Parties Focus on Control of Va. House

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009

The political geography of the Washington region for years offered a convenient, balanced shorthand for politics beyond the nation's capital: Maryland was solidly Democratic, Virginia reliably Republican.

But then Democrat James Webb took one of the Old Dominion's Senate seats in 2006, Democrats grabbed a majority of the state Senate in 2007, and in November, President Obama became the first Democrat to carry the state in 44 years.

That robbed the GOP of its trusty base just across the Potomac and left it in control of only one chamber in Richmond: the House of Delegates. It's an august and boisterous institution once graced by James Madison, and home to characters who have been known to slide toward extremes to make a political point that might echo on the national scene. A former delegate once passed out little pink plastic fetuses to colleagues to open their eyes on the abortion issue.

On Tuesday, primaries are scheduled in 12 of the 100 House districts in the commonwealth, including four in Northern Virginia: two in Fairfax County and one each in Arlington and Prince William counties.

Across the state, voters and party leaders are hunting for candidates best positioned to flip the House to the Democrats or keep it in Republican hands in November. It is part of a broader bid by the two parties to grab greater power in Richmond, which could affect everything from snarled Washington area commutes to national debates on labor and energy policy.

On one key statewide issue, transportation, control of the House could determine whether taxes are raised next year to pay for long-needed improvements. At an appearance last week, Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer, a Democratic appointee, directed a pre-election barb at those in Richmond he blames for blocking progress on roads and transit.

"We should recognize cowardice and call it out," Homer told a business and transportation group. Afterward, Homer declined to name his cowards, but the group's president pointed to the GOP leadership in the House, whose members blocked tax increases for transportation this year. Republicans said that there is nothing cowardly about protecting pocketbooks and that they offer alternatives.

"We can't be adding tax burdens when we are in a recession," said Barbara Comstock, a GOP candidate for the House of Delegates and a Beltway insider who worked on Mitt Romney's presidential bid and is now fighting union-backed legislation in Congress to overhaul organizing rules. She was in Homer's audience, seeking to build support for her bid to represent McLean. She wants to keep Virginia taxes and union membership low and supports opening the state to oil and gas drilling and tapping the funds to build new roads.

"States are the laboratories of democracy," Comstock said.

Tuesday's races are playing out on streets dotted with foreclosed homes in communities such as Dumfries, where a pastor who started his work as a youth sports organizer in the District is running for the Democratic nomination against a retired Marine and Secret Service agent who protected several presidents.

Much of the Democratic establishment has lined up behind the pastor, Luke E. Torian, who has a dramatic fundraising advantage over Michael A. Hodge. The Democrats need six more seats to take the House and see a chance to pick one up in the 52nd District, home of the former state GOP chief, Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick.

Northern Virginia is key, particularly its western suburbs such as Prince William and Loudoun.

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