Del. Joe Johnson. Courtesy of House Speaker's office.

When former Del. Joe Johnson, D-Abingdon, died last week at age 90, he was lauded with more than the customary tributes for a passing ex-lawmaker.

From left: Deputy House Majority Leader Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County; state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County; former Del. Joe Johnson, D-Abingdon; House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County. Courtesy of Kilgore and Pillion.

He was hailed as instrumental in creating the Southwest Virginia Higher Educational Center, whose main hall is named in his honor. He served 14 years on the Board of Trustees at Emory & Henry College, eight of them as board chair. The president of Virginia Highlands Community College revealed that Johnson had often paid tuition for students to his school. “Each year, he came to campus to personally write a check for student tuition (via a designated scholarship account he established with the VHCC Foundation),” President Adam Hutcheson said in an email to Cardinal News. “In fact, it was during one of his visits to make a donation that I first met Delegate Johnson. I saw him in the hallway, introduced myself, and asked if I could help. He introduced himself as Joe Johnson (I didn’t know anything about him then), and then he proceeded to tell me how proud he was of VHCC, our students, and the people who worked here. It never occurred to me that he was such an important and revered member of the community; he did not celebrate himself or make a show of it. He was humble, kind, and simply delightful, and he was that way every time I saw him.” (His family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made in his name to scholarship funds at either Emory & Henry or Virginia Highlands).

Tributes to Johnson

“I am so sorry for the passing of my friend Delegate Joe Johnson. Joe was always there for SWVA and was the biggest proponent of the SWVA Higher Education Center! I thank Joe’s family for sharing him with us all these years and for the impact of his life! Prayers.” — House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County

“Delegate Joe Johnson was one of the kindest people to ever serve in public office. He was an advocate for Southwest Virginia and someone who was universally liked. We were both proud to be from Hayter’s Gap and always shared stories from the community. It was also one of the highlights of my professional career to serve my first term in the House of Delegates alongside Joe.” –– Deputy House Majority Leader Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County

“No one in SWVA shook more hands than fmr Del. Joe Johnson. He served our region honorably & was beloved by the community. He leaves behind a legacy & model of public service marked by kindness/sincerity/dedication. I have no doubt that Joe is shaking hands w/ the angels now.” — state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County

“Our friend and colleague, Joe Johnson, has passed. Joe, a true gentleman, was one of Southwest Va.’s most dedicated public servants. A strong advocate for his community, Joe was one of the kindest, nicest men I’ve ever met.” — House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County

“Joe Johnson, my former colleague in the Virginia House of Delegates, was a true southern gentleman and one of the nicest people I have ever met. He will be missed.” — U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem

“I am so sad to hear of the passing of my longtime friend Delegate Joe Johnson! The true definition of a southern gentleman. Even though we were on opposite sides of the political aisle, there was no one who worked harder for rural Virginia! RIP my friend!!” — Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Foresty Matt Lohr

“Sorry to hear about Del Johnson’s passing. I had the opportunity to serve with him in the @vahouse. He was extremely kind & supportive of his colleagues & true to his SW constituents. I regret that some of my colleagues never got to serve with him. RIP Joe.” — House Democratic Caucus Chair Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria

“Joe was a great public servant and I was fortunate to have served with him for years. He was Mr. Southwest, and I thank you and your region for sharing Joe with us for so long. Rest in peace. . . . He was a true gentleman. In 2013, he joined me in providing bipartisan votes for a Republican Governor’s transport $ bill which saved it from dying in committee. He cast a tough tax vote to help my district knowing it hurt him politically.” — Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax County.

“Without a doubt, one of the greatest people I served with in the House of Delegates.” — former Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem

“Del. Joe Johnson was a sincere and honorable representative. One of those you could cross the aisle to work with. Rest in Peace.” — former Del. Mike Watson, R-Newport News

“CICV is sad to learn of the passing of Del. Joe Johnson. He was among the most consistent supporters of the Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG) program in the GA and his support for TAG made higher education more affordable for thousands of Virginia students and their families.” — Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia

Even those things understate Johnson’s role in Virginia’s educational history. He once told the Bristol Herald Courier that one of the things he was proudest of was voting for the sales tax that funded the founding of the Virginia community college system back in 1966. That’s so long ago that we forget just how controversial it was. Not every legislator was in favor of a tax increase to make the community college system happen, but it’s hard to imagine where we’d be today without it.

