Come January, the new General Assembly that gavels into session will be run by a majority that comes almost entirely from the urban crescent and will have but a single member from west of Charlottesville: Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke.
Overwhelmingly Republican Southwest and Southside Virginia has been in the minority in a Democratic-controlled legislature before, but this time around will be different because the region’s delegation will be missing two longtime lawmakers who always had a hand in shaping the budget no matter which party was in charge: state Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, and state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, both of whom are retiring.
It also will be without state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, another longtime legislator who co-chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and sat on the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee. He also is retiring.
With all due respect to the Southwest and Southside legislators who remain, some of whom have a great deal of seniority (albeit now in the minority), the two regions will now be locked out of power in a way they haven’t been in my memory. Since those regions have steadily been losing representation in the General Assembly as a result of population shifts, it might be fair to say that they are now in their weakest position ever. For the next two years, at least, the legislature will be governed by a majority that owes no political debt to the western part of the state and, at best, will hear just a single voice within its ranks to advocate for this part of the state. In the Senate, the only western voice in the majority party’s caucus will be that of state Sen. Creigh Deeds, who once lived in Bath County and certainly retains an affinity for rural Virginia but now lives in Charlottesville and represents a district entirely east of the Blue Ridge. In the House, the only western voice in the majority party’s caucus will be Rasoul’s — and his urban district often bears little political resemblance to the rest of the region.
That’s why election results should be setting off alarm bells in the offices of any group in Southwest and Southside that has any interest in state funding — not for partisan reasons but simply practical ones. This is the political equivalent of “out of sight, out of mind.” In this case, “out of power, out of mind.” Anyone in Southwest and Southside who has some business before the legislature needs to be making introductions to a new majority that doesn’t have much reason to pay attention to us.
Anytime a legislature changes majorities, there’s an ideological power shift, but this one is also geographical in nature — and longtime legislative observers understand that many of the issues in Richmond have little to do with left vs. right but a lot about which regions benefit. My concerns here are not those ideological issues — the election has temporarily settled those — but the things that involve funding and other matters that have some geographical component.
Under the outgoing Republican majority, the speaker of the House (Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County), the House majority leader (Terry Kilgore of Scott County) and the deputy House majority leader (Israel O’Quinn of Washington County) all hailed from west of the Blue Ridge. The new speaker will be Don Scott of Portsmouth and the new House majority leader will be Charniele Herring of Alexandria. Gilbert will bump down to House minority leader but Kilgore and O’Quinn are now out of the Republican leadership team entirely. (See the story by Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt about Sunday’s Republican leadership vote.)
The chair of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee has been Barry Knight of Virginia Beach, but the vice chair has been Terry Austin of Botetourt County, who has been instrumental in delivering funding for key projects in the region. He’ll be back, but not as vice chair. The new chairman of House Appropriations will no doubt be Luke Torian of Prince William County, who led that panel the last time Democrats were in control.
Party control of the Senate hasn’t changed — Democrats had a slim majority before and will have a slimmer one now — but the management of the Senate will. Both party leaders are retiring — Richard Saslaw for the Democrats, Tommy Norment for the Republicans. Neither party has picked its leadership, but for the Democrats, it’s likely to be either Mamie Locke of Newport News or Scott Surovell of Fairfax County. For Republicans, Ryan McDougle of Hanover County appears to be in line for the leadership with Mark Obenshain of Rockingham County as caucus chair. The new chair of Senate Finance will be Louise Lucas of Portsmouth. With a House speaker, a Senate Finance chair and possibly a Senate majority leader, Hampton Roads sees a concentration of power it hasn’t had in a long time.
I don’t mean to make it sound like Democrats are going to saw off rural Virginia and sell us to West Virginia, but I do want to be realistic: The political power of Southwest and Southside just got diminished, first by retirements, and then by the election results — election results that we really had no say in, since we had few competitive races to begin with and all the ones that led to a new majority were on the other side of the state.
I’ve long made the case that we’d be better off as a society if Southwest Virginia elected more Democrats and Northern Virginia elected more Republicans — that way these inevitable party changes wouldn’t have such a profound geographical impact. That’s not the world we live in, though. For better or worse, we have politically realigned ourselves along geographic lines — my recent column as part of our Cardinal Way project on civility looked at those numbers. The result: When Republicans are in charge, Southwest and Southside are bound to have some legislators in leadership positions. When Democrats are in charge, we have none and even our most senior legislators are in the minority. Instead, we have to start looking for whatever regional connections we can find in the majority party’s caucus — Surovell has family ties to Vinton and Franklin County (I wrote about these in a previous column), Del. David Reid of Loudoun County grew up in Buena Vista (I wrote about that, too), state Sen. Jennifer Boysko of Fairfax County attended Hollins University, and so forth.
The next part is a delicate matter but needs to be said in the interest of reality: Much of the new legislative leadership will be Black Democrats. Scott will be our first Black speaker; the top three Democratic leaders in the House are non-white — Herring is Black and caucus chair Del. Kathy Tran of Fairfax County is Asian-American. If Locke winds up as party leader in the Senate, then both chambers will be led by Black majority leaders. With Torian and Lucas, both money committees will be chaired by Black legislators. This has never happened before and represents an important first, particularly for a state with Virginia’s complicated history of slavery and segregation. That’s not really the delicate part, though — this is: We will have our most diverse legislature ever (including incoming Democratic legislators from Northern Virginia who were born in Bangladesh, India and Iran) yet Southwest Virginia is the least diverse part of the state. Demographically, we are the ones who are out of step, and we’d be wise to recognize that. It’s not simply a Black-white thing, either. For lots of reasons — which I discussed in an earlier column — immigration has generally passed us by. Southwest Virginia doesn’t look much like the rest of Virginia politically. It doesn’t look much like the rest of Virginia, period.
I was recently talking with some groups about the possibility of bringing legislative leaders — from both parties — to Southwest Virginia to talk about the upcoming session. (We’re working on this; I don’t know if we can pull it off.) One community leader suggested that we need to be careful about which Democrats we invite, that some wouldn’t be well-received in such a strongly Republican part of the state. That’s a problem: We need to deal with reality. If these are the leaders of the new majority in Richmond, then we as a region need to have a relationship with them. We don’t have to agree with their politics, but we sure want them to understand why certain things are important — from providing a better road between Martinsville and the North Carolina line to funding programs at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
The feisty Lucas, in particular, may be some Republicans’ least favorite Democrat, but the reality is now she’ll be controlling some of the pursestrings. (Do purses even have strings anymore? Is there even money in a purse in these days of online banking?) Those of us in Southwest and Southside would be well-advised to get to know her better, regardless of what people think of her Twitter/X account. Maybe somebody should invite her out to see why U.S. 220 south of Martinsville is such an obstacle to economic development in the region or what the New College Institute is all about — or why “gob piles” of waste coal are a problem in Southwest Virginia. She and other Democrats may well vote in favor of lots of things that most voters in Southwest and Southside object to, but we’d sure like them to remember us in the budget.
Here’s a larger issue, one that would have presented itself no matter which party won a majority: We have an unprecedented amount of turnover this year. Nearly half the Senate — 18 of 40 senators — will be new to the chamber in January, while 35 of 100 House members will be freshmen. A few of those first-timers are from Southwest and Southside, but most are going to be from somewhere else. How many of them have even been to Southwest and Southside? Not many, I’d wager. It’s important that we educate them about our part of the state — and disabuse them of whatever stereotypes they might have about us.
Fortunately, most legislators — the good ones, anyway — understand that it’s important to have some friends on the other side. I know some of our Republican legislators understand this. We don’t know yet whether all those new legislators understand it, though.