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Judge dismisses group’s effort to remove Black state senator

CHESAPEAKE (AP) A judge in Virginia swiftly rebuked a conservative group’s effort on July 2 to remove a Black state senator from office over her role in a protest that ended with heavy damage to a Confederate monument.

Few expected the petition of 4,600 signatures gathered by members of the Virginia Tea Party to succeed against Sen. Louise Lucas, a longtime Democratic legislator and a key Statehouse power broker. The judge quickly ruled that, under Virginia’s Constitution, only the state Senate can expel one of its members.

“There is a process for that,” Chesapeake Circuit Court Chief Judge John W. Brown said from the bench. “This is not that process.”

The courtroom briefly served as a battleground for the nation’s culture wars over race, history and policing that intensified last year after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody.

“Our country was under absolute siege by these angry mobs,” Virginia Tea Party Chair Nelson Velez told The Associated Press before the hearing. “We had an elected official, a state senator orchestrate a riot.”

But many saw the petition — as well as a failed criminal case against Lucas — as a vindictive political stunt against a powerful Black woman.

“I’m not going to accuse them necessarily of racism,” said Don Scott, a Democratic member of the House of Delegates and a friend of Lucas’. “But I will say this: They’ve only gone this aggressively after an African American woman — a strong African American woman who is at the pinnacle of her legislative career.”

Lucas is the state Senate’s president pro tempore and represents parts of southeastern Virginia. The group’s petition against her stems from a day last summer when protesters gathered to rally against the 56-foot-tall (17-meter-tall) Confederate monument in the majority Black city of Portsmouth.

The 19th century memorial was drawing heightened scorn at a time when many monuments to the Confederacy were being taken down, whether by demonstrators opposed to racial injustice or by authorities seeking to dismantle them through official channels. Such memorials have long been viewed by many as symbols of white supremacy. But they were drawing increasing attention after Floyd’s death.

Portsmouth police would later claim that Lucas was with a group of people shaking up cans of spray paint and had told officers they were “going to put some paint on this thing, and y’all can’t arrest them.”

“(T)hey gonna do it, and you can’t stop them … they got a right, go ahead!,” police claim Lucas said.

Scott, who represented Lucas in the criminal case, said she left the protest hours before heads were ripped off some of the monument’s statues and one statue was pulled down, critically injuring a demonstrator.

Two months later, Portsmouth police charged Lucas and several others with conspiracy to commit a felony and injury to a monument in excess of $1,000. The charges were filed without the local prosecutor’s approval, sparking immediate criticism from many who said the charges were political.

Law professors also questioned the strength of the case, which was dismissed by a judge in November.

Velez, the Virginia Tea Party chairman, said Lucas still needed to be held accountable.

“The only recourse is the people,” he said. “So the people went ahead and signed petitions.”

The group filed its petition under a state law that allows someone to ask a circuit court judge to remove an official. The petitioner must gather a number of voter signatures that equals 10% of votes cast at the last election.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said the attempt was a new and flawed front in Virginia’s culture wars.

“This is the latest step in the trench warfare over Virginia’s political culture,” Farnsworth said. “I would anticipate this process not being rewarded and not being repeated.”

Lucas declined to comment after the hearing. As she walked out, one of the petitioners yelled at her that she had broken the law.

Anthony Troy, one of her lawyers, told reporters that the petition was time consuming and draining for the senator.

“She’s got a lot to do,” he said. “She’s moving on.”

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