For Virginians, history was made on Nov. 2, Election Day. For the first time in more than 100 years, Republicans now control the three statewide offices and both houses of the General Assembly. But will the Republican takeover in Virginia make a difference?
For all its recent dominance by Democrats, Virginia has a well-deserved reputation for being conservative. Under Democrats, the state achieved one of the five lowest tax burdens compared with income in the country. It is one of only five states with a AAA bond rating, and under Democratic leadership it was named the best financially managed state in the union.
Republican complaints focused most often on the way Democrats did business rather than on the substance of many issues. One common complaint was about how the Democrats would vote in lockstep for the speaker of the House or for judicial candidates. Ironically, the Republican caucus selected a speaker -- Vance Wilkins -- even before the opening of the legislative session, using the same closed, binding caucus method about which Republicans had complained. So it appears that Virginia is working in the same old way under a different political party.
History still could be made, however, by opening the process, loosening the binds of the caucus and allowing multiple candidates for speaker. That way the best candidate could be elected on the basis of leadership and legislative skills.
History also could be made through the adoption of one of several proposals to select judges based on merit and through turning over reapportionment to a commission for a nonpartisan drawing of election districts. Passing laws for campaign finance reform would keep Virginia from becoming home to dozens of national political action committees.
But beyond reforming the legislative process, Virginia legislators, blessed with a booming economy, have an opportunity to get the state's priorities in order by improving transportation and replacing the thousands of trailers behind Virginia schools with classrooms. They could reduce college tuition fees, among the highest in the country, by voting to increase funding for colleges and universities, which is now among the lowest in the country. The GOP could be instrumental in the state's seeking federal legislation to control the flow of out-of-state trash and in passing its own laws to regulate the draining of nontidal wetlands.
The election results brought a responsibility shift as well as a power shift. Republicans will no longer be able to blame the Democrats for any lack of institutional reform or waffling on tough issues facing the commonwealth.
The power of governance is in the hands of the Republicans, but they must resist the attempts by some in their party to divert attention to a narrow social agenda of school vouchers, abortion restrictions, loosened gun controls and the elimination of necessary programs.
Together, legislators from both parties can move Virginia into the new century with significant legislative reform and with responsiveness to issues that continue to await solutions.
-- Kenneth R. Plum
the Democratic state party chairman, represents Fairfax in the Virginia House of Delegates.