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Category Archives: Virginia/DC

            Democratic state senator Creigh Deeds is lagging behind in the gubernatorial polls.  What’s more, he’s running about even with his opponent in Northern Virginia—a majority-Democratic area within a state that voted for Barack Obama and Mark Warner last year…and Jim Webb and Tim Kaine in the cycle before that.  What’s handicapping Deeds?

            Two things: one, it’s not a “Democratic year.”  Independents who were willing to give Obama a chance and are now wary of his policies are taking their frustration out on statewide elections.  There is not too much that can be done about that unless the economy turns around (it will eventually, just perhaps not by November).  But the other factor is fixable: liberals, particularly in Northern Virginia, are just not that enthusiastic about Deeds.

            Which is strange—considering that he beat two Northern Virginians in the primary by large margins even in their own backyards.  Former Congressman Tom Davis, who is a Republican but not a staunch conservative, said of Northern Virginia that “People here don’t get up in the morning and ask if I can go hunting and fishing.”  The inference is that Deeds is too much of a backwoodsy, gun-loving, Bible-thumping enigma to be trusted with cosmopolitan issues—even though his opponent fits almost the same caricature.

            Republican Bob McDonnell may seem like the more urbane candidate on the surface.  As a legislator, he represented Virginia Beach in the House of Delegates, he worked at Newport News at an Army hospital as a lieutenant colonel, and he is sure to mention that he grew up in Fairfax County.  But Fairfax County in the early 1970s was a far cry from Fairfax County today.  In McDonnell’s childhood, Fairfax had fewer than half a million residents.  There was no Metro, no commuter rail, no HOV lanes, and no corridor of defense contracting and IT firms.  Today, the County is affluent, one-third non-white, with large enclaves of Asian and Latin American immigrants, and has excellent public schools.


            So, neither of these men is really familiar with the Northern Virginia lifestyle.  What are the issues important to us?  Well, healthcare and the economy, of course.  But the governor does not really have control over those issues.  Deeds could try to run away from the controversial stimulus package and healthcare legislation.  Or he could embrace what the Obama administration is doing, saying that thousands of teachers, firefighters, police officers, and state workers have avoided being fired because of the stimulus.  He could also agree with Obama that every citizen needs quality, affordable insurance—something he can appreciate after growing up in rural poverty.

            The issues over which he will have control, however, are essentially two: education and transportation.  At George Mason University this week, he made an earnest—though at times stuttering—defense of state-funded public schools and universities, citing his own experience and that of his children in working their way through college.  On transportation, he has made only one thing clear: his opponent’s plan to divert money from schools and utilize the one-time revenues from liquor store privatization is bad news.  Deeds is open to any other means of funding, which traditionally infers that “new sources of revenue” (or higher taxes) are on the table.

            These are good core issues around which to run a campaign.  But the message needs a medium in order to get through.  Deeds needs to stand out on Metro platforms at 7 a.m. and rap with commuters about transportation funding.  He should hop into one of Arlington’s enviroCAB “green” taxis or get on a bus with local officials and drive through the Springfield Interchange.  He and Mark Warner (the most popular elected official in Virginia) should be touring the construction of Metro’s Silver Line and talking about how many jobs the Metrorail extension will bring to the Dulles corridor.

            Unfortunately, Deeds has hinted at his willingness to bring abortion into the campaign to rile up social liberals.  Now, I’m not saying that abortion isn’t a fair issue, considering that McDonnell pursued anti-abortion policies quite vehemently as a legislator.  And obviously if the McDonnell camp tries to link the moderate-to-conservative Deeds with liberal Obama policies, Deeds is right to pull the mask off of McDonnell’s centrist costume.  But considering that Deeds won the primary amid misguided negative campaigning by his two rivals, having a progressive plan and demonstrating it to voters may be a better strategy—as is constantly reminding the base that his opponent has a bad plan that is regressive.


            Poor Tim Kaine: the recession has gotten so bad that he has had to get a second part-time job—as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

            It turns out that Kaine’s instinct was correct when Barack Obama first broached the subject with him last year.  Kaine said that taking up the new post would not comport with his job as governor.  Yet, he still managed to accept the position, where he has supposedly been serving a weekends-and-evenings role in traveling for party business.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as Virginia matters take precedence and his time/money/staff are not used inappropriately.

            Last month, when requests for Kaine’s travel records arose, he told the press, “If anyone wants to know where I am, all they have to do is ask. . . . There’s nothing covert about it.”  Yet he delayed for weeks in releasing the reports, only relenting when the Virginia State Police (which provides his security) decided that they had to release their own records of travel.  The information provided shows that Kaine, from the beginning of March through the end of June, traveled outside of Virginia on thirty occasions, fifteen of which occurred in June alone.


            Now, leaving the state to give speeches and campaign for candidates is obviously not the most egregious activity in which a governor could partake (see: hiking the Appalachian Trail).  Nor is Virginia—which, like many other states, is seeing its budget deficit widen as tax revenues fall short of projections—in any special crisis (see: California).  Further, there is not undue national scrutiny on our state political antics (see: New York, Alaska).

