By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
RICHMOND, July 8 -- Virginia legislators will return to the state Capitol on Wednesday for a last-ditch effort at finding a solution to fund transportation projects, but few officials expect an agreement, heightening a political rift between traffic-choked Northern Virginia and the rest of the state.
Politics and transportation have long been a volatile mix in elections across the Washington region, and this year's stalemate over taxes is at the forefront of Democrats' efforts to make inroads in the traditionally conservative state.
Since 2000, political analysts and Democratic strategists say, there has been a direct correlation between the worsening traffic in Northern Virginia, the debate over what to do about it in Richmond and the decline of the GOP in that part of the state.
"If you look at the gains Democrats have made in Northern Virginia . . . there is a lot of stuff in that powder keg, but transportation is what lit the fuse," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald. E. Connolly, the Democratic nominee for Congress in the 11th District. "It is the premier symbol of everything that is wrong with the Republican power structure."
In recent years, many Virginia Democrats have been pushing to raise taxes to pay for more roads and maintain the old ones. Some moderate Republicans have joined in the effort. But conservatives from other parts of the state, who control the House of Delegates, have hesitated, citing their party's core principle of looking for savings before asking taxpayers to dig deeper into their pockets.
"I think there is a disconnect between Gerry Connolly and [Democrats] and their citizens," said Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), the House majority whip. "They have become a little bit arrogant and think they are bulletproof. . . . They have a one-note solution -- taxes -- and I don't think the man on the street wants them."
The debate will occur again Wednesday in Richmond when the House considers a Senate plan to raise taxes statewide and additionally in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia to pay for transportation upgrades. House Republicans want only regional plans.
Some political analysts believe the outcome of the debate could hold far-reaching consequences for the Virginia GOP, including helping Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Obama will campaign in Fairfax County Thursday.
"There is a ripple effect," said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University. "If you are looking at a still pond and transportation is a pebble, . . . it ripples across all these races."
Since 2002, when legislators in Richmond began the most recent talks about raising money for transportation, Republicans have lost six House seats in Fairfax County. Today, there are only three GOP delegates from Fairfax, all of whom are expected to be fighting for their political survival in the 2009 elections. The GOP had four senators from Fairfax in 2004, but today Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II is the only Republican senator from the county.
Republicans have also lost statewide elections in Northern Virginia over the same time period.
In 2001, Mark R. Warner, now a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, won the three congressional districts in Northern Virginia by about 43,000 votes. Four years later, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) won those same districts by 105,000 votes. In 2006, Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) won them by about 113,000 votes.
The Democratic trends of Northern Virginia can be attributed to numerous factors, including President Bush's low approval ratings, the war in Iraq and a rapidly diversifying electorate.
But Robert E. Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, said traffic has come to symbolize how Northern Virginians feel they are being treated by the rest of the state, which they view as largely controlled by Republicans.
"Suburban voters in Washington already fit the demographic Republicans are having trouble with nationally: ethnically diverse, and whites with advanced degrees," Lang said. "You throw in some local issues like traffic that also bother people, and it is a fairly explosive dynamic."
Although Virginia has traditionally been a low-tax state, Lang said average suburban voters populating places such as Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax counties are willing to pay higher taxes if they believe the money is being put to good use.
But some Virginia Republicans argue that the Democratic trends in Northern Virginia, and to a lesser extent in Hampton Roads, have little to do with transportation. They point out that a 2002 referendum to raise taxes and fees to pay for road and rail projects failed in the two regions.
"Republicans in Northern Virginia are going to get slammed no matter what they say," said former state senator James K. "Jay" O'Brien, a Republican who lost his Fairfax seat last year to Sen. George Barker (D), who campaigned on the issue of transportation. "The influx of New Englanders and other folks into a county like Fairfax may now be such that, no matter what happens, the public is still going to vote Democratic. The only question is the choice of Democrat."
But some Democrats -- and even some Republicans -- believe that the GOP leadership has all but given up on Northern Virginia as unessential to the long-term health of the state party. Democrats are six seats shy of a House majority, meaning all three GOP delegates from Fairfax could lose next year and the party would still maintain the majority.
"They say we don't need these people from Northern Virginia," said former Republican delegate Vincent F. Callahan of Fairfax, who expects the GOP to become the minority party in Virginia within six years.
House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) thinks Callahan is wrong, but he said the GOP can offset potential losses in Northern Virginia with gains in other parts of the state more averse to taxes.
"If [transportation] is the Democrats' wedge issue to take control, I think they made a miscalculation," Griffith said.
Even if the GOP majority in the House is secure, many analysts believe the ongoing debate over transportation threatens Republican candidates in statewide races for years to come -- considering the growing population of Northern Virginia -- regardless of whether lawmakers agree on a bill this year.
"The Republicans have become associated in some voters' minds with a lack of action, and it takes a while to dig yourself out of that," Lang said.