Virginia legislators get Twitter-savvy

RICHMOND — It used to be easier to end debate in the Virginia General Assembly.

A legislator — in the majority party, of course — fed up with the heated rhetoric on any issue simply made a motion. There was a quick vote. Voila: It’s over.

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But these days, the debate can drag on — and on.

In this legislative session more than any other — particularly in the younger, rowdier House of Delegates — lawmakers who want to be heard when they’re denied speaking time take to the Twitterverse. Right there in the ornate House chamber.

Twitter has become the social media outlet of choice this year for an increasing number of legislators seeking to publicly disagree with the other party, other chamber, or other branch of government. They also tweet to urge followers to contact lawmakers on contentious legislation — once even rounding up activists to what turned out to be biggest protest of the session (#waronwomen).

“Debate cut off on mandatory ultrasound bill. Did not get a chance to respond to Del. Gilbert’s claim abortion is about lifestyle convenience,” Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond), 39, a.k.a. @JennMcClellanVA, tweeted on Feb. 14 after the lengthy and impassioned discussion ended abruptly on a measure requiring women to undergo ultrasounds before abortion.

Twitter has changed the oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere — in ways Thomas Jefferson never could have envisioned.

“It has become a full-fledged political tool,’’ said Del. Ben L. Cline (R-Rockbridge), 40, a.k.a. @DelBenCline.

The General Assembly, which thrives on the traditions that stem from its 400-year-old history, has changed with the times — some legislators more reluctantly than others. Paper gave way to computers. Lawmakers joined Facebook. Others have grown adept on state-issued iPads.

And even though some of the more tech-savvy — and mostly younger — members began tweeting a year or two ago, Twitter became a regular part of the session only this year.

Legislative staffers estimate that 36 delegates in the 100-member House have Twitter accounts. Some tweet directly from the House floor.

“Great work by the members of Appropriations. Both parties worked hard for a great bill. This is the REAL news of this session,” Del. Greg Habeeb (R-Salem), 35, a.k.a. @GregHabeeb, tweeted on Feb. 23.

That’s not to say that legislators don’t do exactly what the rest of Twitter’s 300 million users do. They write about their day, gossip about their friends and make obvious and not-so-obvious observations. All in 140 characters or fewer.

After 16 new delegates were sworn in at the start of the session in January, Del. David L. Englin (D-Alexandria), 37, a.k.a. @dlenglin, tweeted: “It’s official: “David” is now the most prevalent name in the Hse of Delegates: Toscano, Englin, Bulova, Ramadan, Yancey, Albo.”

But it’s become so much more.

House Democrats’ strategy for the 60-day session included legislators and caucus staff tweeting daily, complete with a hashtag that reflected their view of a chamber dominated 2-to-1 by Republicans. Midway through, House Republicans followed suit.

In recent weeks, House Democrats have argued that social issues — abortion, guns, gay adoptions — have taken over the session — #badbills, they like to tweet. House Republicans have fought back with their own hashtag, arguing they push legislation to create jobs and boost the economy — #goodbills, for short.

Even in the more staid Senate, where the average age of legislators increases dramatically, a more refined version of Twitter is seeping into the norm.

Republicans are targeting all 20 Democrats who repeatedly voted against the state’s $85 billion budget in a bid for more power and more spending — through radio ads, phone calls and Twitter.

@VA_GOP: “Call Sen. Chap Petersen! Demand that Democrats do their job and pass a budget.” Petersen’s phone number followed.

Petersen (D-Fairfax), 43, a.k.a. @ChapPetersen, said his office in Richmond was swamped by hundreds of calls. “People are calling saying ‘What’s going on?’ ” Petersen said. “It’s been a higher number of calls than any other time in the session.”

It’s unclear whether the cyber-lobbying is having an effect on Petersen or his colleagues. Senate Democrats said they oppose the budget, but on Tuesday they sat down to begin hashing out a compromise for the first time.

But the Senate is no House when it comes to Twitter. Legislative staffers don’t keep track of which senators use Twitter. Some senators think the chamber’s rules forbid them tweeting from the floor. That rule doesn’t exist, but none of the Senators seem eager to test the theory.

“The House is definitely a younger body and more interested in social media,” said Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), 50, who started tweeting in January using the handle @DonMcEachinVA.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), 65, who frequently struggles with his state-issued iPad, chooses his words carefully and does not tweet. “People can dual-task better than I can,” he quipped.

Legislators acknowledge they might not be able to persuade anyone to change their mind on issues via Twitter, but they argue that the platform offers immediate information to colleagues, lobbyists and the public, and allows them to respond instantly.

McClellan said she received responses to her tweets from residents who never responded to more traditional methods like news releases or e-mails. That included a rape victim who had some opinions about abortion-related bills introduced this session.

“It’s sharing information in a faster way than ever before,’’ she said. “It is continuing the debate.”

On Jan. 13, the first Friday of the session, Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax), 45, a.k.a. @MarkKeam, did something no other delegate has ever done. He stood on the House floor and declared it “follow Friday.”

Sure, some delegates were scratching their heads. But others got it: Time to follow new legislators on Twitter.

“It’s being out there and being visible,” Keam said. “It’s rare for anyone to be convinced based on 140 characters — but it helps them be educated and engaged.”

 
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