Virginia General Assembly displays state’s exceptionalism and its exceptional weirdness


The Virginia capitol building is seen at night on Jan. 9 in Richmond. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

Virginia’s General Assembly doesn’t play for laughs during its annual legislative session.

Perhaps it just seems that way sometimes.

For writers at Comedy Central and “Saturday Night Live,” the Western Hemisphere’s longest continuously operating democratic body looks at times like one of the longest-running sitcoms. But why the legislature gets so much attention may say as much about the commonwealth’s unusual history as it does its culture and the political climate well beyond its borders.

In recent years, talk show hosts and others have held up the General Assembly as a national laughingstock for considering measures that would outlaw vulgar truck ornaments and droopy drawers, prohibit implanting “Mark of the Beast” microchips and confer lifetime hunting licenses on infants. Lawmakers also have tried to order women to undergo invasive ultrasounds before abortions. More recently, the GOP sprung a redistricting plan on Democrats while one of their senators, who happens to be a Virginia civil rights icon, was attending President Obama’s inauguration.

“Here we are again — fodder for Stephen Colbert’s show and Rachel Maddow’s news commentary,” Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax) fumed in a newsletter to constituents. “I fear that the bright light of ridicule from the national media routinely shines on Virginia, yet that doesn’t bring reason to the General Assembly.”

And yet somebody must be doing something right in the commonwealth. Polls suggest that Virginians remain pleased with Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and supportive of the state’s general direction. The increasingly diverse state ranks among the top places to do business, and three of its suburban Washington counties — Loudoun, Fairfax and Arlington — placed first, second and third, respectively, among the nation’s wealthiest.

Virginia is seldom in the headlines for the sort of political corruption that seems like an intramural sport in New Jersey, Illinois or the District of Columbia. And, to be fair, it was a Maryland lawmaker who sought to ban “anatomically correct” vehicle ornaments before Virginia Del. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake) introduced his bill a few years ago to keep the state’s roads safe from the display of fake testicles.

“It’s not just one side that puts in wacky bills,” said Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Mount Vernon).

There are probably as many theories as lawmakers about why Virginia stands out in ways that delight stand-up comics and students of political science.

Quentin Kidd, a government professor at Christopher Newport University, said a strong current of Virginia exceptionalism courses through the assembly. Tracing its roots to the House of Burgesses in Jamestown in 1619, the legislature prides itself as the cradle of American democracy. Lawmakers know they carry on the work of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other Virginians who created the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and they believe they know what they’re doing.

But Virginia is also the place where African American slaves first arrived, also in 1619, and the ugly legacy of Jim Crow found defenders well into the 20th century, and some say that what sometimes seemed exceptional about Virginia was just plain wrong. “There’s an ingrained culture that the way Virginia does things is important in itself, and we’ve set the tone, and we’ve set the precedent,” Kidd said. “We’ve created a living monument to it in Williamsburg, and we’re still stung by the slavery part of it.”

Others suggest that a rebellious spirit is as much a part of the Virginia legislature as the marble tablet above the House speaker’s podium honoring Nathaniel Bacon, who led a 17th-century uprising against high-handed British rule before Patrick Henry was even born.

Of course, Virginia’s rebellious streak has sometimes miscarried to extremes. Down the street from the Capitol is the White House where Jefferson Davis lived when Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. More than a few lawmakers serving today grew up when the state — urged on by the late Harry F. Byrd Sr., the former governor and U.S. senator — rose up in Massive Resistance against integrating its schools.

Bob Gibson, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, said Virginia’s sense of defiant independence still sends the state zigging when the rest of the nation, or at least the nation’s capital, is zagging. That may explain why in every gubernatorial election since 1977, Virginia has elected a Republican when there’s a Democrat in the White House, and vice versa. Or why Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) raced to the courthouse to challenge the federal health-care overhaul.

“There’s always been a counterbalance to Washington in Virginia,” Gibson said. He said the flood of money and sophisticated redistricting has also contributed to an atmosphere where extremism rules.

Others point to the legislature’s status as a part-time job to explain why so many odd or audacious bills come forward. There are plenty of lawyers but also doctors, pharmacists, teachers, farmers and engineers. And they reflect the people who sent them here with their pet peeves or pet projects that find their way into the 2,272 bills and resolutions filed this year.

These citizen lawmakers include Del. Anne B. Crockett-Stark (R-Wythe), who brought down the house two years ago with her tale of an armed 82-year-old woman who asked her intruder if he wanted to dine with the Devil. The idea of legalizing marijuana has caught on in some states, but few in Virginia expected former Republican delegate Harvey B. Morgan — a grandfatherly, bespectacled, bow-tie-wearing pharmacist from Gloucester County — to be the guy pushing for it. Perhaps no one lands in the spotlight as much as Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William).

“Bob Marshall is kind of a free agent and doesn’t take orders from anybody,” Surovell said. “He likes rolling hand grenades down the aisle.”

In recent years, Marshall — or “Sideshow Bob,” as detractors call him — has put forth bills reflecting his opposition to abortion and gay rights and his suspicions of the federal government. This year, he has proposed that Virginia look into the feasibility of minting its own currency and that the state be prohibited from cooperating with federal authorities on new gun-control measures — bills that he said are driven by principle and that his critics, including members of his own party, said are driving them crazy.

“Virginia has always been a standout state,” Marshall said. “We were the critical state for the formation of the Union. Maybe there is something in the water, in our blood. I don’t know, but it’s been there, and I don’t think you’re going to erase that.”

Virginia’s constitution even enshrines a parliamentary rule that allows bills to land on the floor of each chamber despite efforts to bottle them up in committee.

And they are heard in debates that, especially in the House, can be freewheeling and raucous. Lawmakers whistle in mock amazement when speakers score debate points. They wave white floor calendars as a sign of surrender when speeches run on too long. Bills dealing with farm animals rise or fall in a cacophony of moos, clucks and other barnyard noises. “It’s kind of a funny place,” said Kris Amundson, a former Democratic delegate from Fairfax.

Perhaps the most popular theory is that Virginia’s obsessions and preoccupations resonate across the United States because the state resembles the nation in miniature. Issues pour into Richmond from inner cities and farms, from suburbia and Appalachia, from deep water ports in Tidewater and data centers in Northern Virginia, carried along by people who share the same passions as the people who sent them.

“We go through this every session: ‘Oh my God, who would put in that bill?’ ” said Senate Republican Caucus spokesman Jeff Ryer. “At our core, we are a citizen legislature.”

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