RICHMOND — Bill Stanley has a white dot on the right side of his face — just above his jaw line — as a reminder of when he stood up for people who needed someone to fight for them.
Stanley was a child in Virginia Beach, and after he got between a bully and some little kids, the bully then directed his attention toward Stanley, a little guy himself. The bully delivered a pounding to Stanley until an older child intervened. Wanting revenge, the bully aimed a slingshot at Stanley and shot him with lead shot that became lodged in his face.
“Dropped me like a bomb,” the now-state senator recalled during an interview at his Richmond office.
A doctor had to remove the small pellet. To this day, he wears that white dot like a badge of courage.
When Stanley shaves in the morning, he sees that dot and remembers that painful moment.
Then the Republican senator from Franklin County goes to work at the General Assembly, where he pushes legislation that he believes will benefit the people of Southside and Southwest Virginia, two regions that struggle economically and have residents who feel neglected by Richmond.
This year he pushed for criminal justice legislation to reform a system that sweeps up poor people or hands down unfair punishments.
“In some ways, I’m fighting for the people I represent,” Stanley, 51, said.
For seven years, the scrappy 5-foot-9 senator has stood out as the jokester of the Senate, where he’s the majority whip. His quick wits and gift of gab has served him well over the years, as a criminal defense attorney and as a lawmaker.
“He uses humor to get serious things done,” said Jeff McWaters, a former legislator, who used to sit next to Stanley in the Senate chamber. “He has that piss and vinegar going in him. He’s a tenacious legislator, so you don’t want to kill one of his bills without really thinking it through and giving him a good reason why you killed it, because he doesn’t like that.”
During this session, Stanley took up some of the biggest issues of his career. A leader on criminal justice reform, he fought to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses when people don’t promptly pay their court costs unrelated to driving offenses.
After a yearlong examination of the commonwealth’s deteriorating public school buildings, he brought a package of legislation aimed at improving educational opportunities no matter where a student lives. Some proposals were more successful than others, but the fight isn’t over.
“I took some major hits this year, but it was worth it,” Stanley said.
‘Willingness to think big’
“Tomorrow can be better for the children who are sitting in crowded and crumbling schools across this state, tired and distracted from too little food and too much violence in their communities,” Gov. Ralph Northam said during his January 2018 inauguration speech.
Stanley heard that and thought, “Virginia has ‘crumbling schools?’”
The legislator formed a bipartisan panel of senators to tour schools across Virginia and develop ideas of how to come up with the billions of dollars needed to modernize the buildings.
They saw buckets collecting water in classrooms, decaying grout in the bathroom tiles and mobile units outside the building to hold overflowing students. They heard stories about rats scampering through hallways and tiles falling from the ceiling.
In Danville, Stanley met a boy who lives in a dangerous neighborhood, so he runs from his home to his school bus.
“Then he goes to a crumbling school that’s also harmful to him,” Stanley said.
He introduced three bills this session aimed at offering ways for schools to seek additional funding to build or upgrade schools.
The highlight was a proposal to put on November’s ballot a referendum that would ask Virginians whether they want the General Assembly to issue $3 billion in state general obligation bonds to go toward constructing or upgrading K-12 schools. Another bill would have created a fund to give school boards grants for repairing or replacing school roofs.
“I just have always appreciated Sen. Stanley’s focus and willingness to think big,” Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, who co-patroned the roofs bill and served on the subcommittee.
Both of those bills died. Stanley chastised members of both political parties for not wanting to take up the issue, especially during an election year.
“We talked about from the beginning that in the General Assembly, big ideas usually take more than just one session,” said Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, a member of Stanley’s subcommittee. “This first session was really about getting the idea out there and getting people to recognize there is a problem that needs to be addressed, and then we have to have the tenacity to keep bringing it back in successive years and build momentum.”
One bill that did pass the General Assembly would make it possible for public schools with solar panels to sell their excess energy into the power grid. The idea is to give schools another way to build affordable schools.
“I am not one that gets emotional about bills, and passion and emotion are different things,” Stanley said. “And this year I probably got a little more emotional about it because it is a really bad problem, and it seemed like not many people wanted to do anything about it or even want to have a substantive conversation. So this is now a passion I will continue to fight for, and maybe it’ll take a few years to get something everyone agrees on, but we’ll get there.”
A father’s wish
Bill Stanley was born in Pensacola, Florida. His father was a U.S. Navy aviator, so the family moved around a lot, eventually taking them to Northern Virginia. The Stanleys have roots in Virginia.
When his parents settled in Franklin County, he attended Hampden-Sydney College with the goal of becoming a restaurateur. His father, by then-retired Navy Capt. William Stanley, had a different future for his son: lawyer.
