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.

VA Senate at stake on Tuesday... sort of

I'll be appearing on WRIC-8 this Tuesday night to talk about the election, probably at 6 & 11 (and maybe again on Wednesday morning to wrap-up). Here's a preview of some of the things I'll mention if I get the chance:

  • Individual characteristics of candidates are important, sure. But state legislative politics, including here in VA, is so driven by ideology that I have to agree with the Roanoke Times: "the question voters really face on Tuesday is not which senator you want to represent you in Richmond, but which party do you want in control?" Voters may look at a guy like 10th District candidate Glen Sturtevant and see a moderate Republican, and they may be right in terms of his personal ideology. But newly elected State Senator Sturtevant would not buck his party on key votes, and his party overall is incredibly conservative. Anyone who votes for a "moderate" Republican this Tuesday will likely experience some nasty surprises when the GA is in session next year. (Remember 2012's "war on women"? Remember the "rape wands"?) Just another reason why outside money has flowed into Virginia elections this year.
  • Speaking of Sturtevant, his chances look good for Tuesday. Both he and Gecker have waged pretty negative campaigns, with accusations flying back and forth on TV, mailers, and internet ads. But I think Gecker went too far in implicating Sturtevant in a "secret plan" to redistrict the public schools. The actually-not-secret plan was strongly supported by a lot of South Side neighborhoods, and some of these folks - many of them Democrats - seemed turned off by Gecker's attacks. (10th District residents recieved a "Neighborhood Alert" mailer last week that detailed the controversy, noting that "Glen Sturtevant Stood WITH US!... We need to STAND with Glen Sturtevant.")
  • I could be wrong about Sturtevant and Gecker's race. But overall, the most likely outcome for Tuesday is continued GOP control of both houses in the GA. The news is not good for supporters of the Democrats, the Governor, and those hoping for Virginia to accept those federal Medicaid dollars.  But it is good news for those who like political warfare; everybody man up for more.

So Long VA Redistricting Deadline

I spoke with Mark Tenia of WRIC-8 News tonight about the VA redistricting issue. (Video and transcript available here, at least at time of posting.) As usual, I thought Mark did a nice job of boiling down a super-complicated issue into a tiny amount of time, but of course he has to leave out a lot. A few additional thoughts:

The federal courts will control the redistricting, as the VA Democrats wanted. But the Dems won't necessarily get what they want, for two reasons:

  1. The federal courts, as much as they are decried for being activist by right-wing critics, are typically respectful of state politics, particularly when they would have to step into fraught political battles. This is especially true with the VA 3rd, where it's not like anti-racism battles of the past. There is no clear idea, on both sides, about how best to serve the interests of minority voters, so it's not the case here that federal judges can feel like progressive crusaders fixing the backward ideas of local yokels. And the courts will likely respect the local process;  so if the Republicans propose a map soon, they might be able to influence the outcome.
  2. One thing I wish that Mark had given me more time to talk about is the surrounding districts. All three of the surrounding Republican incumbents -- Brat, Rigell, and Forbes -- won by close to 60% majorities in 2014. Sure, more minority voters in any of those districts might encourage stronger Democratic candidates and more state and national support for their campaigns. But 60% is a long way from 49%. And while the Republicans could draw a map that sacrifices an annoying Tea Partier like Brat, the GOP could also try to keep all three seats by shaving off pieces of each. The courts might like such a conservative course, one that would prevent them from being accused of restructuring a state's Congressional delegation.

Norm Leahy and Paul Goldman wrote a nice primer last month in the WaPo, arguing that it was likely that "Democrats win their bet and get a second seat primed for an African American Democrat." Still, this won't affect the fact that the VA electorate is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, while the Congressional delegation is 8 to 3 -- or, in the Dems' wildest dreams, 7 to 4. The state is still going to be artfully carved up to benefit the GOP, and the VA Dems don't seem to have any way to fix that.

A Christmas gift for the 74th: More Joe Morrissey?

UPDATE: Just spoke to Mark Tenia of WRIC-8 News about this story - look for me on the Friday evening newscasts.

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A lovely Christmas present to cap off a crazy year of Virginia politics is taking shape in the VA 74th district. Democratic Delegate Joe Morrissey is resigning his seat, running for re-election, and spending his days at the GA and nights in jail, unless he's not. Wait, what? Here's the rundown:

  • Morrissey was indicted back in June for having an improper relationship with a minor, his 17-year-old receptionist. The receptionist, who is defending Morrissey, claims to have lied about her age to get the job and that there was no sexual relationship. Whatever went on, her mother seems to have been on board (it was the father who notified authorities). Morrissey and the woman make the usual claim about cell phone evidence: they were hacked. And oh yes: she's pregnant.
  • Last week Morrissey entered what's called an "Alford plea" (named after a 1963 NC murder case), where he does not admit guilt but acknowledges that there's enough evidence to convict him. His sentence: 6 months in work-release jail, meaning he sleeps at jail at night but is free during the day. (The sentence is likely to be reduced to 3 months, as is typical with misdemeanor charges.)
  • In a brilliant move, Morrissey said he would resign - but would then run for re-election in the resulting special election held in January. This puts the decision to keep him in office in the hands of the voters. If he's re-elected, and especially with significant support, it would be harder for the GA to expel him (still a possibility).
  • The Democrats have just a few days to pick their nominee for the special election, which will be held January 13. The two main candidates are Lamont Bagby, a Henrico County School Board member, and Kevin Sullivan, a union activist and alpaca farmer (and dad to one of my former students). It's not clear yet how the Dems will pick their candidate; Sullivan could have district support, but Bagby is more of a known quantity, having at least won a local election. But Morrissey could try to pack a caucus with his supporters to try and get the nomination.
  • Even if the Dems go with Bagby or Sullivan, Morrissey could run as an independent. He already has thousands of dollars in his campaign war chest, and there's a history of people in the district ignoring Morrissey's less than savory history. (If he can get re-elected after trying to bribe his way out of community service, it's hard to see how a relationship with a 17-year-old will completely kill his chances.)
  • The latest wrinkle: last night the Times-Dispatch's Markus Schmidt reported that the Henrico Sheriff had revoked Morrissey's work-release privileges for going to his office without prior approval. (The Sheriff, Michael Wade, is a Republican, so he's not following marching orders from embarrassed Dems; more likely, he's just ticked off by Morrissey's apparent arrogance.) Morrissey will, of course, appeal, but this is going to make it harder to mount a campaign.

