Here are three random observations that neatly organize themselves alphabetically.
1. A is for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Parties that lose elections, especially elections they thought they should have won, are never happy parties. Let’s just say Democrats aren’t exactly asking the band to strike up “Happy Days Are Here Again.” They’re still debating why they lost the Virginia governor’s race – and the House of Delegates along with it. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, the most visible member of the party’s so-called “progressive” wing, recently expressed frustration that she hadn’t been asked to campaign for Terry McAuliffe. She told The New York Times: “Before the Virginia elections, it was very clear that our help and our participation was not wanted or asked for, which is fine. I’m not here to tell people how to run their races. But at the same time, to consider the members here that have some of the tightest relationships to our political base as just a uniform liability – and not something that can be selectively deployed, or consulted, or anything – I think it’s just sad. I think it was a mistake. And we saw a big youth turnout collapse. Not a single person asked me to send an email, not even to my own list. And then they turn around and say, ‘It’s their fault.’ When I think it was communicated quite expressly that we were unwelcome to pitch in.”
So what should we make of this? First, Democrats are likely to be fighting for a long time over whether McAuliffe ran too moderate a campaign or simply a bad one – or maybe he ran a fine campaign but just had some bad luck. Objectively speaking, McAuliffe clearly failed to excite large parts of the Democratic base, whatever the reason. The Virginia Public Access Project compiled the most damning numbers. Turnout in some of the strongest Democratic localities barely budged from four years ago. Alexandria went from 52% to 53%. Richmond went from 49% to 50%. Hampton went from 44% to 45%. Norfolk went from 43% to 44%. Petersburg didn’t change at all – stuck at 38%. Charlottesville and Portsmouth saw turnout actually decline – from 52% to 51% in the former and 46% to 44% in the latter. Meanwhile, turnout in Republican localities surged, often by double-digit margins. In Russell County it went from 37% to 52%, the biggest percentage gain in the state.
But would having Ocasio-Cortez’s help have changed that? Here’s the thing: Ocasio-Cortez is a polarizing figure who has the same effect on conservatives that former President Donald Trump does on liberals. A campaign appearance by Ocasio-Cortez – or even just a statement – would have surely boosted Democratic turnout. The question is whether it would have boosted Republican turnout even more. The McAuliffe campaign surely took this into account and concluded that in Virginia, Ocasio-Cortez would have been a net minus for the campaign – just as Glenn Youngkin ran the same calculus on how strongly to embrace Trump and decided Trump was a net minus for him. For Ocasio-Cortez to suggest that McAuliffe might have won if only he’d asked for her help is only to look at one side of the equation. What works for her politically in New York does not necessarily work in Norton or Nottoway County — both localities that Mark Warner carried two decades ago with 68% and 57% of the vote but where McAuliffe this year polled 27% and 35%.
2. B is for bargain. As in, there’s a grand bargain to be made between Northern Virginia and Southwest and Southside Virginia, if only someone can pull it off. More to the point: A proposal to build data centers – the big warehouses of computers that make the internet go – in the rural part of Prince William County has spurred what the Prince William Times says “may become a major land-use brawl in the coming months.” A “who’s who” of local groups – including the influential Piedmont Environmental Council as well as the American Battlefield Trust and the National Parks Conservation Association – have lined up to oppose the data centers. The politics seem interesting from afar – Democrats on the board of supervisors generally seem to support the data centers, seeing more revenue, while Republicans who represent the rural areas are now on the same side as a lot of environmentalists and preservationists. Strange bedfellows, indeed, although it’s not a perfect political split. The Prince William Times notes that Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, has opposed the electrical transmission lines that would be required. At the risk of repeating myself, let me repeat what I wrote in a previous column: All this opposition to data centers shows how we have two very different Virginias. While some in Prince William County see data centers as a blight on the landscape, we have counties in Southwest and Southside Virginia that are literally begging for the jobs and tax revenues they’d bring – so far without much success. It’s easy to be a NIMBY – not in my backyard, which is how people opposing most development projects often sound. Here’s a chance for these groups in Prince William County to rise above that. Why don’t they propose these data centers go to Southwest or Southside? That would be the bargain: They get to avoid the development they don’t want and counties in Southwest and Southside would get the development they do want. Who can make this happen?
3. C is for civic health. It’s easy to criticize government and, goodness knows, governments at all levels often deserve that criticism. But sometimes it’s not the government that’s the problem, it’s the citizenry. The Roanoke Times ran a story recently that perfectly illustrated what’s wrong with a lot of citizen engagement at the local level. The story involved the Botetourt County School Board. A large contingent of “parents and concerned citizens” showed up at the school board meeting at James River High School and signed up to speak during the public comment period. These people must have been concerned, indeed, because James River is one of the hardest high schools around to get to. (The county must have gotten a good deal on the land back in the ’50s because the site about 4 miles east of Buchanan sure isn’t very accessible, unless you count a winding two-lane road along the foot of Purgatory Mountain as accessible.)
The paper reported: “Some of those people said they were against schools openly supporting gay or transgender people. Other people speaking to the board shared home-cooked conspiracy theories that seemed rooted in anti-vaccine sentiments. Speakers encouraged Botetourt schools to return millions of dollars’ worth of federal coronavirus relief funds, for fear students will be forced to receive COVID-19 vaccines.”
OK, let’s set aside their anti-vax, anti-gay, anti-transgender, anti-whatever agenda. The point is, these speakers were concerned about local schools. That’s a good thing, whether you agree with their viewpoint or not. Let’s even set aside their rude behavior – some started speaking out of turn and shouting at school board members. Let’s even set aside the fact that some of these people just sound, well, no need for me to say. Let’s just quote from The Roanoke Times account: “At least one person yelled at the elected school board representatives to ‘stop vaccinating our children,’ and another shouted, ‘you’re complicit.’
To which the school board chair, Anna Weddle, replied: “The current CDC guidelines do not include vaccine mandates. We will not be vaccinating your children. We cannot give a child a Tylenol without parental permission, as it should be. We are not going to secretly vaccinate your child.”
You know, facts.
But here’s the thing that should really infuriate people. After all the commotion and all these outbursts, once the school board started getting into the actual work of the evening, the protesters left!
“It’s really sad to see all of you that came all the way out to James River just disappear now,” Weddle said as they started to head for the exits.
But disappear they did. The newspaper reported: “By the time the board opened the floor for public comment less than an hour later, nobody remaining in the audience spoke up to provide input on the schools’ continued reopening plans.”
That prompted school board member Michelle Austin to say: “We had a lot of people in the crowd tonight worried about the American Rescue Plan and these funds. The sad part about it is, when they had an opportunity to give meaningful input, they’ve all left.”
None of this makes me the least bit sympathetic toward the people who showed up to protest – although they all no doubt went home convinced they were fully knowledgeable about how poorly they think the school system is run.
Folks, having an opinion is easy. All you have to do is sit at home and get your talking points from Fox or MSN, depending on your political leanings. Having an opinion is kind of exciting. But the actual work of government is quite often tedious. I completely understand why these folks left. School board meetings are just plain boring. So are lots of other government meetings and, goodness knows, I’ve sat through plenty of them. But it’s also hard to take seriously people who just want to show up and complain and not take the time to sit through the whole process of what they’re complaining about. I’m pretty sure there was a civics lesson in progress that night. I’m also pretty sure I know who deserves an F, and it’s sure not the school board.
That’s another letter in the alphabet, just one that was like the people who were shouting at the meeting – out of order.