It was approaching 4 p.m. on a Friday, which is never a good time to have a work emergency.
Scott Surovell, though, had a work emergency. Worst of all, he had until 4:30 p.m. to solve it, but the solution, if one was to be found, was five hours away.
Surovell is an attorney in Fairfax County and – relevant to our purposes today – a Democratic state senator. An out-of-state law firm had hired him to file a personal injury lawsuit, not fully realizing that he was on one end of the state, that the lawsuit needed to be filed on the other end, and that Virginia, unlike some states, doesn’t allow online filing of suits. The paperwork would need to be delivered by hand to the Pittsylvania County Courthouse in Chatham.
This was a hurry-up case from the beginning: Surovell had just two days to file the suit to beat the statute of limitations clock that was running out. That didn’t seem to be a problem, though. “I thought I could send it by FedEx to the Pittsylvania Circuit Court for 9 a.m. delivery on Friday morning and we could just figure out local counsel later,” Surovell said.
The problem was it was now 3:45 p.m. on that Friday and the package had yet to arrive. Worse yet, the Pittsylvania clerk’s office told Surovell’s staff that “sometimes the FedEx guy doesn’t come until after we close.” Closing time was 4:30 p.m., just 45 minutes away.
This was now a crisis – and this is where Surovell’s status as a state legislator starts to come into play.
As a state senator, his first instinct was to call the state senator who represents Pittsylvania County – Bill Stanley, a Republican from next door in Franklin County. Stanley, though, had already left for the day. Stanley co-owns an auto racing team and he was off to a race.
That’s when Surovell thought of Les Adams. Adams is a Republican member of the House of Delegates – and from Chatham. Surovell served a term with Adams in the House before moving to the state Senate and says “we’ve stayed friendly.” (Alert: literary foreshadowing.) By now it was 3:50 p.m. Surovell called Adams’ legislative office. That’s where he got lucky. Adams was there – and answered the phone.
If that doesn’t seem unusual, remember that in Virginia we have part-time legislators. You can’t expect to call a legislator’s office and get the actual legislator. Sometimes you don’t even get an aide. If that’s what you want, then be prepared to pay for a full-time legislature. But I digress. The point is it was just by sheer luck that Adams was in his legislative office late on a Friday afternoon. His day job is senior assistant commonwealth’s attorney – a prosecutor. This particular Friday, though, was Oct. 28, the Friday before Halloween and the day that Chatham was observing the holiday. Kids were invited downtown for “Treats on Main Street,” so Adams was in his legislative office with his son – and was a conscientious enough legislator that he answered the phone rather than let it roll over to voicemail.
We’ve all had the experience of getting stuck in automated phone systems, so we can all imagine the thrill Surovell experienced when he heard an actual human voice pick up on the other end – and one that he recognized.
“I asked him if I could email him the complaint so he could file it and front me the filing fee,” Surovell said.
Adams told him to email the documents to his old law firm, which was across the street. Adams’ former legal aide, Nicole Sinclair, was there with her child – she was already in costume but took off her elephant ears to rush the documents to the courthouse before it closed. “Case got filed,” Surovell told me by email. “Crisis averted. I’m not sure what I would’ve done if he [Adams] hadn’t picked up.”
The Fairfax lawyer-legislator was grateful; the Pittsylvania lawyer-legislator was more humble. “It wasn’t a big deal,” Adams said.
Here, though, is why it is kind of a big deal.
You’ll notice that Surovell is a Democrat, and the two legislators he reached out to – Stanley and Adams – are Republicans.
Yes, there’s some professional courtesy involved here – lawyers helping other lawyers. But we live in politically polarized times, with some serious academics warning that our nation is so divided that we resemble America in the 1850s – and we all know what happened in the 1860s. That seems downright scary, and I wish more people would heed those warnings. The threat of political violence seems very real, sometimes more than just “seems.” (See my previous columns on the subject, from last month and July.) That’s why I think it’s important for people to see examples of politicians from opposite parties working together – and being not just civil but friendly with one another.
That kind of thing happens more often in politics than you’d think; it just doesn’t get much attention. A few years ago, when I was with The Roanoke Times, I attended a Senate subcommittee meeting in Blacksburg – I saw a Republican (Stanley) and a Democrat (state Sen. Dave Marsden of Fairfax County) ride in together from a previous meeting, jovially sharing stories. Last year, I was at a crowded Senate Finance Committee meeting in Roanoke and saw Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, save a seat for Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. I wrote earlier this year about how Rasoul worked out a deal with McNamara for honor roll students in Roanoke to get free ice cream from one of McNamara’s ice cream parlors. Adams helping Surovell out of a deadline jam is simply another example of politicians being decent people with one another even if they’re on opposite sides.
We as a society naturally focus on where politicians disagree – and I’m quite certain that our two main characters here disagree on quite a bit. That’s why Adams and Surovell have different letters after their names. But that doesn’t mean they can’t work together. “I’ve enjoyed the company of Scott,” Adams told me. “He’s a smart, funny guy.” Surovell says equally nice things about Adams. He tweeted his thanks to Adams – a sure sign of respect in these social media days – and even tagged in House Speaker Todd Gilbert. While this specific incident may be unusual in its colorful details – the deadline closing in, the trick-or-treaters taking over downtown Chatham, the legal aide with the elephant ears – it’s actually pretty representative of how I’ve seen politicians of different parties treat one another over the years.
Yes, there are always some outliers – Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, is perhaps the most notable one in our midst. Good is quite proud of not working with Democrats. “It’s not a party to work with anymore,” he told a meeting in Amherst County this summer. “It’s an evil that must be defeated. It’s an evil that hates the country, that hates the Founders, that hates the Constitution. It is trying to transform and destroy America and nothing they’re doing makes sense unless they hate the country.” Might I suggest that this kind of rhetoric is not particularly helpful? If Good wants to disagree with Democratic policies, then, by all means, disagree. As Americans, we’ve disagreed with one another from the beginning; our ability to disagree is part of what distinguishes our system from certain others around the world. But when we start calling one side or another “evil” – an “evil that hates the country” – there’s only one place that will lead and it’s a dark and bloody one. I know that politicians often love the hyperbole – it comes with the territory – but they should be wary that some poor, deluded souls out there might take their rhetoric far too literally.
We’ve just come through a contentious national campaign and are now set to go through another one for the next two years. These are, in the words of Thomas Paine, “the times that try men’s souls.” We will have more than enough temptations to treat the other side – however you define the other side – with contempt and disgust and perhaps worse. We have two parties that have very different visions of how the American story should unfold in the years ahead, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, after the votes are counted, we’re all still Americans, we’re all still here as neighbors, and we all need to figure out a way to live with one another. Most of the politicians I know understand this; often I wonder, though, whether their partisans do – they’re the ones who worry me.
The case of the late package delivery in Chatham is a small but telling example of how we ought to treat one another.
Oh, if you’re curious, Surovell’s package finally did show up at the Pittsylvania County Courthouse – at 3:08 p.m on the following Monday.