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Member of the gang / April 09, 2009
A sage person once observed that the less said the better, but this is advice that I’ve never really been able to take to heart and I don’t blame Ted Bennett for struggling with the concept, either.

Bennett stunned the political cognescenti (well, some anyway) by announcing Sunday that he was dropping out of the race for House of Delegates. After saying he would run to succeed the outgoing Clarke Hogan, Bennett took about three weeks before deciding that life in retirement wasn’t so bad, and besides, he didn’t have as much time for politics as he previously thought.

Bennett e-mailed a statement Sunday that included a long recitation of his current and future commitments. The list could have been much longer. Few people can claim a resume on par with the former delegate, former higher ed center director, and all-around Johnny on the spot. It was curious that Bennett chose to look forward to all the reasons he couldn’t run rather than look back at his accomplishments, because this was his last opportunity for a swan song. People in politics don’t have much patience with Hamlet-types who can’t make up their minds on whether to run, not run, or just keep folks in suspense. Anyone heard from Mario Cuomo lately?

I’ve probably agreed with Ted Bennett on 95 percent of the things that he’s advocated in his public life. I think it would be a tremendous step forward for Virginia if the House of Delegates, the state’s last redoubt of Do-Nothing Republican power, were to flip to the Democratic column. This is not because the Democrats are perfect — see last week’s column on uranium mining — but because the Republican-controlled House has been simply awful. Aside from serving as a burial ground for lots of good legislation, the GOP-run House refused (until this session) to even record the votes on bills that came up in subcommittee — an insult to the democratic process and a sure indicator of mischief afoot.

Yet in spite of all this, Bennett’s latest candidacy for delegate left me cold. An obvious concern was that Bennett was more or less looking to serve as a placeholder through 2011, when the party that controls the House of Delegates presumably would redraw the state’s legislative districts to its liking. But a bigger problem than the transitional nature of Bennett’s return was the foundation of his candidacy itself. Go back and read over that withdrawal statement. What jumps out, aside from the expected (and well-earned) self-puffery? I know what hit me: The lengthy back and forth on how the next delegate should serve as a non-partisan champion of community interests. An appealing thought, certainly. But which is more likely, that or a herd of unicorns flying through the sky?

Every community has its establishment, its power elite. Here in Halifax County we have our Gang of 12 or 20 and Ted Bennett was set to be their guy, just as Clarke Hogan was their guy before him. And I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the apparent belief that everyone else should just step aside and let the wise men of the community run everything. Um, no. I honestly believe it dawned on Bennett that the road ahead wasn’t going to be Easy Street and that’s why he got out of the race. When the Republicans showed they were serious about keeping the seat with James Edmunds, a well-known if untested candidate, and on the Democratic side David Guill of Charlotte County showed no inclination to bow out of the race, Bennett must have figured that, hey, this isn’t going to be a cakewalk after all. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Bennett, as a card-carrying member himself of the Gang of 20, had reason to believe that a virtually uncontested campaign was in the offing when he jumped in.

The Gang of 12 or 20 likes to have its way. They’re accustomed to having their way. How hard can it be to settle a little ol’ delegate’s seat among friends? Alas, the world doesn’t always follow the gang’s rules. The Democrats need to flip six seats to take over the majority in the House of Delegates. The Republicans must protect what they’ve got, if not make advances. The 60th District seat was (and likely is) destined to be a dogfight, with neither side willing to cede the advantage regardless of what the local hoi polloi believes should happen. I don’t know if Bennett got faked out but I strongly suspect he thought possible rivals in his own party would stand down and the Republicans would field some right-wing putz and the local establishment would take care of the rest. I offer this theory despite believing it’s frankly nuts. Having spent some years watching the Gang in action, though, one thing I can tell you its members don’t lack is self-regard.

In the Gang’s world, whatever Clarke Hogan did in Richmond was fine just so long as he brought home the bacon. Hence the constant prattle about his “influence” and “clout” that no one except Ted Bennett could possibly match. I can’t even attempt in this short space to list all the things wrong with this line of thinking, but here are three points: (1) Neither Bennett nor Hogan would be able to deliver for the community as members of the powerless minority in the House of Delegates, a fate that could greet either of the two men still in the race today for the 60th District seat; (2) Hogan’s bubble was primed to pop as soon as his protector, Speaker of the House William Howell, retired, an event which is widely rumored to be imminent; and (3) Clarke Hogan’s bacon-bringing abilities would have amounted to exactly diddlysquat had it not been for the courage of Democratic governor Mark Warner and the Republican majority in the State Senate in pushing through tax increases (and well-crafted tax reforms) to replenish the state’s coffers. Hogan got credit for increasing state funding for institutions such as the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, but it never would have happened without the broader changes that Warner achieved – and that Hogan fought tooth-and-nail.

In fact, back when Warner’s tax bills were pending in the legislature, Hogan strongly implied that the governor was lying about the severity of the state’s fiscal problems. Of course, Hogan’s side lost, Warner’s side won, and Hogan subsequently took credit for all the dollars flowing into Halifax County. That’s politics for you. That the state budget is once again a mess due to a cratering state economy shouldn’t distract us from the reality that big-talking politicians aren’t able to talk so big when there’s no money for them to spend.

