Va. Lawmakers Heed Suburbia's Wake-Up Call

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), discussing his transportation plan this month, was elected with a platform that targeted several suburban areas. His success in those regions is reflected in the current General Assembly session.
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), discussing his transportation plan this month, was elected with a platform that targeted several suburban areas. His success in those regions is reflected in the current General Assembly session. (By Stephen M. Katz -- The Virginian-pilot Via Associated Press)

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By Michael D. Shear and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 26, 2006

RICHMOND -- Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) won election by targeting a battleground of seven suburban communities, and the effects of that successful strategy are now being felt as lawmakers in both parties display a new, suburban sensibility.

Transportation, growth, secondhand smoke and immigration -- all issues that resonate in bedroom communities -- have become a central part of the debate in the 2006 General Assembly session.

"Each party, every so often, rediscovers the reality in competitive Virginia politics that, in addition to appealing to their partisan base, they need to project a problem-solving appeal to the swing voters in suburban areas," said Frank Atkinson, an adviser to Republican governors and the author of a political history of Virginia.

Nowhere is the focus on suburbia more evident than in the contentious debate over how to get commuters out of the traffic-clogged roads in Northern Virginia and Tidewater.

Several years ago, rural lawmakers had to be cajoled into letting suburban regions vote on a sales tax for their own road projects. Now, Kaine and legislators in both chambers are practically tripping over each other in a race to see who can provide more money for transportation to those same areas.

"House Republicans are able to make real progress and deliver actual results on high-impact projects in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and throughout Virginia without raising taxes," House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) told reporters.

Since his election, Kaine has held town-hall meetings to promote his plan to raise $1 billion for projects across the state.

"Our families in Northern Virginia are angry about the traffic gridlock that stops them from living a normal life," he said in his first major speech to lawmakers Jan. 16.

Senate leaders have also proposed a plan they say will address what they call a transportation crisis in those regions. The plan would spend about $800 million to build and expand highways for the two regions by 2010.

The attention to the suburbs is welcomed by some Republicans, who said their party's failure to address suburban concerns contributed to losses on Election Day last year and in several special elections since then.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling said he and other Republicans learned a valuable lesson from the last election: Suburban voters want to hear less about bedroom issues and more about education, health care, transportation and gangs.

"Let's face it: If you are in Northern Virginia running a campaign based 100 percent on the social agenda, you are probably not going to do very well," Bolling said. "You have to be talking about issues that people care about. And I think they care a whole lot more about some other things."


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