Come on, come on down, sweet Virginia

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier
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September is a favorite month.  With cooling weather and the beginnings of fall colors, memories wander back to college days, thoughts of returning to school and reuniting with friends after three months on a summer job, a chance to do what we did best in the 1970s — party down!

Fall weekends meant keg parties in dorm basements. The music was loud, and the beer flowed. The Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia” was a popular song of the day.  When its guitar-picking intro came through the speakers, we’d pop back our shoulders doing a Jagger-like strut. “Come on, come on down, sweet Virginia…  Got to scrape that [stuff] right off your shoes.”

Being from Virginia meant good things back in those days.  Country-chic was cool.

Today, things aren’t quite so swell for the commonwealth, if you have been keeping up with the news. Once again the Old Dominion will have to clean itself up from embarrassing events that have made national news.

The messy spectacle created by the trial of ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell has vastly exceeded expectations. Who would have thought a trial defense that, in pretrial filings, ranged from charges of prosecutorial overreach to protestations that everybody does it would so quickly morph into a tawdry soap opera script once the trial began.

Regardless of the jury’s verdict, the McDonnell trial hurts Virginia’s reputation.  Once again, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” seized the opportunity to satirize the commonwealth.
Stewart described Jonnie Williams as creating a “tobacco-based wonder drug” and quoted trial testimony (as reported by the Washington Post) that Williams “had discovered how to remove the ‘strongest and most abundant carcinogens in cigarette smoke’ with 200 microwaves he sent an employee to buy from Wal-Mart.” 

As I’ve often said, you can’t make this stuff up!  Truth, however murky it may seem in the trial proceedings, is indeed stranger than fiction.  Stewart, a 1984 alumnus of the College of William and Mary, knows something about Virginia.  My guess is that September meant keg parties back in his college days, too.

Unfortunately, such broadsides against the reputation of the commonwealth aren’t just one-off events. 

In early August, Bob FitzSimmonds, treasurer of Virginia’s Republican Party, resigned after posting embarrassing anti-Muslim comments on Facebook.  This was not FitzSimmonds’ first Facebook miscue, having made offensive comments earlier this year regarding women supporting Barbara Comstock, a Republican candidate seeking to succeed retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th District).

Negative comments against any group of people, are ill-advised in both life and politics.  They are quickly reminiscent of George Allen’s infamous “Macaca moment,” not exactly Virginia’s finest hour.

Since playing a key leadership role in the founding of our nation, Virginia has established itself as more of a laggard than a leader in long list of causes.  There is no need to go back as far as the Civil War to find a litany of changes that have met with political opposition from the commonwealth — the New Deal, Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, Obamacare and so on. There is a tendency to identify these causes as initiatives of the Democratic Party, but many of them were opposed at a time when conservative Democrats largely controlled Virginia.

Despite opposing many federal programs, the commonwealth has long benefited from  federal spending.  More recently, efforts to downsize government have resulted in a corresponding downsizing of Virginia’s growth. 

After enjoying decades of above average ratings in many categories, our dependence on federal spending is showing its downside.  It is ironic that Virginia has prospered so much from the nation’s evolving federalism while largely opposing its growth.  As they say in real estate —location, location, location.

Less conservative modern-day Democrats have proven their ability to carry statewide elections in Virginia but have failed miserably at building the sort of bench strength that comes from winning clear majorities in the General Assembly.  At this point, it seems clear that neither party is able to govern from the middle.

What we need is a return to centrist politics with the goal being what is best for citizens, rather than a simple-minded allegiance to party power and a narrow set of partisan positions.

Here are some specific changes that Virginia needs:

  • Meaningful political ethics reform, ending a laissez-faire approach to campaign fundraising disclosures.
  • Fair redistricting reform. Visit onevirginia2021.org for more information.
  • Gubernatorial succession — despite the McDonnell fiasco.  If a second term for a governor can’t win support, we should consider term limits for the General Assembly.
  • Voter participation. The 40 percent range of voter participation in non-presidential elections means a minority rather than a majority selects our leaders.

Let’s recap: September is a wonderful month, but the world is watching, and we’ve got our work to do in Virginia.  Puffing out our chests and dancing to the old music just isn’t getting the job done.

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