Baseball pauses this week for its annual All-Star game. If you don’t have a team to root for, then let regional loyalty lead you to cheer for Joe Mantiply, a graduate of Tunstall High School in Pittsylvania County (and later Virginia Tech) who is now a relief pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks – and a member of the National League All-Stars.
As both a baseball fan, and a fan of politics, I have made it a practice to use the occasion to name a political All-Star team. As with the real All-Star team selections, this can prove controversial, so let’s go over my rules.
A. This team today is confined to politicians. Tomorrow I’ll have an economic All-Star team. Since Cardinal covers Southwest and Southside, that’s where all my picks will come from. Politicians from outside those regions are ineligible. That leaves out our statewide officials. I regret that, because U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have both been involved in some important legislation that could have a unique impact on our part of the state – Warner as co-sponsor of America Competes Act, a big technology bill that could see some technology funding flow our way, and Kaine as co-sponsor of a provision to allow Pell Grants to be used for community college students enrolled in short-term credentials programs. Otherwise, they’d be on the list. That’s also why this line-up has a lot more righties than lefties; that’s a reflection of our legislative delegation – Southwest and Southside send almost exclusively Republicans to Richmond.
B. These are not endorsements; this is simply a recognition of noteworthy performance. A Boston Red Sox fan may not like the New York Yankees but should at least be able to acknowledge that Aaron Judge is an All-Star player. Same here; it matters not whether I agree with what the legislator is doing, but I can recognize that they’re doing it well.
C. Every baseball manager has a preference for what kind of team they put together. Some prefer to play “small ball” with lots of singles. Others want a team of sluggers. Still others put a premium on defense. Cardinal’s central organizing principle is to cover how Southwest and Southside – two places that have seen their traditional employers decline or sometimes die altogether – are building a new economy. Accordingly, I’m giving preference to legislators who have worked on economic-related issues. All but one of the names on my list are there primarily for the role they’ve played on economic-related measures.
D. While I’m working with a baseball theme, this roster isn’t meant to be a formal line-up – I’ve put my picks in alphabetical order. And, because both leagues now have a designated hitter, I’m naming 10 rather than the classic nine. So, let’s get to it.
- Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County. With Republicans back in the majority in the House, Austin became chair of the House Transportation Committee and continued to serve as one of the most coveted and influential legislators in Richmond – a budget negotiator. Austin’s influence on the budget shows up in lots of ways. He secured $12.5 million to build a trail along Craig’s Creek, part of the Roanoke Valley’s goal of building up its outdoors infrastructure. But he was also instrumental in the $15.7 million for building life sciences labs in Roanoke, and for getting into the budget an idea from a Democratic legislator – Del. Sam Rasoul’s push to study using Catawba Hospital for substance abuse treatment. In baseball terms, Austin is one of those players who both hits for average and hits for power.
- Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County. With that new Republican majority, Kilgore ascended to the post of House Majority Leader, which means that his fingerprints were on almost everything that came out of the House of Delegates. Definitely a power hitter.
- Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County. The last time I saw McNamara he was scooping up ice cream at his ice cream shop in Salem. I always wonder how many people in line for ice cream are aware that the guy behind the counter is a state legislator – one who this year was at the center of one of the legislature’s most contentious issues, whether to repeal all or just part of the state tax on food. Getting rid of the entire tax was one of the issues Glenn Youngkin ran on for governor last year, and the historian in me is compelled to point out that what is now a Republican issue was in the late ’60s and early ’70s a Democratic issue in the hands of the liberal populist Henry Howell. My how things change. Neither McNamara nor Youngkin got the full repeal they wanted but getting it reduced still ranks as a historic achievement.
- Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County. Last August, a rainstorm parked itself over the Buchanan County of Hurley, liquefying mountains and sending mudslides through the town. Miraculously, only one person was killed but lots of homes were damaged. Strangely, the Federal Emergency Management Administration turned down flood relief for Hurley – twice. That was when Morefield decided to pursue state funding – $11.4 million worth of it. I’ll admit I thought that was a long shot, at best. That’s a lot of money and the state historically hasn’t been in the business of providing flood relief. Morefield persevered and the final budget did, indeed, include $11.4 million of flood relief for Hurley. I’m not quite sure what the proper baseball metaphor for this is: Is this like a batter who “works the count,” and gets on base (and later scores) when no one expects it? Whatever it is, I’m sure people in Hurley would agree that this was an All-Star performance.
- State Sen. Steven Newman, R-Bedford County. If there was a budget “ask” that seemed a longer shot than flood relief for Hurley, it was Newman’s push for $25 million to pay off the bonds for the now-shuttered Central Virginia Training Center. That 350-acre site overlooks downtown Lynchburg, which presently makes it a blight on the community but potentially makes it a transformative economic development opportunity. If $11.4 million for Hurley was a lot of money, how to describe more than twice that to “defease” the training center bonds? Yes, it helped that there was a lot of money sloshing around Richmond this year, and yes, it helped that Newman was a budget negotiator, too. Still, the math has to add up, and this time it did. In economic development terms, getting the money to free up that site isn’t just a home run, it’s probably a grand slam. These opportunities don’t come along very often.
- Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County. The Deputy House Majority Leader was the point man for something else historic – state funding for school construction. This is something the state has only done sporadically over the years, most notably in the 1950s (and then under political duress). In recent years, political pressure has been building from both left and right for the state to start putting up money for school construction: The cost is simply beyond the means of many communities. Some legislators from affluent suburbs have been skeptical, no matter their party, I while an odd-couple coalition of rural Republicans (such as O’Quinn) and urban Democrats has formed to push the issue. The deal this year calls for $1.2 billion in state spending, although advocates like to talk about how – with local matches – this $1.2 billion could turn into $3 billion worth of school construction. Critics – such as Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun County – think this still relies too much on rural localities putting up money they can’t afford. The German politician Otto von Bismarck famously observed that “politics is the art of the possible.” This is what was possible. It was also an historic breakthrough.
