Virginia’s most recent unemployment was listed as an admirable 3.7 percent in September, according to the Virginia Employment Commission. That makes the state’s seasonally adjusted rate second only to Tennessee nationally.
If that figure is as strong as it seems, why is Virginia being painted as economically challenged in this year’s gubernatorial campaign, especially by Republican nominee Ed Gillespie? The Post asked that question in a recent article.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam, currently lieutenant governor, obviously is promoting the image of jobs success that Gov. Terry McAuliffe, his Democratic colleague, has been boosting since he’s been in office.
The conundrum is important for Gillespie, who is trying to maintain a contradictory image of good-guy GOP insider while tapping white working-class resentment that Donald Trump so cunningly used to get to the White House last year.
Making the state’s economy seem feeble is one tactic. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
One way to explain what is happening is to unpack the Old Dominion region by region. Many forget that it is a huge state whose southern border runs from the Atlantic Ocean to a point on the map farther west than Detroit. It is sort of like comparing rural Maine with the New York City suburbs.
Much of the employment success is in a crescent area from Northern Virginia to Richmond and on to the peninsula. Much of it has been fueled by federal spending and an increasingly diverse economic and population base. In September, employment in Virginia grew by 34,000 in total.
September figures show that Northern Virginia grew by 10,700 jobs compared to the same month in 2016. Some of that may be federal spending. Not far behind in jobs growth is Richmond, which added 10,500 jobs, mostly through the private sector that brought in new businesses such as real estate firm CoStar.
Not so in somewhat forgotten areas such as Danville and Martinsville, which are struggling to make comebacks after the demise of tobacco and furniture manufacturing a couple of decades ago. Ditto Southwest Virginia, where coal production took a nosedive around 1990 and never recovered, leaving local government coffers in need of tax revenue and young people on the move elsewhere.
A slew of articles and books, such as “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance, recently explored the mostly white residents’ resentment of their diminished means and future.
One problem is that the decline has been going on for years and is not the mistake of any particular party of governor. Rather, it’s globalization, exported jobs and normal domestic market changes all mixed together.
Other hidden trouble areas are some cities and inner suburbs that have special problems.
One is the Norfolk area, which, for decades, seemed unsinkable because of massive defense spending during the two world wars and the Cold War. But as military budgets have been cut and sequestration has threatened federal jobs, Norfolk is in a funk that it can’t seem to escape. According to state employment data for September, Hampton Roads lost 9,700 jobs.
Just last week, the Virginian-Pilot, the leading local newspaper, announced it was offering buyouts to 10 percent of its staff. Weak print advertising was the primary reason, but it has been the reason for years now. Since the mid-2000s, the Pilot has seen its once strong staff of 1,2000 cut in half.
Other pockets of concern are inner-ring suburbs around larger cities such as the District and Richmond.
In generally affluent Chesterfield County where I live, the far eastern parts of the county have seen a stream of immigrants coming in searching for lower-end jobs. That has county officials worried about how they will accommodate them fairly while saving the county tax base already out of balance because of too many residents and not enough industry.
Dynamics such as these are beyond the control of either Gillespie or Northam. Generally, the larger cities and some, but hardly all, affluent suburbs will vote blue, and the distressed areas will vote red. That might seem off historically, but that’s the way it is.
What’s unfortunate is that neither candidate has a bold plan to deal with these forces, even if they are beyond a governor’s control.
Both candidates call for more jobs, but that’s been tried before. In Southwest, one can’t keep building call centers as the Trump administration cuts support groups such as the Appalachian Regional Commission. Except in rare circumstances, furniture isn’t coming back in a big way. Forget about tobacco.
Right now, the numbers look good in Virginia – but whether that matters depends on where you are. Some areas of Virginia are struggling, and their needs have to be addressed.