Richmond political culture turns nastier

Robert McCartney
Columnist March 14, 2012

The Virginia Senate responded with a rare standing ovation last week when Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), the longest-serving member in the body’s history, delivered a passionate speech urging a return to the traditions of civility and bipartisan compromise that he so valued from the past.

“At the present time, there is a ravine represented by this aisle. If we are not careful, we are going to make that ravine so wide that we are not going to be able to cross it,” the widely respected legislator said.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Unfortunately, even though the senators clapped for Colgan, there’s little reason to believe they will do as he asked.

Republicans and Democrats agree that the political culture in Richmond this year turned significantly harder and nastier. It’s difficult to see how to reverse the tides of stubbornness and mutual animosity.

“You’re not going to get it back the way it was,” Colgan, 85, said in an interview Monday in Manassas. Although partisanship has always been there, he said, the rhetorical attacks this year were “much more personal and much more frequent than they’d been in the past.”

Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), agreed.

“In my 21 years, it is far and away the most disappointing session that I have participated in,” Norment said in a phone interview. He placed much of the blame on egotistical individuals who put their ambition or personal agendas ahead of the good of the Commonwealth.

“I don’t think the institution has changed. I think some of the personalities have changed,” Norment said. “There is an increased intolerance on ideological perspectives. I think there is a declining willingness to compromise, on both sides, even on some less significant issues.”

This is quite a substantial departure. Virginia politicians have long prided themselves on being cordial and open to reason. This was the “Virginia Way,” which prevailed in “Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol.”

It seems that not even courtly, cavalier Virginia can resist the trend toward aggravated partisanship seen elsewhere in American politics and government.

“I think what’s going on in Washington is setting a bad example for the legislature,” Colgan said.

Causes include gerrymandering that creates ideologically pure districts, less enforcement of party discipline and a 24-hour news cycle that rewards the negative.

Norment put much of the responsibility on the shrinking political center. Noting that both he and Colgan are moderate swing voters within their parties, he said: “They ought to put us on the endangered species list.”

The divisiveness was especially evident in the evenly divided Senate, where each party holds 20 seats. Stakes were lower in the House of Delegates, where the GOP has an overwhelming majority.

Colgan said both parties were at fault, although he laid the blame “primarily” with the GOP. Norment criticized some Democrats but added, “Our guys are just as bad.”

The General Assembly adjourned Saturday but must return for a special session later this month because it couldn’t agree on a budget.

The new tendency began to stir during last fall’s legislative campaigns. Both Democrats and Republicans felt the other side was unusually negative.

Then each side took its turn feeling aggrieved during the session. Democrats were furious at the assembly’s opening when the GOP used Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s tie-breaking vote in the Senate to stack committees in the Republicans’ favor. The GOP was enraged at the end when Democrats sought to extract better committee assignments by holding up the budget.

Feelings were inflamed by the emotionally charged debate over the GOP-backed bill, now law, requiring ultrasounds before abortions. The sense of heightening confrontation climaxed when 31 abortion rights advocates opposed to the bill were arrested on the steps of the Capitol in the first such mass arrest in decades.

Colgan was motivated to give his speech by what he saw as a pattern of aggressive, individual criticisms of Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and other Democratic leaders.

“Each day, two or three Republicans would stand up and complain,” Colgan said. By contrast, he said, when he came to the Senate 37 years ago, the rule was no personal attacks.

“We used to pride ourselves on being gentlemen,” Colgan said. (He added quickly that the lack of gender diversity in those days was a serious shortcoming.)

I can’t fault either side for arguing strongly for their positions. But they should keep it about the issues, instead of personalities. And remember that the checks and balances bequeathed to us by Jefferson, Madison and Co. were devised in part to produce compromises.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). To read my previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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