The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia politicians have already had a rough start to 2022

Drivers wait for the traffic to be cleared as cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 on Tuesday in Carmel Church, Va. About 48 miles of the interstate was closed because of ice and snow. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

The new year has started off badly for a number of Virginia politicians. Whether it’s the bipartisan angst of redistricting, which, barring lawsuits, the Virginia Supreme Court made final in the waning days of 2021, or, more recent, the snowstorm that paralyzed Interstate 95 and exposed Gov. Ralph Northam (D), there’s plenty of bad mojo in the air.

Let’s begin with the I-95 debacle. The marathon shutdown of the major East Coast artery for 24 hours or so was a real-time crisis. Mercifully, there were no injuries or loss of life. That’s the good part. There’s plenty of bad to go around, though at least some state officials had the presence of mind to call the situation what it was: “completely unacceptable.”

The Virginia Department of Transportation has promised to look into the incident to see how things could have been handled differently. Where the real soul-searching should occur, though, is in the governor’s office and how the soon-to-be-former governor handled what was possibly his final opportunity to display coherent, effective leadership.

He didn’t. Instead, Northam hid behind the tired “perfect storm” trope and blandly said this was “an incredibly unusual event.”

Okay, I’ll grant him that. Weather can be very unusual, and it can snarl even the best-laid response plans.

But instead of accepting any blame for his administration’s response to what became a long-duration event — even the passive “mistakes were made” admission of fault — Northam decided to cast blame on “‘out-of-state’ drivers who missed the ‘clear and consistent messaging’ from state agencies ‘to stay off the roads during the winter storm.’”

Blaming nefarious out-of-staters for being unprepared, causing problems and generally being a nuisance is an ancient political dodge. And yes, here, they do deserve some criticism for not heeding travel warnings.

But the blame ends once the emergency begins. Then, the task is responding quickly and effectively, which the state flat-out bungled. As Rep. Lashrecse D. Aird (D-Petersburg), who was stuck in the interstate for more than 15 hours, said of the state’s efforts:

“You knew that we were there but there was no information provided,” she said. “I think that more deliberate care and concern could have been shown. If you have the option of sending the National Guard to come in with blankets and these sorts of things, why not do it when people needed it most?”

Don’t ask Northam. The last and possibly enduring image the nation will have of Northam is of him phoning in his response as he prepares to leave office — and blaming someone else for causing the mess in the first place.

Elsewhere, the new district lines for Virginia’s congressional delegation and the General Assembly are final. A number of incumbents have been lumped together in districts, and that will force changes — either members picking up and moving, as R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) is doing; retiring, as some may decide to do; or fighting it out in primaries, as more surely will.

On the congressional side, there’s the case of current 7th District Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D), who says she is running in the now-Northern Virginia-based 7th. Spanberger doesn’t live in the redrawn district. That’s not a legal barrier, but it is a political one. She is banking on an assertion of incumbency to avoid a primary and allow her to prepare for the general election.

I’ve written that Spanberger’s move opens her to the charge that she is running in a district in which she doesn’t live and can’t vote for herself. But if there’s no primary, and Spanberger’s only Republican challenger is Bryce E. Reeves (Spotsylvania) — who is determined to be a member of Congress, no matter which district he has to run in to do it — then her chances of winning are still pretty good.

Plenty of “ifs” surrounding this race. But one certainty: It will be one of the most closely watched contests in Virginia this year.