A few weeks ago, we wrote approvingly of the first summit of local governments from the Alleghany Highlands and Roanoke Valley and New River valleys. The official purpose of the Sept. 12 meeting, was for local elected officials to get a briefing on the research taking place at the Virginia Tech Carilion Academic Health Complex — and the economic potential it holds for the whole region.
We wrote that it was important for local elected officials to understand the forces remaking the economy because, whether they realize it, local officials have to deal with these forces. More specifically, we wrote: “Local officials get elected on the basis of very local concerns. However, once in office, they find themselves dealing with global forces. Those global forces may not be identified as such when they show up as an agenda item, but that’s really what they are. Why did Pulaski lose its textile and furniture factories? Why does it matter that Covington has one of the least-educated workforces in the state? All these fit together as puzzle pieces in a changing economy. Who do we expect to fix that economy? The president deals with the broader economy, but when it comes to the details of why an individual community prospers (or not), those details fall on local officials. That might not be what a lot of them bargained for when they decided to run for office, but life is often more complicated than we first think.”
That prompted one of our frequent correspondents —and critics — to email us to say:
“Local, small-town, part-time, amateur politicians and their government administrators who are overwhelmed with other priorities (e.g., sewer lines, pot holes, stop lights) are called upon in editorials to arm-wrestle the amoral global free market’s invisible hand. Care to guess who’s destined to win that one? Especially when a substantial number of higher-level conservative politicians (euphemism for Republicans) advocate — with religious zeal — the virtual immutability and absolute righteousness of America’s capitalist free market’s process for picking winners and losers. Thus, locals are called on to confront powerful allied forces on two fronts!”
Our correspondent is correct: Local governments are outmatched. Local governments are, indeed, generally run by entry-level politicians who are elected for lots of reasons other than their views on macro-economics. Furthermore, among officials at all levels of government, local politicians have the fewest tools to work with when it comes to dealing with their economies.
And yet the fact remains: They must, as our correspondent puts it, “arm-wrestle the amoral global free market’s invisible hand.” So do officials in state and federal government, for that matter. But let’s face it: State and federal officials’ concern for localities in western Virginia is, shall we say, limited.
The president — any president — doesn’t really care about a specific locality. He — or perhaps someday she — might care about global trade and national jobs numbers. But do you think the president got a special briefing to learn that FreightCar was shutting down its Roanoke shops, eliminating 200 jobs, or that Norfolk Southern had furloughed 130 workers in Roanoke? Of course not.
The governor probably did get told those things. But we also know all too well where we fit in the context of Virginia. An aide rushes into the governor’s office to tell the state’s chief executive there are two urgent calls pending. One is from a local government in Northern Virginia, the other one in western Virginia. Which one do you think will get answered first? We are at the mercy of the old Vulcan logic that Mr. Spock used to recite on “Star Trek:” “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” That’s not a reflection on the current occupant of the Executive Mansion; it’s simply a reflection of math. Virginia governors care about the whole state, but they have a whole state to worry about.
So that brings us back to local governments. Nobody in government is going to care more about your locality than your local governing body. Ultimately, it’s up to voters to make sure they’re picking the best people for that job, although that’s easier said than done. Voters can only respond to the choices before them on the ballot. Still, we come back to the point we made originally: Yes, local governments these days really do have to deal with the global economy. Yes, those governing bodies might be part-time, they might not have many tools to work with, but who else is going to do it?
It’s a daunting task, to be sure, but not always an impossible one.
We have some examples in our midst. Roanoke is one. In the 1980s and 1990s, Roanoke saw some big economic trends rearrange our economic landscape. The railroad headquarters went away. Dominion Bank got subsumed into the Charlotte-based First Union Bank (and eventually the San Francisco-based Wells Fargo). It took a while, but in time local governments responded — and still are responding. The medical school and research institute that local officials got briefed about is one part of that response to build a new economy. That complex might seem glamorous now. but in the early 2000s it involved some controversial decisions by Roanoke city government to acquire the land for a project that many couldn’t visualize. Where would we be today if those city councils — and then-City Manager Darlene Burcham — hadn’t done that?
An even more dramatic example is found two hours east in Danville. Two decades ago, the city was effectively left for dead as the textile industry collapsed. The governor at the time — Jim Gilmore — seemed particularly unconcerned. Today, Danville is on the way back, fashioning a new economy based on advanced manufacturing and a small technology sector. The city’s comeback, however incomplete, wasn’t driven by presidents or governors but by local leaders. (To be fair, some governors did make some decisions that helped; they just weren’t the drivers.) All those are examples of local governments trying to “arm-wrestle the amoral global free market’s invisible hand” — and succeeding. It’s easy to look at certain other localities, beset by the same global forces, and see where they haven’t succeeded. Or perhaps they haven’t even tried?
That’s why voters should pay a lot more attention to local government. In many ways, it matters a whole lot more who sits on those boards than who sits in Richmond or Washington.