Just a few weeks after last November’s election, I started to hear something unexpected from some Democrats: They kind of liked our new Republican governor.
Glenn Youngkin was said to be quite the schmoozer and, as a newcomer to politics, seemed to be going out of his way to get to know both Republican and Democratic legislators. Some Democrats cautiously, and discreetly, pointed out that Youngkin was doing a better job of outreach than Terry McAuliffe ever did during his four years as governor.
They expected to disagree on policy, of course – there are reasons why some people are Democrats and some are Republicans – but much of what happens in Richmond isn’t particularly ideological. Those Democrats saw a new Republican governor who they might be able to work with.
It’s safe to say they don’t feel that way anymore – at least not right now.
Youngkin used his veto pen this week to put the kibosh on 26 bills, the most by any first-year governor since Jim Gilmore in 1998, who killed 37 bills. (Mark Warner, in his first year, vetoed one. Bob McDonnell, none.) On the other hand, Ralph Northam vetoed 20, so 26 is not that far out of line with that. (Thanks to the Virginia Public Access Project for the historical comparisons.)
The big surprise was not the number but the bills themselves. All were from Democrats (although that’s not really a surprise). The bigger surprise was that these were generally non-controversial bills – by definition they had all passed both a Democratic Senate and a Republican House of Delegates, so had at least some modicum of bipartisanship. An analysis by VPAP found that eight had passed the General Assembly unanimously, six more passed with what VPAP defined as “strong support” from both parties.
Now, the constitution gives the governor veto power for a reason – just because something passed the General Assembly by a wide or even unanimous margin doesn’t guarantee it’s a good idea. Still, the point is, these weren’t bills that anyone expected would be vetoed – yet they were.
What Democrats notice is that many of these came from Democrats, particularly Senate Democrats, who had been most critical of Youngkin for one reason or another. For instance, nine of the 26 bills – nearly one-third – came from state Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria.
As the Virginia Mercury pointed out: “Ebbin put Republicans in a snit earlier this year during a fight over gubernatorial appointments when he said Senate Democrats ‘weren’t going to be walked all over’ and the Republican-led House ‘needs to be taught a lesson.’ As chairman of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, Ebbin played a key role in the Senate’s move to reject four of Youngkin’s appointees to the Virginia Parole Board, forcing the governor to pick four new people this month.”
Ebbin told the Mercury that he considered this “retaliation.”
Curiously, six of those nine bills had identical companions that originated in the House – and Youngkin signed those. As The Washington Post reported: “Typically a governor signs both versions, allowing both sponsors bragging rights for getting a bill passed into law. Longtime state legislators said they could not think of a case in which a governor signed one bill and vetoed its companion.”
Now, Youngkin is a proud basketball player, so he surely knows how to throw a sharp elbow now and then.
This is a sharp elbow.
Partisans may get excited about this – different reasons for different parties – but I’m not going to get too worked up over this since the effect there seems purely symbolic. Youngkin has made his point, and deprived Ebbin of whatever bragging rights he’s entitled to, but he hasn’t derailed the policies that those bills would enact.
But that may not be the most important thing here. I’m more focused on the statement from state Sen. Creigh Deeds – currently D-Bath County in a district that runs west-to-east but someday soon D-Charlottesville in a district that will run north-to-south down to Amherst County.
One of his bills was vetoed. He says the bill “sought to prevent the harassment of crime victims by debt collection agencies” – which grew out of the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville where someone who was injured “was continuously harassed and sent to collections over a medical bill related to the crime.” This bill had passed the Senate 24-15 (so had three Republican votes, from Emmett Hanger of Augusta County, Mark Obenshain of Rockingham County and Bill Stanley of Franklin County), an amended version passed out of the House by 91-7 and then the Senate approved those House amendments by 22-17 (this time with Hanger as the only Republican vote in favor).
Let’s not get hung up over the details of the bill, though. The governor’s official explanation was that “this legislation creates unintended consequences that could harm small healthcare providers by creating additional legal liability. The bill could also result in higher health care costs for Virginians.”
Maybe that’s so, maybe it’s not – for our purposes here today, that doesn’t really matter.
I am more focused on something else.
“This veto was unusual,” Deeds said in a statement, “in that I never heard from the Governor or a member of his team. Typically, the Governor’s office will communicate with the patron of the bill prior to offering an amendment or vetoing a bill. That did not occur here. It is not surprising given the Governor’s absolute lack of experience with government.”
Deeds’ statement may seem harsh but it’s actually a more generous interpretation that some might give. Maybe the governor isn’t trying to send some political message, maybe he just didn’t know any better.
Deeds went on to say: “I am sorry that the Governor did not see the wisdom of this bill, and I am disappointed that he could not find the common courtesy to let me know he was going to veto the bill. I should have known not to expect more.”
That part of Deeds’ statement seems worth paying attention to.
