The U.S. Geological Survey says there were at least 45 earthquakes around the world on Wednesday. (By the time you read this, that number may go up; they happen all the time.)
Most were around the Pacific Rim, with the strongest ground-shaker coming about 12 miles northeast of Eltham, New Zealand, and measuring 5.7 on the Richter scale.
Somehow the USGS missed the one in Richmond, where the political tectonic plates shifted in ways that will reverberate across Virginia for at least the next two years.
It wasn’t just that a Republican majority took power in the House of Delegates. After all, it’s only been two years since the last time the GOP was in charge. We’ve been talking about that political shift from left to right since election night in November.
What has gone less noticed, but manifested itself Wednesday in the form of committee assignments, is the geopolitical shift that accompanies this partisan change of power.
Under the Democrats, the most powerful positions in the General Assembly were entirely in the hands of Northern Virginians. Now we see the rise (again) of rural Virginians (and, of course, specifically, rural Republicans) to leadership posts.
Let’s call the roll: Under the Democrats, the speaker of the House (Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax County), the House majority leader (Charniele Herring of Alexandria) and the chair of the House Appropriations Committee (Luke Torian of Prince William County) were all from Northern Virginia. If you’re further counting, not a single one was a white male. Over in the Senate, the Senate majority leader (Richard Saslaw of Fairfax County) and the Senate Finance chair (Janet Howell of Fairfax County) were also from Northern Virginia – and still are. The Senate, which isn’t up for election until 2023, didn’t change. And, in case it mattered, in the old legislature, the Senate’s presiding officer was Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, also a Northern Virginian.
That seems an unprecedented concentration of power in one part of the state. (I say “seems” because I can’t rule out some similar concentration in some other part of the state in the gray, distant past, but in modern memory, we’ve seen more geographic diversity.)
Now, with the banging of the gavel, we have a House speaker (Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County), a House majority leader (Terry Kilgore of Scott County) and a deputy House majority leader (Israel O’Quinn of Washington County) all from west of the Blue Ridge, with only House Appropriations chair Barry Knight of Virginia Beach coming from a non-rural area.
The committee assignments announced by Gilbert on Wednesday further underscore this.
Of 14 committees, at least eight will be led by legislators from rural areas. Margaret Ransone of Westmoreland County chairs Privileges and Elections; Terry Austin of Botetourt County chairs Transportation; Keith Hodges of Middlesex County chairs Counties, Cities and Towns; Kathy Byron of Campbell County chairs Commerce and Energy; Bobby Orrock of Caroline County chairs Health, Welfare and Institutions; Lee Ware of Powhatan County (which admittedly is increasingly an exurb of Richmond) chairs Agriculture, Chesapeake Bay and Natural Resources; and Tony Wilt of Rockingham County chairs Public Safety, while Gilbert, as speaker, chairs Rules.
The chairmanships were all announced previously so all that was known before. What we learned Wednesday was who the vice chairs will be. Nine of the 14 committees will have vice chairs from Southwest or Southside, with a 10th having a vice chair from the Shenandoah Valley. For us, the most significant news there is that Austin will be vice chair of House Appropriations, but that’s only if you care about money; for those most interested in other issues, the significance may be elsewhere. (You can see that list here if you want to avoid the roll call.) Five of the 14 – Counties, Cities and Towns; Commerce and Energy; Health, Welfare and Institutions; Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources; and Public Safety – have both chairs and vice chairs from rural areas. (Or maybe four of the 14; again, depends on how you feel about Powhatan County; plus, 51% of the district that elected Ware is from Chesterfield County. Even if you drop that out, the count is still five of 14 if you factor in House Rules, which has no vice chair.)
Now, rural and Southwest and Southside are not exactly synonymous, of course. Del. John Avoli, vice chair of House Education, is from Staunton, which certainly isn’t rural, although large parts of the district that elected him certainly are. Likewise, Del. Chris Head, the new vice chair of Health, Welfare and Institutions, lives in a part of Botetourt County that is so urbanized he actually has a Roanoke mailing address; most of his district is in suburban Roanoke County or full-out urban Roanoke.
Still, the point here is we just saw Virginia’s political center of gravity – at least in the House – shift from Northern Virginia to somewhere in rural Virginia. That seems pretty significant.
On the plus side, if there’s something this side of the state needs, now would be the time to ask for it. This region has the leadership in the House of Delegates and an incoming governor politically indebted to rural Virginia.
Now for the minus side. Often my role here is to be a champion for Southwest and Southside Virginia, but here it seems necessary to sound a cautionary note. I made the case earlier that Republicans shouldn’t overplay their hand and give in to the most extreme voices in their caucus, because that’s not how to maintain a majority in a closely divided state such as Virginia. The same applies here – same message, just different form.
House Democratic leaders often seemed to forget that there was such a thing as rural Virginia, or treat it with disdain when they did acknowledge it. I must refer once again to the Fairfax County Democrat who last year complained that Lee County should just buck up and do something about its schools that are, literally in some cases, held together by tape. “I don’t see why people can’t take initiative, even in rural and small-town Virginia, to solve their own problems,” he said. (Here’s why: The median household income in Lee County is $32,888. In Fairfax County, it’s $124,831. In Loudoun County next door, it’s $142,299.)
The new House Republican leaders should not make the same mistake from a different direction. They should be keenly aware that their rural districts aren’t representative of the majority of Virginians who live in metropolitan areas (even if their policies, at the moment, might be). If they want to stay in the majority, they need to remember that the key to keeping that majority lies not in satisfying constituents in Floyd County (who will vote Republican no matter what) but satisfying ones in Fredericksburg and Fauquier County (who could easily decide that a Democrat might be in their best interest). Democrats just learned this the hard way, in reverse: Their path to a majority ultimately rested not on Northern Virginia but, in part, on their ability to retain a seat in the New River Valley, which they couldn’t do.
While we in Southwest and Southside should be overjoyed at having so many legislators in positions of power (even Democrats in this part of the state should be happy about that), we should also be mindful about why this has happened. It’s what author Bill Bishop has called “the big sort,” referring to how people are sorting themselves out into self-segregated communities, be they virtual communities or physical ones. We are now so geographically polarized that we are close not to having two national parties but two regional ones, with Democrats being the party of metro areas and Republicans being the party of rural areas. I say “almost” because there are still, thankfully, some exceptions, but they are increasingly few and far between. Republicans, at least, do have legislators from the Richmond area and Hampton Roads, just not Northern Virginia until you get to the outskirts, where districts have a lot of rural voters. In the House, there is only one Democrat west of Charlottesville – Sam Rasoul of Roanoke. In the Senate, there are but two – Creigh Deeds of Bath County and John Edwards of Roanoke – but there will soon just be one (Deeds says he’s moving to Charlottesville to follow his constituents in the new redistricting map), and maybe someday none (Edwards has been drawn into a district that tilts Republican).
I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: These kinds of geographical divisions can’t be healthy. They make it too easy to breed misunderstanding (see the comments about the Lee County schools above) and mistrust. Whether we have a Democratic majority or a Republican majority is ultimately up to voters, but no matter which party is in charge we’d be better off if we had more (or any) Democrats from Southwest and Southside and more (or any) Republicans from Northern Virginia. Since we don’t, it’s now incumbent on House Republicans – and if they know what’s good for them, Senate Democrats – to act as if they did.