            The General Assembly wrapped up its legislative session in February, so it’s a bit disingenuous when part-time Republican lawmakers are chastising Kaine.  House Speaker William Howell said that “During this, the worst jobs environment for working families since the Great Depression, Virginians deserve a hands-on, full-time governor.”  In fact, Kaine was the first governor in the country to call for a special legislative session in August to address the Supreme Court’s recent ruling requiring lab analysts to give testimony at criminal trials.  So, I think it’s fair to say that he’s pulling his weight as much as the assembly is pulling theirs.

            Still, Kaine has to deal effectively with many distractions before his term expires in January: he has to monitor the budget woes, campaign for gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds and House of Delegates candidates, monitor stimulus spending in Virginia, be on call in case a crisis emerges—all while trying to fend off Republican gains on a national scale next year.

            In a sense, Republicans’ concerns are legitimate.  And unfortunately, Deeds will undoubtedly be linked to Kaine’s mini-travel scandal under a larger attempt to smear the national Democratic leadership.  But Kaine has already wrapped up his legacy more or less satisfactorily.  The recession has dominated his last year-and-a-half in office and he was not able to fix transportation in the state, but he did push through a cigarette ban in restaurants, oversaw the groundbreaking for Metrorail to Dulles Airport, and led the state through the Virginia Tech shootings.

            In my opinion, Kaine will have enough of a challenge trying to get a Democratic successor elected in the fall without the need to travel all over the country.  However, as long as he does so transparently and no more than a couple days each month, I see no harm in that.

            It’s not exactly news that Virginia’s General Assembly is a mixture of the dysfunctional, the demagogical, and the dedicated—though in varying proportions.  The shocker is that there are actually some politicians who are willing to delineate the instances of absurdity from the art of statecraft.  Retiring delegates Kristen Amundson and Chris Saxman wrote an opinion piece that gives a juicy glimpse into what we perceive to be our system of  lawmaking.

          While not exactly an airing of dirty laundry (although there is an anecdote about airing one’s laundry), the tongue-in-cheek humor belies the fact that no matter how opaque the process and no matter how egotistical the participants, every once in a while there are good men and women who come together to pass good laws.  I guess that’s the least that we expect, and so it’s the least we are going to get.

        Here is the link:

            Members of Congress have one simple responsibility: to make laws.  All the other stuff—cutting ribbons at new train stations, getting their pictures taken with Little League teams—provides a nice ego boost, but is superfluous at best.  Thus it is a bit mystifying why, six months after President Obama’s inauguration and a decade-and-a-half after the Clinton administration’s effort, congressmen are looking to the White House for more guidance and more time on healthcare reform.

            As of now, I believe there are only two committees—one in each chamber—that have yet to finalize a bill.  The main sticking points are how to fund both an expansion of healthcare to the currently uninsured (deficit-neutral) and how to decrease costs over the long run (bending the curve).  House Democrats are concerned about a tax on the wealthy, which some have pointed out as being unfair to small business owners, who apparently have to report their income with their revenue.  The “small business” defense always arises every time the issue of raising the marginal tax rate comes up, so why can’t Congress simply fix the tax code to prevent these people from being snagged by the system, rather than forgoing a legitimate and necessary source of revenue?

            Having said that, I don’t think that only the wealthy should pay for healthcare reform.  Since we are creating a new public good, everyone has to pitch in.  And if that means taxing health benefits for union members and other workers, then that should be part of the solution.  The important part is to just do something—anything.  During the Bush administration, Congress’s will to do stuff atrophied a little, as signing statements, evasions of subpoenas, and blatant disregard for regulation rebuffed the legislature’s role as a check on the executive branch.  Now that Obama has given them free reign, legislators have splintered into 535 different interest groups, each with a Napoleon complex and access to partisan cable talk shows.


            Being in Congress might be the only field of work in which generous deadlines can be ignored and no one is penalized.  At first, a bipartisan compromise seemed like the ethical as well as the most equitable form of deal making.  But now, with the Democrats feuding among themselves and the GOP determined to kill the still-ambiguous reform plan, it is useless to try talking to all but a handful of Republicans. 

Where Obama can come in handy is in urging Congress not to abandon several decades worth of reform planning.  To do otherwise would be letting him down, letting their country down, and letting themselves down.  But as influential as Obama is, he is not going to be vote number sixty in the Senate or number 218 in the House; Democratic leaders need to instill some discipline in their ranks.


            Virginia Democratic senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner are no conservatives.  Webb, a former Marine, and Warner, a former business executive, are results-oriented pragmatists who happen to lie left of the ideological center.  That’s why it was strange and disheartening for both men to vote in favor of Sen. John Thune’s (S.D.) amendment to a defense bill that would have irresponsibly allowed concealed firearms to be carried across state lines.

            Warner’s vote in particular is disappointing because he should recognize, being a former governor, the struggles that accompany administration of the criminal justice system in any state, even without external complications such as this one.  Furthermore, the amendment would have given preference to states with the loosest laws regarding firearm possession, in effect depriving state law enforcement of the ability to enforce the regulations which have been dutifully debated, voted on, and signed into existence across the country.

            I’m very comfortable with ensuring protections for gun owners, but it concerns me when our senators are so afraid of getting slapped on the wrist by the NRA that they forget that the Second Amendment still has a long way to go in court before the John Thunes of the world can carry as many guns as they want wherever they want and for any purpose.