I get politics. If Youngkin is unhappy with Ebbin – and he has reasons to be – then I understand him expressing his pique by making some symbolic vetoes. Maybe Youngkin has reasons to be just as unhappy with Deeds as part of the Democratic leadership that nixed a bunch of his appointees. But let’s take the governor at his word, that he saw some unintended consequences with Deeds’ bill, which apparently almost all Senate Republicans did, too. If the tradition is that the governor or his staff will alert a legislator if a veto or amendment is forthcoming, Youngkin should have honored that tradition. If that’s not the tradition, and Deeds is mistaken (he’s served through eight governors, four from each party), then it ought to be.
Whether the failure to do so was intentional – we’ll show those Democrats! – or unintentional – gosh, I had no idea that’s how things worked – it was still a failure.
Here’s why this matters: In the short term, this flare-up poisons relations between the Republican governor and Democrats in the General Assembly. Youngkin may think they’ve been poisoned already by Senate Democrats blocking some of his appointments, and he’s not wrong. Even before these vetoes, I felt Democrats had made a strategic mistake that led them to pay too high a price for their opposition to Youngkin’s nomination for former Trump EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler as secretary of Natural and Historic Resources – Republicans had retaliated by effectively kicking Democratic appointees off the Board of Education and the State Corporation Commission (which then led Democrats to vote down Youngkin’s parole board nominees). If you think Wheeler is a singularly bad appointment, then perhaps any price is worth paying to keep him out of office. But if you suspect that Youngkin would simply appoint someone less controversial who would carry out the same policies, then what’s the point? Democrats wound up with the same policies they object to, but fewer Democrats on the Board of Education and SCC. That doesn’t sound like a good trade to me.
Democrats retaliated in kind by voting down Youngkin’s original set of nominees for the parole board. For whatever it’s worth, I thought that escalation was a bad move. Democrats at least had some policy rationale to oppose Wheeler but they voted down the parole board nominees simply out of spite — because they could, and to show Republicans they were displeased with Republicans blocking those earlier Democratic appointments. That just seems juvenile to me, but I don’t have much patience for partisan politics. That vote also cost Southwest Virginia a seat on the parole board: Montgomery County Sheriff Hank Partin was one of the original nominees who didn’t get seated. That may not be the most important aspect of that vote from a statewide perspective but it is one we notice out here; none of Youngkin’s second round of nominees were from this part of the state.
In any case, back to my point: Virginia governors are limited to four years. Historically, their most productive years have been at the beginning of their term because with each day that goes by, they become more and more of a lame duck. Like it or not, Youngkin will spend the first half of his term with a Democratic Senate. If he wants to get things done, he’ll need at least some modest accommodation with that fact. I don’t see how enraging Senate Democrats benefits him, even if they might have enraged him. Will this make Senate Democrats more or less likely to be inclined to work with the governor? Ideally, the question answers itself. Just in case it doesn’t, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Senate Finance Committee chair Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County, says the governor’s vetoes have set back the already delicate, and delayed, negotiations with the Republican House over a new state budget. Republicans can dismiss that response as childish and maybe it is, but the reality is the state needs a budget sooner rather than later, and the governor needs a budget that reflects his priorities. Any setback complicates both those things. I’m sure some of these vetoes are politically satisfying for the governor but politics is not the same thing as governance. Come November 2023, Youngkin is entitled to do all he can to persuade voters to give him a Republican Senate. Until then, his success – and, by inference, the success of Virginia – depends on him working with Senate Democrats on at least a few things. Where these vetoes are political, this seems a needless political fight – a two-year tit-for-tat isn’t likely to make either side more likely to work with the other. Where these actions are policy-driven, they are forgivable, maybe even understandable, but the lack of what Deeds calls “common courtesy” is neither. (Partisans may disagree but I’m not a partisan.)
Here’s the more long-term reason this matters: Each day our society becomes more polarized and our politics become more partisan. That can’t be good for our civic health. We saw one warning sign of just how bad things could get on Jan. 6, 2021. Now, the governor’s failure to notify a legislator that he intended to veto a bill isn’t going to provoke some mob to storm the state capitol. But it does coarsen our discourse, even if only by a little. It means Richmond continues to become even more like Washington, and not in a good way. We should all be looking for ways to turn down the temperature in our society, not keep it at a running boil.
When Terry McAuliffe was governor, Republicans complained that he brought Washington-style politics to Virginia – and their complaint wasn’t unfounded. McAuliffe was a creature of Washington who never quite meshed with Virginia’s style of governance. Youngkin held out the promise that he would somehow be different, a return to more traditional times. “My fellow Virginians,” he said in his inaugural address, “I come to this moment, and to this office, knowing we must bind the wounds of division.” Those words struck the tone we used to expect of a Virginia governor.
Failing to heed a traditional “common courtesy,” though, does not “bind the wounds of division,” it only exacerbates them – and creates an unfortunate precedent about partisanship that some future Democratic governor may feel free to wield against Republicans. Republicans won’t like that then, so they shouldn’t like this now even it it does momentarily discomfort the other side. If Youngkin truly feels Deeds’ bill is bad policy, then by all means veto it. But show some respect and give him a call beforehand. Not because the governor likes him – there’s no requirement that people in politics like one another – but because we should all do what we can to make common courtesy a little more common.