If you follow Virginia politics — and if you’re reading this column I assume you do — then you’ve probably seen the name Scott Surovell pop up with increasing frequency over the years.
When the General Assembly decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2020, he tweeted: “Legalization next year!” That seemed far-fetched to some at the time but also turned out to be prophetic.
When the news broke that Gov. Glenn Youngkin had nixed Virginia’s bid for a Ford electric battery plant that would have brought 2,500 jobs to Pittsylvania County over concerns about Ford’s relationship with a Chinese partner, Surovell tweeted: “Glenn Youngkin’s race to match Ron DeSantis’ anti-China crusade just cost Virginia potential advanced manufacturing jobs.”
When Youngkin announced he would send the Virginia National Guard to help with border enforcement, Surovell was again quick to tweet out his opposition: “Youngkin for President has officially jumped the shark — our VA National Guard troops shouldn’t be used to further presidential ambitions much less fight a MAGA culture war in Texas of all places — Never thought I would see my state so compromised.”
The ability to tweet doesn’t require much but Surovell is no ordinary tweeter. He’s also a prominent Democratic state senator from Fairfax County with a significant legislative history behind him (he carried the bill to abolish capital punishment, for instance) and perhaps more ahead of him (he’s a contender to be the next Democratic leader in the state Senate come January). Surovell is both influential and media-savvy, and it’s no surprise that he is often quoted in news stories about what’s happening in Richmond.
Now, here’s what you may not know: While Surovell is very much a product of Fairfax County, he has long-standing family ties to Franklin County and the Roanoke Valley. He says those connections make him more sensitive to a part of the state where Democrats sometimes can’t even field candidates. Republican legislators from Southwest and Southside might dispute that — they see a voting record that’s more in line with Mount Vernon than Rocky Mount — but they also concede that Surovell is a likable, approachable fellow who will listen to their concerns. “There has never been a point in time when I haven’t been able to have a conversation with Scott, which I think is pretty important,” says state Sen. Dave Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County. “Even if you’re someone who disagrees with him, you can always have the conversation.”
The implication there is that’s not always the case with other legislators. Indeed, I witnessed this about a year ago. Both Surovell and Suetterlein were at the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Franklin County for a legislative meeting. During a break, both sauntered off on a trail through the woods to discuss — well, I don’t know, but it certainly appeared to be a friendly conversation.
Surovell’s Franklin County and Roanoke Valley connections are both deep and enduring.
Deep: His grandfather was the lead electrician for the wiring of the Roanoke Star, the city’s iconic symbol atop Mill Mountain. At the base of the star is a plaque to his grandfather, William Booth of Vinton, surrounded by boxwoods from the family home. For those not familiar with the Roanoke Valley, it’s hard to get much more local street cred than having been involved in building the star. While Surovell grew up in Fairfax County, he spent two weeks each summer with his grandparents, either in Vinton or on the family farm in the Hardy section of Franklin County, where part of the family farm was underneath Smith Mountain Lake. “I’d spend a lot of the summer fishing, hanging out and swimming,” Surovell says. “You come out of the lake covered in pyrite and red mud.” (His mother sends word that readers should know that in his youth Surovell dug potatoes, picked squash and melons, “and shelled thousands of butter beans.”) More local street cred: Surovell’s great-uncle was Bob Boothe (he had an “e” on the end, others didn’t) of Franklin County, who was famous for building a water-powered contraption that he called “The World’s Only Ass-Kicking Machine.” It was once listed on the Roadside America website and in the book “Weird Virginia,” but now appears to be gone.
Enduring: Surovell owns about 160 acres of that family farm. “Most of my colleagues never get their hands dirty west of the Blue Ridge,” Surovell said. “Franklin County is east of the Blue Ridge, but still —.”
When I called Surovell to talk about this, I got a genealogical lesson from someone who has spent a lot of time researching his family history. Let’s allow a moment for that before we get back to politics. He traces his ancestry back through Samuel Mathews, a colonial governor in the 1650s. He says his research shows he’s related to at least six other current legislators, mostly Republicans. Those kin are Del. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania County, state Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax County, House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County; state Sen. Ryan McDougal, R-Hanover County; Del. John McGuire, R-Goochland County and Del. Tommy Wright, R-Lunenburg County. Those connections might be 10 or so generations back, Surovell says, but they’re there nonetheless because he’s looked them all up. When fact-checking this column over the weekend, Surovell and I fell into a long text exchange about the subtle differences between the DNA testing of 23AndMe and AncestryDNA. He also looked up to see if we’re related — apparently not.
