When the Senate Finance Committee held its retreat in Roanoke last November, the conference room at the Hotel Roanoke was jammed with people who wanted to watch. It seemed as if every lobbyist in Richmond had decamped to Roanoke for a chance to hobnob with some of the most influential legislators in the state – those who help write the state budget. I’ve had an easier time finding seats at a sold-out concert than I did at the Senate Finance committee.
Across the room from me, I noticed what appeared to be an empty seat beside one particularly interested onlooker – Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County. He had laid a notebook on the chair beside him, clearly saving the seat for someone of importance. Just before the meeting got underway, I saw who he was saving it for. Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, slipped in the door and McNamara waved him over to sit beside him.
I remember thinking at the time – what a nice gesture. McNamara and Rasoul probably don’t agree on very much – that’s why one is a Republican and the other a Democrat – but it’s nice to see such civility in these polarizing times.
Then this week I saw a curious post on Facebook. “Last of the Honor Roll letters are signed and on the way!” Rasoul posted. He routinely sends out congratulatory letters to students in his district who make the honor roll. But that’s not all that caught my eye.
After all the congratulatory verbiage, there was this line in the letter – and the bold and underlined parts are exactly how Rasoul wrote it:
“In honor of your hard work, my good friend Delegate Joe McNamara, and I are excited to offer you one free scoop of ice cream at Katie’s Ice Cream located at 3530 Electric Rd., Roanoke, VA 24018 during the week of March 13th through March 19th.”
There’s a lot there to digest and none of it is ice cream. Here is a Democrat calling a Republican “my good friend” – and this doesn’t seem to be the device some legislators employ during a debate, when right after they refer to someone as “my good friend,” they proceed to stick the rhetorical knife in.
Furthermore, and this isn’t something a lot of people would know, McNamara owns Katie’s Ice Cream. (He also owns the Salem Ice Cream Parlor.) So here’s a Democrat sending business to a Republican.
Now free ice cream for honor roll students may not be the biggest issue in the world, but it’s fascinating to me to see this kind of bipartisan friendship and cooperation.
I called up both legislators to find out more – and I did.
Rasoul said he’s been sending out honor roll letters for years now. He said it usually involves about 4,000 letters – all of which he hand-signs, which takes him six to eight hours. (I’m surprised he was still able to type out a message on Facebook after all that!)
“It means something to a lot of these folks,” he said, “especially in Roanoke city where we have a more challenging socio-economic demographic – to get some of that affirmation is very different than you might get in the suburbs, for example.”
For a long time, Rasoul simply sent out letters. This year, he had a different idea. “It’s been particularly tough during COVID for our students and staff and parents and so I had a new idea this time,” he told me. “So I went to my buddy Joe McNamara and said, ‘I know you’ve got an ice cream shop, can we go into together on this, I can help offset the costs.’ He was very supportive.”
Here’s where their stories diverge, in even more uplifting ways. Rasoul said he was planning to split the cost with McNamara. McNamara said: “We talked about just splitting the cost, but I don’t know. If it doesn’t hit me too bad, my plan is to just eat it.”
In fact, McNamara said he liked Rasoul’s honor roll letter so much he’s planning to start doing the same thing in his district – he just has to work out a system for getting names and addresses from county schools.
But that’s not all. McNamara then delivered a warm testimonial of Rasoul – again, keep in mind that these are politicians from different parties.
“Sam has always been a team player in the Southwest delegation,” McNamara said. “Maybe people don’t see it but it’s certainly there.”
Rasoul’s in an unusual position – right now, he’s the only Democratic member of the House west of Charlottesville. Rasoul will never be mistaken for a Blue Dog Democrat – he’s often to the left of many of his Democratic colleagues – but he’s got a knack for getting along with Republicans. (Since this is an opinion column, I’ll offer this opinion: Both Rasoul and McNamara are exceptionally likable people.) I would cite one example of Rasoul’s ability to line up Republican support for certain measures except McNamara beat me to it: “The Catawba project,” McNamara said. “I have some better access to certain avenues than Sam might just because we’re in the majority and he has better access to some of the industry folks, so we work together and we use our collective strengths to make things happen for our region.”
McNamara is referring to Rasoul’s bill to commission a state study about using Catawba Hospital – a psychiatric hospital in Roanoke County for geriatric patients – for substance abuse treatment. This is important on several levels. There’s obviously a demand for substance abuse treatment. Catawba Hospital has also sometimes been on the statewide chopping block – over the past three decades, two different governors have tried to close it, so finding an additional function would seem to improve its chances of staying around. The hospital is the biggest employer for neighboring Craig County. It’s also in McNamara’s district, not Rasoul’s. (We had a story about how this idea originated with a Virginia Tech class.) Rasoul rounded up 25 co-patrons – more than half of them Republicans. (McNamara is listed as one of the chief co-patrons.) The bill passed the House unanimously and now goes over to the Senate.
Now, you might think – sure, that’s an easy bill for both parties to get behind, and you’re right. That also speaks to something going on here: The general public doesn’t often see how much bipartisan cooperation there is in Richmond. My profession is to blame for some of that. We tend to focus on the partisan fights. The nature of politics is to blame for some of that, too. There are partisan fights – and those do tend to be kind of important, and on those issues you won’t find Rasoul and McNamara on the same side. But most of what happens is Richmond isn’t like that. It’s about detailed things such as Catawba Hospital that don’t really have an ideological component, just practical ones that are sometimes tricky because we all know what’s in the details.
“I distinguish between ideology and process,” Rasoul said. “The process is we’re supposed to come down here and do the work of the people. You may have people who are very liberal and very conservative who want to work together.”
McNamara, he said, “is always trying to find a way to get to yes.” Sometimes they get there, sometimes they can’t. (On ice cream, they obviously did.)
“That’s how I try to spend my time in the General Assembly,” Rasoul said. “The fact is the majority of legislation passes with bipartisan support. That gets lost in all of the headlines. We have people on both sides just trying to get it right.”
So here’s my point, which has nothing to do with Rasoul or McNamara or honor roll letters or ice cream: Our legislators often get along better across party lines than a lot of their partisans do. It’s fashionable to say that we need politicians who are more in tune with the people – but sometimes, as a society, we’d be better off if we had people who were more like some of our politicians.