John F. Seymour is a longtime resident of Arlington.
The gulf between the policies enacted by a predominantly rural, conservative Republican statehouse in Richmond and those supported by progressive Democratic urban centers is wide. Republican legislators have proved themselves quite adept at exploiting two powerful tools to maintain or broaden that gulf: state preemption of local laws and the strict construction of the Dillon Rule, the principle that localities have only those powers granted by the state.
Both tools are nominally nonpartisan, intended to establish the primacy of state law and promote uniformity across jurisdictions, improve understanding of legal requirements and ensure consistency and fairness in their application. Lately, though, those tools have been used as pure instruments of power to promote an ideological agenda for conservative rural Virginia that is largely, if not entirely, out of step with that of urban Virginians.
Among the more divisive issues in Virginia today is the movement, championed principally by socially progressive and racially diverse urban centers, to reduce racial tensions by removing symbols of white supremacy, particularly Civil War memorials and street names honoring Southern “heroes.” Pursuant to the Dillon Rule and overriding state law, however, localities have very limited power to remove a war memorial or to change a street name, despite the tensions their presence creates in their communities. Virginia has zealously protected its right to name primary roads, and the General Assembly has shown no interest in Arlington County’s desire to rename Jefferson Davis Highway.
Similar restrictions apply to city and county efforts to provide a living wage to urban workers. There, too, Virginia law is exclusive, though progressive Arlington legislators continue to introduce legislation to promote a “local alternative minimum wage” more appropriate for low-wage workers in expensive Northern Virginia. These bills have fared poorly in Richmond, however. And representatives of Arlington have learned to tread gently, because social and fiscal conservatives have not been hesitant to introduce their own “living wage” preemption bills that would prohibit localities from adopting laws or policies that would require an employer to pay a wage that exceeds the state minimum. In 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed H.B. 1371, which would have preempted local laws requiring a higher wage.
Virginia’s broad firearms preemption statute has been a particularly sharp thorn in Arlington’s side over the past several years. Legislators have found it impossible to respond to their constituents’ pleas for local ordinances regulating the location or security of gun shops or to place reasonable limits on the open carry of firearms. The unsuccessful community opposition to the permitting of a gun store in Arlington’s Lyon Park neighborhood in 2016 led the Arlington County Board to publicly deplore its lack of authority over guns and ask the public’s forbearance. Outrage over a condominium resident’s insistence on openly carrying his pistol during tense condominium association meetings in Virginia Square is only the most recent manifestation of the impotence of local legislators and law-enforcement officers in gun issues. The meetings were relocated to a high school — a setting where (at least for now) the open carrying of firearms is unlawful.
Following the detailed preemption guidance provided by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, local governments are even beginning to see a kind of “anticipatory preemption” of local policy initiatives. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) vetoed a bill that would have preempted Virginia cities and counties from establishing “sanctuary cities,” even though no city or county had announced, sought or even proposed such status.
There is no reason to believe the distance between Richmond and Arlington — about 100 miles as the crow flies but vastly more distant in worldview — will diminish anytime soon. The Dillon Rule and preemption obstacles will continue to be raised in opposition to the most mundane county proposals (a tax on plastic bags and plastic bottles, a more effective tree-preservation ordinance, proposals to discourage or prohibit single-use foam containers) and the most pressing (permission to enact inclusionary zoning ordinances to promote affordable housing, protection of LGBT rights, proposals for employee sick leave, ordinances to restrict predatory lending, among a host of others).
The old purposes underlying preemption and Dillon Rule enforcement — uniformity, consistency, clarity — seem now much beside the point. Preemption and the Dillon Rule are simply tools by representatives of rural conservatives to strip urban centers of power. They put a lie to one of the oldest founding principles of conservatism: that government priorities are best identified and carried out at the lowest level of government, where the people reside. Instead, preemption and the Dillon Rule in Virginia are used to promote the interests of those living far from urban settings and whose fascination with guns, property rights and the interests of business owners continues to puzzle and dismay those in metropolitan areas of the state.