Action in Richmond, not just Iowa

If you care at all about politics, you're probably paying close attention today to the Presidential primary results from Iowa. But if you're a Virginian, and that's ALL you're looking at, you're missing out on a lot of the political action.

Yesterday I was in Richmond for "TAG Advocacy Day." If you haven't found that on your calendar, it's because the day was invented by Virginia private colleges for one particular audience: the Virginia General Assembly.

Virginia has a part-time legislature, and meet for most of their business during the first month or two of the year. It's a frenzy of committee meetings, bill mark-ups, and votes that produces most of the major changes to Virginia law.

Behind the scenes, though, it's also the time where every organized interest in the state descends on Richmond to lobby for their preferred bills (or against the ones they hate). One of the chief jobs of the small army of professional lobbyists in Richmond is to organize these interests to meet with their legislators. If you're not Jonnie Williams, this is one of the major ways to influence legislators.

And so on select days during the GA session, you'll find hundreds of bankers in fancy suits, or healthcare workers in lab coats, wandering from office to office. If they're lucky, they get to meet with legislators for a quick talk and photo op; more often they meet with legislative staffers and communicate their concerns through them. Each visit is logged, formally or informally, by the legislative offices, and added to the political calculus that informs legislators' voting decisions.

Yesterday a group of students from colleges like my own wore big red buttons saying "Thanks for TAG." The Tuition Assistance Grant program was created in 1972 to help VA residents with financial need to attend private colleges and universities in the state. This year the Governor's budget proposal includes a $300 increase in the grant to $3,400; my students and I were tasked with asking legislators to support the budget increase, and the TAG program in general.

This is what we sometimes mean by "special interests." It's how interest group politics is supposed to work: groups of citizens who benefit from government services get to remind their public officials of why those services are provided in the first place.

Not that interest group politics works perfectly. Sometimes "special interests" involve hard-working poor and middle-class students who earn small tuition grants; other times we get billion dollar companies dumping coal ash into our rivers. A theory in political science called "pluralism" argues that everyone's interests are almost always represented through this kind of representative politics, but of course that's not true; not everyone has the time or resources to spend a day wandering around legislative offices. (As political scientist E.E. Schattschneider famously wrote in 1960, "The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.")

Still, sometimes the "special interests" are the good guys, and the students with me yesterday are just that: good guys. They're smart, they work hard, and they want to make a life for themselves and a difference in the world. I was glad they at least got the opportunity to advocate for themselves, and students like them, in a realm that too often seems far away and closed off to them. The events in Iowa may seem a thousand miles away -- literally -- but there's a whole world of politics going on right on our doorstep.