Former Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, called Johnson “without a doubt, one of the great people I served with in the House of Delegates.” Deputy House Majority Leader Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, called him “one of the kindest people to ever serve in public office.” Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Matt Lohr, himself a former legislator, said that “even though we were on opposite sides of the political aisle, there was no one who worked harder for rural Virginia.” Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax County, called Johnson “Mr. Southwest.” Keam also recalled that, for all his regional loyalties, Johnson was one who could take a broader view. Keam tweeted that “in 2013, he joined me in providing bipartisan votes for a Republican Governor’s transport $ bill which saved it from dying in committee. He cast a tough tax vote to help my district knowing it hurt him politically.” When the Virginia Highlands president says Johnson was “revered,” that’s not just hyperbole. Washington County lowered its flags in Johnson’s memory, not something you typically see counties doing, but Johnson was clearly not considered a typical legislator. He was considered a giant figure in Washington County and deservedly so.

Johnson was something else, too: He was one of the last links to an era when Democrats dominated Southwest Virginia.

Johnson had the distinction of serving two stints in the General Assembly, in two very different eras.

He was first elected in 1965, a transitional time that marked the last statewide race of what was still effectively a one-party era. When he took his seat in the House, there were 87 Democrats, 12 Republicans and one independent – and that was the highest tally for Republicans since 1912, when they had 14. The House then was still ruled by such legendary (and conservative) Democrats as Speaker Blackburn Moore, and the governor was the last lieutenant of the Byrd Machine – Mills Godwin, who had to practice some old-school arm-twisting with some recalcitrant legislators to make that community college system happen. Johnson, who was not one of those recalcitrant legislators, served two terms and then retired to concentrate on his law practice.

By the time he returned, in the 1989 election, Virginia, and its legislature, had changed. Johnson took office in 1990 as Douglas Wilder was assuming the governorship. Democrats still controlled the General Assembly, but not like they had. Now there were 59 Democrats, 40 Republicans and one independent. Still, you could travel from the Shenandoah Valley to Southwest Virginia and, if you planned your trip correctly, not pass through a single Republican district.

By the time Johnson retired for the final time, after the 2013 election, Republicans held 66 seats in the House – and he was the last Democratic legislator from west of Roanoke. Today, Del. Sam Rasoul and state Sen. John Edwards, both D-Roanoke, are the westernmost Democrats in the General Assembly. When state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, completes his announced move to Charlottesville, Rasoul and Edwards will be the only Democrats in the General Assembly west of the Blue Ridge and south of Interstate 64. (Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County in the northern Shenandoah Valley, is technically west of the Blue Ridge, too.) Edwards is also drawn by the new redistricting maps into a district that tilts Republican (and is home to a Republican incumbent, David Suetterlein). It’s entirely possible that after next year’s legislative elections, there will be just one Democrat in the General Assembly from this whole part of the state.

In his day, Johnson was politically untouchable in his district. When Johnson returned to politics, he won 58% of the vote in 1989. He then went through 11 more elections without drawing a single opponent. Today Democrats barely contest Southwest Virginia (or rural Virginia, more broadly).

Political realignments are always happening, but not always at the same speed. The realignment of Southwest Virginia (and a larger realignment of Appalachia) from Democrats to Republicans is one of the faster ones we’ve seen, and one that has consequences in Virginia that disadvantage Democrats more than they sometimes care to admit.

How did Republican Glenn Youngkin eke out a majority last year in a state that had been trending Democratic? We can talk about a lot of reasons – schools, critical race theory, some leftward elements in the Democratic Party that weren’t enamored of Terry McAuliffe – but we can quantify things more easily in electoral terms. Youngkin did two things: He returned the Republican vote share in the suburbs to pre-Trump levels, and he cranked up a Republican vote in rural Virginia (particularly Southwest) that both a) was bigger than expected in terms of turnout and b) produced a bigger Republican vote share than previous elections, and the combination of those two things produced a lot of unexpected Republican votes. Not that long ago, historically speaking, Youngkin’s numbers in Southwest Virginia would have been unthinkable. Now they’re reality. He topped 80% in most localities west of the New River, with his best county being Lee County at 87.6%. That was a county where Democrat Mark Warner took 53.3% in the 2001 governor’s race.

Someone better at math than me could compute what percentage of the vote Democrats would have needed in Southwest Virginia in 2021 to have won the governor’s race – Youngkin won by 63,688 votes, or 1.94% statewide – but whatever that percentage would have been, it’s obviously higher than what they’ve been polling but probably far lower than what they used to pull out of Southwest Virginia. My point: Democrats wouldn’t need much of an improvement in Southwest to make a difference statewide; it’s just not something that many of their candidates seem inclined to do. As a party, they often seem inclined to write off all of rural Virginia and simply focus on trying to run up the vote in Northern Virginia. (That’s why it’s so unusual to see a legislator such as Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun County, actually make some attempts at outreach in rural Virginia; see my previous column on him.) That strategy can work for Democrats statewide – it just didn’t in 2021 because Youngkin blocked Democrats from running up the vote in Northern Virginia. It’s a terrible strategy, though, for winning General Assembly seats because those big vote totals in Northern Virginia don’t help them that much – those are seats they’d win anyway. Instead, Democrats forfeit a lot of rural districts where not long ago they were reasonably competitive.

