Politics and personalities

Nagging issues and old grudges are expected to resurface in the 2016 legislative session

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The panelists included (from left) Jeff Schapiro, Stephen Farnsworth,
Chris Saxman and Ben Dendy. Photo by Rick DeBerry

From November election results to the future of health care in the commonwealth, Virginia Business discussed a wide range of issues at its annual Political Roundtable Nov. 11 at the Omni Richmond Hotel. Virginia Business editors and audience members asked questions of longtime Virginia political observers. The panelists included: Ben Dendy, president of Richmond lobbying firm Vectre Corp. and a former senior staff member of two governors; Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington; Chris Saxman, a former House of Delegates member from Staunton and the executive director of the business advocacy group Virginia FREE; and Jeff Schapiro, columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Below are edited excerpts from the roundtable.

Virginia Business: We’re going to start talking about the most recent elections. Where does McAuliffe go from here? Is there any common ground he can find with Republicans?

Dendy: Well, certainly economic development.  I think he has already made that a priority, and certainly that is a priority for the legislature.  So I think that is the area of common ground. At some level, at some point, they have to come together on the budget and critical issues, and they showed that they could do that two years ago. I think they’ll do it again.   

Schapiro: I think Ben’s correct about economic development … What about those other big money issues such as Medicaid expansion for Obamacare? That would seem to be off the table, and I guess a reminder of how … limited big business can be in its influence.  You know you look at the number of strong advocates for business that supported Medicaid expansion that were roundly ignored by the legislature. And if the initial soundings indicate anything, that will continue until this governor leaves office.  That may be very much by design given the very difficult relationship that the governor has with [Republican Speaker of the House Bill Howell].

Saxman: At our Virginia FREE candidate interviews this year, the candidates that we brought in were all from competitive seats. We had roughly two dozen, both parties represented. All but one of the candidates interviewed said that they were open and flexible to receive federal money for Medicaid expansion if the federal government were to grant Virginia more flexibility to spend the money the way Virginia wanted to. That was Republicans and Democrats alike. I expressed this before the elections to the McAuliffe administration that I thought there was room for possibility here.
VB: Every single incumbent from the legislature was re-elected in the general election. What does this say about the voting process in Virginia? Is this a result of gerrymandering?

Schapiro: It is a consequence of a number of things. I think gerrymandering is clearly a factor. I think Virginia’s odd political schedule is another factor that in an off, off, off-year election, such as the one we’ve just gone through [with no national or statewide races], turnouts are hyper low.  That works to the advantage of incumbents. I think as well, that as Virginia continues to grow … it’s even more difficult to communicate to this new and evolving audience of the importance of these legislative elections. 

Farnsworth: It is important to recognize that the technology of redistricting has become so much more effective compared to how it was even 20 years ago when incumbent lawmakers would hand index cards back and forth with precinct numbers on them to figure out how to draw these lines.  The sophisticated software that can be used now can really create very fine distinctions within precincts to come up with blocks and very precise calculations for where you want your district to be. So the party that is in power … benefits to a much greater degree than in other earlier redistricting, and that creates an environment where a lot of people are very, very frustrated and very discouraged in this day.  You ask people to turn out; well, they want a choice, and if they don’t have it, it’s a little hard to sell them on turning out.

Dendy:  I do think it’s important to note that three legislators lost their seats in primaries:  one senator and two delegates.  So that says really that the real elections are moving to the primaries. 

Saxman: What people see at the polls and why they show up are very different things than [what the pundits say] is going on …  The battleground is suburban America and in suburban America what health-care issue is important?  “You changed my health-care plan.” … As a result, since 2009, look what’s happened to the country. The Democrats have lost a lot of ground.  Nine-hundred-and-ten legislative seats have changed hands across the country, 30 legislative chambers, 69 members of the House of Representatives and 16 members of the United States Senate. Change is occurring. It might not happen in an off, off-year in Virginia, but our special place in America is to be the battleground, bellwether state. And what happened in this election is sight unseen to most people; and it’s very, very important because there are seven …  contested states, in the Electoral College in [the 2016 presidential race], 43 aren’t.

