An Insider’s Look on Eyes on Richmond

Sara Thornton walks the halls of the Pocahontas Building in Virginia’s State Capitol with the quiet enthusiasm of a young, but seasoned politico eager to take on each day as a new battle to be won.  As manager of Progress Virginia’s Eyes on Richmond transparency project, Sara gets a front row seat to every bill that gets its day in the sun. The House and Senate subcommittees are the place where bills can get its little legs ready to carry it to the full House or Senate floor. Sara’s “eyes” in the various subcommittee hearings come courtesy of ten legislative fellows, chosen for their passion for politics and their ability to keep the camera rolling.  As one of the chosen few, my fellowship has given me a peek inside the dark underbelly of state politics, one so dark that before Eyes on Richmond, subcommittee hearings were conducted behind closed doors, offline, and unavailable unless you were there in person and could get a seat in the room.

A couple of times a week, I head down to the State Capitol to work for the Eyes on Richmond program. As a fellow, it is my job to set up a camera in a hearing room at the Pocahontas Building and livestream the proceedings of a subcommittee as lawmakers discuss what bills to pass and what bills to kill. Many may think this is horribly boring, but to be able to hear the gut-wrenching testimony that occurs before the each subcommittee, followed by the passionate pleas of every bill sponsor, I  can’t help but to be fascinated.

Before joining this program I had no idea the extreme and technical process of drafting legislation and eventually implementing it into law. The knowledge and feverance that the Delegates and Senators bring to this job is tremendously inspiring and captivating to watch, even when I disagree with what they are saying. From the introduction by the patron, to the debate amongst the committee, to the eventual vote, every comment and piece of research matters.

As a fellow, entering the Capitol is daunting and I’m immediately hit with this overwhelming wave of excitement and activity. Everyone is there to serve a purpose or push an agenda. It may be my nerves but, the building seems to shake with people and power from every corner and every hallway. People in politics–what an interesting, passionate, and eclectic bunch.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at first of the subcommittee meeting and I can’t say I wasn’t nervous setting up for my first one. I just entered the Capitol building, out of breath after my hike up the building to Senate Room 2, and just really hoping that I didn’t mess anything up. After finding my appropriate spot in the room, the one with the best vantage point of the Senators, I sat down and really began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Immediately, the Senators walked in, took their seat,s and the subcommittee meeting began. It felt like a whirlwind of information, inquisition, and passionate speeches and at that point, I knew this was where I belonged at this moment in time. The energy in this meeting and all I have attended since are incredibly intoxicating. Journalists, officials, clerks and people from the public all gather together in this packed, professional and intimidating room to accomplish their roles as Virginians and fight for what they want and need.

Bringing Transparency to the Capitol with Eyes on Richmond

As a fellow in the third year of the Eyes on Richmond project, it boggles my mind that in the state of Virginia, committee and subcommittee hearings were not live streamed until 2017. Due to the work of Eyes on Richmond, the General Assembly now live streams all of its full committee hearings, but it’s still up to us to bring to the public what’s actually happening in the subcommittees. In today’s political climate, that’s extremely important, especially in the House of Delegates, where subcommittee hearings are considered the killing fields for legislation. So many interesting and thought-provoking bills are killed in subcommittees and it’s important that Eyes on Richmond is there to document what’s happening.

Looking back over the 2019 session,  I think it’s cool that I got to act as a fly on the wall during subcommittee hearings. It made me feel powerful, like I am watching history being made and, in a small way, I get to be apart of it. The best part for me, ultimately, was being empowered with knowledge and wherewithal to understand what problems the state government and residents are facing and what our elected officials are working so hard to rectify. Being involved in the General Assembly has really lit a fire for me, my love for politics and working for the people. I have seen so much passion within the rambunctious delegates and senators which makes me hopeful for the future of Virginia politics and nationwide. Eyes on Richmond makes me hopeful too.  It lets me know that people want to be informed on what’s happening and now have a project to help them stay engaged. Eyes on Richmond make politics more accessible.