“November 2017, the Earth Moved”: an Interview with Delegate John Bell (VA-87)


John Bell is a Virginia House Delegate, District 87. Member, Appropriations Committee. Elected incoming Chair, Virginia House Democratic Caucus.

With Sister District’s help, John was re-elected to his vulnerable seat in Northern Virginia in Nov. 2017. The following is a transcription of an interview with him earlier this year.

I’m originally from Louisville, KY. I joined the United States Air Force in 1981, retired [as Major] in 2007, then decided to move to Virginia. I worked as a Finance Officer in the military, and served at the Pentagon during my career, and my belief in public service led me to run for office after I retired.

My first experience in politics was knocking on doors for the Obama campaign. Eventually, I ended up training most of the district volunteers on how to canvass. I was up on stage with Barack Obama, saying the pledge of allegiance, two weeks before his election! Virginia’s historically been Republican, and in 2008, Obama was the first Democrat since LBJ to win the state.

When I won my first House race in November 2015, I was the western-most member of the House, and Republican districts surrounded every part of my district.

In this most recent 2017 race, mine was the GOP’s top-targeted race. They wasted around $1M on my seat, and I won by almost 7,000 votes – 6,996 votes, to be exact, a 23 percent margin, thanks to Sister District and so many other great supporters. We had more out-of-district and out-of-state help than ever before, but we’ve always had outside groups helping. It seems like I’m always running against the biggest anti-choice or pro-gun candidates; one of my opponents wanted to ban gay marriage. Last year, Bloomberg’s gun-safety group [Everytown for Gun Safety] helped out.

What happened last year is, the earth moved. Before, only 34 of 100 House Delegates were Democrats, mostly because of gerrymandering. Then came the election. We kept every one of the incumbents, and added 15 pickups, going from 34 to 49 Democrats.

As a body, a legislative group almost has a “personality.” This group is still finding its personality. But we look more like the US, like Virginia, than ever before. Eleven of 15 new [House] Delegates were female. We elected our first Latina and our first Asian, as well as several African-American women. We elected our first transgender delegate, and quite a few millennials, including Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy. The whole body shifted.

Medicaid expansion passed in the Virginia House! The state Senate didn’t pass it, but we’re back for a special legislative session on April 17, and I think we’ve got two GOP Delegates on board, so it looks likely. [As of April 20, the Senate had not yet voted on the measure.] If Medicaid passes, the entire session will have been worth it, because 400,000-plus people who currently don’t have health insurance will get coverage. It will be monumental.

It was a big session for me, because five of my bills passed:

  • HB 97 & HB 134 affect procurement, and will save taxpayers money.
  • HB 286 allows dogs in wineries, breweries, and distilleries. I’d been contacted by constituents who were losing 25-30 percent of their weekend winery business because their establishments were deemed “restaurants,” which consider dogs a health hazard. The truth is, alcohol boils off the germs, so there’s no sanitary threat. After that, distilleries started contacting me. So the final bill allows dogs in all these kinds of establishments.
  • HB 135 allows background checks on minors who want to volunteer in Emergency Medical Services (EMS). Before, minors did not undergo background checks, and were only allowed to do desk jobs.
  • HB 709 increases fines for criminal zoning violations – fines that hadn’t gone up in 40 years! We’ve had instances where people built additions or retaining walls that caved in and hurt children. Our research shows that there are only a few bad actors who do this repeatedly, so we increased the fines for second- and third-time violations.

During this past session, I was named to the Appropriations Committee (my area of expertise). It’s a good place to be. Through my research, I convinced people on the committee to provide $20M to raise the pay of corrections officers (COs), who have lagged behind other law enforcement professionals in pay raises. It’s an issue near and dear to my heart. COs have the highest turnover of Virginia employees. The job is very dangerous, but there’s no presumption of disability that the other 14 types of law enforcement have in Virginia, and there are no procedures for fair dismissal. The pay raise will address these issues.

In Virginia, you can buy a gun at a gun-show with no background check. Seventy-four pieces of gun-safety legislation were proposed during this session; zero passed. Republicans killed them all. I’m on a House guns committee; one bill I sponsored would require in-person training to get a concealed carry permit, because right now you can get the training by video. Didn’t pass.

At one point, the House GOP passed a bill to allow guns in churches. After Parkland, they quietly pulled it, but I think they’ll try again next session. Normally, introduced bills go from subcommittee to regular committee to financial committee, if necessary, then to the House floor. The church bill went straight to committee, with no notification and no chance for churches to testify. The House GOP will try to push guns next year; it will be an issue.

I’m military. I served in the Middle East and carried a gun. I believe military weapons – assault weapons, grenade launchers, etc. – should stay in the military. I’m a gun-owner, and I keep my handgun locked in a safe, with my ammunition locked in a separate safe. Mainly I own a gun so that Republicans can’t say, “you’re voting against guns because you don’t have one.” I went through the background check; it’s no big deal.

At the end of this session, the Republican Speaker of the House, Kirk Cox, formed a special committee on school safety, but insisted that it’s “not about guns.” We Democrats will participate, but we also decided to form our own committee, Safe Virginia Initiative, for which I’m the Regional Chair for Northern Virginia. The Initiative will include research on guns, because school safety must include gun safety measures.

Last year, Virginia had around 1,400 deaths from opioids, more than from car-crashes.

As part of the opioid crisis, I want to obtain Level I status for certain non-opioid drugs, and for tamper-proof opioids (for recovered addicts with a medical condition requiring pain treatment). “Level I” means insurers must cover the drugs. Many commonly prescribed painkillers are opioids that have a 50 percent addiction rate after one week of treatment. Doctors must have the ability to prescribe non-opioids for pain! But right now, if someone in addiction recovery breaks his leg and needs painkillers, doctors don’t have this ability. Non-opioids are slightly more expensive than opioids, so insurance companies won’t let providers prescribe them. And in order to justify non-opioid prescriptions to insurance companies, providers are burdened with extensive paperwork requirements. My bill, HB131, will correct these problems.

In 2016, we passed around 15 related bills (I was part of many of them) around opioid use. These included distributing Naloxone to all first responders, and restricting ER pain-medication prescriptions to 14 days. Before that, there were no restrictions! I had a lot of doctors calling, begging us to pass the bill, because they were getting violent threats from addicts who wanted an unrestricted supply.

Southwestern Virginia has high rates of HIV and Hepatitis C; we did studies of addicted infants there, and in 2017, we got a few Republicans on board and passed a bill to establish the state’s first needle exchange program.

I’ll continue to work on opioids, COs and first responders, and saving money. I want to be efficient, so we can put money into critical needs.

We need Sister District Project! Thank you! You made a huge impact on my race, a huge difference. The GOP has the Koch Institute, which distributed around $250M in 2015-2016. [The Koch network plans to spend close to $400M on policy and politics in 2017-2018]. Sister District in large part counters that. Go back ten years: Koch and other far-right groups were kind of evil geniuses, because they figured out that if they took over state governments, they could accomplish things they could never accomplish at the federal level, for pennies on the dollar. And so we have anti-choice bills and gerrymandering.

The impact of state legislatures is so important. Most people who become governors “grew up” in state legislatures. We need to cultivate a “farm team;” without this, it’s difficult to defeat the Ted Cruzes.

Flipping state races is where Sister District involvement can make the most impact. State races are typically smaller, with fewer people and a lower budget. Postcarding, phone-calling, canvassing, and donations can really make a difference!

Juliet Eastland
Sister District Project MA-04