The “blue wave” in Virginia’s elections last week surprised many, since Democrats, for the second consecutive time, won all three statewide races – Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. As in the 2013 statewide election, urban and suburban areas tended to be blue, while rural areas stayed red. Northern Virginia, Tidewater, and the independent cities carried the day for Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, and Mark Herring, continuing the trend of those urban areas voting Democratic by increasing margins.
More surprising, though, was the result of General Assembly races, where 14 seats switched from red to blue, with three more facing recounts because of slim vote margins between candidates. Veteran lawmakers Scott Lingamfelter, Bob Marshall, Jim LeMunyon, and John O’Bannon had 68 years of service among them. Adding retirements of Speaker William Howell and Delegate Dave Albo, along with other defeated delegates with less tenure, means that more than 150 years of General Assembly experience was lost in one election.
That experience, however, did not always translate into good legislation or constituent service. That’s why so many new candidates mounted spirited, and often well-funded, challenges that paid off. Just as constituents expect Congress to do its job on behalf of citizens, so, too, do constituents expect the General Assembly to do its job. State responsibilities for multi-modal transportation, for K-12 education, for higher education and keeping college tuition affordable, for health care, and protecting the environment – all these issues, and more, have faced defunding and underfunding for years. The new class of 2018 delegates probably will not discover any magic potion for new funding, but the subjects for discussion, and the tone of that discussion, most likely will be informed by the new Democratic delegates, many of whom are younger and female. Those new perspectives will be quite a change for the oldest continuous legislative body in the New World. The Virginia House of Burgesses, the predecessor to the current General Assembly, was created on July 30, 1619, and wouldn’t all those wealthy, white, male, Burgesses be stunned by Tuesday’s vote!
The shocking election of Donald Trump just one year ago stimulated a lot of interest in running for public office, at all levels. But, tough as it can be, running for office actually is the easy part. It’s governance that’s hard. The learning curve for the new delegates will be steep. Arcane legal and political procedures that get legislation through the pipeline from an idea to law will have to be mastered. The fast pace of committee meetings and General Assembly sessions can be exhausting, and on top of that, the General Assembly offices are in temporary quarters so that a new, modern building can be constructed; hopefully, with additional and faster elevators! Once elected, you’re not a private citizen anymore; sunshine laws and ethics rules apply, with sometimes heavy penalties for violations. Newly elected officials need to switch smoothly and quickly from campaign mode to governance mode. If they can’t, or refuse, to make the switch, more chaos can result. The voters of Virginia demanded good governance. Now, the 2018 General Assembly session must deliver!
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]