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Winners and friends / November 13, 2019
From the standpoint of statewide politics, it’s pretty obvious who came away on Election Day as Virginia’s big winners.

That, of course, would be Virginia Democrats, who took majorities in both the House of Delegates and state Senate to pair up with Democratic control of the Governor’s Mansion (and the office of Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, the state’s two seats in the U.S. Senate, seven of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts and on and on and on ….)

No doubt about it, Virginia is now officially a blue state. It may not seem that way here in Southside, but our red tide of local Republican lawmakers was effectively rendered inert on Tuesday as far as wielding any major influence in the General Assembly. As long as they were part of GOP majorities in both chambers, Southside legislators could, at a minimum, usually block legislation they didn’t like — gun control, election reform, environmental protections and such. Now, all they can do is watch and whine about the outcomes ahead.

But not all losers are created equal. Those willing to accept and embrace political risk, through acts of party and ideological apostasy, may yet find a way to assert their relevance in Richmond. Such daring could allow a cadre of Republicans to beats the odds and move from losers to, if not out-and-out winners, then at least canny opportunists. And I mean that in a good way.

Then there will be those who are simply sidelined — unwilling to work with the opposing party, seemingly incapable of rising above their own resentments or the extremism of the loudest segments of their own party to craft anything resembling an effective working relationship with Democrats in Richmond. Given conservative dominance in ever-more marginalized areas of rural Virginia, the obvious upside to such an approach is that political isolation can offer political insulation. Members who choose the path of outraged irrelevance can content themselves to do nothing, and risk nothing, and presumably stay in office for as long as they want.

So maybe that makes them winners of a certain kind, too?

Whether our local lawmakers choose to become (very) small-beer versions of a Fox News talking head, habitually spouting nonsense and playing to the base, with diminishing seriousness and political returns, or try to remain credible players when the General Assembly convenes next year will be one of the more interesting developments to watch in the wake of last week’s election results. Because all other stakes for Southside Republicans in Richmond have been ripped out of the ground and chopped up for kindling. Has anyone forgotten how Tommy Wright reflexively touts his chairmanship of the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety — the place where gun safety measures go to die — as his primary justification for re-election? Well, those days are soon over. Frank Ruff pens a constituent newsletter — sadly picked up as a weekly column by local newspapers that apparently have no other way to fill their editorial pages — in which the longtime senator regularly makes outrageous assertions, misleading claims and out-and-out false statements about the party across the aisle. Why in the world would the Senate’s incoming Democratic majority take the author of such beclowning prose seriously?

Ruff has traded on fabrications for political profit his entire public career. He cut his teeth long ago playing to local fears about the Lake Gaston pipeline, demagoguing the issue to the hilt and winning his first election to the House of the Delegates as a result, even though his efforts achieved nothing other than to cost local governments tens of millions of dollars in potential compensation from Virginia Beach — all over, as fate would have it, a phony-baloney “danger” that amounted to next to nothing. Ruff also has turned political convenience into an art form, whether it’s been as a one-time, tagalong moderate Republican in the state Senate, which miraculously long ago was led by moderate Republicans, to groupthink leader of the Virginia Tobacco Commission, which has wasted millions of dollars on all kinds of useless projects. (Along with, to be fair, doing some actual good. Hard to waste every dollar in a pile of billions.) Ruff’s latest act is to play the part of dedicated Trumpkin, as reflected by the abysmal quality of his recent newsletters. The Sun publishes those by Ruff and Del. Wright that pertain to business in the General Assembly and serve the function of enlightening the public on legislative matters in Richmond. The rest? Blech.

Republicans keep getting clobbered statewide because they can’t resist the temptation to play to the cultural grievances and fears of a conservative, lily-white base of older voters, which may work in rural areas but is a loser everywhere else. Revulsion to Trump in the suburbs didn’t help on Election Day, either. The extinction of the GOP as a governing force in Virginia is merely a preview of what awaits the party nationally if Republicans stick to a strategy of fearmongering and political slander — as evidenced by the utter failure of this year’s hot-button rhetoric to turn the tide in Virginia’s legislative elections. Calling Democrats raving socialists didn’t work, nor did ludicrous claims about the threat of “live-birth abortions” — a thing that does not exist in the real world — move any votes to the GOP column. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Nothing about this year’s elections indicates Virginia Republicans have gotten that memo yet.

So what happens now? Next door in Halifax County, another local Republican, Del. James Edmunds, authored a bill this year in the General Assembly to set up a vote by Halifax County citizens to raise their own taxes to pay for school capital projects — an offer they accepted with gusto, via a successful Election Day referendum. Rejecting conservative orthodoxy that all tax increases are bad, Halifax voters approved the referendum by more than a 2-to-1 margin, thus authorizing a 1-cent local sales tax increase to raise $100 million over 30 years for new or renovated school facilities (specifically, a modernized Halifax County High School, which will either be renovated or replaced entirely.) Edmunds is no wallflower when it comes to right-wing culture warrior, but the election returns on Tuesday proved that he and others can be more than just that, if only they embrace the challenge. The risk that Edmunds took — not directly supporting a tax increase, maybe, but certainly holding the door open for one — paid off politically, and much more importantly it paid off fabulously for the benefit of his home county. There’s no shortage of areas where Southside Republicans can make their own positive contributions, if only they’re willing to try.

If not, the area’s political fate will rest solely in the hands of Virginia Democrats. Which is fine, by the way — Democrats did push through the single best thing to happen to Southside Virginia in many a moon with Medicaid expansion, a longtime party priority that finally took effect this year and already has provided health care to thousands of Southside Virginia families. But it would be encouraging to think that Southside voters could have a say in our own destiny through our elected representation, whether Democrat or Republican. It just so happens the latter is all we’ve got. Will they spend 2020 doing useful work, or will we watch idly as they keep their seats warm?

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