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RICHMOND – Halfway into her second legislative session, Del. Marie March, the firebrand Republican from Floyd County facing one of the most watched primary battles this year, has found herself alienated from much of her caucus.
As the General Assembly reaches crossover – the last day for each house to act on its own legislation – March has little to show for it, with just one of her more than a dozen bills expected to pass in the GOP-controlled House of Delegates by Tuesday’s deadline.
To add to her troubles, March in recent weeks has clashed with several of her Republican colleagues, including Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, who recently stopped by her office in an attempt to get her back in line with the rest of her caucus, but left after a heated exchange.
Last week, March tried to get ahead of the story by blaming her party’s establishment wing for her lack of legislative accomplishments. “I think, quite frankly, that a lot of you folks are going to be disappointed, but I do want to be very clear on how things are progressing and what’s going on while we’re up here,” she said in a 15-minute video message posted to her Facebook page.
Wearing a trucker hat bearing the motto “Livin’ the Dream,” March told her supporters that she was aware coming into the General Assembly session that a lot of her bills “wouldn’t go anywhere,” other than being a means of getting the voices of her constituents heard in Richmond.
“It’s sad, they say they fully want to fund law enforcement, the firefighters, rescue, but then you hand them something on a silver platter that would bring in tens of millions of tax dollars, if not hundreds of millions, and they are just not interested,” March said of her Republican colleagues. “It’s the do-nothing establishment that’s going on up here in Richmond, I hate to tell you.”
Much like during the 2022 General Assembly session, March’s legislation this year deals with mostly partisan issues, such as expanding gun rights and school choice while attempting to limit access to abortion and curtailing the rights of transgender students in the state’s public school system – proposals that many Republicans usually would get behind.
One example was March’s House Bill 1399, which sought to ban transgender students in Virginia’s K-12 public schools and colleges from joining sports teams that align with their gender identity.
For weeks, March had tried to drum up her supporters to sign up to address via Zoom the GOP-controlled committee weighing her proposal. But instead of taking up her bill, the panel backed a similar proposal sponsored by Del. Karen Greenhalgh, R-Virginia Beach, without giving March the opportunity to merge her bill with the latter, as it is customary in the legislature.
Tensions between March and Republican leadership first escalated when March refused to back HB 1508, sponsored by Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, which proposed the creation of a Virginia Education Success Account that parents could use toward education expenses, including tuition for a private school, tutoring services and required textbooks at a non-public school.
The legislation would have used some of the state education funding allocated to each student, depositing those funds into the savings accounts, and Davis said in a statement that his bill would have allowed parents “to choose the educational experience best suited for their child.”
But in March’s view, the proposal didn’t go far enough because it would have “left out 200,000 children in Virginia,” she said in an email Monday. “It would have only funded schoolchildren who currently attend public schools. Not those that have already left the public schools,” she said.
When March didn’t budge, Earle-Sears – a powerful advocate for the Davis proposal — in the late afternoon of Jan. 19 paid her a surprise visit at her office on the fourth floor of the Pocahontas Building in Richmond’s Capitol Square. March said in an email Monday that Earle-Sears, who presides over the state Senate, was “upset, because I would not fold on my support of universal school choice.”
March also briefly described the incident in her Facebook video, but without name-checking the lieutenant governor.
“I just want you to know that I’ve held to my guns to the point that I’ve even had someone from way up here come in my office and scream at me and call me swine, she came in my office, she slammed my door, and she said that she will not throw down pearls before swine over me not willing to vote for a bad bill,” she said in the video.
Two sources briefed on the encounter told Cardinal News that Earle-Sears was also offended because March allegedly did not recognize her when she came into the office, and the conversation soon escalated, prompting the lieutenant governor to leave within minutes.
But March denied this. “I introduced myself because we have never officially introduced ourselves, only seen each other in passing. She refused to shake my hand and yelled something … before leaving and slamming my door,” she said in the email Monday.
A spokeswoman for the lieutenant governor did not respond to several emails and phone calls seeking comment.
When HB 1396, March’s own, more expansive proposal for creating an Education Savings Account Program came before a House committee six days later, the panel killed it by a unanimous 9-0 vote, including the majority of six Republicans who refused to endorse it: Del. William Wampler, R-Washington County; Del. John Avoli, R-Staunton; Del. Mark Cherry, R-Colonial Heights; Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield County; Del. Anne Ferrell Tata, R-Virginia Beach; and Davis, the sponsor of the legislation at the center of the confrontation between March and the lieutenant governor.
Davis said during the meeting that he objected to March’s measure because it would have burdened Virginia taxpayers with $500 million annually and because March had failed to file a budget amendment seeking to fund her bill.
“You create a profit-making enterprise for millionaires,” Davis said, directed at March. “From a financial viability standpoint, a best conservative estimate is about half a billion dollars every year for this program.”
