RICHMOND — Del. Will Morefield is a Republican from the solid-red coal country of far Southwest Virginia. Del. Lashrecse Aird is a Democrat from Petersburg, a majority-black city near Richmond.
It would be hard to envision two more different figures in Virginia politics. But Morefield and Aird are at the heart of an unusual legislative long shot that’s making its way through the General Assembly — and highlighting the power of some ideas to cut through traditional politics.
The unlikely partners discovered that they share something unfortunate: their home towns are dying. People are leaving, money for basic services is running out and nothing about state government seems to promise any help.
In 2016, that phenomenon nationwide contributed to the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and disaffection with the establishment of both major parties. Last year saw Virginia elect a new, diverse generation of Democrats to the House of Delegates, most running on a promise to fight the status quo, as represented by the Republican majority.
While it seems like the upshot is an increase in partisanship, the reality — at least in Virginia’s statehouse — is that economic desperation sometimes pushes the fringes together.
From attempts to address food deserts in cities and rural counties, to efforts to boost funding for at-risk public school students, lawmakers in some of Virginia’s most distressed localities are uniting across party lines to challenge the wealthier, more powerful regions of the state.
No issue captures that spirit better than Morefield’s hail-Mary proposal to offer tax breaks to companies that agree to locate in disadvantaged places — breaks that would exempt each employee from paying state income tax for 10 years.
Aird signed on as soon as Morefield told her about it, and she’s been getting other Democrats on board. “I can’t just sit here and be given an opportunity to make a difference and not do everything I can,” Aird said. “Not even if that means working with Republicans.”
Morefield, 34, is cheerful, polite and soft-spoken. If he didn’t have a beard, he’d be easy to mistake for one of the youthful pages who bring lunch to the delegates. But his life has been scoured by forces that seem a long way from the patrician halls of the State Capitol.
His grandfather, who helped raise him, was a coal miner — hand mangled by machinery, eye damaged by an explosion, dead too young of black lung disease. Morefield’s father died of an opiate overdose. So did his brother. His sister is recovering from addiction.
Tazewell County, his home, is in one of the poorest regions of the state. Its unemployment rate is about 5.6 percent, compared with 3.7 percent for Virginia as a whole. But that’s based on a declining, aging population. People there are more than twice as likely to have a disability than the national average, according to federal data, and half as likely to have a college degree.
Morefield has seen nothing but failure from the usual efforts to help — the enterprise zones that never seem to land a big company, the employment training programs that don’t lead to good jobs. Why would a business locate someplace with failing schools, hospitals that are shutting down, spotty access to broadband Internet?
What Tazewell needed was something truly different. One day last summer, Morefield had an inspiration: Tell companies that if they take a chance on Tazewell, all the employees who move there are exempt from state income tax. They could pay off student loans instead. Start a family.
Morefield knew it would be a tough sell in Richmond. Virginia is so fiscally cautious that some Republicans complained last year when one of their own gubernatorial candidates recommended cutting the income tax.
Morefield needed allies. He thought he could get other Republicans in the Southwest coal country. And he could pick up support along the bottom of the state, where textile, furniture and tobacco industries have shriveled. But then Morefield read about the city of Petersburg — a hard-luck town that can match suffering with any place you care to name.
So he called Lashrecse Aird.
Like Morefield, Aird, 31, grew up poor and largely raised by her grandparents. But she moved around — born in Buffalo; moved to Norfolk; Newport News; and finally, 10 years ago, Petersburg.
Her adopted home town has been one of the most conspicuously troubled in Virginia. Two years ago, it almost went bankrupt. Its financial troubles got so bad that trash pickup stopped for a time, a company repossessed firefighting gear and the state almost had to step in to keep schools open.
Once a prospering railroad hub, Petersburg has suffered one blow after another since its tobacco and luggage manufacturing industries collapsed in the 1980s. The main exit off I-95 is flanked by two massive, abandoned hotels, marked with graffiti and broken windows.
Unemployment in Petersburg is about 7.3 percent; school test scores are among the lowest in the state.
A few years ago, Aird saw Southwest Virginia for the first time as part of a program staged by the University of Virginia. It was eye-opening.
“You could pick Petersburg up and drop it over top of that area and it’s exactly the same,” she said. “The only difference is skin color.”
She liked Morefield’s idea, but shopped it around to city officials before committing. The City Council immediately adopted a resolution endorsing the plan.
Aird felt another connection with Morefield. Last year — her first in the General Assembly — the two had been part of an ad hoc group that discussed forming a millennial caucus.
“I feel like the older members are pretty stuck in their ways,” she said. “It’s important to us to show that if there’s an issue that helps our people, no matter what they look like or what part of the state they live in, we need to find a way to help.”
Once she signed on for the tax-cut bill, she helped Morefield reach out to her fellow Democrats. They’re up to 13 Republican co-patrons and 17 Democrats.
When the General Assembly session started last month, Morefield hit town like he never had before. He’s been a vote-mining machine, working the floor of the House every day to build support for his idea.
“I have never worked on something this hard,” he said.
The bill morphed as it wound through subcommittees, but the central idea is intact: Any business that comes from outside Virginia to locate in one of 39 counties or six cities designated as economically distressed would be eligible for personal and corporate income tax relief. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership will review any proposed deal and certify it only if it doesn’t have a negative fiscal impact on the state.
Morefield’s reasoning: The state’s not losing any money because these companies aren’t here anyway. Plus, wealthy areas roll out the red carpet all the time to lure Facebook data centers or pro sports stadiums. It’s about time Tazewell County got some of that love.
Earlier this week, Morefield finally landed before the powerful House Finance Committee to present the bill.
He seldom makes speeches, and when Morefield began talking his voice was so quiet it was hard to hear. But it took on more force as he described the conditions that motivated him to act, his voice cracked with emotion.
He spoke of the neglect of the coal fields — the opioid crisis that has taken his father and brother. An economy in shambles. Residents who don’t even have drinking water.
As Morefield reached the height of his pitch, committee chairman Del. Lee Ware (R-Powhatan), a crisply dressed retired teacher who likes to quote ancient Greeks and Lord of the Rings, cut him off.
“If you could kindly get to the key points,” Ware said.
Chastened, Morefield wrapped up. But then his legwork began to pay off. One by one, members of the committee — people he’s been courting for weeks — spoke up to praise his effort. Democrats, Republicans; urban, rural.
“I’m very proud of what you’ve done,” said Del. Mark Keam (D-Fairfax), who said his own district, which includes Tysons Corner, is probably the richest in the state. “I don’t know if my people could understand what you’re going through. This is an amazing idea that you’ve brought forward.”
With that, the committee approved the bill on a 19-to-2 vote, sending it to the floor of the House. It will come up for a final vote on Monday or Tuesday.
If it doesn’t pass, Morefield said, he’ll try again next year.
If it does pass, there’s no guarantee it will make a difference.
“Who is anyone to say if it’ll work or not when it’s never been tried before?” Morefield said.
But with his wife expecting their second baby girl at the end of the month, he’ll know he’s at least made something happen. At least there’s hope.