All politics is local, former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill once said.
Except increasingly they’re not.
A few weeks ago, Bob Lewis had an insightful commentary in the Virginia Mercury about how nationalized this year’s governor’s race in Virginia has become.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe spends his time harping on how Republican Glenn Youngkin is an acolyte of former President Donald Trump (never mind that he’s not). Youngkin, in turn, spends his time talking about things like critical race theory (never mind that this isn’t being taught in Virginia schools).
Lewis points out what the candidates aren’t talking about – the issues that Virginia’s next governor will actually face, which are a lot less polarizing, but no less important.
Lewis blames a depleted state media corps for this happening. (To be fair, he quotes Mo Elleithee, executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and a longtime Democratic strategist in Virginia who has been making this point for a long time). Lewis writes:
“Elleithee noted that in his first Virginia campaign, U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb’s unsuccessful 2000 re-election bid, “Virginia had one of the most vibrant state and local press corps in the country. Now, it’s a shell of what it once had.”
A generation ago, fiercely competitive correspondents from newspapers, television stations, wire services and radio stations across Virginia traveled widely to cover political news and elbowed one another over limited Capitol Square filing space and seating at statewide political debates. That hasn’t been the case for years as financially struggling legacy news media pared their state politics and government coverage. That decline, Elleithee said, has made state issue-driven campaigns difficult.
“Voters – consumers of news – are getting mainly national news. They’re not getting these local issues. So candidates are talking about those (national) issues more. It’s what breaks through the noise,” Elleithee said.
They’re not wrong. This isn’t just a Democratic concern, either. Tucker Martin, a longtime Republican strategist in Richmond, has tweeted much the same thing: “The hollowing out of state press corps is not good for anyone.”
That’s part of the reason why we are here. Cardinal News has something other news media in Southwest and Southside Virginia haven’t had in eight years – a full-time reporter in the state Capitol following state government from the perspective of this side of the state (veteran political reporter Markus Schmidt; you can reach him at email@example.com. But ultimately this column isn’t about us, it’s about the issues that McAuliffe and Youngkin aren’t talking about. Over the weekend, The Roanoke Times had a story about how neither candidate wants to talk about the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Voters on both sides ought to be outraged by that; why won’t the candidates for governor give a straight answer on a state issue? OK, the answer is obvious: They don’t want to make anyone mad and they don’t want to get diverted from what they want to say. But that just reduces voters to props in an advertising campaign. More than a few voters might actually like to know where the candidates stand. We can guess, of course. McAuliffe endorsed the pipeline the first time around and Youngkin has the classic Republican line about how he’s in favor of an “all of the above” energy policy. That’s nice, but they both ought to be giving voters straight answers. After all, they’ll be appointing members of all the regulatory boards that could either hasten the pipeline’s construction or halt it.
The pipeline is hardly the only issue they’re not talking about, but should. Here are four others:
- School construction. The state’s oldest school buildings are in Southwest and Southside Virginia, where the median age of buildings is 58 years old. These rural areas – along with some urban areas – are also the localities that have the hardest time paying to modernize them. A few years ago, Sara Gregory, then of The Roanoke Times (now the Virginian-Pilot), documented how some schools in Lee County were literally being held together by duct tape.
And not just Lee County, either. “We’re keeping our school division together with a prayer and duct tape,” Dickenson County Superintendent Haydee Robinson told The Roanoke Times.
State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has waged a lonely battle to persuade the General Assembly to authorize a $3 billion bond issue for school construction. So far, it has yet to pass – his proposal for an advisory referendum made its way out of the state Senate earlier this year but then was strangled by Northern Virginia Democrats in a House committee. This may be an issue pushed now by a Republican but in years past it was one championed by Democrats – former Del. Tom Jackson, D-Carroll County, in the 1990s, and the liberal icon Francis Pickens Miller in his assault on the Byrd Machine in the 1949 Democratic primary for governor.
However, neither McAuliffe nor Youngkin are talking about this. McAuliffe touts a “big and bold” school plan but it’s apparently not big and bold enough to cover school construction. Youngkin, meanwhile, is pushing tax cuts – a fine thing for individual taxpayers but not for rural school systems, who depend on the state for most of their funding (up to 65% in Scott County). Why are neither of them talking about this?
- School disparity. School construction is just part of a larger issue – the vast funding disparities between schools in low-income rural localities and high-income suburbs. Nearly twice as much money is spend on educating a student in Arlington ($20,576) than in Scott County ($11,444). The cost of living can’t explain away all that difference. Money doesn’t directly translate into a better education but it does pay for some things – technology, for instance. Students in Northern Virginia’s newest schools don’t have to worry about their electricity shorting out the way some in rural Virginia do. This disparity is written into Virginia’s constitution; a 1994 state Supreme Court ruling confirmed that. Fixing this isn’t a partisan issue – in the past General Assembly, a Republican (Stanley) and a Democrat (Del. Chris Hurst of Montgomery County) introduced proposed constitutional amendments close this loophole. Both failed. Democrats are big on “equity” these days; why isn’t McAuliffe championing this? Republicans depend on overwhelming support from rural areas; why isn’t Youngkin leading the charge on this? Both are absolutely silent.
- Virginia’s economic divide. Virtually all of Southwest and Southside Virginia is losing population. Some of that is demographic – as young adults leave, an older population ages so deaths outnumber births. But there are 18 localities where the sheer number of people moving out tops that deaths-over-births figure. If you want to look for evidence of a failing economy, there are 18 examples. Yet I haven’t heard either candidate talk about this. Granted, it’s not the most uplifting of topics, and there aren’t that many votes available in those areas – fewer every year at this rate – but it’s still a fact of life that the next governor will confront. Does either candidate have a plan? We sure haven’t heard one. To be fair, McAuliffe lists a lot more details on his website than Youngkin does. But they’re also modest and vague. McAuliffe says he will expand the tobacco commission’s talent attraction plan. Great. By how much? His plan doesn’t say. I don’t expect either candidate to make “Close the Divide” the same kind of rallying cry that Jim Gilmore did with “No Car Tax!” in 1997 but we should expect more seriousness from the candidates than we’ve heard so far. All campaigns are superficial to some degree but he one four years ago had more ballast than this one does, which brings me to . . .
- A research university in Virginia’s coal country. Part of that ballast four years ago was Ralph Northam’s proposal to create graduate programs in renewable energy research at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. This seemed a far-sighted idea: UVA-Wise was one of only two four-year state universities without graduate programs (Virginia Military Institute was the other) and making UVA-Wise a center for renewable energy research seemed a way to help transition the coal country economy and leverage its energy capital past into an energy capital future. Research universities today function as industrial parks, spinning off start-ups. What if the same could be done there? Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened. Northam’s one attempt seemed weak and ran afoul of other politics in the legislature. I’m baffled why there hasn’t been a groundswell of community support for this idea. After all, there’s not a single college in Appalachia with a major in renewable energy; establishing UVA-Wise as a center for renewable energy research seems too good an idea to pass up. Virginia Tech certainly has lots of energy research going on, but it’s in Blacksburg, not coal country. Here’s where some gubernatorial leadership could help. Yet once again, silence from both candidates.
So, will the candidates address any of these topics in a substantive way? Or will we have to endure more wind-baggery about Trump and critical race theory?