Power shift

Northern Va.’s political influence is on the rise

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by Jessica Sabbath

If Virginia’s state legislators think they fixed the state’s transportation woes last year, Corey A. Stewart wants them to think again.

Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, expects the Northern Virginia delegation’s new power in state politics to bring home results. It’s not an uncommon sentiment among local residents who believe that for too long Virginia’s most powerful economic engine has been shortchanged at the state legislature. “Transportation is Northern Virginia’s No. 1 problem,” says Stewart. “We’ve got all kinds of new power here in Northern Virginia, and we need to use that to focus new resources in transportation.”

Northern Virginia has long plumped the state’s coffers from its economic bounty. Yet its political clout in Richmond has never reflected its economic strength. That is poised to change. With its fast-growing population influencing the outcome of recent elections and a new wave of key committee chairmanships in the state Senate in 2008, Virginia’s cash cow is becoming too powerful to ignore. “They are a third of the electorate, and more every day,” says Stephen J. Farnsworth, associate professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. “They are more than a third of the economy. And they feel like Richmond has really never taken them very seriously.”

In fact, Farnsworth sees a new order in the making. “I tend to think that there’s going to be a pent-up demand for big change in Virginia that isn’t going to necessarily be seen this year, probably not next year or the year after,” says Farnsworth. “But by 2011 or 2012, there is going to be a fundamental reordering of Virginia politics with respect to Northern Virginia’s interest in being taken better care of in Richmond.”

Unprecedented power in 2008
It’s hard to feel sorry for Northern Virginia. Unemployment is virtually non-existent at around 2 percent. The median household income is the highest in the country in two of its counties: at $100,318 in Fairfax and $99,371 in Loudoun in 2006, way above the state average of $56,277. Since 1990, Northern Virginia has created 52 percent of all new jobs in the state, according to Chris Chmura of Chmura Economics and Analytics in Richmond, with about a third of its population.

But Northern Virginians often have felt ignored in Richmond. Only four Virginia governors have had significant ties to the region. Before Democratic Govs. Charles S. Robb (1982 to 1986) and Mark R. Warner (2002-2006), the last governors from Northern Virginia were Westmoreland Davis of Loudoun County, who served from 1918 until 1922, and Fitzhugh Lee, from 1886 to 1890. Lee was born in Fairfax and later farmed in Stafford County. “The legislature of Virginia has been going since 1619, but there’s never been a time when the power or positions in either body have been concentrated with Northern Virginians,” says Gov. Timothy M. Kaine. “Other regions of the state have often had kind of a concentration of power positions in one body or sometimes both. Northern Virginia never has.”

Part of the problem is that Northern Virginia’s political focus tends to be on the federal government in Washington, D.C., rather than the state government in Richmond. The number of federal government employees and government contractors in the region means residents often feel they have more at stake in D.C. “An awful lot of people in Northern Virginia work for the federal government and commute into D.C., so there is a huge overpowering interest in what goes on in Washington, north of the Occoquan,” says Fansworth. “But this influence that will come to Northern Virginia as a result of the partisan shift in the Senate may increase the level of public interest in Virginia politics.”

When legislators return to the newly renovated Capitol for the 2008 session, Democrats will control the state Senate for the first time in 10 years, and Northern Virginia’s higher profile will be much in evidence. The Senate’s new majority leader is Sen. Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax, who follows Republican Sen. Walter Stosch of Glen Allen. The power shift also gives six legislators from the area traditionally thought of as Northern Virginia (Loudoun, Prince William, Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria, Manassas and Manassas Park) chairmanships of the Senate’s 11 permanent committees. In addition, one committee will be led by a senator from Spotsylvania. Like many of the outlying localities, it’s now grouped by the Office of Budget and Management with the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area because of the increasing number of people who commute into Northern Virginia.

The region’s politicians will lead two of the Senate’s most powerful committees — Commerce and Labor and Finance. That’s welcome news for Northern Virginia because it took a hit in the House of Delegates last year when Fairfax Republican Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. — who steered millions to the region as Appropriations Committee chairman — announced that he would retire.

