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Raise a toast / November 09, 2017
This one’s for you, Charlottesville.

On Tuesday, Virginians went to the polls to emphatically reject the politics of cultural grievance that Donald Trump has championed ever since riding down that escalator to announce what seemed at the time like a joke campaign for the White House. The rest, of course, is history. Except that history is never really dead, it’s not even past, as William Faulkner once said, and there’s always another campaign around the corner with a chance at a corrective.

Although Ed Gillespie said all the right things after the monstrous outbreak of violent racism this summer at C-Ville and the grounds of the University of Virginia, he never could explain why he was unable or unwilling to criticize Trump’s now-infamous remark that “some very fine people” marched side-by-side with Nazi and KKK sympathizers. As if the point needed to be made — apparently it still does — people associated with such vile hatreds are the very opposite of fine people.

By comparison, Gillespie committed a second-order sin in his wipeout loss for governor: attempting to walk a line between moderate, modern Virginia and the reactionary elements of his party who somehow believed that a defense of Confederate statues would save Republican electoral hides. Gillespie’s campaign was a disgrace: chock full of overwrought, dishonest ads accusing Gov.-elect Ralph Northam of coddling pedophiles and MS-13 gang members, conveyed in images that played on the worst (and misplaced) fears of the Trump-soaked “base.” Gillespie was put on the spot by the clear preference of said base for his primary rival, white nationalist champion Corey Stewart, who at one time was Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign chair. Gillespie’s milquetoast establishment background as a political operative and big-dollar lobbyist wasn’t much to set pulses racing in Tea Party world. So after scraping out a win for the nomination, and confronted with an unenthusiastic party, Gillespie’s choice was to whip up excitement by waving the Stars ‘n’ Bars around and the bloody shirt too.

And an Election Day, the great state of Virginia threw it all back in the Republican Party’s face. It was a proud day for the Commonwealth.

So let’s stipulate that Charlottesville rests atop the list of winners from Tuesday’s vote. And let’s add congratulations for Blacksburg, too. Poor Hokie alumni — for more than a year, the most famous member of their ranks in the political arena has been Trump advisor and alt-right circus master Stephen Bannon (Virginia Tech Class of 1976). Bannon injected himself late into the governor’s race by claiming credit for Gillespie’s campaign strategy of “Trumpism Without Trump,” which basically is a description for dog-whistle political messaging without a cur dog on the ticket. Few things in life are more irritating than having no sure comeback for when an obvious bozo passes himself off as some kind of supergenius, and I don’t even know how anyone associated with Virginia Tech has managed to stand it whenever Bannon showed his mug in public over the past year. (And I say this as someone who went to the same college as Ted Cruz, although thank God not at the same time). So there’s your downballot winner from Tuesday’s vote: our wonderful Virginia Tech community. Now Hokies all get to point at Steve Bannon and laugh. Win!

Eschewing the obvious, let’s look at who else is up, who’s down, and who’s just hanging around after Tuesday’s vote.

UP: The Latino Victory Fund. You’ve probably heard more than you’d like to know about the controversy surrounding this pro-Northam group. They came out with a TV commercial that depicted Latino and Muslim children being terrorized by a white guy driving around the neighborhood in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag waving in back and a Gillespie sticker plastered on the tailgate. In the days leading up to the election, a number of my Republican friends insisted this ad — which only aired a few times, by the way, before it was pulled following the bikepath vehicle attack in New York City — would cost the Democrats a shot at victory. Not so much, it turns out. Instead, Latino and minority turnout rose significantly around Virginia, and an allegedly energized Republican base pulled up lame. Was the commercial over-the-top? Yes. Did it traffic in ugly imagery? Yes again.

But amid the furor that Republicans kicked up (and newspaper editorial pages around the state mostly bought into) it somehow went unheralded that a speeding vehicle was actually used to kill an innocent woman in Charlottesville this summer. Adding to the point, the past year has been undeniably stressful and demoralizing for minorities who have had to endure verbal abuse from no less than the President of the United States. Critics of the Latino Victory Fund insisted on their point of grievance and no one else’s, and the voters tuned them out. Meantime, feckless pundits can clutch at their pearls and decry dirty politics all they want, but this stuff will never go away until it is proven to be ineffective, or both sides get so sick of being Willie Horton-ed to death that they work out some sort of truce.

UP: A little decency in our politics. Despite the bruising campaign, with tough shots by both sides, Virginia gets a governor exactly as the TV commercials depicted: a genial doctor in a white coat who never looks quite so at ease as he does when caring for children. Anyone who knows Ralph Northam knows this representation is genuinely who he is. Cynicism about politics is so rampant and corrosive that ascribing a modicum of decency to anyone in public life seems like an invitation to abuse. Well, bring it on and to heck with that. The bottom line one year out from the ugliness of Donald Trump’s victory is that this time, the nice guy finished first.

