To say the past week in Virginia politics has been weird, turbulent and downright revolting doesn’t begin to describe what’s happened in Capitol Square.
It’s bad — epically bad. It may get much worse.
But while Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, all Democrats, take their successive turns in the outrage spotlight, it’s worth remembering a few of the other deeply embarrassing flaws in Virginia’s political life.
Where to begin? We need only go back to Jan. 18, when state government closes up shop in observance of Lee-Jackson Day.
Virginia has honored Robert E. Lee with a holiday since 1889. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was added in 1904. The General Assembly has honored the two confederate generals with speeches touting their honor and character.
The Senate adjourned in Lee’s honor this year, with the motion to adjourn and the speech lauding Lee coming from Republican Sen. Richard Stuart -- whose other claim to fame is his lonely defense of Northam’s effort to stay in power post-racist yearbook photo.
Stuart took pains in his speech to say his motion and the honoring of Lee was merely to “celebrate his birthday because he was a great Virginian and a great American and not because it has anything to do with slavery.”
Whatever gets you through the night, senator. But the cold truth is Virginia needs to ditch this ridiculous celebration of Lost Cause mythology and move on.
Virginia also has issues with nepotism. Not so flagrant as hiring one’s brother-in-law for a state job for which he is manifestly unsuited, but the soft, wink-and-nod nepotism that’s allowed to go on in the clear light of day.
The most recent example: Sen. Ben Chafin, who lobbied his colleagues on his sister’s behalf for a slot on the state Supreme Court.
Worth raising an eyebrow, for sure. But as the Roanoke Times’s Amy Friedenberger reported, Chafin, who sits on the Senate committee interviewing prospective court candidates, took matters up a notch Wednesday:
He remained in the room, seated with the rest of the committee, to listen to his sister’s interview as well as those of the other three candidates. Chafin nodded at his sister while she spoke to the legislators. He didn’t ask questions of any of the candidates.
Chafin refused to answer questions afterward. How about committee chairman Sen. Mark Obenshain? The one-time attorney general aspirant “waved his hand at a reporter and turned away.”
Not exactly profiles in courage. Then again, they may have the example of the last legislator to hold the seat Chafin currently warms: Democrat Phil Puckett.
Puckett, you may remember, hoped to get his daughter confirmed to a judgeship, but Republicans balked. Puckett resigned his seat, which Chafin won in a special election.
Puckett’s daughter later got her judgeship.
While we’re on the subject of Senate grandees behaving badly, let’s not forget what happened in the Finance Committee Jan. 30.
That’s when the Committee voted 14-2 against Sen. Bill Stanley’s bill proposing an advisory referendum asking voters whether the General Assembly should issue up to $3 billion in bonds to repair crumbling public school infrastructure.
Committee Chairman Emmett Hanger said:
I’d like to compliment Senator Stanley for raising awareness of this issue, [but] we don’t want to disappoint him, because even in spite of all of his efforts, I don’t believe we’re ready to advance this in a referendum.
The Roanoke Times editorial board didn’t take kindly to the bipartisan snub, taking each senator who voted “no” to task and noting how many pre-1950 vintage schools are in each member’s district.
The paper concluded that parents ought to ask these legislators “why they voted against modern buildings for their children" and suggested that "business leaders ought to ask whether these outdated buildings are truly sufficient for training tomorrow’s workforce.”
It’s not because they are callous,or indifferent (mostly). But inertia — whether it’s on school infrastructure, legislative nepotism or Lost Cause nostalgia — is so much easier.