By Callie Hietala
Freshman Del. Wren Williams, R-Stuart, recently was propelled into the national spotlight when a bill he sponsored during his first General Assembly session erroneously referenced a debate between Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
That debate never took place. Rather, Lincoln debated Senator Stephen Douglas.
The Division of Legislative Services (DLS) released a statement claiming responsibility for the error.
Williams said he submitted the bill to DLS and asked them to “format it, polish it up for me, and submit it to the clerk’s office. Next thing you know, they’re in my office apologizing for an error.”
He said he questioned the agency about why language that he did not ask for was added to his bill.
Williams said DLS was “very apologetic” and he understood the department was “incredibly swamped with everything that’s going on this month.”
The DLS had recently dealt with a ransomware attack which set staff back by a week, Williams said, adding “they’re already on a very tight timeline, so I can just imagine what this particular drafter was having to deal with at that time.”
He said he appreciated the agency’s public statement and is not concerned about the story casting a shadow on his political career, at least on the part of fellow Republicans.
“The left has been trying to destroy me for a long time,” he said. “They don’t like the conservative values I adhere to and champion. Ultimately, they want to try and give me a black eye. Most people understand the mainstream media doesn’t present both sides.”
Williams noted that most of the national news outlets that picked up the story used it to create “clickbait” headlines. Though the outlets updated their stories after DLS issued its statement, the headlines remained the same.
Additionally, Williams said the national attention is not necessarily a negative.
“The silver lining is everyone knows exactly where my bill is, how it reads, and what it calls for. It brought national exposure to this important issue,” Williams said of House Bill (HB) 781.
The proposal, he said, “was model legislation for the elimination of critical race theory (CRT) from our schools. It expanded on no just critical race theory but other divisive concepts like anti-Semitic curriculum.”
Gov. Glenn Youngkin campaigned heavily on an education platform, Williams said, and added one of his initiatives was to ban CRT and other divisive concepts from Virginia’s classrooms.
“He’s already done that in his day one executive order,” Williams said, but noted such orders are “only as good as long as (they’re) upheld by the governor or a court of law. Ultimately, we need legislation to pass this as well.”
Williams said his bill is intended to help accomplish that.
Another benefit of the spotlight has been the opportunity to receive input from supporters of the bill, many of them teachers, Williams said.
Since the error was first reported, Williams said he has received “quite a bit of communication” from supporters of the principle tenants of the bill, but teachers in particular expressed concern about some of its logistical elements, namely the requirement that schools list all instructional materials and activities and other related items for the upcoming school year by July 1.
“I’ve had many teachers reach out to tell me this particular part of the bill is not feasible,” Williams said. “This process is fluid,” he tells them, “and my bill is a jumping off point.” He knows there will be amendments to come.
“This is just a starting point, it’s not set in stone, and it certainly isn’t passed legislation at this point,” he said.
In fact, Williams said he anticipates “many amendments” to several similar bills introduced by other Republican legislators which, he believes, will result “in a desirable legislative package that will ban CRT in the schools and that Governor Youngkin will be able to sign and support.”
Williams said that his biggest lesson learned from this experience is, “don’t trust the swamp. Next time I will draft my own legislation and submit a hard copy instead of letting anybody else touch it.”
Ultimately, though, the freshman delegate is unfazed by recent events.
“It’s just a flash in the pan,” he said. “We’re already back to work and have our heads down, pushing through the legislation we want to get done this year.”