They’ve seen this very extreme attack on their rights and their personal property coming out of Richmond from Democrats, where [Democrats] made it very clear that they intend to sharply limit the ability of law-abiding people to protect themselves and their families as they see fit. [Constituents have] recoiled at that.
I don’t think people should attribute revolutionary motivations to anybody. I know that locally we have a militia that formed in one of my counties, and their primary purpose, they will tell you, is just to supplement the sheriff’s office if they ever need assistance in an emergency. I don’t mean like a riot, but like if there’s ever a natural disaster or some need for search and rescue.
VB: What do you think it would take for Republicans to regain control of the House, and possibly the Senate and the governorship?
Gilbert: I think 2021 is going to be a very interesting political year in Virginia because of the natural swings that may exist when the White House changes hands. If Joe Biden is president of the United States, you’re going to see a very interesting political climate emerge in Virginia that may present some opportunities at the state level both for governor and for the House of Delegates.
VB: What do you think about the change in Virginia’s redistricting process, which relies on a bipartisan commission redrawing legislative district lines instead of legislators?
Gilbert: It’s going to be a much different thing than we’re used to, which is that the party in power chooses — it draws the lines essentially. Having this bipartisan commission to do it is certainly new and exciting, and it’s obviously going to have an effect on the politics and the districts.
None of us know really what districts we’re going to be running in or even if there will be a district that we’re recognized to run in, but I still think it’s a vast improvement over what we had previously, and we’re all excited to see how it comes out.
VB: What agenda items do Republicans need to accomplish this session?
Gilbert: If we can accomplish anything, even in the minority … I would hope that [Democrats] would help us provide some protections for businesses in terms of liability related to the COVID-19 outbreak, so that in addition to trying to keep the lights on, [businesses] wouldn’t also have to worry about being sued for a violation of a technical aspect of the health department regulations.
I will say that one of the things I’m concerned about just in terms of quality of life in Virginia and how that impacts families, businesses, etc., is the very extreme direction in which our Democratic colleagues appear to be headed in terms of crime and punishment. You’ve seen for years now they keep doing things like increasing the larceny threshold. All that means is that Democrats are incentivizing people to shoplift, and I mean that. We are just going to give you a pass on your stealing. They very clearly signal to the criminal element that there will no longer be serious consequences for your thievery, and that obviously impacts the people who they’re stealing from, which in many cases is a business.
It’s going to make it much more dangerous to live here, much more expensive to live here, to run a business here. Criminal justice policy has an impact on … the business community and the desire of people to even live in Virginia if it changes dramatically.