The General Assembly that convenes in January won’t look much like the one we have now.
At least 16 members of the 40-member Senate will be new to that body. At least 32 members of the 100-member House of Delegates will be new.
We’ve never seen turnover quite like this. Besides the sheer weight of numbers, a lot of important party leaders are leaving. In the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans will be under new management, with the retirements of Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw and Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment.
We don’t know yet which party will control either chamber but we know this much for certain: We’re going to have a lot of new legislators who don’t know much about Southwest and Southside.
For two parts of the state who historically feel overlooked and outvoted, that’s not an encouraging prospect. There are certain risks no matter which party prevails in November. If Democrats win, they won’t have much stake in this part of the state — it’s possible that Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, could be the only Democrat from west of Charlottesville. If Republicans win, this part of the state will have a heavier investment in the majority party but the political reality is that Republicans will need to be solicitous of the swing districts in the urban crescent that put them in the majority, not rock-solid districts in Southwest and Southside that will vote red no matter what.
Either way, this column is aimed at all those new legislators who don’t know the difference between the town of Buchanan and the county of Buchanan or the correct pronunciation of Dante (hint: it’s “daint.”). You won’t be elected to represent us, but you’ll be governing us nonetheless. With that in mind, some introductions are in order about this part of the state that you may not know much about.
First of all, let me try to disabuse you of some stereotypes.
1. Don’t think of Southwest and Southside as economically failing parts of the state.
First of all, if you want to consider population trends as a placeholder for economic ones — Ronald Reagan used to say that people voted with their feet — then the places that are really failing are Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Those are the two parts of the state that are seeing more people move out than move in. Most of downstate Virginia — not all, but most — is seeing just the opposite: more people moving in than moving out. Don’t believe me? See the chart above or read one of the columns I’ve written on Virginia’s migration trends. Yes, it’s true that most localities in Southwest and Southside are losing population but that’s because they are older localities. Deaths outnumber births — and that net out-migration. Given the ages of those localities, there’s not much we can do about the deaths-over-births ratio but we are quietly seeing an influx of newcomers in many places. Whether this is a Zoom-era migration, or something else, we’re not quite certain yet, but it’s real and has been consistently happening for some time now. Some policy decisions that your predecessors have made have helped this — the rollout of rural broadband, for instance. There may be other policy decisions you will be called upon to make to help accelerate this growth. When that time comes, though, don’t think of us as poor beggars asking for a handout; these are communities that have turned themselves around and are on an upward trend line.
2. Don’t fall for the old shorthand about what these communities are like.
It’s understandable to think of Roanoke, for instance, as a former railroad town. We certainly play up that railroad heritage at every opportunity, including the name of our hockey team. (Yes, we have a minor league hockey team, the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs. They won the championship of the Southern Professional Hockey League this past year and got a parade through town.) Roanoke, though, ceased to be a railroad town a long time ago. The tracks are still here and there’s certainly a rail presence, but it’s no longer our major industry and it’s certainly not our future. If you want to see the future of Roanoke, come take a look at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “We’ve gone from a train city to a brain city,” Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea likes to say. Likewise, don’t think of Danville as a former textile-and-tobacco town — which it certainly is — unless you’re prepared to talk up its current status as an advanced manufacturing capital where they’re trying to interest 12-year-old girls in becoming welders. (See our story on that program.) And it’s still easy for us to still talk about “coal country” or the “coal counties” but the reality is there are very few coal miners left in Virginia. Those counties in Virginia’s western corner certainly have their challenges but I see very few people clinging to coal. They’re looking to reinvent themselves as an energy capital by trying to cash in on becoming part of the wind energy supply chain, among other things.
3. Don’t fall for any political stereotypes.
I know it’s easy for Democrats, in particular, to look at an election map and see a vast swath of red and jump to certain conclusions. We’re a lot more complicated than those colors might suggest. For 24 of the past 48 years, Roanoke — a decidedly majority-white city — has had a Black mayor. (Two different ones: Noel Taylor for 17 years, now Lea for the past seven.) A few years ago, Roanoke even had a Black majority on the council. That wasn’t the result of any political upheaval; the slate that won basically represented an electoral endorsement of the status quo. Roanoke currently has three gay men on the council, and not a single straight white male. Roanoke was also the first place in Virginia to elect a Muslim member to the General Assembly — Rasoul, who I mentioned earlier. In Roanoke, that’s not a big deal. Did you expect that in a city on the edge of Appalachia? And while it’s true that Roanoke is a reliably Democratic city, Pulaski is just as reliably Republican and the town of Pulaski has a gay mayor. He’s so popular that in the last election he ran unopposed.
4. Don’t fall for any cultural stereotypes, either.
If you’re ever out this way, sure, we can hook you up with some great barbecue and some foot-stomping bluegrass. That’s what many people expect and we’re proud of those things. We’re also more complicated than that. One of the most popular food trucks around Bristol and Abingdon is the Pakalachian Food Truck, a fusion of Pakistani and Appalachian cuisine. Roanoke, thanks to the playwriting program at Hollins University, has become a national center for new plays. Lynchburg has a thriving goth scene. I doubt many legislators are into that but if you are, we can turn you on to the Lynchburg Gothic League, which puts on regular dance parties where “every day is Halloween.”
