Bemoaning Democratic control of state government, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. on Tuesday threw his support behind a proposal for counties and cities in Virginia to secede from the commonwealth and join neighboring West Virginia.
“We need a state government that is not elected by federal workers in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. — as is the case now in Virginia — that will protect our God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Falwell said. “And I believe that West Virginia will do precisely that.”
Dubbed “Vexit,” the long shot bid to redraw Virginia’s border is backed by dozens of elected officials in West Virginia who hope to wrestle away largely conservative localities from the Old Dominion, including Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican.
In a surprise news conference at a community college in West Virginia, Falwell and Justice both announced their support for the nascent movement.
“If you’re not truly happy where you are, we stand with open arms to take you from Virginia or anywhere you may be,” Justice said.
The proposal reflects growing frustration by conservatives in Virginia over the direction of the state now that Democrats control the General Assembly. In recent weeks, lawmakers have advanced a slate of bills meant to address everything from gun violence to women’s rights, sparking backlash from those who consider the proposals too liberal.
“While Gov. Justice and I have always shared great pride in our states, what’s happening in Virginia right now is a tragedy in the making,” Falwell said. “Democratic leaders in Richmond, through their elitism and radicalism, have left a nearly unrecognizable state in their wake.”
Falwell’s announcement comes two weeks after he publicly warned lawmakers that Democratic-backed gun legislation could face a fierce backlash from law enforcement officials if the proposals become law and one week after more than 20,000 gun rights activists flooded the streets of Richmond in protest of the legislation.
The backlash has caught the attention of several Republican lawmakers in West Virginia who in recent weeks have introduced resolutions inviting parts of Virginia to join the Mountain State. One bill now has the support of more than 40 legislators.
“We saw their way of life under attack and we wanted to offer assistance,” said Del. Gary Howell, a West Virginia Republican who sponsored one of the resolutions.
Asked by reporters how counties in Virginia could begin the process of leaving the state, Falwell said their departure would require approval from both states and perhaps the U.S. Congress. He proposed interested localities hold non-binding referendums on secession this fall, saying it will put “pressure on politicians in Richmond to do the right thing.”
Falwell said the plan honors Virginia’s history of border changes, a reference to the counties that split from Virginia during the Civil War to form West Virginia. But at the same time, he acknowledged the proposal faces steep challenges.
“It’s a long shot — no question about it — and it depends on how much grassroots support that it receives,” Falwell said.
The announcement from Falwell and Justice drew laughs from both sides of the aisle in Virginia.
“What are they doing, a comedy routine?” said Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta.
“Preposterous,” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.
Saslaw added Justice should be focused on solving West Virginia’s high poverty rate and “not screw around in Virginia.”
A spokeswoman for Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, dismissed the idea, saying: “As always, Jerry Falwell’s words speak for themselves.”
Rick Boyer, a Virginia conservative activist attorney and former local elected official, is helping with the “Vexit” push. He said a growing movement of conservative Virginians is serious about leaving a state he said doesn’t respect their rights.
“This isn’t street theater; we fully intend to do everything we can to see it through,” Boyer said.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.