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.

Dems love "local control" (today)

This week marks the start of the 2016 session of the General Assembly. Among the bills to be discussed is a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the State Board of Education more power to establish public charter schools. (This bill was passed during last year's session, but needs two consecutive "yes" votes from the GA to be placed on the ballot for ratification by Virginia voters.)

Style Weekly's Leah Small has a nice rundown of the political stakes involved:

Expect Democrats to push against a proposed amendment to the state constitution that many Republicans hope will grow the number of the state’s charter schools. It would allow the State Board of Education to create charter schools without approval from local school boards.... Many Democrats disagree on the grounds that the operation of public schools belongs in the arena of local schools boards, not the state.

It's good to see consistency from our public officials, as we see the Republicans call for more local control and the Democrats push for centralized.... wait, what? Isn't it Republicans who rail against powerful central governments, and Democrats who often want to overcome resistance to change from local officials?

I wrote about a similar situation last March, when Republicans blocked local governments from setting a "wage floor" when hiring contractors. Then, Republicans were more concerned about what they saw as onerous regulations on small businesses than about letting local governments do what they want. I compared this to what political scientists call "situational federalism," where politicians support the idea of a strong federal government OR the power of local government when and where it suits them.

The same dynamic is going on here. Republicans drop the whole idea of "local control" whenever its convenient; in this case, they care more about "school choice." Democrats (driven in part by teacher union opposition to charters) are left on unfamiliar ground: supporting the principle of local autonomy.

The irony here is that the constitutional provisions that prevent the State Board from seizing the initiative on charter schools were put in place by progressive reformers. As Delegate Jim LeMunyon noted in a November op-ed supporting the constitutional amendment, the state government's role in school control was part of the racist "massive resistance" strategy to fight desegregation. Led by then-US Senator Harry Byrd, the state closed schools rather than allow them to be integrated. (To confuse things even further: on the national level, Republican appeals to "states' rights" were -- and often remain -- almost always coded racism.)

So the parties, officials, and key issues may have changed, but conservatives again are seeking to restore the state role in education, while progressives line up for local control. Just don't expect that alignment to last - even through this session.

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.

VA Senate 10 shows why going negative works

Dan Gecker is waging a full out war on Republican opponent Glen Sturtevant in his mail campaign. And he's showing why candidates choose to go negative: it's working.

As I've noted before, the main thrust of Gecker's campaign is to attack Sturtevant on education, a classic move to rile up the Democratic base while trying to pick off moderate Republican voters who care about the issue. (Republicans do the same thing in reverse with taxes.) But his latest mailers up the ante considerably, noting that "Glen Sturtevant is being sued for his SECRET PLAN to redraw our school district lines." This is only somewhat true. Not to play Politifact here, but Gecker's claims are way more than misleading:

  • Yes, there's a lawsuit, but it targets the entire School Board, not Sturtevant specifically.
  • The lawsuit claims that Sturtevant "engaged in a series of secret meetings" with fellow school board members to redraw zoning lines. This is unfortunately true, but more likely done out of ignorance rather than an attempt to skirt public debate. (The lawsuit implicates School Board Veep Kristen Larson in these meetings, and anyone who knows Kristen would find the claims that she was avoiding public scrutiny to be ludicrous.)
  • The lawsuit also argues that the rezoning disproportionately benefited wealthy white students. In fact, the rezoning was done in part to try to bring more wealthy white students into the school system, in response to South Side activists who are trying to do just that. (Activists like my neighbor Bryce Lyle, who has never hidden anything about these efforts.)
  • Finally, the mailers reproduce e-mails from the lawsuit that suggest that Sturtevant knowingly allowed the rezone to go forward even though it puts Westover HIlls Elementary over capacity. What the mailer fails to note is that the e-mails are referring to POTENTIAL students; WH Elementary WOULD be over capacity if all those wealthy white students started going there (which they are currently not).

The lawsuit raises some legitimate issues about racism in school zoning and allocation of school resources, and the School Board and the City really need to deal with those issues more directly. But to lay this all at Sturtevant's feet is a bit much.

We don't have polling available for the 10th district, so how do I know that this negative line of argument is working? Because Sturtevant is now sending out mailers on education. His latest argues that "Dan Gecker is telling lies to cover his failed record on education." A second mailer sent this week compares the candidates on education funding, teacher pay, and smaller class sizes. This is a tacit admission from Sturtevant that his campaign is putting Gecker in the driver's seat, allowing the Democratic candidate to define the issues that the campaign is about.

Sturtevant's probably better off working the tax angle, especially in this Tea Party-influenced environment. And he is still doing this in some mailers and TV ads, arguing that Gecker voted to raise taxes and fees. (Although his own claims are not always truthful, as Politifact points out.)

But the more he talks about education, the more he shifts the campaign to Democratic ground, and the more he allows Gecker to define the campaign, and to define Sturtevant himself. Letting your opponent dictate the story of your campaign is never a good thing, and that may mean good things for Gecker in November.

Attacks start in VA Senate 10 race

Political ads are all about defining the candidate in the public eye (and in the media). Negative ads are no different: it's just the candidate is trying to define his or her opponent.

The 10th Senate race is on my mind lately, because it's showing up in my mailbox. Recent mailers from both campaigns suggest the line of attack each candidate will take when bashing the other. Both Democrat Dan Gecker and Glen Sturtevant sent mailers last week attacking their opponent; both were, unsurprisingly, disingenuous.

First, Gecker sent out a mailer promoting his work on education, including his vote on last year's Chesterfield County budget which included funding for additional teachers and, supposedly, reducing class sizes. The ad also makes this claim, though: "Glen Sturtevant is the only school board member who voted against a budget providing funds to reduce class sizes."

The claim is footnoted (as most claims in political ads are now, thankfully) by a May 2015 Richmond Times-Dispatch article. But go to the actual article, and you find that Sturtevant did vote against the budget - for other reasons entirely. The RTD reports:

The lone vote of dissent on the budget came from Glen Sturtevant of the 1st District. Sturtevant favored giving teachers a 2 percent raise and opposed adding professional development days before improving the quality of professional development the school system offers. He said he thinks suburban counties do a better job of finding ways to pay their teachers.

“I thought it important that we find ways to remain competitive,” Sturtevant said.

This may be wrong-headed, but class sizes have nothing to do with it.

Sturtevant's own attack has a stronger leg to stand on. His ad from last week breathlessly claims that Gecker "voted for a property tax increase costing homeowners $3,000,000 more a year." And, unfortunately for Gecker, this is true.

Again, context matters, though. Gecker resisted another board member's call for a 2-3 cent increase and advocated other budget cuts. Sturtevant claims that Gecker "repeatedly advocated for higher tax rates," but there are significant pressures on local government that might make that a sane choice.

In the end, both attacks play into prevailing narratives; the Democrat loves taxes and the Republican hates education. Still, Sturtevant's claims may hurt Gecker more than the reverse. Even back during the Democratic primary, Gecker's vote for a tax increase (in that very 2004 budget he touted in his own ad) was seen as problematic for his campaign. A good rule of thumb in politics is to never be on the "yes" end of a tax increase - particularly close to an election year. We'll see how hard Sturtevant hits this point in the weeks to come.

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.