General Assembly sign offers mixed message

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Messages are found on a fence at the construction site for
a new General Assembly Building. Photo by Robert Powell

Is the Virginia General Assembly taking a cue from General Motors or perhaps General Mills?

On a construction fence surrounding the General Assembly Building (GAB) on Richmond’s Capitol Square is this sign: “General Assembly: Serving the People of Virginia Since 1619.”

Having just edited a story about top brands in Virginia, I immediately recognized the statement as a tagline: a catchy slogan promoting a product.

Effective taglines and jingles stick in our brains to the point that we can’t forget them. For example, the sight of a Chevrolet from the late 1950s or early 1960s sparks a memory of Dinah Shore singing, “See the USA in Your Chevrolet.” I also can’t see a box of Wheaties without thinking “The Breakfast of Champions.”

The General Assembly slogan actually is a part of a series of messages touting the construction of a new building that will house legislative offices, committee rooms and a cafeteria. The new 426,000-square-foot, 15-story GAB is part of a $300 million project that also  includes renovation of a state office building and construction of a parking deck.

Messages on the fence surrounding the construction site emphasize that the new building will retain the façade of a structure built in 1912 by the Life Insurance Company of Virginia. Now a complex of four buildings, the GAB is “riddled with asbestos, mold and other hazards,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“Saving this façade with its exquisite classical details, grounds the new building in the Commonwealth’s rich history and preserves a significant part of Capitol Square’s exceptional architectural heritage,” says one message on the fence near an entrance to the square.

Three of the four other messages continue this preservation theme: “General Assembly Building: Virginia History in the Making,” “General Assembly Building: Preserving the Past to Serve Virginia’s Future” and “Commonwealth of Virginia: History in the Making.”

The only outlier is the message talking about the General Assembly itself and its nearly 400-year history. The slogan also stands out because of its position facing a busy section of Broad Street in downtown Richmond. Without knowing about the construction project going on behind it, people passing the fence might wonder: Why is the legislature telling me how long it has been around? 

The General Assembly is justifiably proud that it traces its roots to the Colonial House of Burgesses, making it the oldest continuous legislative body in the New World.

“Serving the People of Virginia Since 1619,” however, is a rather folksy message for a legislative body. It’s the kind of slogan you might see in an ad from a local store in the back of a yearbook. In fact, here are two ads from my 1971 high school annual: “Esserman & Co.: In the Heart of Rome [Ga.] Since 1896” and “Ortwein: Maker of Fine Men’s Clothing Since 1885.”

You wonder if, by mentioning the General Assembly’s long service, legislators aren’t trying to thwart any accusation they are spending state money on themselves. In that case, an interpretation of the message on the fence might be: “This Isn’t Really for Us. We’re Just Trying to Serve You Better.”

Another problem is that the message dredges up four centuries of sometimes disquieting history and suggests the legislature served all Virginians well during that time. Some people would question that claim.

Until 1850, Virginia limited the right to vote to white men who owned property, a practice held over from Colonial times. A half century later, a new constitution effectively stripped blacks of the voting rights they gained after the Civil War. That situation wasn’t remedied until passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965. The General Assembly also wasn’t enthusiastic about giving women the right to vote. It didn’t bother to ratify the 19th Amendment until 1952, more than 30 years after women began casting ballots across the country.

So maybe the message on the fence should be: “General Assembly: Serving Some of the People Most of the Time.”

Legislators might say they have learned from the lessons of history, and they are dedicated to treating constituents equally. Virginia, however, allows unlimited campaign contributions from individuals and corporations to political candidates.  If political spending is free speech, that’s giving some people a megaphone.

The Old Dominion is one of only six states with no restrictions on corporate contributions and one of 11 with no restraints on individual contributions. On top of that, Virginia’s ethics laws often are described as “lax” and toothless despite attempts at reform in recent years. This laissez-faire approach suggests another possible slogan for the construction fence: “General Assembly: Sometimes Tawdry, But Never Illegal.”

Construction on the new GAB is expected to continue until 2021, so the fence and its messages should be on display for some time. But I would suggest adding as a warning label a famous quote attributed to Gideon Tucker, a 19th-century politician and newspaper editor: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

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