DOWN: Gridlock in Richmond. Gawd, it’s been a depressing past four years in Richmond. With a Democratic governor and a Republican-run General Assembly — especially in the House of Delegates, with its 66-34 GOP majority — nothing of much consequence has been accomplished at the Capital. There’s a good chance this will change with the most shocking result from Election Day, bigger even than Northam’s nine-point win: the virtual eradication of the Republican majority in the House of Delegates. Nobody saw this coming — no one. At the time of this writing, 15 seats have fallen to the Democrats, and control of the chamber will hinge on the results of one or more vote recounts. Regardless of how it shakes out from here, the legislative landscape next year will consist of a nearly-evenly balanced House and Senate (where Republicans hold a 21-19 majority), with the top of the chain controlled by a Democratic governor/landslide winner.

When parties hold lopsided majorities, there’s no incentive for individual members to stray from the party line, since one or two lawmakers will always lack the ability to play dealmaker. But the story is entirely different when one or two votes are all that separates winning from losing. Any member of the General Assembly can now be a free agent if they choose. Given the whipping Republicans just received, and perhaps weary of the state party’s sharp lurch to the right, some enterprising member of the Republican caucus can pull the party back towards the middle. But who? And how?

Here are two suggestions on the latter item: Every single Democrat in the legislature, without question, will call on the General Assembly to expand Virginia’s Medicaid program to provide health care to tens of thousands of citizens. Medicaid expansion was always a dead letter with Republicans holding a 2-1 majority in the House of Delegates. And now? Get a delegate here and a senator there to go along — in return maybe the Democrats will agree to a flavor of Medicaid expansion similar to what Republican governors in Ohio, Arizona and Indiana (cough Mike Pence cough) have approved — and this thing gets done, easy peasy.

Here’s another potential breakthrough: non-partisan redistricting. Just prior to the election, the anti-gerrymandering group OneVirginia2021 endorsed Northam, citing his longtime advocacy of an expert, non-aligned commission that would redraw election districts following each census and rob politicians of the power to tinker with the maps to suit their own needs. Thanks to this election, we’ll now have a governor with veto authority over a legislature that’s almost perfectly divided between two parties, each lacking the power to impose their will on the other. It’s as good a set-up for meaningful election reform as you’ll ever get. If ever the time were ripe for ridding the Capitol of its grubbiest power, this is it.

SO-SO: James Edmunds, Tommy Wright, Danny Marshall, Les Adams and other Republican members of Southside Virginia’s delegation in the House of Delegates have a choice to make: they can be content to play the role of loyal backbenchers, or they can do something constructive for their constituents. The dirty little secret behind Southside and Southwest’s diminution of political power is that the regions’ elected representatives wouldn’t have an idea what to do with influence even if they had any. Richmond’s thumb-sucking caucus now has a chance to travels back to the days of A.L. Philpott and others in Southside who could cut deals with upstate interests, based on the principle that everyone walks away with something from the deal. But do our area legislators have the dexterity to be players at the Capitol? One way to tell: Will they back off their knee-jerk rejection of Medicaid expansion, which would help Southside and Southwest more than most other areas of Virginia?

UP: Virginia’s LBGTQ community. The historical significance of Virginia electing the country’s first openly transgender lawmaker can not be overstated. In Prince William County, Danica Roem thumped right-wing homophobe Robert Marshall, who was rewarded for a nasty campaign in which he refused to acknowledge Roem’s gender identity by getting an early retirement slip from voters. In the Richmond area, Del. Manoli Loupassi lost to a lesbian candidate, Dawn Adams. Roem’s win qualifies as one of the biggest political stories of the year, but there were plenty of notable upsets Tuesday: the victory in Roanoke by Chris Hurst, former WDBJ anchor and boyfriend of slain reporter Ashley Parker; in Manassas, the election of a Democratic socialist candidate; and of course, Justin Fairfax’s win for lieutenant governor, making him Virginia’s second African American statewide elected official. Republicans can treat their new colleagues with deference and respect or make snide remarks that betray their intolerance. They’ll only weaken their already shaky position if they opt for the latter.

UP AND DOWN: Corey Stewart. Checking the right-wing blogs on Wednesday, I guess I was unsurprised to see people blaming Ed Gillespie’s defeat on feckless establishment elites — Gillespie himself being Exhibit A — and not on the person who really torched the GOP’s standing, Donald J. Trump. Stewart will surely stir this spirit of fratricide to maximum effect, and in the aftermath of Republican losses state it’s hard to imagine what the powers-that-be in the party (such as they are) will be able to do about it. Stewart already is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate next year to take on Tim Kaine. With all too many in the Republican Party apparently clueless about the deadweight pull of the current White House occupant, it’s likely that Stewart will get a chance to carry out his full-Trumpist campaign strategy. If so, next year around this time we could be looking not at a 10-point blowout but something closer to double that. With the 2018 midterms coming up, a Stewart campaign for Senate is just the ticket for sinking Virginia’s 7-4 Republican majority in Congress, with Barbara Comstock in the northern Virginia area likely a goner and everyone else from Dave Brat in the 7th District to Tom Garrett here in the 5th District exposed as vulnerable. Damn the torpedoes, boys, it’s full speed ahead.

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