The State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, maybe it’s a spring clean for the May Queen. Or maybe it’s me doing a spring cleaning of my notebook. The famous Led Zeppelin song went on for 7 minutes and 55 seconds (8 minutes and 2 seconds by the time it was remastered). It won’t take you that long to read this roundup, but if you want to test that hypothesis, you can start playing “Stairway to Heaven” … now.

  1. A dissenting Republican. Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who spent much of last fall running against the Loudoun County School Board over its handling of critical race theory and two sexual assaults, has continued that campaign. He recently tried to amend a routine bill to require new elections for the board this November, effectively shortening the terms of some members. The Republican-controlled House of Delegates went along with that during last week’s veto session, but the Democratic-controlled Senate predictably voted it down. What wasn’t so predictable was that one Republican senator joined with Democrats on the vote: state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.

Suetterlein’s vote wasn’t the deciding one, but it was the most interesting one, at least to those who don’t know Suetterlein well. He’s hardly a moderate but he is quite philosophical about the role of government, and Suetterlein’s opposition to Youngkin’s amendment was quite philosophical. “I hope the Loudoun County School Board overwhelmingly is replaced in 2023, but that’s when I think it should happen,” he said, according to Loudoun Now. He worried about setting a precedent. “We can’t just get to a place where, because we so oppose someone, we’re going to unilaterally shorten their term,” he told The Washington Post. If we do, he said, “We are fundamentally changing our system of what we have here in the United States and here in the Commonwealth.”

For Republicans who were cheering Youngkin on, consider some not-hard-to-imagine future scenario: A Democratic governor and a Democratic General Assembly are unhappy about something some school board in a Republican county has done. Should they be allowed to shorten the terms of that school board? A Loudoun precedent would have said “yes.”

  1. A coup from the left? Richmond Times-Dispatch political columnist Jeff Schapiro has an insightful column about the recent ouster of House Minority Leader (and former Speaker) Eileen Filler-Corn. He frames this uprising as both generational and ideological – that many of the rebels were younger ones who style themselves as “progressives” while Filler-Corn “represents an older ilk of Democrat that is no less liberal but more pragmatic.” This prompts me to ask again: The way back to a Democratic majority might run through redrawn districts such as the one that spans parts of Roanoke and Montgomery counties. The two court-appointed “special masters” who drew the lines for the Supreme Court rated this district as 51.2% Republican based on the results of the 2017 lieutenant governor’s race or 50.6% based on the results of that year’s attorney general’s race. Political analyst Chaz Nuttycombe has run through the math and said the district voted slightly for Donald Trump in 2020. So here’s my question: Will a more liberal House leadership make it more or less likely that Democrats will be able to win this district? Or will new House leadership see other places for Democrats to regain the majority and effectively write off swing districts like that one that might require a more moderate Democratic candidate? Or will new House leadership, regardless of its political outlook, be more interested in winning marginal districts such as this one and thus be more flexible? I wrote earlier that Filler-Corn showed no apparent interest in Southwest and Southside; how will this new, as yet not elected, House Democratic leadership view this part of the state? Speaking of which …
  2. Will we have elections this fall? The next General Assembly elections aren’t scheduled until 2023 but there’s a lawsuit pending – from former state Democratic Party chair Paul Goldman – that makes the case they should be moved up to this year. The rationale: The lines drawn after the 2010 census are now woefully out of date with population changes on the ground, so the new redistricting lines should be imposed immediately. Neither party wants that. Republicans, who fear the new lines might help Democrats, are quite happy with the results they got in November under the “old” lines. Democrats, meanwhile, fear that the political climate right now would not help them, so they’re content to wait things out. What happens if the court rules that Goldman is right and orders elections this November? Which party will be better organized? Right now, there’s already a Republican candidate in that swing district I mentioned that covers parts of Roanoke and Montgomery counties. But there’s no Democrat in sight. In that district, at least, a snap election would definitely seem to benefit Republicans.
  3. Filler-Corn for governor? Schapiro also writes that, having been dumped as party leader in the House, Filler-Corn is now considering running for governor in 2025. Having been wiped out in last year’s statewide election, Democrats have no obvious heir apparent, so the field would seem wide open with one possible exception. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, sought the nomination last year and seemed to acquit herself well, even though she finished a distant third with just 11.76% of the vote. Some are already talking her up again.

    Whoever seeks the Democratic nomination, though, should be prepared to answer this question: How will you win back enough rural votes to prevent a repeat of Youngkin’s narrow win in 2021? Democrats were lulled into believing Virginia had become a permanently blue state during the Donald Trump era when, in reality, many voters were voting Democratic simply to punish Trump. As I’ve documented before, Youngkin won back enough votes in the Northern Virginia suburbs to return the Republican vote share there to pre-Trump levels. Of course, those vote shares didn’t elect Ken Cuccinelli in 2013. What made the difference for Youngkin was a combination of two things: Voter turnout surged in rural Virginia, and he took a bigger share of that increased turnout than even Trump had. In some counties, including some that were voting Democratic just two decades ago, the Republican share topped 80%. (Case in point: Mark Warner carried Lee County with 53.3% in 2001; Youngkin took 87.6% there. Warner carried Buchanan County with 65.7%; Youngkin took 84.7%. Warner carried Dickenson, Russell, Tazewell and Wise counties, too. Youngkin topped 80% in all of them.)