Chairmanships traditionally are based on seniority, and Democratic control now means chairmanships held by mostly rural senators were replaced with urban legislators — with a majority from Northern Virginia.

Legislators and political observers say major legislative change is unlikely this year under Northern Virginia’s new powers. After all, conservative Republicans still have firm control of the House of Delegates, and their views often clash with moderates in the Senate. “You still have a split in the General Assembly,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Nothing is going to happen that is not agreed to by the governor, Senate and the House.”

In addition, the projected $641 million shortfall in the budget will likely rein in any expensive initiatives the region’s legislators push for.
But dialogue likely will change in the General Assembly, and some Northern Virginia legislators are hoping they can capitalize on the new power. “The conversation is going to be much more about Northern Virginia than in the past,” says Farnsworth. “Above all there will be a lot more discussion about the perceived inequality of what Northern Virginia pays and what Northern Virginia gets.”

Sen. Charles J. Colgan, D-Prince William, who will lead the Senate Finance Committee, hopes to steer money to George Mason University and the region’s community college campuses to help relieve overcrowding. “I do think that Northern Virginia has not always been looked upon highly in the expansion of our higher education facilities and our transportation infrastructure,” says Colgan.

But Colgan believes defining how much money Northern Virginians give to Richmond is difficult because of the increasing number of people who live outside of Northern Virginia but work in the region. “I do think we have been shortchanged, but I don’t think it’s as much as people think,” says Colgan.
Colgan also wants to increase salaries for teachers and other state employees in Northern Virginia, who face a much higher cost of living than their counterparts elsewhere in the state.

Kaine believes any initiatives that help Northern Virginia succeed will benefit the rest of the state. “In the last 15 years much of the economic success that has put the dollars in the state’s budget … has been because of the fantastic economic growth in Northern Virginia,” notes the governor. “So, having Northern Virginia have folks who can help it thrive even more is going to have tremendous benefit to the rest of the state as well.”

Transportation still an issue
Northern Virginia’s population growth and economic fortunes have caused crippling congestion. Local officials say the gridlock hurts economic development. According to predictions, the problem is expected to only get worse. The region’s metropolitan statistical area, which includes Washington, D.C., and parts of Maryland, is expected to grow by 1.3 million people by 2025. Seventy percent of the new residents are expected to live outside the Beltway, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. 

Transportation remains Northern Virginia’s No. 1 issue. Still, legislators disagree on whether the state should revisit the issue after passing a bill last year that provided ways to raise more than $1 billion a year for transportation projects. Most agree, though, that action is needed to address the controversial abusive driver fees that were part of last year’s package.

But Northern Virginia’s new powers may see that additional transportation revenue or new methods to combat traffic congestion at least enter political discussions this year. All of the senators who will lead committees this year voted against last year’s transportation package, which barely passed the Senate in a 21-19 vote. Saslaw says increased leadership from Northern Virginia might push transportation to the forefront again. “The bill that was passed last year was not very well assembled,” says Saslaw. “I’m thinking seriously about revisiting this thing.”

Last year the Republican-controlled legislature passed a transportation package that borrowed $3 billion for statewide projects and gave money-raising powers to regional authorities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to raise up to $400 million and $200 million, respectively, for local transportation projects. “Legislators realized that we have a problem up here, and they were willing to do what it took to solve it,” says Republican Del. David Albo of Fairfax, who crafted the regional plan. “In the 400-year history of Virginia, it’s the biggest transportation bill ever.”

But some don’t believe the plan was enough. Stewart, of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, scoffs at suggestions that the legislature dealt with the problem in 2007, calling the regional package “a drop in the bucket.” Faced with increasing traffic and not nearly enough state funds to fill the county’s needs, county voters have approved bond referendums for more than $476 million since 1988 for its own transportation projects. The most recent referendum, which passed in 2006, raised $300 million to widen some of the county’s largest roads.

