Tuesday's losses in the state legislative elections have left Virginia's Democratic Party smaller and weaker but not ready to abandon its core issues or its opposition role to the growing power of Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III, Democratic lawmakers said today.
Democrats are still smarting, digesting the defeat in dozens of phone calls across the state. The party had been losing ground to the Republicans in the General Assembly for more than two decades, even before Tuesday's voting cost Democrats their majority in the House of Delegates.
But in interviews, lawmakers pledge to battle on for the proposals that they took into the election campaign: to build more roads, rid schools of trailers and eliminate the sales tax on food. They say they are eager to revitalize their ranks with youthful energy. And, as members of the new minority party in state government, they are extolling the possibilities of bipartisanship.
Democrats said they are eager for the chance to push important issues without the rigidly partisan constraints of the past two sessions, when the two parties were deadlocked in a struggle for control of the House of Delegates.
Among those saying he hopes for less partisanship is the Democrats' new young star of the moment, Albert Pollard Jr., 31, who through hard work and effective campaigning won a delegate's seat in the largely Republican Northern Neck. Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said that for Democrats to rebound, "we've got to go out and find ourselves a dozen more Albert Pollards."
But Pollard said that to thrive, the party needs to focus instead on issues.
"What it takes is a commitment to policy over politics, and I'm not sure that's always been the Democratic Party's commitment," he said. "Twenty years from now, if a kid has a smaller class, is he going to know if it was a Democrat or a Republican who got it?"
Such talk may have been heresy in years past. But Democrats are down to 47 votes in the 100-member House of Delegates and were unable to improve on the 21-to-19 Republican edge in the state Senate.
In the past decade, Virginia Democrats have lost the House, the Senate, the governorship, the lieutenant governorship and the attorney general's office. Their last statewide officeholder, U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb (D), is trailing in the polls against a Republican challenge by George Allen, the popular former governor.
Coalition-building now looks a lot more appealing to Democrats. It's a skill that Northern Virginia lawmakers know something about; they are the envy of the state for their bloc voting on issues of regional importance. "It's not that foreign to us," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria).
But he acknowledged that his party had less need for legislative cooperation before Tuesday's elections.
"It is ironic that Democrats are now saying we're all for bipartisanship now," he said.
Democrats particularly covet the small group of moderate Republicans, including Del. James H. Dillard II (Fairfax), who traditionally have been willing to buck Gilmore and Allen on proposals they considered too conservative.
The danger for Democrats, they acknowledge, is that bipartisanship works both ways. Gilmore may have better luck winning the support of individual Democratic lawmakers on his initiatives if party unity is no longer paramount among Democrats.
"Gilmore doesn't have to rely on Republican unity to have a ruling majority on most issues," said political science professor Robert D. Holsworth of Virginia Commonwealth University.
But many lawmakers note that Republicans and Democrats sounded much alike on the campaign trail this year. Virtually every candidate in Northern Virginia, for example, talked about building more classrooms so that schools no longer need trailers.
Increased transportation spending topped the agenda of nearly every Northern Virginia candidate as well--and many others across the state. Both parties have also embraced reducing the sales tax on food, though debate remains on how quickly and how much to cut.
"I think we're still going to push the agenda of alleviating gridlock, getting kids out of trailers, and gun safety. And I think there's enough moderate [Republican] voices to get that done," said state Sen.-elect Leslie L. Byrne, a Fairfax Democrat.
House Democratic Leader C. Richard Cranwell (Roanoke) said today he favors dedicating the corporate income tax to transportation in hopes of borrowing $3 billion or more to add to the $2.5 billion package of new spending proposed so far by Gilmore.
The transportation proposal, Cranwell hopes, will have appeal across both regional and partisan lines.
"A lot of people from Southwest and Southside Virginia are going to want to increase the [transportation] pot," Cranwell said. "We've got critical transportation needs all over the state."
Democrats also intend to push to permanently dedicate the state's lottery revenue to education. That was done on a temporary basis during this year's session at Gilmore's urging, but a permanent allocation would allow school districts to borrow against the money. Both Republicans and Democrats campaigned on that issue in the months leading up to the elections.
The partisanship on that issue could hinge on whether the lottery money is restricted to construction, renovation and computers, or is sent to local school systems without restrictions. Democrats and Republicans wrangled over that issue in the last session, with the Democrats favoring the restrictions.
Some Democrats say such partisan efforts are no longer practical.
Del. Barnie K. Day (Patrick) said that Democrats must now "crawl. We go hat in hand. We act courteously. We fetch coffee. We do whatever it takes to push some issues. Politics is out for us."