None of this Richmond stuff concerns the Gang of 20, because they know how to look after themselves and their voices are heard by the higher-ups no matter how occupied folks at the Capital are. The consequential decisions that the General Assembly makes that impact families trying to educate their children or pay their medical bills or keep a job don’t much affect the ever-safe and secure Gang of 20, so they can afford to turn a blind eye to Clarke Hogan’s legislative hijinks as long as he channels pork to their favored initiatives. Meantime, ordinary people don’t have the time or inclination to follow the plot twists and policy turns at the Capital, and nothing serves the interests of the powerful better than the inattention of the people they are supposed to serve.

I don’t believe that Bennett was the only member of the Gang of 20 who believed that the destiny of the local House seat rested in local hands. But it wasn’t to be, and now the establishment will move on. With a safe commodity like James Edmunds in the race, it’s a sure bet that most, if not all, of the politically connected will line up behind his candidacy. Edmunds is a thoroughly decent and honest fellow, and Halifax County could do a lot worse than with him as our delegate. But anyone who thinks that Edmunds will impress local values upon the Capital rather than the other way around is whistling Dixie past the DAR building. He’s a reliable vote even before he casts his first vote.

It’s also highly questionable that Edmunds truly appreciates the challenges facing ordinary working families in Southside Virginia. His campaign kickoff speech certainly offered no assurances in that regard. The thing to realize is that the GOP agenda is decidedly unfriendly to down-and-out communities such as Halifax County. (I see where the Republicans are opposing an expansion of state unemployment benefits. I’m sure that position was taken with 12% jobless Halifax County in mind). Among partisan Republicans, the election of a cookie-cutter Republican to replace Hogan is fine and dandy. It’s probably fine with most members of the Gang, too. But let’s not be confused about which of these two groups is calling the shots in this campaign, or with what goes on in Richmond. If you seriously believe that any of the candidates for local office can rise above partisan demands in the community’s service, perhaps you should call up Ted Bennett and see if he has time to chat.


Following last week’s column, the Gazette-Virginian yesterday broke its policy of scrubbing all references to Fifth District Rep. Tom Perriello. They even ran a more-or-less intelligible photo of Perriello on the front page. So who will step forward to claim their cup of coffee?

The Gazette’s editorial blockade on all things Perriello was so ridiculous that it was more laughable than anything. I don’t think it’s any secret by now that Halifax County has two newspapers that tend to take opposing stances on the issues, and whether you consider this a blessing or a curse probably depends on your tolerance for the nonsense that occasionally ensues.

I personally find the give-and-take of politics and newspaper reporting to be invigorating. It can be difficult in this business to convince people that you can be a fair journalist and an opinionated columnist at the same time, but larger outfits than the News & Record and Gazette-Virginian encourage crossover between the news and editorial pages and never think twice about it. David Broder is not only the dean of Washington journalists, he also writes a column for The Washington Post’s editorial page. That’s one of the least extreme examples of reporters bringing their opinions to bear on their work, and to some extent all news organizations actively want the same kind of thing to take place.

I don’t think most people have a problem with journalists having a point of view as long as they’re honest about them. Where the line should be drawn is with practices that offend basic rules of fairness, or that violate conventions of transparency and disclosure that journalists rightfully demand of others. Along those lines, I have an acknowledgment to make: I helped Democratic candidate David Guill write his kickoff speech for the House of Delegates. I wrote a draft version more or less as a lark — Guill had no advance notice of what I was up to — and sent it to him because I figured Guill needed to make a positive impression in Halifax County where he is not yet well-known. If this revelation strikes anyone the wrong way, then your ire should be directed at me, not him.

My read on Guill is that he’s smart, extremely capable, and fully qualified to serve as delegate. The draft speech that I e-mailed to him last week contained ideas that I thought were important, but I added in an aside to Guill that if he chose to reject them all I wouldn’t be bothered one iota. (You get used to being ignored in this business.) Instead he liked what I wrote and — again, at my urging — incorporated my text into his own. The final product is ultimately his.

My first brush with Charlotte County politics came several years ago when officials wanted to locate a private landfill in the far southern corner of the county, near the line with Mecklenburg and Lunenburg counties. Since our sister paper serves Mecklenburg, I got to learn a fair bit about how the Gang of 12 or 20 in Charlotte County works. It wasn’t pretty.

One thing I didn’t learn until later is that one of the leading opponents to the landfill project was Guill. His stance was hardly automatic. The county’s leadership mostly backed the project, pointing to the presumed economic benefits, and being a sleepy part of the county there was no guarantee that the majority of the Board of Supervisors would do anything to stop it. But Guill and like-minded opponents worked the angles and fought the good fight, and this looming blight on the community went down to defeat.

The Charlotte County private landfill imbroglio is but an echo of the knock-down drag-out that Halifax County will have to wage to stop uranium mining next door in Pittsylvania, but I was happy to know that a Democratic candidate for the House had established his bona fides on the issue and had lots more going for him besides. I don’t plan to write any more speeches, but I do plan to advocate for the things I believe in. I try to be honest, open and I back up the arguments I make with research and facts. The rest is up to the reader to decide.

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