Those who say there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between politicians are looking at the wrong side of the coin.
Franklin Roosevelt graces the heads side of our 10-cent piece and is an instructive example for our subject today. Former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said of Roosevelt that he had “a second class intellect but a first class temperament.” It was that temperament — along with a lot of luck — that made Roosevelt one of our most politically successful presidents.
That quote comes to mind as I ponder the events unfolding in Lynchburg, where the city council is riven by factionalism, but not the usual sort. In last November’s elections, voters in the Hill City installed a Republican majority for the first time in decades, so with a council of five Republicans and two Democrats, it would be natural to expect some political friction. Instead, the most dramatic fissures have come between Republicans. Much of the conflict seems driven by one of those Republican newcomers, Marty Misjuns, who has directed much of his ire toward two fellow Republicans, Mayor Stephanie Reed and Vice Mayor Chris Faraldi.
Rachel Mahoney documented much of this in her story last week: “Accusations of ‘tantrums’ and ‘tyranny’: Internal emails show how deep the divisions on Lynchburg City Council are.”
Some of the divisions are ideological. There appear to be three factions on the Lynchburg City Council — the two Democrats, two mainstream Republicans (Reed and Faraldi) and two harder-right Republicans (Misjuns and Jeff Helgeson) — with Republican council member Larry Taylor hard to categorize, but he’s definitely not in the harder-right camp. As someone who has covered Virginia politics for decades, I can appreciate ideological divides. Those are older than our republic.
What is more curious here is the degree to which personality is a driving factor. In reading through the emails (obtained via the Virginia Freedom of Information Act) that formed the basis for Rachel’s story (along with watching hours of Lynchburg council meetings), one thing seems clear: Misjuns does not seem to have the “first class temperament” with which Roosevelt was blessed.
One email exchange stands out to me. Misjuns and Helgeson wanted to use city council chambers to hold a news conference. Misjuns emailed the city clerk to set this up. The clerk replied that traditionally council chambers had only been used for news conferences where city officials were stating the official city position on something, and asked about the nature of Misjuns’ planned event. Her exact words were: “Historically, any press conference held in Chamber has been called by the role of the Mayor in conjunction with City staff on City related business. Since you’ve requested the use of Council Chamber and subsequently the use of City resources, if you could please let me know the topic of your press conference as it relates to City business, I’d be happy to initiate the next steps of your reservation.”
Misjuns’ reply: “Do we need to file a mandamus to accomplish this?”
That set off a back-and-forth email exchange in which the mayor accused Misjuns of threatening the clerk and Misjuns told the mayor that he was “totally disgusted by your disdain for free speech and love for government censorship. I did not sign up to defend government tyrants.”
From my vantage point, I must wonder: Why such hostility? Why couldn’t he have simply answered the question? Throughout all those emails, what I see is that something starts out as a perfectly normal email exchange — and then Misjuns escalates the rhetoric at the slightest resistance.
In terms of policy, one of the biggest disputes has come over a policy change Misjuns would like to see: his resolution to “Promote Merit, Excellence and Opportunity in City Government,” which some might see as the opposite of the so-called Diversity, Equity and Inclusion movement.
After Misjuns emailed out his proposal, fellow council member Sterling Wilder, who is Black, replied: “I want to go on record that I am totally against this request.” Misjuns could have said nothing. He could have asked Wilder why he opposed the measure. He could have suggested that he and Wilder talk so that Wilder might have a better understanding of what Misjuns was proposing and why. Instead Misjuns shot back: “I’m very surprised that you support sustaining racist and sexist concepts in city government. Why do you support so much division, Sterling?”
Once again, I must wonder: Why? Why is his first response to attack a fellow council member and accuse him of supporting racism and sexism?
It strikes me that Misjuns may not have a personality that is well-suited for success in a legislative body — and that’s what a city council is, a small local legislature. His background is in the military and as a firefighter. If our country is threatened by enemies, I want a military that will respond aggressively. If my house were on fire, I’d appreciate a firefighter who charged in and smashed through whatever resistance he might find. Those are the traits we want, and need, in those professions. But those traits are also not the best way to build coalitions in a legislature where a majority vote is required for anything to get done.
My critique here is made without regard for Misjuns’ political agenda. In fact, if he were to take my advice — to take a kinder, gentler approach, to borrow a phrase from another former president — he might find it easier to get portions of his agenda enacted. My thoughts, though, really go beyond the Lynchburg City Council, to all the other offices we’ll elect this fall, from local boards of supervisors to the General Assembly. You want to know what makes some legislators successful and relegates others to back-bench status? It’s not political party (although being in the majority always helps), and it’s not even being the smartest person in the room. It’s personality.
