Looming Election May Bring Back That Old-Time Civility
Thursday, January 4, 2007
Virginia's 2007 General Assembly session begins Wednesday, and there is a glimmer of hope for a less bitter, more statesmanlike tone.
Politicians here used to talk about the Virginia Way, a term that described a courtly, genial behavior to which most everyone abided. It meant keeping the state's interests first. It meant fighting over a bill and then gathering at the Shoes bar for an evening of stories and laughs.
The Virginia Way was exemplified byHarry J. Parrish(R-Manassas), the House finance chairman who died last year. His white hair and deep wrinkles conveyed wisdom, and his smile suggested that compromise was never far off.
There was very little about 2006 that followed the Virginia Way.
Gov.Timothy M. Kaine(D) and the Republican-led House of Delegates were at odds from the beginning. And not in a we-fight-but-we're-friends way of which Parrish might have approved.
It was a bitter, angry kind of disagreement. You could see the anger in Kaine's eyes the day the House turned down the nomination of one of his best friends,Daniel G. LeBlanc, for secretary of the commonwealth. Kaine says he was not threatening Republicans when he said they would regret the decision. But looking in his eyes that day, it was hard to see anything but fury.
The nastiness also bubbled over when it came to the relationship between House and Senate Republicans. The leaders in the two chambers have disagreed about the best way to guide Virginia almost since they took control in 2000. But rarely has it been so personal.
They called each other names. They mocked each other. Whatever disgust they felt for their counterparts was hidden no more as they battled once again over tax increases. And afterward, there was no Shoes bar where they all went to relax together.
(House SpeakerWilliam J. Howell, a Republican from Stafford, had a cigar smoking suite at the Commonwealth Park hotel, but it was largely House Republicans, not senators, who attended.)
And unlike the Virginia Way of old -- when lawmakers came to Richmond for 45 or 60 days and then left -- the 2006 session dragged on. It ended just shy of a government shutdown, leaving lawmakers tired and angry. And then they came back for another week of the same at a special session in September.
So what provides hope that 2007 might be different? The elections.
Republicans are convinced that winning reelection in November will hinge on getting a serious, high-dollar transportation package through the legislature and signed by the governor.
Many of them -- especially those in Northern Virginia -- are desperate. And even those who are not at risk of defeat are nervous that voter anger over the transportation stalemate could rob the Republicans of their majority in one or both houses.
Attorney GeneralRobert F. McDonnelland several other high-profile Republicans outside the legislature are trying to broker some sort of rapprochement between the warring House and Senate leaders. U.S. Rep.Thomas M. Davis IIIand state GOP chairmanEd Gillespieare doing the same.
All are viewed with some suspicion. McDonnell says he is a neutral party, but he recently attended a fundraiser for the Virginia Conservative Action PAC, which is targeting moderate Republicans for defeat. Davis is seen as promoting ideas that will benefit his wife, an embattled state senator from Fairfax who needs to deliver transportation success to help win reelection. And many remember Gillespie's anti-tax rhetoric when he served as the Republican Party's national chairman.
But participants in a series of talks hosted separately by the three say there is a new sense of hope.
"I am optimistic in the sense that there is a concerted effort to collaborate to find some areas of agreement," saidThomas K. Norment Jr.(R-James City), a key Senate leader. "There is a very different tone from where we were. The tone, the demeanor, the substantive portion of these discussions has renewed my optimism."
Could it fall apart again? Absolutely. But if doesn't, 2007 could be remembered as the time when Virginia found the Virginia Way once again.