Now, maybe the world has changed so much that it’s simply not possible for Democrats to be competitive in rural areas again. We are much more politically – and culturally – polarized than we once were. Neither party shows much patience with candidates who stray too far from the party line on certain hot-button issues.

Still, it’s historically interesting to measure just how fast the Democratic collapse – and the Republican rise – has happened in some of these rural areas. Johnson’s passing gives us a reason to study that change over the course of his legislative service. Johnson’s district was reshaped multiple times by redistricting but the one constant in that district was Washington County, so let’s focus on how that single county has changed over the course of Johnson’s political career – and since.

Governor’s races in Washington County, with the candidate who carried the county in bold:

YearRepublican candidateRepublican percentageDemocratic candidateDemocratic percentage
1965 Linwood Holton 50.4%,Mills Godwin48.0%
1969: Linwood Holton52.7%Bill Battle46.6%
1973Mills Godwin49.8%Henry Howell* 50.3%,
1977John Dalton59.5%Henry Howell40.0%
1981Marshall Coleman 50.3%Charles Robb49.7%
1985Wyatt Durrette46.4%Gerald Baliles 53.6%
1989Marshall Coleman59.6%Doug Wilder40.4%
1993George Allen70.2%Mary Sue Terry28.6%
1997Jim Gilmore60.3%Don Beyer38.1%
2001Mark Earley53.8%Mark Warner45.3%
2005Jerry Kilgore65.4%Tim Kaine33.9%
2009Bob McDonnell74.9%Creigh Deeds25.1%
2013Ken Cuccinelli69.0%Terry McAuliffe27.2%
2017Ed Gillespie74.7%Ralph Northam24.4%
2021Glenn Youngkin79.1%Terry McAuliffe20.5%
* Henry Howell ran as an independent in 1973; there was no Democratic nominee

Those are a lot of numbers but here’s what I see.

First, Washington County always had Republican leanings, even back when Republicans weren’t competitive statewide. This fits in line with the mountain-valley Republican tradition; it was west of the Blue Ridge where Republicans were always strongest. Note that this is very different from the coal counties to the west, which were often much more Democratic.

Second, Democrats were still very much competitive in Washington County; Baliles carried the county in his 1985 race for governor. He was a Democrat with a lot of rural appeal.

Third, Johnson won election to the House the first time in 1965 when his party’s candidate for governor – Godwin — was losing the county, barely. Johnson won election again in 1989 by a wide margin at the same time that his party’s candidate for governor – Wilder – was losing Washington County by a wide margin. Johnson then continued to win – without opposition – all through the 1990s when the Republican margin in the country was starting to grow wider. Politics were less tribal then and ticket-splitting was a lot more common than it is now. Johnson was always a candidate with appeal across party lines.

Fourth, we see the Republican margin continuing to expand over the past decade and a half. There may be several ways to date that. We see political divisions becoming sharper after Barack Obama’s election in 2008. They’ve also become sharper since the rise of Fox News. Feel free to add other causes and effects – both parties once had more moderates than they do now. Now our two major parties are more clearly divided between liberals and conservatives, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that, faced with that choice, a conservative county has gone with the conservative party. All we can say for certain is that here’s a county that was generally competitive from 1965 to 1985 and hasn’t been since, with the exception of Mark Warner, who ran strong there in 2001. The four lowest vote shares for the Democratic Party in Washington County have come during the past four gubernatorial election cycles, and the past two have been the lowest yet, raising the question of how low they might go in the future. The realignment over the years has become even more pronounced in other parts of Southwest Virginia, as we saw earlier with Lee County.

By this point, we’ve gotten far afield from paying tribute to the late delegate, but the goal here is to show how Johnson survived – nay, thrived – politically as a Democrat even as his once-competitive county was shifting inexorably into the Republican column. Democrats who want to change those trends could learn a lot from Johnson’s legacy, yet I wonder if they will. I notice his passing was more often remarked upon by Republicans than by Democrats. The Republican legislators from Southwest were unanimous, and effusive, in their praise of their departed colleague. I saw only a few Democrats offer similar words. House Republicans tweeted out a statement from House Speaker Todd Gilbert with a picture of Johnson. “Our friend and colleague, Joe Johnson, has passed. Joe, a true gentleman, was one of Southwest Va.’s most dedicated public servants. A strong advocate for his community, Joe was one of the kindest, nicest men I’ve ever met.” The Twitter account for House Democrats was silent.  

Dwayne Yancey

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