Ginny Perfater, vice chair of Moms for Liberty, a conservative grassroots organization advocating for parental rights in schools, said in an email last week to the group’s mailing list subscribers that while the nonprofit had initially supported March’s proposal, it decided to back Davis’ bill instead after March told them in a meeting that her own measure would likely fail.
“She said it was too conservative, and too expensive. She told us that it would be killed in the committee and would not make it to the House floor for a vote,” Perfater wrote.
March, in her Facebook video, called the debate over this bill “the biggest battle that I’ve been in this session up here in Richmond,” alleging that her Republican colleagues “attempted to humiliate me in committee by going after all these different things.” While a lot of Republican lawmakers have run on school choice, “they don’t really want to put their money where their mouth is,” March said.
March was elected to represent the 7th House of Delegates district in November 2021, replacing former Del. Nick Rush, R-Montgomery County, who retired after serving five terms. During her campaign, she ran as an anti-establishment candidate.
But she now faces a primary opponent in Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, an attorney from Stuart who was part of former President Donald Trump’s legal team challenging the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin. Williams succeeded seven-term incumbent Del. Charles Poindexter, whom he defeated in the Republican primary in the 9th House District earlier in 2021.
But in December of that year, the Virginia Supreme Court approved a new legislative map that paired March and Williams in a newly drawn 47th House District, setting up a primary for this spring that is expected to be one of the most competitive in the state.
That both candidates are willing to fight tooth and nail became clear in September, when March swore out an assault warrant against Williams after he had bumped into her at a Republican fundraiser in Wytheville. Williams was acquitted of the misdemeanor charge in January, after the court found that prosecutors had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he intentionally made contact with March.
The legal dispute wasn’t the first controversy involving March. In December 2021, just days before being sworn in for her first term in the House of Delegates, March abruptly ended her association with John Tate, a GOP strategist convicted of several federal corruption charges and pardoned in 2020 by then-President Trump.
Staying true to her reputation as an anti-establishment candidate, March further made news in November of last year, when at a meeting of the Floyd County GOP committee she called for the ouster of Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, who had just been reelected for a sixth term with 73.23% to 26.54% of the vote – his highest margin in any of his congressional elections since 2010, with the exception of 2020, when he ran unopposed.
Less than a week later, March was once again in the headlines when she used the death of Rep. Don McEachin, D-Henrico County, to criticize him for his efforts to protect abortion rights, making her the only Virginia Republican trying to politicize the lawmaker’s death while all others put their partisan differences aside and together mourned the loss of the congressman, who had previously served in Virginia’s legislature.
Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, the House majority leader, declined to comment for this story. And while there is no evidence of a concerted effort by House Republican leadership to deny March any legislative successes because of her controversies, the delegate’s often combative behavior does not appear to have helped her win any favors among her colleagues.
Of the 17 bills bearing March’s name, five were killed by GOP-controlled committees before reaching the House floor, while another 11 fizzled out after not being taken up at all.
March’s only proposal that made it to the House floor is HB 1487, where it was first read on Friday. The measure is rather uncontroversial – it would require Virginia localities to livestream and archive their public meetings. It was engrossed by the House a second time Monday, making it likely that it will pass Tuesday.
In contrast, Williams also filed 15 bills, five of which were also killed at the committee level, with another one not taken up at all. A total of four Williams proposals advanced in the House since the beginning of this session and have since moved over to the Senate for consideration, with an additional six expected to pass in the House on Tuesday.
But Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said that March’s meager legislative record and her reputation as a rabble-rouser might not necessarily hurt her during her nomination battle against Williams.
“There are two ways to win a primary election. One is to be a loyal foot soldier for the team, and the other is to use your unpopularity as proof that you are the genuine article,” Farnsworth said.
“As a candidate you have to figure out what works best for you. People who do not win the most friends in the caucus are not necessarily those who lose primaries,” Farnsworth said, naming Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, in Congress and Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, in the state Senate as examples to demonstrate that being an outlier is not always fatal to a political career.
And voters in Floyd County may not care that much about what Republicans outside the 47th House District have to say about their elected officials, Farnsworth said.
“The voters will decide whether the number of bills passed is more significant to them than ideological purity. Sometimes people want combative voices to represent them, other times they want people who can get the job done, and this Republican primary will give voters in this district a choice.”
And for now, it appears that March has shown no willingness to back down or to conform to her party’s establishment.
“I promised my voters to be a true conservative voice for them. The bills that I carry are conservative legislation, and it is very sad that Richmond doesn’t want to hear or act on what my voters want,” she said in the email Monday.
March also speculated that there might be pushback from her caucus because “the establishment wing of the party doesn’t truly believe” in conservative causes like protecting the Second Amendment.
“Maybe they don’t believe the pro-life campaign slogans they campaign on, and maybe they don’t believe in real school choice,” March said. “I don’t know, but I do know that I will never stop fighting for such. I came here to represent Southwest Virginia and to be a voice for the hard-working conservative people.”