RICHMOND — Jay DeBoer remembers feeling physically sick at the ugly spectacle in the House of Delegates, the angry chaos of members shouting and pounding on desks.
Dave Albo thinks about the young page, a middle-schooler, breaking down in tears amid the furor. It struck the delegate as a scene from a developing country, not the august Virginia chamber that bills itself as the oldest lawmaking body in the New World.
So, no, the last time Virginia’s House was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, it didn’t get off to a very good start.
That was 1998, and all kinds of things were breaking — the sense of decorum, but also more than 110 years of single-party control by Democrats. The painful spasm at the beginning of that year’s General Assembly session, as Democrats faced sharing power for the first time, cleared the way for Republicans to take over two years later and build a juggernaut of their own.
Which lasted until approximately now.
The House of Delegates is once again on the verge of parity, though its exact division remains unclear. The drama around a recount in a Newport News delegate race is supposed to resolve this week, when officials will pick the winner in a random drawing Wednesday that could leave the House at 50-50 or Republicans with a 51-49 advantage. Beyond that, Democrats are challenging one more election in federal court, so the final balance might not be known before the General Assembly session starts on Jan. 10.
That means the parties have to come up with some way to govern together, either actual power-sharing or an approach that recognizes that one side is no longer in total control.
Savor the situation: A national climate of hyperpartisanship led to a Democratic surge in the November elections, destroying the Republican order in Virginia’s legislature. But now the only way lawmakers can get anything done is through close cooperation.
“It is ironic,” said House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville), who had to be persuaded not to step down from leadership two years ago but now harbors at least a slim hope of winding up as speaker of the House.
“We have a very toxic political atmosphere out there right now, and yet throughout it all, we have a chance to do something very special in Virginia, and that is to come up with a way of operating our General Assembly that’s quite different than in Washington and a lot of the rest of the country,” he said. “It remains to be seen whether we can do it, but we do have a history in Virginia of working in a bipartisan way to get things done.”
There are, in fact, several policy areas where the parties are not that far apart and could make progress in the upcoming session.
But the Republican posture is hard to read. When it briefly looked as though that Newport News recount was going to produce a 50-50 House split, the GOP leadership displayed equanimity in a statement pledging to “establish a bipartisan framework under which the House can operate efficiently and effectively over the next two years.”
But what happens if Republicans hang on to a 51-49 advantage? On that, the party’s leadership has stayed mum. Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who was in line to be speaker before all the uncertainty, declined to comment for this story.
The Republicans had a 66-34 edge before the elections, and they aren’t going to let the hard-won advantages of power slip away easily. Control of the House affects which bills get taken up and which ones disappear.
Cox has signaled, though, that he recognizes the need to steer his party toward the middle on some issues. He announced that if he becomes speaker, he will offer paid parental leave for all House employees and support the same for all state employees.
There are several other major policy areas where Republicans and Democrats could find common ground if they can avoid partisan distractions. First up is Medicaid expansion, something outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe has watched the Republican-controlled legislature deny all four years of his term.
Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, a Democrat who spent six years in the state Senate before becoming lieutenant governor, recently suggested that Medicaid expansion could be done in tandem with cost-cutting reforms.
Some fellow Democrats criticized that position, but Republican leaders praised Northam’s comments, leaving the door to expansion ajar in a way it has not been before.
Both parties also overlap on several areas of criminal justice policy, such as increasing the dollar threshold for what constitutes a felony and some form of marijuana decriminalization. Both sides have said that boosting education funding is a priority.
But whether they can work together, or even agree on how to organize the operation of the House itself, remains up in the air. Much depends on the tone set by both sides in the next couple of weeks.
The random drawing to settle the race for Newport News delegate could turn ugly if the losing side fights the outcome. The lawsuit over a contested race in Fredericksburg, set for federal court on Jan. 5, is another powder keg. That case — in which Democrats are seeking a new election because some 100 residents of a split precinct got the wrong ballot on Election Day — could further cloud the picture if a judge decides the Republican who won should not be seated.
If that happens in conjunction with a Democratic win in Newport News, there could be a temporary one-seat Democratic majority until the court case is resolved.
In other words, everything could easily blow up as it did in 1998.
“Over the last 20 years, there has been a real Washington-
ization of politics in Virginia. Both parties increasingly have become armed camps with very few moderates in the middle to broker compromises in times like this,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “My guess is that if there is power-sharing, it will look at least as ugly as in the past.”
And that was pretty ugly.
In 1998, recently elected Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore set the stage for the meltdown by plucking a handful of Democrats out of the legislature to take agency or cabinet positions — a tactic Northam has said he will avoid. Republicans won the open seats, bringing their total in the House to 49. With an independent delegate agreeing to caucus with them, that created a 50-50 split — the first time Democrats had lost sole power since the 1880s.
Except that three new Republican delegates had not yet been sworn in when Democrats convened the House to select a speaker, a position that dictates committee assignments and legislative priorities.
Parliamentary trickery ensued as both sides tried to gain the upper hand. When Democrats used their remaining power to muscle Republicans aside and install their own speaker, the House erupted in a way no one had ever seen.
“It’s hard when there’s something you wish for and you think you have it, and then somebody pulls it away from you,” said Albo, a former Republican delegate from Fairfax.
Old-time Democrats were desperate to keep power, and old-time Republicans were desperate to seize it, but some on both sides were horrified at how things had broken down.
“Cooler heads prevailed, and a small group of us got together and worked out how we might share power,” said former delegate John “Jack” Rust, another Republican from Fairfax.
The bipartisan group cooked up a plan for each committee to have two chairs — one from each party — and equal representation among members. With that blueprint, the House spent the next two years under an uneasy truce.
As the carefully balanced committees weighed whether legislation would live or die, members “were afraid to get up to go get a drink of water or talk to another member or go out of the room to meet a constituent. You were afraid someone would push a vote while you were gone,” said DeBoer, who at the time was a Democratic delegate representing Petersburg.
He said he once looked on helplessly as Republicans on a committee he chaired waited until a handful of Democrats left the room, then revived a dead bill and passed it on to the full House.
But others said those shenanigans were the exception, not the rule. For Thomas M. Jackson Jr., a former Democratic delegate from Wythe County, those two power-sharing years were invigorating.
“You were forced to work together,” Jackson said. Instead of jamming bills through with a monolithic majority, delegates had to work both sides of the aisle on the strength of their ideas, he said. “I just thought it was the purest form of democracy that one could find.”
That’s the lesson Jackson would like to pass along from 1998 — that power-sharing can be in the public interest.
“It will be fascinating for me to sit back and watch this unfold,” he said, “because people have to go back to the roots of democracy to make it work. You can’t play third-grade games anymore.”