Lawmakers hit McAuliffe on ex-felon rights

Delegate Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, speaks during the legislative breakfast held by the Front Royal-Warren County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday at the Holiday Inn & Suites in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily
Senator Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, answers a question during the legislative breakfast held by the Front Royal-Warren County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday at the Holiday Inn & Suites in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily
Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, left, and Senator Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, listens to a question from the audience during the legislative breakfast held by the Front Royal Warren County Chamber of Commerce Thursday morning at the Holliday Inn & Suites in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily Rich Cooley/Daily
Delegate Chris Collins, R-Winchester, holds a cup of coffee while listening to Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, speak during the legislative breakfast held by the Front Royal-Warren County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday at the Holiday Inn & Suites in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily
Delegate Michael Webert, R-Winchester, answers a question during the legislative breakfast held by the Front Royal-Warren County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday at the Holiday Inn & Suites in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Republican legislators from Warren, Shenandoah and Frederick counties hammered Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Thursday for his sweeping restoration of rights for felons.

Delegates Todd Gilbert, of Woodstock; Michael Webert, of Marshall; Chris Collins, of Winchester; and Sen. Mark Obenshain, of Harrisonburg, all protested McAuliffe’s executive order while briefing the Front Royal-Warren County Chamber of Commerce on legislative issues.

Obenshain, who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general and is co-chairman of the Senate’s Committee for Courts of Justice, accused the governor of acting rashly and exceeding his authority under the state constitution.

Other Republican lawmakers have denounced the order as a bid to help Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton carry the state in the November presidential election. Republican leaders are gearing up for a lawsuit to challenge the order.

“I strongly believe we need to have a pathway to restoration of rights,” Obenshain said. “I think it’s important. I believe in grace in my spiritual life and in my political life, too. But we’ve got to have a process and, as matter of fact, our constitution provides a process for restoration of rights.”

The restoration of voting rights has received the most attention under McAuliffe’s order but it also restores the rights of ex-offenders to serve on juries, hold public office and notarize documents.

The order applies to 206,000 ex-offenders, violent and non-violent, who completed their prison and probation sentences as of April 22. Those who complete their sentences in the future will have their rights restored by the signing of an order on a monthly basis.

McAuliffe’s office said earlier this week that an analysis of 163,370 ex-offenders showed that 79 percent “were convicted of crimes of a non-violent nature.” The governor has criticized the ban on ex-felons voting as a remnant of the state’s notorious Jim Crow laws that held sway for much of the 1800s and 1900s.

Gilbert, a criminal defense attorney and member of the House of Delegates’ Courts of Justice Committee, said he supported the previous process under which the governor decides whether to restore the rights of ex-felons through a review of individual applications.

“It is very hard to go to jail in Virginia, so if you’re a first time burglar, you don’t go to prison. You don’t go to jail, even for a day,” Gilbert said. “You go on probation, you lose the right to vote.

“I don’t think it’s a huge ask that society ask this person who committed this offense, who broke into their neighbor’s house, to fill out an application.”

Gilbert and Collins spoke of the importance of equipping students with the kind of education and skills employers are looking for when are trying to relocate or start a business.

Collins said he has met business executives who lost interest in moving to Frederick County when they found they couldn’t find a workforce that meets their requirements.

“We say we have all these college graduates, and they say, ‘That’s nice, but we need these kinds of workers,’ and we lost several businesses because they said, ‘You just don’t have workforce we need,'” Collins said.

Warren County Administrator Doug Stanley asked the legislators for support in obtaining money from the Virginia Department of Transportation for improvements that would make Va. 55 safer. Stanley cited a recent collision between two charter buses carrying elementary school students as an example of the dangers posed by the road in its current condition and configuration.

“We were very fortunate nobody got seriously hurt,” Stanley said. “Whatever you can do to help, we appreciate that.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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