Most of us had better things to do Saturday than watch some boring government meeting.
There were errands to run, games to watch or shows we could binge-watch on a rainy day.
I wish, though, that more people could have tuned into the video feed of the House of Delegates floor session — specifically to watch the unexpected retirement speech of Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle County, and the bipartisan accolades that followed.
Bell, for those of you who don’t know him, is quite conservative and chairs the House Courts of Justice Committee, where many Democratic bills over the years have gone to die — and yet it was one Democrat after another who rose to commend him for his service, which he has now concluded is enough after 21 years in Richmond.
This is the side of politics that most people don’t see but I wish they did — that legislators with very strong and different views can still find ways to get along. (Some members of the fractious Lynchburg City Council should take note.)
“We understand the bonds that have been forged in this room,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond (who also is among those retiring). Bourne talked about spending time with the three top Republicans — Speaker Todd Gilbert, House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore and Deputy Majority Leader Israel O’Quinn — at a basketball game where they watched future NBA slam dunk champion Mac McClung of Gate City. “That’s what the people don’t see — they think we argue and fight a lot.”
And they certainly do — on some things. But most also find a way to set those political differences aside. Nothing illustrates that better than what some Democrats had to say personally in praise of Bell, who was otherwise a political obstacle to some of their most cherished ideas.
I cannot begin to do justice to Bell’s retirement speech. Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt, who was present in the chamber, tells me that grown men were in tears as Bell professed his respect for fellow legislators (he singled out a Democrat, Fairfax Del. Vivian Watts) and talked in very personal terms about his family, which includes a son with special needs whom Bell called “my hero.” I can only suggest, strongly, that you watch it yourself on the General Assembly’s video archive; search for the Sat, Feb. 25 House floor session and go to the 11:54 a.m. mark.
I can, though, relate some of what Democrats had to say in response to Bell’s retirement announcement.
“He was the thorn in my side,” said House Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, joking (maybe?) about how Bell seemed to delight in taking time to kill his bills the way a cat might play with a mouse. “Dude! You just spent 30 minutes working on my bill and then you move to PBI,” Scott said, referring to the legislative lingo of a bill “passed by indefinitely,” a polite way to kill something. “It’s like some weird quirk — sadistic,” Scott said, smiling the whole time. But then he went on to say of Bell: “He made us all better.”
Those did not appear to be empty words, either, because he and multiple other Democrats cited specific examples. “We had some tough conversations in Courts over some tough big ideas,” Scott said. “Even when he was against the idea, against the policy, he would spend literally hours working on the bill, trying to figure out how to make it better.”
Even when it was clear that Bell was “a hard no” on whatever bill Scott was pushing, Scott said Bell always insisted “let’s make sure it does what you intend it to do … that’s the kind of professionalism I hope to exemplify.”
Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, remembered a meeting where a speaker started spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric and Bell slammed down his gavel, making it clear that kind of thing was not tolerated on his watch.
“That’s leadership,” Herring said.
The Democratic accolades for Bell went beyond simply his insistence on copy editing even the bills that he intended to oppose or his insistence on proper decorum in meetings. Some were more personal in nature.
Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, talked about how the very first bill she ever introduced went before Bell’s committee. She delivered a speech making the case for the bill by pointing out that it was based on an idea that had worked well in California and Maryland. The committee room erupted in laughter (so did the House on Saturday).
“It was you, Rob, who came to me and explained what had just happened,” Price said — namely that citing California and Maryland in the Virginia legislature is not the way to pick up votes, particularly from Republicans.
Price and Bell went on to serve together on panels dealing with behavioral health. “That has been a place where we haven’t let partisanship ruin it,” Price said. “You’re willing to put aside differences in politics to get a lot of things done.”
Price spoke of how “we spent a lot of time together” getting to know about each other’s families. Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, said she often had candy and cookies available outside her office and found that Bell liked to come by to sample them, so she made sure the supply was well-stocked. “I made sure to put them out so you’d come by,” she said. These kinds of personal niceties go a long way in Richmond — and in life generally.
Nor are they necessarily unique to Bell. Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond, spoke about how when he was first elected to the House, the first two legislators who reached out to him to introduce the mysterious ways of the assembly were two Republicans: Gilbert, now the speaker of the House, and Greg Habeeb, then a delegate from Salem and now a lawyer/lobbyist in Richmond. (See my previous column on Habeeb.) Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, who is also leaving, said her best friend in the legislature has been Del. Matt Farriss, R-Campbell County. “We couldn’t be more different,” she said, yet they’ve somehow become friends across vast political divides. Farris concurred: “As odd as it may sound, I valued her trust and wisdom,” he said. Farris said they often talked even when the legislature wasn’t in session. “She’d call me during the summer,” he said. “I know I’ll miss all of you who are leaving but I know I’ll be friends with Dawn.”
Legislators can be friendly without compromising their principles. That’s something I wish more people could see and take their cues from. I’ve written in the past about how Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, have teamed up to reward honor roll students. (McNamara, who owns an ice cream shop, gave out free ice cream to students from Rasoul’s district.) And I’ve written about how Del. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania County, helped state Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax County, out of a jam when Surovell had difficulty getting some legal papers to the Pittsylvania County Courthouse in time to meet a deadline. In their votes, all these legislators have canceled out each other, but that has not made them personal enemies.
The closing days of this year’s session have seen many retirement speeches — Bell’s was simply the most moving and the most notable for the bipartisan praise that followed.
Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William County, was choked up as he paid tribute to his departing colleagues from both parties. “We’re losing some good people,” he said. “It’s hard. We’re more than just legislators. We’re friends … it’s painful to see them go.”
And when the speech-making was over, both Democrats and Republicans came by to shake Bell’s hand.
Except for one.
Watts gave him a hug.