- State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County. He sponsored the legislation for so-called “lab schools,” a favorite talking point of the governor. Some critics consider “lab schools” simply another name for charter schools, which they say will drain money from regular schools and create a private school system within the public system. On the other hand, I’ve heard business leaders who otherwise weren’t interested in charter schools become quite ecstatic about the prospect of “lab schools.” They see the potential for creating schools that focus on specific topics and create a better and earlier talent pipeline – imagine a career and technical education school focused on health professions or robotics, for instance. Might something like that help further, say, the life sciences cluster in the Roanoke Valley or the advanced manufacturing aspirations in Danville? The bill that Youngkin eventually signed authorizes both public and private colleges to work with school systems to set up “lab schools.” Whether these are a good idea or a bad idea, they are a significant thing, and that’s what this list is here to recognize.
- Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. I alluded to this earlier. Rasoul advanced what seemed a pretty creative idea – using Catawba Hospital for substance abuse treatment. This was an idea he got from a class at Virginia Tech – we had a story by Kim O’Brien Root about how the bill came to be. There’s a big need for substance abuse treatment – and twice now the state has targeted Catawba Hospital for closure. This would seem a way to help solve two problems at once. Rasoul lined up an impressive list of Republican co-sponsors and the bill sailed through the House. However, it ran into unexpected trouble in the state Senate. That’s where Austin helped pinch-hit, by simply writing the provision into the budget.
- State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County. When Virginia adopted early voting, all those early votes were counted as absentee ballots. The problem with that: It meant on election night they were reported as part of each locality’s “central absentee precinct,” rather than the voter’s home precinct. The problem with that was two-fold. Historically, there haven’t been that many absentee ballots so it didn’t really matter that they were all reported together at the end of the night. But now, because there are now so many early voters, sometimes most of the votes in a locality are in this single precinct – which means we get this late night “ballot dump” that has skewed our understanding of how the returns are going. For instance, on election night 2020, many strongly Democratic localities had early returns showing Donald Trump ahead – because his voters had voted in person, in their regular precincts. Then, at the end of the night, came this big “ballot dump” of early voters who had gone for Joe Biden. There’s nothing nefarious about that, but it did serve to arouse suspicions among people who aren’t attuned to all the nuances of politics. There’s another problem with this, though: It has made analysis of the election returns harder. When votes are allocated to home precincts, election analysts of all political persuasions can track trends over time as some precincts realign and others don’t. When all those early votes are counted in a central absentee precinct, we can’t. Case in point: The 2020 mayor’s race in Roanoke between incumbent Sherman Lea and challenger David Bowers. We know Lea won – but we don’t know how. Did he beat Bowers consistently in precincts citywide? Or did he run up a big score in certain parts of the city while losing big in others? We have no idea. Under the old law, we knew the score of the game but only got to see a partial box score to understand how it happened. Suetterlein sponsored a bill that would fix that (with an assist from state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County but soon to be D-Charlottesville). Thanks to Suetterlein, election transparency has been restored.
- Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County. Williams sponsored a bill to make it easier to reopen a hospital in Patrick County. That seemed pretty routine – except it looks now like that hospital is going to happen, although there’s quite a bit of controversy attached to the potential operator. Nonetheless, if this happens, re-opening a closed hospital in a rural county is a big deal, so this might be the baseball equivalent of a single that turns into a game-winning run for Patrick County. If Rasoul makes the list for getting a study of expanding an existing hospital, I’ve got to give recognition to Williams for a bill that might lead to reopening a closed hospital.
At this point, I’ve used up all my roster positions. If this were a real All-Star team, I’d be naming starters – and some substitutes. There are certainly some legislators who deserve recognition but haven’t made the list above.
State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, and Del. Will Wampler Jr., R-Washington County, were behind a bill that will lead to a state study on just how many piles of “gob coal,” or waste coal, are scattered around coal countries. That’s the first step in something that could prove transformative in Southwest Virginia.
State Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, shepherded an unusual bill, or at least a bill that dealt with something with an usual name – the Carolina Squat. That’s the nickname for vehicle modification that jacks up the front of a truck much higher than its back end. These are popular things out on the Baja racing circuit but they’re also considered dangerous because drivers have trouble seeing the road in front of them. In February, a squatted-up truck struck another vehicle in Mecklenburg County, killing the other vehicle’s driver. That provided the tragic impetus for Peake’s emergency legislation to ban the Carolina Squat. Other legislators might have authored more historic legislation but here’s a bill that might actually save lives.
Del. Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County, deserves recognition for effort: He tried to get the General Assembly to give Prince Edward County permission to ask its voters whether they wanted to raise their sales tax to pay for schools – the county has a school with a notoriously leaky roof that Amy Trent wrote about. A House committee killed that proposal but that doesn’t diminish Edmunds’ effort.
State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has been a vocal defender of so-called “skill games,” whose revenues mean a lot more in some rural areas than urban ones. However, his main role there has been as a lawyer, not a legislator, which — spoiler alert — explains why he makes tomorrow’s list but not today’s.
If there are things any of the legislators have done that you don’t like – and there probably are, right? – then consider that in baseball terms, too. Even All-Stars sometimes strike out or commit errors. And, in a final nod, to baseball, any game needs someone to sing the national anthem. Clearly for us that’s got to be Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, who performed that honor at Youngkin’s inauguration.
Tomorrow: The economic All-Star team.