“People say you can’t change the world, but if you change one person’s life, you’ve changed their world, and in turn, you’ve changed the world,” was one of the many sayings his father told him. He thought being a lawyer would enable his son to accomplish that mission.
A month after Bill Stanley graduated from college, his father died of cancer. Stanley went on to attend the District of Columbia School of Law. He also made a deal with his mother, Diane Stanley: if she finished her undergraduate degree and went to law school to fulfill her dream of being a lawyer, he would open a law firm with her.
“It took some convincing, because of course she thought I was joking,” Bill Stanley said.
While he was still in law school, Stanley talked his way into working for a swashbuckling attorney named Gil Davis. This led to Stanley becoming involved in defending Paula Jones in a sexual harassment lawsuit against President Bill Clinton in a case that rose to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Stanley practiced in Northern Virginia after he graduated from law school. When his mother passed the state bar exam in 1998, Stanley moved back to Franklin County to open a law firm with her. She retired this year.
A.J. Dudley, another attorney who would go on to become the commonwealth’s attorney for Franklin County, drew Stanley into local politics. Stanley served as chairman of the local committee and then was elected to lead the 5th District Republican Committee. When he launched a failed bid for chairman of the state Republican Party, Dudley endorsed him and included the slogan, “Bill Stanley thinks big.”
“I saw a trait in him that he still has with him very much to this day,” Dudley said.
When Republican Robert Hurt defeated incumbent Rep. Tom Perriello in 2010, Hurt left the state Senate and went to Congress. Stanley ran in the special election to fill the 19th District seat. In November 2011, after redistricting, he narrowly defeated a veteran Democratic senator in the 20th District. He won re-election in 2015 by a 16-point margin.
When the senators are seized by a fit of the giggles, chances are Stanley’s behind the gag.
“Even though we’re doing a serious job, we’re human,” said Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, who sits next to Stanley. “He’s able to lighten the mood. I may be the more serious one, and he may be the more entertaining one, but he’s helped me be able to show a different side of myself just by sitting next to him.”
Stanley is part of what is known as the Raucous Caucus, a group of senators known for having fun in the formal chamber. Sens. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, and Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, are fellow pranksters.
Stanley and Reeves once wanted to see if they could toss a football across the room (they could). They’ve had quite a few footballs confiscated.
McWaters, who was in the Raucous Caucus, once played a prank on Stanley because he thought it was annoying how Stanley ate elaborate lunches at his desk on the Senate floor. He hid a mashed banana in his desk, and days later, Stanley discovered that was the reason for a bothersome swarm of flies. Stanley got his revenge by hiding cat food in McWaters’ desk.
A few years ago Stanley filled McWaters’ office with helium balloons the day McWaters’ bill to restrict balloon releases went to the Senate floor for a vote. Stanley opposed the bill, which failed.
“We were talking in much higher dialects once we got all that helium popping in my office,” McWaters said.
Jokes aside, McWaters says, make no mistake, Stanley is a serious legislator.
“He’s been a forceful advocate for criminal justice reform,” said Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.
Suetterlein said Stanley advocates for his colleagues’ criminal justice reform bills. Stanley backed Suetterlein’s bill signed into law last year that raised the felony theft threshold from $200 to $500.
Among a handful of legislation Stanley introduced this session related to criminal justice reform was a bill to repeal current state law that suspends the Virginia driver’s license of anyone who doesn’t promptly pay court fines or costs unrelated to driving offenses. This is something that affects 600,000 Virginians, some of whom Stanley says can’t keep a job because they lack a reliable means of transportation.
After a panel of lawmakers killed the bill, Stanley criticized a pair of tough-on-crime delegates for blocking criminal justice reform legislation and said they wanted to punish poor people.
“I’m not afraid to call people out,” Stanley said. “Because when you don’t, then what happens becomes perpetual.”
Another bill that died this session would allow people to challenge their criminal convictions on grounds that advances in forensic science now exonerate them or the forensic science technique has been discredited.
Some past bills that became law include one that prohibited children in pre-K through third grade from being suspended for more than three school days or from being expelled, except for drug and firearm offenses. He also had a bill become law stating that people convicted of simple marijuana possession for the first time would no longer be subject to an automatic six-month suspension of their driver’s license.
No governor has vetoed any of his bills.
Stanley has mulled a run for attorney general or governor in the past. He’s also floated congressional runs, but says he can better effect change in Richmond. For now, he says any political ambitions take a back seat to his family. He has three children, the youngest being 7 years old.
In the meantime, he’ll run for re-election to the Virginia Senate. And if he comes back, he plans to bring more audacious legislation.
“I take my lumps,” Stanley said. “But you just have to be bold, and I’ll either fight for what I’m passionate for all the way to the ground, or I’ll fight for it all the way to the governor’s mansion.”
The Roanoke Times February 23, 2019