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Digging for dollars / January 23, 2013
Little needs be said about the plague on humanity that is spam e-mail.

Still, last week we received a real standout in the field, a ditty that popped up on our system bearing the perky title, “This Is It.”

It opened with a simple plea: “I need a big favor.” If that sounds like the pitch of an anonymous benefactor offering quick riches in exchange for a modest investment in a Zambian platinum mine, wait, it gets worse. After some ominous warnings, the e-mail ended with an invitation to send $3 — “or whatever you can” — so … wait for it … Democrats in the Virginia State Senate can “fight to repeal bad laws.”

The signer? Dick Saslaw, Senate Democratic Leader.

Self-styled field general in the battle to repeal “bad laws.”

But which ones?

You may have heard by now that Saslaw is the most prominent Democrat in Virginia to come out in favor of repealing the state’s ban on uranium mining. When asked why he thought the u-mining industry should be permitted to do business in the Commonwealth, Saslaw offered an answer that indicated he isn’t worried about the potential for environmental and safety fallout, since there’s no chance of it ever happening in his backyard.

“I’m not going to be here,” said Saslaw on a radio news program, speaking of the thousand-year-plus timeframe for a potential catastrophe from leaking radioactive waste containment cells. He just as easily could have been talking about the distance from his home in Fairfax County to the Coles Hill mine site in Pittsylvania County.

Now you may be asking yourself: Is yet another by-the-numbers, fund-raising e-mail from one of our political parties really cause for teeth-grinding? (For the sake of context, it should be noted that uranium mining was never referenced in the Senate Democrats’ appeal.) If you’ve ever so much as voted in a primary election, you’ve probably found yourself at some point or another delighting to the obsessive outreach efforts of web-powered party buck-raking apparatuses (apparati?). You gotta hand it to these folks, Democrat and Republican, they don’t miss a beat.

As a matter of course, I ignore nine-tenths of the political missives that come in over my e-mail tramway. But this one got my goat: Dick Saslaw, leader of Virginia Senate Democrats, wants my hard-earned $3 so he can muster the financial wherewithal to fight “right-wing millionaires and wealthy special interests” that presumably want to ruin all that is good and wonderful about our fair Commonwealth. There’s one glaring problem here:

Just who is Dick Saslaw to talk?

Virginia Democrats have a problem: Their most prominent and powerful representative in the General Assembly, said Boss Saslaw, all too often serves as a coin-operated plaything for some of the state’s most powerful and malign corporate interests. Before uranium mining, Saslaw distinguished himself as chief protector of the payday and title lending industries in Virginia, thumbing his nose at basic standards of fairness and siding with the gang that charges triple- and quadruple-percentage rates of interests on loans to our poorest citizens. With Democrats following a leader with such a stellar record of fighting “wealthy special interests” and their dirty business practices, who needs the Koch Brothers around?

For the record, at the same time he has been shaking down the little people for $3 donations, Saslaw has accepted a princely sum of $10,000 from Virginia Uranium Inc. VUI has directed the overwhelming share of its campaign cash to the Virginia GOP, but Saslaw is doing his part to lend the entire lift-the-ban effort a bipartisan gloss. This leads to the obvious question: Will the rest of the Virginia Senate Democratic caucus follow Saslaw’s lead? Or, hope against hope, will Senate Dems muster the will and gumption to turn Saslaw into a caucus of one on uranium?

It would be gratifying, and politically astute, for Senate Democrats to defy their leader and affirm the party’s historic support for environment and public safety, the big money boys be damned. It also would be hilarious to see Saslaw undone by a revolt of such magnitude that John Boehner would look like Boss Tweed by comparison.

One can always dream. But upon such questions the future of Southside Virginia may rest. Over in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, the chances of stopping the uranium lobby are not great — this is, after all, the General Assembly chamber where free-market absolutists, slash-and-drill types and all-around frat boys typically go to collect a paycheck. The State Senate, on the other hand, is divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, 20-20, with a Republican lieutenant governor who is on the record in support of the ban. With a handful of Republican Senators also against mining — including our own Frank Ruff, Franklin County Sen. Bill Stanley, and Virginia Beach’s Jeff McWaters — a more-or-less unified Democratic caucus can kill this monstrosity.

Democrats thus face a fateful choice: Do they follow Saslaw’s lead — which doesn’t even amount to an actual argument, it’s just a grab for Virginia Uranium’s money — or do they stand on principle? (There are many to choose from. The sturdiest might be the fact that Southside’s legislative delegation, with essentially no exceptions, is opposed to mining. Even among the business community, Virginia Uranium is finding the weight of opinion piled up against it).

Counting on principle to carry the day in politics may be a fool’s errand, although Democrats might want to think long and hard about why it is a transparent hack like Saslaw carries the title “Minority Leader” in front of his name. Still, if Democrats can be too slippery by half, Republicans are more than capable of matching with plain foolishness. On Monday, the Capitol was thrown into an uproar after Senate Republicans jammed through a redistricting plan that trashes the electoral map that was approved, after much debate, in 2011 on the heels of the federal census. Redistricting is a sausage-making process, with lots of grisly bits that people would be appalled about if only they knew, which is one reason (among many) why it’s a good idea to do it only once every 10 years. (The timeframe is also spelled out in Virginia’s Constitution).

The GOP threw all that out the window Monday — to be fair, neither the governor nor the lieutenant governor seemed to be aware — in order to achieve a power grab that has no precedent in Virginia politics. Oh, and because the Senate is divided 20-20, Republicans had to wait until Inauguration Day, when Richmond state senator and veteran civil right activist Henry Marsh of Richmond would be out of town to witness our African-American president taking the oath for a second time, to ram their new district map through on a 20-19 vote. How very classy of them.

It would be the height of irony if this penny-ante coup by Senate Republicans brought General Assembly business to a halt, reducing Virginia Uranium’s bid to overturn the ban — and circumvent public opinion — into a waste by-product ready to be stuffed down the proverbial mine shaft. Democrats in Richmond were predictably outraged by the Republican redistricting stunt, with Minority Leader Saslaw vowing that as a result, “it’s totally over on transportation,” the top priority not only of the Republican governor, but of Saslaw’s home region of Northern Virginia.

Hey Mr. Leader, please don’t stop there. As long as you’re going to the trouble of gumming up the legislative works, why not add uranium mining to your no-can-do list?

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