Now, however, the county has used up its debt capacity. “The county has already done the state’s job because the state has failed to do its job of building roads,” says Stewart. “Now the debt has reached its capacity, and we can’t take out further debt without risking our credit rating.”

Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, says last year’s bill made a difference, but there’s still a lot of work to do. For example, highway maintenance is under-funded, says Chase. Maintenance needs are at least $260 million more than revenues, and the shortfall is expected to increase at $50 million a year. This is a problem that must be addressed, says Chase. “We are certainly appreciative of what the General Assembly did in 2007, but everybody needs to recognize that there’s still a lot of hard work to be done for Virginia’s transportation needs,” says Chase.

Higher political profile
Aside from leadership changes in the Senate, Northern Virginia has boosted the importance of its political profile in recent elections.

Since 2004, in gubernatorial and Senate races, Northern Virginia has been credited with helping Democratic statewide candidates win. Even Prince William and Loudoun counties have left their status as reliably red. Both supported Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine over Republican Jerry Kilgore in 2005 and Democrat James Webb over former U.S. Sen. George Allen in 2006. “Obviously, the old adage that the statewide candidate could win Virginia by doing well in Southern Virginia and just not losing Northern Virginia by too much doesn’t work anymore,” says Albo. “There’s 93,000 people moving up there each year, and the candidates are going to have to come here and deliver their messages.”

Northern Virginia’s gain in political power has hurt the Republican Party in recent statewide elections. “Northern Virginians are two things that really matter politically: they are centrists and they are almost permanently alienated from Richmond,” says Sabato. “They are more a part of Washington than Richmond. That means Republicans have been unable to make inroads. Rightly or wrongly, Republicans are seen in Northern Virginia as being too far to the right, especially on the social issues, and it just doesn’t fit the Northern Virginia suburban ethos.”

Republicans who will do best in Northern Virginia are moderate and have ties to the region, Sabato says. “This isn’t a permanent alignment with the Democrats. There’s nothing permanent in politics.”

Redistricting to build more power
Northern Virginia likely will see another surge in political power after redistricting in 2011, when the General Assembly will redraw congressional and state legislator districts to reflect population shifts after the 2010 Census.  “Since the mid-1960s, Northern Virginia has gained with every single redistricting and the [2011] redistricting will be no different,” says Sabato. “It’s going to gain additional House members and another half a congressman.”

The 2011 redistricting is when legislators predict Northern Virginia could be more influential. Although they would face an uphill battle, this may be the time when Northern Virginia legislators force serious discussions about the state’s funding formulas that favor other regions of the state.

Transportation funding allocation, for example, is based on lane miles rather than the number of vehicle trips per day — a formula that benefits the more rural regions of the state. On the other hand, Northern Virginia projects have received the bulk of interstate money recently with the $2.4 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the $676 million Springfield Interchange.

The state’s education money is a complicated formula that includes factors such as the number of students and a locality’s wealth. On the scale, Fairfax pays for 76 percent for its core curriculum, while some of the poorer counties support only about 20 percent of their own districts. “Funding formulas have been a very sore subject in Northern Virginia,” says Democratic state Sen.-elect J. Chapman Petersen of Fairfax, who defeated incumbent Republican Jeannemarie Devolites Davis in the November election. Petersen believes the state should subsidize at least one-third of each locality’s core curriculum.

“The state’s population continues to move north of the Rappahannock which means we have a greater share of not only money but people,” says Petersen. “It’s inevitable that this is going to shake down into funding formulas, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

He makes clear that no one believes Northern Virginia should refuse help to poorer localities, but the region can’t be ignored by the state. “Just because we have moved up through the ranks and are now in senior positions doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to want to make things for home cooking,” says Petersen.

Northern Virginians say they just want a fair shake in Richmond. Helping the region capitalize on its economic power should ultimately help the rest of the state.

After all, Virginia is a commonwealth. “[Legislators] have an understanding that this is truly a commonwealth,” says Kaine. “You’re not going to succeed by having one part of the state doing great and forgetting about other parts of the state.”


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