VB: How much does the presidential run play into McAuliffe’s and Howell’s decision-making over the next year and what issues will we see in the next session?

Schapiro: One of the points here that the Republicans are making is that Terry McAuliffe came through this cycle somewhat battered, not exactly victorious, and what does this say about his ability to deliver Virginia?  Well, I guess if I can offer any explanation for the governor’s ineffectiveness in this election, it’s the manner in which the lines are drawn and the effect that has on voting. In an at-large election, such as a presidential election when more people participate, when turnout will be north of 70 percent, that means that the temperature and the temperament of the electorate will be more moderate, and that works to the advantage of Democrats. I guess the one question that I would have is recognizing the passions that were clearly inspired by President Obama’s candidacy.  Will there be that level of enthusiasm assuming a Hillary Clinton nomination and would Virginia as easily revert, if you will, to its kind of blue default position?  

Farnsworth:  I think that one of the issues to consider is whether it is in either the interest of the Democrats or the Republicans in the legislature this year to really make any progress on issues …  I think that one of the dominant themes of modern American politics is not running for or running in favor of yourself but rather running as the alternative to the horrific alternative of the other party, and that’s particularly true, I think, in an environment where primaries are as influential as they are in Virginia politics but also the closely contested nature of this state.

Dendy:  I do think there is so much discussion about redistricting, and it is almost as though everyone has forgotten that the Democrats redistricted the Senate …  I do think there’s an overemphasis on the impact of this year’s election on next year’s election. Every election stands on its own, particularly a national election. I think what happens in the Virginia General Assembly session next year is going to have very little to do with what happens and how Virginians vote one way or the other in next fall’s election.

Saxman:  If I can just briefly pick up on that, I would agree with Ben on that whole-heartedly … What we saw on the ground this year in this election was the Democrats’ ability to close the gaps in a lot of races, and the Republican ground game has not caught up to the “Obama machine,” what they have done in the ’08 and the ’12 elections … Structurally the Democrats have taken the advantage after a long period of time having the losses during the Bush years. They regrouped and started winning elections, and now Republicans have to counter. And to my relatively independent objective analysis of this, they’re still behind.

VB: Besides the budget ,what do you see as the most crucial issue facing the Virginia General Assembly next year? 

Saxman: You’ll have some issues that have been brought up already: voter fraud, sentencing reform, the Clean Power Plan. Those are the things you might see right now, but the budget is everything to these guys.  It drives every conversation.  It drives every negotiation … whether it’s actually about the budget or not. 

Dendy: I do think … the legislature is going to have to grapple with, if not this year, very soon, the whole health-care area.  While I do not think that Medicaid will be expanded at this session, something is going to have to be done to address the plight of hospitals.  In just a few years, the average margin of hospitals is going to be negative; the average margin across the state.  Medicaid reimburses hospitals at 66 cents on the dollar.  Medicare reimburses them at 80 cents on the dollar, and well over 50 percent of the patients in rural and urban hospitals are either Medicaid or Medicare.  

Schapiro:  About a month before the election, Tommy Norment, the Republican Senate majority leader, and Dick Saslaw, his opposite in the Democratic minority, appeared together at Christopher Newport University, and among the issues addressed, of course, was Medicaid expansion.  But perhaps most interesting is what Senator Norment said, that there really is, at least for the Republican majority, there is no plan B [to Medicaid expansion].  Senator Norment did say that perhaps the full deregulation of the hospital industry — doing away with so-called certificates of public need — might be something to pursue. But within the hospital industry, there are some profound visions about how to proceed. Right now, the hospital and health-care association advocacy group … is pushing the idea of some type of self-taxation. This has been attempted before. The [Gerald] Baliles administration floated the idea; it didn’t go anywhere. Governor Wilder introduced one. It was knocked down by the hospitals.  Rural hospitals, and suburban and urban hospitals have very different needs, and the impact of this fee could be very different from hospital to hospital.  And doing away as well with the certificates of public needs would also change the playing field in terms of hospitals’ abilities to compete with one another. 

Farnsworth: I think that we have to recognize that this is a long-term problem and one that’s likely to intensify in the years ahead as fewer and fewer employers offer health-care insurance, and the issues of the uncompensated care, already problematic for hospitals, become more so.