The lesson, as it has been in the 74th for years, is don't ever count Joe Morrissey out. Happy holidays!

Democracy: Inconvenient for political parties

This past weekend, the League of Women Voters hosted an event in Richmond to train organizations that want to hold voter registration drives. This is generally a good thing; voting is our most basic political right, and we should provide resources to groups to help them get more people to vote. (H/t to Delegate Betsy Carr for promoting the event through an e-mail to at least some constituents, which is how I found out about it.)

So what's the problem? The training is actually REQUIRED of groups that want to hold voter drives in Virginia. Based on a 2013 law, if your organization requests at least 25 voter registration forms, you have to complete the training. The Virginia Board of Elections offers some training classes (including the one sponsored by the LWV noted above), and some local offices may do so also. You can also complete a 30-minute online training course.

Maybe that doesn't seem so much a burden. But it's yet another restriction that makes it harder for people to vote. Advance voter registration is outdated and pretty useless to begin with, and now the state has made it so groups have to jump through more hoops to try to ease the process for people. And it's not just the training; the 2013 law also prevents groups from pre-populating the form at all (to enter in zip codes, say), and discourages photocopying.

This particular 2013 law was in some ways a response to the ridiculous ACORN "scandal" manufactured by conservative gadfly (and serial liar) James O'Keefe. O'Keefe used doctored videos to claim that ACORN was committing voter fraud on a vast scale, even though a series of state investigations exonerated the organization.

But the VA law is part of a bigger picture, one in which the two parties collude to restrict the electorate in various ways. Republicans are more guilty of these restrictions, in part because a chief piece of their electoral strategy is preventing Democratic voters from getting to the polls. But both parties are guilty of making it harder, and not easier, to vote.

In some ways, the two main parties act as cartels, using the rules of the game to maintain their powerful position. (Politics nerds can review the much-cited work of political scientists Richard Katz and Peter Mair on party cartels.) Even the #2 spot in a two-party system of collusion is better than being one of a group of also-rans. So parties create a system that makes the electorate easier to manage, as well as all the other rules that keep them on top. (Like the rules that restrict external third party challenges and internal outsider candidacies, as I noted last week.)

The textbook I use in my American Government course describes American political history as a battle between elite democrats, who want to restrict participation, and more popular democrats. But even elite dems (who include our founding fathers, by the way) think that the masses should be able to voice their concerns through elections. Instead, our current rules tend toward an aristocracy - rule by the wise, supposedly, but really those with resources.

If you want to have a democracy, and not rule by the rich, then one thing you can do is make it easy to vote. Our political parties are doing the exact opposite.

Cantor's real lesson: stay close to home

Eric Cantor's surprise loss to Dave Brat in the VA 7th primary held a number of lessons for politicos and observers. But one of the key ones for his fellow members of the GOP was supposedly this: stay the hell away from immigration reform, and for god's sake don't mention the A-word. Politico, among many others, noted immediately after Brat's victory that immigration reform was dead. And lo and behold, recent bills to deal with the border crisis have now stalled in both Houses, with one Senator specifically warning his colleagues to thwart the President's will on this or face Cantor's fate.

The claims about immigration were probably overstated, as some even noted at the time. (Including my R-MC colleague Lauren Bell, who has the tweets to prove it.) Still, even if you grant that immigration reform had some potency in Cantor's loss, this was a national problem that his fellow federal officials might take to heart.

Local politicians heard another lesson loud and clear: pay attention to your district. Politico's excellent primary post-mortem noted how Cantor was focused on Washington to the detriment of his actual constituents:

Meanwhile, Cantor’s ambitions increasingly kept him in Washington and away from the district, associates said. The 51-year-old Republican was heir apparent to Boehner — and had a travel schedule and entourage to match — but those trappings of power backfired.

Virginia GOP Chairman Pat Mullins, a Cantor constituent who has known him for years, said Cantor “just wasn’t in the district as much as he used to be. Dave Brat was there.”

The word is that VA state representatives also saw this as a key factor in Cantor's loss, and they do not want to suffer the same fate.

VA residents shouldn't be surprised if they find an increase in the number of mailings they get from their delegates, for example, or see their State Senator popping up more often at local events. A number of Delegate offices that would normally be quiet this summer have instead been buzzing with activity, as staffers and interns fire off fundraising letters, thank-you's, and acknowledgements or helping their boss get to town picnics or parades.

Thanks to America's district-based voting, the old saw about all politics being local is as true as ever. Cantor's loss apparently has been a forceful reminder for VA state reps.