Tuesday, August 19, 2014

State Government: Virginia’s Lonely Liberal

On election night, 2013, I was working an internship in Portland Oregon. I finished dinner and washed the dishes in my attic apartment, pulled up my laptop, and streamed the news from DC. In neighboring Virginia, elections were being held for the governorship, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and the locally-elected House of Delegates. A special election in January would decide control of the State Senate. My prediction for Virginia was that the Democrats would take the Lieutenant Governor’s seat: the GOP picked a weak candidate during its convention. With a law-and-order platform, the GOP’s Obenshain would take the Attorney General’s seat for a sixth consecutive term. The Governorship could go either way: Cucinelli (R) was marred by a gifts scandal (which also consumed the incumbent Republican governor), hard right social views, and the government shutdown. McAuliffe (D) was viewed as a party hack who became a millionaire from big government programs, the troubled Obamacare rollout, off-year disadvantage, and Virginia’s decades-long history of voting against the party occupying the White House. The Democrats won the top two offices: Obenshain lived to see another day--- at the end of the night, he lead by 163 votes of 1 million cast. In the House of Delegates, the GOP kept its large majority: in addition, several districts in the DC suburbs, with margins of less than 1%, fell into the GOP’s pot, giving the party its largest share of the House in state history. In January, all the dust was settled. Obenshain (R) lost in the recount. Lynwood Lewis, and Democrats, won that crucial State Senate seat with 11 of 20,000 votes, after a recount. (I rooted for the Republican, a maritime professional, in that race). Democrats held the three statewide jobs, both US Senate Seats, and the State Senate. Akin to its Federal counterpart, the US House, the Virginia House of Delegates was branded by commentators as reactionary, and irrelevant to the new, diverse, and tolerant Virginia. To use their good fortune, the Democratic majority in the State Senate changed chamber rules to allow a change in leadership during the legislative session. The GOP was a bit irked about that. During the 60-day 2014 legislative session, the Democrats in the State Senate and the Republicans of the House of Delegates were able to pass bills. As long as they could secure one or two Democratic votes in the State Senate, the House leadership could pursue a center-right agenda. The question was, “Will Terry McAuliffe go along with it?” Since the 1990’s, when the GOP took control of the House of Delegates for the first time since Reconstruction, it was pretty common for split government to solve the State’s problems. July 1 was the drop-dead date that a budget had to be passed by. While finalizing the budget in June, Republicans and enough Democrats agreed that Medicaid expansion was dead for this year; however, the Senate’s Democratic leader wouldn’t allow a vote. Tension ran high in state government, and among Virginia’s citizens, businesspeople, and observers. During this time, I was serving as a Cadet aboard the SS Cape May, a reserve ship berthed in Norfolk, VA. Indeed, this showdown was on the list of concerns of my mentors. The inability for the Senate to vote on the bill changed around June 11th. A Senate Democrat, Phil Puckett, suddenly resigned from office, citing his wish to allow his daughter to accept a judgeship. (Conflict-of-interest precedent keeps State Senators from having family serve in a State judicial role). Mr. Puckett himself eyed a new job in the Tobacco Commissioner’s office, created this year in no small part by Republicans. With the resignation, the Senate majority went to the Republicans. Using the same Senate rules the Democrats had passed five months before, the GOP triggered a turnover in leadership positions. I checked the State GOP’s website for joyous words about regaining their State Senate majority after five months in the wilderness. But the State GOP was mum about the ‘good news’. What went on between Mr. Puckett and State Republican leaders behind closed doors is unknown, if it did happen. The FBI is looking into it right now. When the news broke, Mr. Puckett was immediately labeled as selling out his (former) needy constituents; breaking the backs of the poor. I would not want to be him right now. The State Senate reconvened, and passed the budget without Medicaid, and with a rider to keep Governor McAuliffe from attempting to expand Medicaid without legislative approval. The legislature, both Democratic and GOP, already knew that McAuliffe wasn’t a business-as-usual type of Democrat. He had vetoed bipartisan gun legislation affirming a State Court’s decision. When it was too late for the state legislature to override a veto, McAuliffe vetoed a bipartisan exemption from boater education for older and experienced boaters. He vetoed an ethics bill regarding the Governor’s office (though he imposed on himself an executive order with the same concept). In the same train of action, McAuliffe held out for several days as the July 1 deadline drew closer, feeling the temperature of the State’s constituents. But the functioning of State Government is a different matter than whether one must take a 6-hour boater safety course: a slight but palatable shift in opinion occurred. McAuliffe, not the GOP-controlled legislature, was being seen obstructive. McAuliffe struck the rider with a line-item veto, then passed the budget. He made it clear to his base of supporters- inner-city residents of Norfolk and Richmond; and the upscale liberals of Arlington- that he was under duress by a ‘hostile’ legislature. In keeping with old tradition, the Virginia Legislature is a part-time job. Asides from special sessions, legislators serve no more than sixty days in even years and forty-five days in odd years. The odd-year meetings were a fairly recent addition. During their absence from the State capitol in Richmond, the newly-empowered Republicans put their legislative specialists on the job, making sure that the new governor doesn’t overstep his authority in the meanwhile. Before January comes around, there are elections to be fought and won. Just today, Ben Chafin, a Republican, won Mr. Puckett’s empty seat. Indeed, this election was not about the issues, from Medicaid to taxation, within the rural district; but which party should hold two branches of state government. In November, there is a U.S. Senate race. The incumbent Warner (D) is an entrepreneur who helped found Nextel with my fellow St. Anselm’s alumnus from the Class of ‘62, won by a large margin in 2008. He is running against Ed Gillespie (R), a political consultant who wrote Gingrich’s Contract with America of 1994. In the moderate and diverse 10th US Congressional District race, Republican Barbara Comstock, currently holding an upscale, swing-voting House of Delegates district inside of DC’s beltway, is attempting to make inroads with the less-affluent immigrant communities. To that regard, there are a few faux pas in her voting record; namely, about voting for questioning suspects about their immigration status, and charging for interpreter’s services in court. Democrat John Foust, a supporter of Medicaid expansion, has a problem of his own. His wife’s medical practice doesn’t accept Medicaid cases. Entering office 8 months ago in a Democratic sweep of the top three offices, Governor Terry McAuliffe probably didn't anticipate how one part-time state senator could thwart his hope for a progressive agenda. At the moment, he is Virginia's lonely liberal.