To: The new Democratic majority in the General Assembly.
Congratulations on your recent victory. Congratulations, too, to your new leaders. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax County, will be the next speaker of the House — the first woman and the first person of the Jewish faith to hold that position. Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, will be the next House Majority Leader — the first woman and the first African American in that post. Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax County, will be the chair of the newly-expanded House Democratic Caucus. In the Senate, Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax County, will reclaim the title of Senate Majority Leader he last held five years ago.
These are historic selections, particularly in the House. While Democrats naturally are going to be more excited than Republicans about all this, all Virginians should be proud that the state’s leadership now begins to reflect the full breadth of our citizenry.
There is one way, though, that this new political order does not reflect the state’s diversity. We notice all these new leaders share one thing in common besides the “D” political affiliation after their name. All are from Northern Virginia.
In many ways, of course, this isn’t surprising. Northern Virginia is the state’s largest population center — constituting about 37% of the state’s population, and that share increases every day. It’s also where the Democratic Party is strongest. After this month’s elections, there’s now not a single Republican legislator from the core of Northern Virginia — Fairfax County, Falls Church, Arlington, Alexandria, and the City of Fairfax. It’s hard to believe that this was once part of the Republican base in Virginia.
With Democratic control of state government, we also now have Northern Virginia control of state government: All the top Democratic state legislative leaders are from Northern Virginia. So are two of the three statewide officials — Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring — are from Northern Virginia. So are half of our U.S. senators.
All that leaves those of us out here in the western part of the state feeling somewhat estranged. Now, some might say “tough, you’ve had your turn.” However, the part of the state west of the Blue Ridge has always felt estranged from Richmond. That’s why 55 counties broke away in 1863. But we digress.
The present political reality is that we don’t really know our new legislative leaders — and you likely don’t know us. Oh, you may think you do. You’ve probably been to meetings that took you to Virginia Tech or even the famed Martha Washington Inn in Abingdon. Umm, those places are certainly in Southwest Virginia but they’re not the entirety of Southwest Virginia. Umm, even if you’re in Abingdon, there’s still a lot of Virginia to your west — it’s still more than two hours from there to the Cumberland Gap.
If you look at an election map, you’ll see that Southside and Southwest Virginia are almost an entirely uninterrupted sea of red — Roanoke and parts of the New River Valley being the main exceptions. Parts of Southwest Virginia are even more Republican than Northern Virginia is Democratic. (In the 2017 governor’s race, the Democratic vote in Arlington hit 79.9%, but the Republican vote in Scott County topped out at 81.4%.) Politically, we don’t have much in common. We could list lots of other differences, too, but we’re not here to dwell on those. We live in a world that already puts too much emphasis on the things that separate us. Instead, let’s focus on the ways that we’re connected.
Here’s the big one: You subsidize us. You already know this, of course. We’re the ones who tend not to think of our relationship that way. We like to think we’re strong, independent, self-sufficient people, but the reality is that we in rural Virginia are wards of the state. You in Northern Virginia pay most of your school expenses on your own. Out here, most of our school budgets come from the state government. In Arlington, local taxpayers pay $17,193 per student; the state only chips in $1,676. That local contribution alone in Arlington is nearly twice as much as the total amount of money spent per student in Norton — after you’ve added in all the local, state and federal money ($9,219).
Sometimes we hear politicians from Northern Virginia ask: Don’t you care about your kids? Why don’t you spend more money on your schools like we do? Umm, we don’t have it. You live in not just the wealthiest part of the state but one of the wealthiest in the country. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau says that Loudoun County has the highest median household income of any county in the country — $139,915. Arlington and Farifax aren’t far behind at $122,394 and $122,227. Meanwhile, in Buchanan County, the median household income is $29,679. In Grayson County, it’s $29,942. Need we go on?
This is why you have shiny new schools while we have old ones with roofs that leak and electrical systems that can’t always handle the power surge required for new technologies. In the 1940s, it was a liberal Democrat from Northern Virginia — Francis Pickens Miller — who championed state spending on new schools. Will you? If so, you can join forces with a conservative from rural Virginia — state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, who has waged a lonely battle so far for school construction funds that both parties have pointedly ignored. Some of the stereotypes about this part of the state are probably true, but others aren’t. Does it surprise you that we have Republicans from coal counties pushing renewable energy? We do, because they understand that’s essential to attract technology companies. Who was most excited that Arlington won the bid for Amazon? Rural Virginia was, because, frankly, we’re hoping to pick up some of your crumbs. These are everyday realities in many rural communities.
“Privilege” is a word we hear used a lot these days, typically from those on the left, used in social contexts such as “white privilege” or “male privilege” or some other sort of privilege. All those things are true to varying degrees, of course. But here’s another truth: In the context of Virginia, it’s you in Northern Virginia who have the privilege — the privilege of wealth, the privilege of education, the privilege of economic opportunity, the privilege of not watching your sons and daughters move away because there are no jobs for them. And now you have the privilege of political power. We hope you use it wisely. And we hope you use some of it to help parts of the state that didn’t elect any of you.