Surovell’s grandparents on his mother’s side grew up in Franklin County and met at a square dance. “My grandfather told me many stories about how close they came to losing the farm [during the Great Depression], which is why he wasn’t a farmer,” Surovell said. He worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps — for a time he lived in Arlington, planting trees on Roosevelt Island in the Potomac River — and started taking classes to become an electrician. He returned home to work for Jefferson Electric in Roanoke, which is what led to the wiring job on the star in 1949. His grandmother was a fabric inspector at the Vinton Weaving Mills. “They were regular blue-collar working folks,” he said. “My mother said one year for Christmas she got a banana and it was the most memorable Christmas she ever had. So I heard a lot of stories about what rural poverty is about. I’ve always thought it helped me keep a more open mind about things in the state.” He remembers attending a family event in the Roanoke Valley when he was in high school and an uncle, who was a crane operator for the railroad, cornered him and impressed upon young Scott the need to get an education.
Surovell’s mother was the first of her family to go to college. She went to what is now Longwood University for a teaching degree. While in graduate school at the University of Virginia, she met her future husband, who was then in law school. That side of Surovell’s family had a very different background — they were Jewish and New Yorkers, who moved from Brooklyn to Fairfax County in 1935 looking for work. A painter by trade, Surovell’s paternal grandfather joined with other familes to jointly build 20 houses in what was then still a largely rural county, including the house where Surovell now lives.
Here’s where all that genealogy leads to in Surovell’s mind: “I would not be where I am in life without a state-supported K-12 and college system. Virginia invested in me from kindergarten all the way through law school.” (He went to James Madison University for undergrad and then the University of Virginia for law school.) “I’m acutely aware of the socio-mobility that comes from education and a strong state-supported education.”
Surovell says his affection for the family homeplace in rural Virginia led him a few years ago to seek an appointment to the board of the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton. That outdoor museum (which I highly recommend, if you’re never been to it) features authentic homesteads of the various cultures that settled the western part of Virginia. In the German house, the fireplace is in the middle, as was the style there. In the English house, it’s on the outside. Surovell says that ties back to his kin in Franklin County — his grandmother, who was of German heritage, had a house with the fireplace in the middle while his grandfather’s had a fireplace on the outside.
While he never lived in this part of the state, “I feel I have a connection to it,” he said. “I’m not sure what happened politically” to turn once-Democratic strongholds into Republican ones. (I am: a more liberal Democratic Party that’s out of step with rural voters on guns and lots of other cultural issues.)
“I still hold out hope my party would be more competitive in that part of the state than it is now,” Surovell says. “I think we have a lot to talk about but a lot of national politics have gotten in the way, and that has turned people off the Democratic Party, but my hope people in Southside and Southwest won’t think that everybody in all the elected offices in Northern Virginia look down their noses at them — that definitely not the way I look at ’em.”
That’s particularly useful if Democrats retain their majority in the state Senate and Surovell is the next Senate majority leader. (Mamie Locke of Newport News is another contender for that post.) Republicans may appreciate the sentimentality but also say that Democratic positions on many issues simply don’t fit with how conservative rural voters see the world. Suetterlein says he and Surovell have “major disagreements,” civil as they may be.
Surovell counters that not everything is as partisan as it may seem. For instance, he’s a big proponent of passenger rail. “I would love to get passenger rail down to Bristol,” he said, something that puts him very much in alignment with Republican legislators from Southwest. He says the key to that and other passenger rail expansion is actually in Northern Virginia — the infamous Long Bridge, a CSX-owned bridge that is the only railroad bridge connecting Virginia with Washington. “The Long Bridge over the Potomac is the biggest bottleneck on the East Coast,” he says. Once renovations on that bridge are complete to allow more traffic, “it’s going to put Virginia rail on steroids.” He says he’s been told that “Atlanta and New Orleans are waiting for us to uncork that” — and that will help open the way for more rail service throughout Virginia.
Even something as contentious as school funding isn’t necessarily partisan but is often regional — and even some of those regional battles have more nuance than some may see. “Northern Virginia sends a tremendous amount of money down to Southwest and Southside because of the way the Local Composite Index works,” Surovell says, referring to the complex and often controversial formula that determines a locality’s ability to pay for schools. He points out that “it’s really Fairfax and Arlington and Loudoun that send that money down.” His Senate district is now entirely within Fairfax but in the past included part of Prince William County. “Prince William does really well under the Local Composite Index,” he says. “A lot of people in Southwest probably think all of Northern Virginia wants to change the LCI but I can tell you that Prince William has no interest in changing that. In Virginia, a lot of these issues aren’t Democratic or Republican, they’re economic. If we had a lot more dialogue and discussion in papers like yours we’d have more awareness of the commonality.”
Here’s a start — from a legislator with a Fairfax County address but Franklin County and Vinton heritage.