While there are exceptions to everything, generally speaking, the most successful legislators are the ones who can get along with the largest number of people. That doesn’t mean they can’t be strongly partisan. One of the things that always impresses me about Virginia’s state government is how often strongly partisan legislators actually get along. The outgoing party leaders in the state Senate — Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax County, and Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County — are famously good friends despite their political differences. A few years ago I attended a Senate committee meeting in Blacksburg; state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, and state Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax County, rode in together. I doubt there’s much they agree on, but they seemed to enjoy each other’s company. When the Senate Finance Committee met in Roanoke in November 2021, I saw Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, saving a seat in the crowded room for someone. That someone turned out to be Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. Last year I attended another committee meeting in Franklin County and marveled when state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, and state Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax County, wandered off together to explore the property.
All these legislators are highly partisan, but they somehow have managed to forge personal bonds across the aisle.
By contrast, Misjuns has spent much of his first year on the Lynchburg City Council stoking personal animosities with other Republicans on the council. This is not what Dale Carnegie had in mind when he wrote “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” If Misjuns truly wants to get his resolution to Promote Merit, Excellence and Opportunity in City Government passed, he needs to figure out how to put together four votes on the council for it. Calling people names and reacting in such an aggressive, even hostile, manner to any perceived slight is not the way to accomplish that. If his goal is simply to stir up a political fuss, then I’d question whether he’s really in the right role. I’d offer the same advice to all the candidates for the General Assembly, a record number of whom will be taking seats for the first time in Richmond in January: Personal relationships go a long way. If you really want to get something done in Richmond, start making friends — even with members of whatever party you just spent the fall campaign badmouthing. You never know when you’ll need them.
Just look at the case of Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, who spent much of her term fighting with fellow Republicans. She also got no bills passed this year out of the House even though her own party was in control. I don’t think there was a formal conspiracy among Republicans to kill her bills; there didn’t need to be. March had alienated so many people in her own party that nobody was going to cut her a break. Voters apparently agreed because in the June primary, March lost overwhelmingly to fellow Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County. Williams and March came from the same place on the ideological spectrum, but legislators found Williams to be a much more congenial person to work with.
Another example: Look at Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County. In 2018, he had the idea to create a tax incentive for companies to locate in certain economically distressed areas — a variation of the old enterprise zone concept. Democrats are often against such things, and even Republicans at the time were skeptical. However, Morefield forged an unlikely alliance with then-Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, to put together enough votes to win passage — and the signature of a Democratic governor. Morefield couldn’t have done that if he’d had a reputation of being an unpleasant person.
I will confess my bias: My bias is in favor of legislators who get things done. That’s my definition of successful. Those who think a legislator is supposed to go to Richmond (or a city hall) and rant about all the bad things the other side is doing because that’s “standing up” for a particular point of view have confused a governing body with a debating society.
The fiery baseball great Leo Durocher supposedly said “nice guys finish last.” (His exact quote was a specific description of the rival New York Giants: “The nice guys over there are in last place!” but history has remembered the snazzier version.) Sports is a field where being nice is secondary to other skills. Politics is like sports in some ways — there’s a final score — but unlike it in others.
We saw one example recently of how personality played a role in politics in a negative way. In Washington, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, couldn’t get enough votes from fellow Republicans to become speaker of the House because some Republicans simply didn’t like him — they thought he was a bully. Jordan is a former wrestling coach and maybe his confrontational tactics work quite well in wrestling. They work less well in politics, particularly in a legislative body. If Jordan had been less of a bully, he’d probably be second in line for the presidency right now. He wasn’t, so he’s not.
Washington, unfortunately, tends to reward that kind of behavior — the most outrageous figures can instantly become media stars, rewarded with talk show appearances and large social media followings. That’s because much of Congress simply seems performative. Some of the most well-known members of Congress, on both sides, seem to be great performers on cable news and Twitter but aren’t really serious legislators. By contrast, the General Assembly and local governing bodies are expected to actually function and do the business of governing. That doesn’t require members to agree — on the contrary, in a democracy, we expect disagreement. But it sure helps if those disagreeing members can still get along.
Not everyone is suited for everything. Someone who is afraid of heights probably won’t make a good airline pilot. Someone who is shy probably won’t make a good public speaker. And someone whose first response is to attack and criticize may be absolutely right on the issues but probably won’t make a very successful office-holder.