Now that I’ve gone through the “don’ts,” let’s look at some of the “do’s.”
1. Do think of us as a rising technology center.
We’re not Silicon Valley and we never will be, but we do have a technology sector here. The Brookings Institution released a report last year that showed Blacksburg had the third fastest growth of tech jobs anywhere in the country. True, it’s easy to get big percentages from small numbers, but the point is, something’s happening here. And not just in Blacksburg. Brookings had a report earlier this year that showed the fastest growth of highly digitalized jobs in Virginia is in … the Big Stone Gap micropolitan area. In fact, it’s growing tech jobs at a faster rate than almost any other place in Appalachia. One of the biggest stories we’re following right now is the competition to become one of the regional technology hubs that the U.S. Commerce Department will designate under last year’s Chips and Science Act. It appears that most of the bids in Virginia have come out of the western part of the state. This doesn’t seem quixotic, either. A report by the Economic Innovation Group identified three places in Virginia that would be logical contenders: Blacksburg, Charlottesville and Lynchburg. This rising technology sector is one reason why Cardinal recently added a full-time technology reporter.
2. Do remember we’re different from the rest of the state in many ways.
For all of my boosterism above, the reality is that Southwest and Southside (and rural Virginia generally) is behind the urban crescent in many ways. Income levels are lower. How much lower? The Federal Reserve says the median household income in Loudoun County is $153,716; in Dickenson County, it’s $33,905. Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, has pointed out that no other state has such a big disparity between its wealthiest county and its poorest one. Education levels are lower here, too. How much lower? In Falls Church, 78.1% of working-age adults have at least a bachelor’s degree. In much of Southwest and Southside, those figures are in the teens, with Dickenson County at 9.3% and Greensville County at 7.5%. Not long before his death, former Gov. Gerald Baliles warned that if rural Virginia were considered a separate state, ” it would be tied for dead last with Mississippi and West Virginia for educational attainment levels — dead last for citizens with high school diplomas; dead last for citizens with college degrees.” That’s why community colleges are such a big deal in this part of the state. You’ll notice that many of our community colleges have developed what amount to free or reduced tuition programs for many students, but those also rely on funding from local governments, which means that these costs are now passed on to some of the poorest counties in the state. That’s noble of them, that’s even practical of them, but is that really fair? (I examined that question in a previous column.)
Our readers in Northern Virginia will have no trouble accessing this column. Broadbandnow.com says that 100% of those in Falls Church have access to broadband; in Arlington, it’s 98.8%. However, in parts of rural Virginia — particularly Southside — the figures are much lower. In Greensville County, only 35.2% have access, the lowest percentage in the state. In Brunswick County, it’s 37.6%; in Charlotte County, 38.6%. What is easy and routine for some Virginians is not for others.
3. Do recognize that our interests may not be your interests.
Here’s one of my favorite maps, because it explains so much. This is a map of the nation’s economic geography, based on commuting patterns. The point here: We’re not really tied to the rest of the state. Economically, we’re more tied with North Carolina or, farther west, Tennessee. That’s why groups in Martinsville and Henry County keep pushing for a better road connection to North Carolina (the budget amendments approved this week direct the state to study that). Environmental groups hate that idea, and I’m sure other parts of the state see this as a lot of money, but these are the economic issues driving it.
Likewise, solar energy is roiling parts of Southside that aren’t keen on seeing their farmland being used for solar panels. Mecklenburg County is the latest county to impose a “hard cap” on the amount of land that can go for solar. Here’s an uncomfortable reality: Rural areas have always borne the brunt of energy production. Once, that was coal in Southwest. Now it’s solar in Southside. If we want to have more renewables, we’re going to have to work through this unease about where they are. I’d invite those keen to hasten the energy transition to pay a visit to Southside to hear some of those concerns firsthand.
Another don’t: Don’t automatically read this land-use opposition to solar energy as being blanket opposition to renewable energy. I talk to a lot of otherwise conservative business and political leaders in the region. I find a lot of interest in ways to cash in on clean energy technology, but does “paving over” rural land — that’s how it’s often seen — have to be part of that?
4. Do recognize that some of our interests overlap.
We have a fundamental interest in the economic success of all of Virginia. Our schools get most of their funding from the state, which means they get a lot of it from Northern Virginia. Many of our products are exported through the port at Hampton Roads. We simply ask in return that you recognize an interest in our economic success, as well. Our interests intersect in other ways: Data centers have become hugely controversial in Prince William County and Loudoun County. Meanwhile, there are lots of rural localities in Southwest and Southside that are clamoring for data centers. The job counts they have may not be that much in Northern Virginia but they sure would be here. There are some technical reasons why data centers haven’t sprung up in rural Virginia — I examined those in a previous column — but there might well be ways that our regions could cooperate here.
When the winners among you go to Richmond in January, your constituents will expect you to represent their interests — and you should. Please remember a few things, though. There are some parts of Virginia that are closer to three, four, five, six, seven, eight, even nine other state capitals than they are to their own, but the laws you pass apply to us, as well.