Tensions Could Hurt Majority in Va. Senate

Rural Democrats Fear They'll Be Swept Aside

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007; Page B01

RICHMOND -- The power shift in the state Senate to Democrats from suburban and urban areas is causing tension with their rural colleagues and raising fresh questions about the party's health in south-central and southwestern Virginia.

When the Senate convenes in January, Democrats will take over from Republicans for the first time since the 1990s. The new majority will set a milestone in Virginia politics, installing women, minorities and men from the suburbs in all committee chairmanships.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said the changes could mean more money for projects in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, the economic engines of the state.

But as Democrats from those areas exert growing influence, some party leaders fear the rural Democrats who dominated state politics for more than a century could be pushed aside.

"I think there is already some tension," said Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell), who represents coal country in southwestern Virginia. "I have just asked for some fairness. I understand the seniority system, but at the same time, rural Democratic legislators are concerned."

Virginia Democrats might experience some of the rifts between suburban and rural interests that have hampered Republicans for years. With a 21 to 19 majority in the Senate, Democrats have little room for dissent if they want to pass bills.

Saslaw acknowledges that the party is facing growing pains after picking up the four seats needed to retake the Senate last month. But he says Democrats have long heard complaints from Northern Virginians that too much power was concentrated in rural areas.

Republicans sense an opportunity to build strength in rural parts of the state, cementing their status as the firewall for GOP candidates in statewide elections.

"They named their committee chairs and made a big point of them being from Northern Virginia and many being minority," said Virginia GOP Chairman John H. Hager. "If they rub that in too much, there might be some people who have a little reaction to that."

Although the rise of Democrats in Virginia reflects their success in rapidly growing and diversifying Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the party has struggled to make gains in more rural areas.

Despite spending major money in legislative races, Democrats failed to pick up rural House or Senate seats this year.

Hager said Virginia is now "a red state and a blue state all in one state." He added: "We will be very strong in the rural areas for a long time. It's the NASCAR crowd. It's our crowd."

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