    In looking ahead to 2025, Republicans have to wonder if they can repeat that big voter surge in rural Virginia. But Democrats have to wonder whether, even if rural turnout drops, the Republican vote share will continue to increase so much that it effectively makes up for a lower turnout. Some Democrats may not think it’s possible for the Democratic vote to drop much lower there, but one analyst says it is. Ethan Winter, a senior analyst at Data for Progress, a group that studies voter behavior, told The New York Times after last fall’s election: “In rural America the bottom for the Democratic Party is zero. I’m serious about this.” Democrats won’t win in rural Virginia, but they don’t need to. They do need, though, to avoid the kind of rural blow-out they had in 2021. I’ve found Democrats to generally be in denial about this, but math is math. Their gubernatorial candidate in 2025, whoever he or she is, would be better off if they can perform just a little bit better than recent Democrats have in rural Virginia. Who do Virginia Democrats have who can do this? And are they willing to invest the time and energy into that task? In terms of actual votes, the return on investment seems low until you consider the fact that what Democrats did in 2021 sure didn’t work. Here’s a math challenge for some number-cruncher: Youngkin won by 63,688 votes. Overall, Terry McAuliffe polled more votes in 2021 than any other Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia history – but it still wasn’t enough. How much better would Terry McAuliffe have had to do in rural Virginia, on a percentage basis, to have found those 63,689 votes he would have needed to top Youngkin? Without knowing that, Democrats are effectively hoping that rural voters stay home on Election Day – which seems an odd position for a party that prides itself on promoting ballot access.
  4. Good makes “incendiary comments.” Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, has often aligned himself with the Marjorie Taylor Greens of Congress but has maintained a low profile while doing so. Last week, though, the freshman congressman attracted the attention of Politico. The website reported that Good “made incendiary comments about Afghan refugees during a meeting with supporters earlier this year, according to a recording of the event obtained by Politico.” The website said Good “told constituents that he opposed taking in the refugees – many of whom aided the U.S. in its war against the Taliban – in part because he didn’t trust the country’s vetting process but also because he thought it was the ‘compassionate thing’ to have them relocate to a country in the region ‘where they would fit in better culturally and religiously and ethnically and so forth.’” Presumably Good did not agree with my column where I pointed out that the 10,300 Afghan refugees who passed through Fort Pickett in his district could have helped Southside address many of its demographic challenges. In the end, 425 of those Afghans wound up in his district, resettled in and around Charlottesville.

Politico says Good “also took separate swipes at Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) and the 12 other House Republicans who voted to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill and perpetuated false claims that Antifa was behind the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.”

  1. Should localities use federal funds to balance their budgets? A recent story in the Martinsville Bulletin caught my eye. Martinsville is looking at using some unspecified amount of American Rescue Plan Act money to balance its budget. This seemed an easy question: Is it a good idea to use one-time revenue to pay for recurring expenses? The answer is more complicated. The Government Finance Officers Association – whose executive director is former Roanoke city manager Chris Morill – does say this is an acceptable use for those funds although it cautions that “use of ARPA funds to cover operating deficits caused by COVID-19 should be considered temporary and additional budget restraint may be necessary to achieve/maintain structural balance in future budgets.” A study by the Brookings Institution finds that the single biggest use of ARPA funds is for “fiscal health recovery,” which is a polite way of saying “balancing the budget.” Brookings found that 44% of the funds going to cities and counties were being used for that purpose. The next biggest categories were a tie between “COVID response” and “government employee wages and hiring” at 14% apiece, followed by investments in water and sewer infrastructure at 12%. The question, of course, is whether those funding shortfalls that ARPA is plugging are really temporary caused by the pandemic-induced economic slowdown or more structural in nature. Speaking of structures …
  2. Why are counties tearing down old school buildings? Elsewhere on Cardinal News today you’ll find Megan Schnabel’s story about a quilt project intended to tell the story of Virginia’s coal counties. In it, she mentions that Dickenson County tore down its old high school a few years ago (there’s a square on the quilt depicting the old building). Meanwhile, the old high school in the town of Pound in Wise County is being torn down now. I hate to muck around in somebody else’s business, but this seems short-sighted. The General Assembly in 2018 passed a bill – sponsored by then-state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell County, and then-Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County – that allows localities to designate old school buildings as special tax zones. The idea was that the buildings could be used as incubators for small business. How many localities have actually done so? This seems a missed opportunity. By tearing down those old schools, the localities have ruled out that option. What’s done is done, but how many other old schools are still out there that could be designated a special tax zone and rehabbed into an incubator? There seems to be lots of federal money available right now; this seems potentially a good use for some of that infrastructure money. Perhaps this is an idea that state Secretary of Commerce and Trade Caren Merrick could talk up when she makes a swing through Southwest next week? (And maybe after that quilt has finished its exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the governor might see fit to display it for awhile at the governor’s mansion? He could even use that as the backdrop to announce his support for using those schools as business incubators).

There, seven points for a 7-minute-plus (or maybe 8-minute-plus) song. If I’m right, there’s still time for the line about how the mysterious protagonist of the song is “buying a stairway to heaven.” Presumably not with federal funding, though. 

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.