After bad fall, Democrats looking to bounce back

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 7, 2009

Still smarting from Tuesday's crushing defeat, Democrats in Virginia are charting a new path as Richmond's minority party.

Leading Democrats pledged this week to reach out to Republican Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell. They said that the serious economic problems facing the state demand bipartisan solutions, but they also said that pragmatic cooperation is the only way back into voters' good graces.

"We got walloped on Tuesday. You can't deny that," said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D), a former governor who had a lengthy conversation with McDonnell this week. "I will note he talked a lot about what he wants to do in the immediate term on jobs and economy. . . . Now it's time to check the D and R hats at the door, and it's time to work together."

Of immediate concern for Democrats in Richmond is maintaining their one-vote majority in the state Senate and deciding how to use their voice in the Senate to influence governing. They will face a governor with a mandate provided by a 17-point victory and a 100-member House of Delegates with a Republican caucus that can muster as many as 61 votes.

"I won't be like the House Republicans were, where anything they propose is bad," said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who like many Democrats says the GOP-led House obstructed the agenda of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). "If there are areas where we can work things out, I'm ready, willing and able, and so is my caucus."

A spokesman for McDonnell said he wants to work with the Democrat-controlled Senate.

"He will absolutely look for common ground," said spokesman Tucker Martin. "The foremost goal is the creation of jobs and getting our economy going. And there aren't Republican and Democratic jobs and schools and roads. There are just jobs and schools and roads."

But asked about certain key pieces of McDonnell's agenda, Saslaw demurred. Selling state-run liquor stores to raise money for transportation, for instance, would sacrifice the annual revenue the stores provide to schools and other purposes, Saslaw said. The Senate's education committee remains opposed to changing state laws to allow more charter schools, another McDonnell proposal, he said.

In the short term, Saslaw's challenge will be to hold his party's 21 seats. McDonnell might try to tip the balance of power in the Senate by luring a Democrat in a vulnerable district into his administration.

One key senator Friday did not rule out the possibility of accepting such an offer. Sen. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania) , a longtime school administrator who was considered for secretary of education under both Kaine and Warner, said he would be willing to discuss an administration job.

"I would certainly be willing to talk to the governor-elect and his staff about whatever they want to talk about," he said. "I'm not looking for that, I'm not seeking that, but I'm willing to talk to them about anything."

Democrats could secure their majority by winning either of two Republican-held Senate seats that will become open because of Tuesday's election results.

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