VB: The 2017 gubernatorial race appears to be shaping up as a contest between Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie. How would you handicap that race at this point?  Why isn’t Mark Herring running for governor?  [The roundtable was held before U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, announced he was planning a gubernatorial run.]

Farnsworth: The Republicans had the attorney general’s office for about 20 years, and it has been a very useful vehicle for litigation with respect to social causes.  Now that the Democrats have had one term of a Democratic attorney general, I think they’ve grown to like having the ability to shape the discourse and the litigation with respect to social issues themselves. And no doubt about it, a competition between a lieutenant governor and an attorney general would create an open seat for the attorney general’s race that wouldn’t be necessarily in the best interest of the Democrats. 

Schapiro: One of the things that Republicans are hoping to accomplish, or certainly Ed Gillespie is hoping to accomplish, is to establish him as the consensus nominee.  There are certain parallels between Mr. Gillespie and Governor McAuliffe.  Both are “come heres,” both live in Northern Virginia, both of them have considerable fundraising ability as former national [political party] chairmen, and both of them are great communicators. The contrast between Northam and Gillespie would be very interesting in a lower-turnout gubernatorial election, and given the very close contest between Gillespie and Mark Warner for the U.S. Senate, I think Republicans arguably are confident that in a matchup with Ralph Northam, Republicans might prevail.

Saxman: I think if Ed Gillespie were the nominee for the Republican party — and that’s yet to be determined because they’re going to have a convention, and all bets are off until that’s pretty set — if that’s the matchup, I think Ed enters as the stronger candidate for a number of reasons, fundraising in particular, but also having been out there longer doing national and statewide stuff.  So I think that structurally sets him up for a win. I would give it a lean [toward] Gillespie at this point right now, two years out, [but] it’s gotta be a toss-up.  There are too many variables nationally to affect that outcome.

Dendy: To me, the two big issues will be: How do the Democrats raise their money and how do the Republicans do in Northern Virginia? If you look at this election, it was a good election in Northern Virginia for Democrats. Going into the election, everybody that I heard said the Democrats were likely to lose a seat on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.  They picked up a seat. They elected the chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. So there was very little good news coming out of Northern Virginia for Republicans this year.

Audience question: I have never seen the antipathy between the legislative branch and executive branch that exists today. My question is: To what extent is that purely partisanship or to what extent is it personal disaffections between Tommy Norment and Terry McAuliffe and the speaker [Bill Howell]? It just seems it gets worse every day.

Schapiro:  Well the egos keep getting bigger.  If you’re Bill Howell and Tommy Norment, you are the embodiment of a Republican-controlled legislature. Keeping in mind that when your party continues to lose at the statewide level, your role as party leaders, I think, are magnified.  I do think that the speaker and the Republican majority leader … are accustomed to a measure of stroking that they’re not getting from Terry McAuliffe. I think they’ve found, as well, that the governor’s talent for — I would charitably describe them — theatrics is essentially translated as smash-mouth, in-your-face confrontation by the Republican leadership of the General Assembly.  I would note, however, that the Republicans have their own internal difficulties.  The speaker, very effectively, uses his prerogatives to keep his caucus, his pretty uniformly conservative caucus, in line. So I think there are a lot of complications beyond the personal that add to these antagonisms between the executive and legislative branches.   

Saxman:  Antipathy just builds up over time if no one’s going to break the ice. It’s a relationship where you have to come to a resolution, or it’s just going to get worse. Relationships can either get better or they get worse, and this one’s just getting worse. Until someone is going to step up to the plate and say, “we’re going to make it better,” it’s not going to get better.

Farnsworth:  I would say that it’s important, too, to recognize how the personalities have changed.  If we were having this conversation 15 or 20 years ago, we would include in this conversation Russ Potts and John Chichester and that group of moderate Republican senators that basically were the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans in Richmond a dozen or so years ago. The disappearance of the more moderate wing of the Republican Senate creates an environment where there really isn’t that much persuasion that can be undertaken effectively, and that creates real challenges.

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