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.”