RICHMOND — The General Assembly opened its 2021 regular session on a somber note Wednesday by remembering Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, who died a week and a half ago from complications of COVID-19.
“Southwest Virginia is a much better place because of Ben,” Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, said on the Senate floor during a tribute to his friend and colleague.
The Senate is meeting in person at the Science Museum of Virginia, while the House of Delegates is conducting its business virtually. Two senators were absent on the first day of the legislative session: Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, and Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier. Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said Lewis tested positive with COVID-19 and is expected to return to the Senate next week, and Vogel is waiting on the results of a COVID-19 test.
Senators are spread out at separate desks. They all have to wear masks. Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, who had open-heart surgery last year, was wearing a cloth mask and plastic face shield Wednesday and was sitting behind a Plexiglas box.
A black cloth was draped over Chafin’s desk. Senators each took a rose to his desk to place in glass vases.
“He was a tireless advocate for his constituents and considered it one of the highest honors to be vested with the trust and confidence of the people of the 38th Senate District,” Pillion said as he choked up delivering his speech. “Ben was a champion in protecting constitutional rights, investing in schools, promoting economic development and access to health care, supporting outdoor recreation and working to preserve and expand the region’s energy potential. The impacts of his contributions in these important areas have directly benefited not only the people of Southwest Virginia, but every corner of the commonwealth.”
Chafin, an attorney and cattle farmer, died Jan. 1 at the age of 60. He had represented the 38th Senate District, which stretches from Montgomery County to Wise County, since 2014, after a brief stint in the House.
“He was not just a cattle farmer down there in Moccasin,” said Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City. “He loved and considered the soil of Southwest Virginia as sacred.”
Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, shared memories of his visits to Russell County, where Chafin showed him Breaks Interstate State Park and an unused four-lane bridge between Virginia and Kentucky often referred to as the “bridge to nowhere.” Chafin also stayed at Mason’s home in Hampton Roads when he was attending a celebration of Jamestown in 2019 to mark the 400th anniversary of representative government. Mason said their different political views didn't prevent a friendship.
“In no way did that stand in the way of our ability to spend time together and have a friendship,” Mason said.
Mason said everyone at some point or another has minimized the severity of the virus or gotten frustrated with restrictions and safety measures. In the last conversation he had with Chafin, Mason said he appreciated how frustrated people are with the governor’s restrictions, but Mason urged Chafin and his people to be safe because the virus was going to reach them soon and cause devastation. Chafin said he knew that, but residents in his area hadn’t been hit hard by the virus, so they weren’t taking it seriously enough.
“We need to look no further than that desk right there to understand how seriously we should take this,” Mason said.
With COVID cases rising across the commonwealth, senators will be allowed to participate remotely in the session. Norment said it was important to offer this alternative to in-person participation for people who have health and safety concerns.
The average age of the senators is 60, with nine of them over the age of 70. Saslaw said he was not aware of any senators who will immediately use the virtual option. Lewis and Vogel both appeared on video to cast votes Wednesday.
Gov. Ralph Northam called for a special election to fill Chafin’s seat on March 23 — after the General Assembly is scheduled to wrap up its regular session.
It’s been a solidly red district since Chafin won a special election in August 2014 to replace Democrat Phillip Puckett, who had stepped down two months earlier, handing Republicans control of the Senate. In 2019, Democrats won back a majority of seats.
So far, six people — all Republicans — have announced they will seek the seat.
Jony Baker, Dickenson County sheriff’s deputy
Chadwick Dotson, former circuit court judge who now teaches at the Appalachian School of Law
Travis Hackworth, member of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors
Elijah Leonard, Lebanon Town Council member
Kimberly Lowe, who had most recently been running for a House of Delegates seat in Southside represented by Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, but said she’s now going to compete for open Senate seat (State legislators must live in the district they represent.)
Tamara Neo, former Buchanan County commonwealth’s attorney
Local Republicans will hold a firehouse primary Jan. 21. For independent candidates, the last day for candidates to file to appear on the ballot is Jan. 22.
Democrats control a slim majority in the Senate of 21-18.
Northam’s decision to schedule the special election for after the session has bothered some senators because it reduces by one the number of voices to represent Southwest Virginia.
“I hope it’s not politically motivated, but it sure smells like it,” Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, said.
Governors have called special elections in the middle of legislative sessions in the past, and they’ve done so more quickly in some instances, Republicans have observed.
“In 2019, Gov. Northam called a special election for a Fairfax and Loudoun County district to be held 42 days after the vacancy,” Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, said. “Last month, he called a special election for a Prince William and Stafford district to be held 28 days after the vacancy. Now, the governor has called a special election for a Southwest Virginia district to be held 81 days after the vacancy. Sen. Chafin loved Southwest Virginia, and he worked very hard for the district. The people of Southwest Virginia and all of rural Virginia deserve to have this seat filled with the same speed that Gov. Northam ensured for the people of Northern Virginia.”