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RICHMOND – A recent partisan shakeup of the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission has restored not just the Republican control of the board but also returned most seats to lawmakers from localities considered part of Virginia’s tobacco regions after Democrats ceded their majority in the House of Delegates and the three statewide offices back to the GOP in November.
Among the lawmakers re-appointed by Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, after a two-year hiatus is Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, who had previously served on the commission after first being appointed in 2007. Gilbert’s predecessor Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat from Fairfax, had removed him from the body in May 2020 – a partisan but not unusual move when a new party seizes the majority in the House. However, Filler-Corn had replaced several lawmakers with Democrats not residing in what is widely considered the tobacco footprint in the commonwealth.
“I was surprised that the former Speaker took me off the commission two years ago because I’m in the middle of tobacco country, and it was members of the General Assembly from this area that started the commission in the first place,” Marshall said in a recent phone interview with Cardinal News. “In fact, the original legislation said you had to live within the tobacco footprint, and I’ve lived here all my life,” he said.
Of the body’s 27 members, six are state delegates appointed by the Speaker. Besides Marshall, Gilbert chose Republican exclusively lawmakers from Southwest and Southside Virginia: House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, Del. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania County, Del. Kathy Byron, R-Campbell County, Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, and Del. William Wampler, R-Washington County.
“Speaker Gilbert appoints thoughtful, smart legislators to the commission who understand the needs of Virginia’s tobacco regions, and, unlike past appointees, they live in the required areas,” said Garren Shipley, a spokesman for Gilbert, in an email. “The commission’s work continues to be a driver of economic development for Southwest and Southside Virginia, areas that lost a great deal of economic vitality with the demise of tobacco,” Shipley said, adding that the newly appointed House members will work “hand-in-hand with the entire commission to continue to find creative ways to spur economic development for that region of the commonwealth.”
The panel also includes four members of the Senate appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules. Because the panel remains under Democratic control, Democrats appointed three of their own – Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke and Sen. Frank Ruff of Mecklenburg County, the sole Republican.
In addition to legislators the commission includes three members of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s cabinet: Secretary of Commerce and Trade Caren Merrick, Secretary of Finance Stephen Cummings, and Secretary Agriculture and Forestry Matthew Lohr.
The governor also gets to appoint 15 citizen members to the commission, five of which shall be flue-cured or burley tobacco producers or active farmers from a list of seven persons provided by the members of the General Assembly appointed to the commission. Three of the tobacco producers or active farmers must reside in the Southside region, and two shall reside in the Southwest region.
Another citizen member shall be a representative of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation appointed by the governor from a list of at least three persons provided by Virginia Farm Bureau Federation; and of another nine members, three are appointed by the governor from a list of six provided by the members of the General Assembly appointed to the commission.
The purpose of the commission, which was created in 1999 by the General Assembly, is to promote economic growth and development in formerly tobacco-dependent communities, using proceeds from the national tobacco settlement. In 1998, 52 state and territory attorneys general signed the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) with the four largest tobacco companies in the U.S. to settle dozens of state lawsuits brought to recover billions of dollars in health care costs associated with treating smoking-related illnesses.
Since its creation, the 28-member panel has awarded more than 2,000 grants totaling more than $1 billion across Virginia’s tobacco region and has provided more than $300 million in indemnification payments to tobacco growers and quota holders. It has also funded higher education.
Marshall, who served on the commission for a decade before his removal two years ago, during his first stint took the lead on several economic development initiatives that led to job growth in the region, including luring Tyson and Aero Farms to the area. “Even [former Gov. Ralph] Northam said that the Danville-Pittsylvania area was a poster child for regional cooperation. I’m glad to be back, and hopefully we can get some more jobs in,” he said in the interview.
Marshall said that he didn’t want to weigh in on the performance of the Democrats serving on the body for the last two years. “I don’t know, I didn’t go to the meetings, but they probably had good intentions,” he said.
Among the Democrats who were appointed by Filler-Corn two years ago and who were recently replaced were Dels. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery County, Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex County. After Hurst was defeated by Republican Jason Ballard in November, Rasoul remained the only Democrat from Southwest Virginia in the House of Delegates.
Rasoul said in an interview that he was disappointed that he lost his seat on the panel. “I loved serving on the Tobacco Commission. I think it is a helpful tool and continues to be active on lots of fronts in regards to economic development and education initiatives, because it’s been revamped to not just include grants but low interest loans, and we just want to make sure those dollars continue to help the region as much as possible.”
Rasoul said that he considers his hometown Roanoke very much part of the tobacco region. “I hope that at some point we can revisit what the footprint idea really is because it’s not a stretch for Roanoke to be considered an impacted and impactful position of that tobacco footprint,” he said. “And I’m hoping that I can have an opportunity to serve in this capacity again sometime in the future.”