Sports teams trade players all the time. What if states could do the same with politicians?
Consider this a thought experiment. If states could trade politicians like athletes, here’s the trade we’d propose: Virginia and North Carolina should swap governors. We’d send Ralph Northam to Raleigh and in return get Roy Cooper.
We mean no disrespect to Northam. He obviously suffered some political damage in the whole “blackface” scandal. However, he’s still amassed a record that rivals some of Virginia’s most important governors. He got Medicaid expansion through the General Assembly. He got through a dedicated funding stream for Interstate 81. Under his administration, Virginia landed Amazon and was rated by CNBC as the “best place to do business.” You can argue that Northam doesn’t deserve the credit for these things, of course. It helped that the 2017 elections brought in a lot more Democrats and then some rural Republicans decided Medicaid expansion might be good for their constituents, after all. On I-81, it was Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, who did a lot of the behind-the-scenes work in the legislature. On Amazon, well, the company might have chosen Arlington no matter who the governor was.
Still, that’s not how politics works — or sports, either, for that matter. Coaches get credit when they’re simply lucky to have a star athlete in the line-up; even the most brilliant ones get the blame when their players commit blunders in the game. Northam has a lot going for him in the “plus” column. Let’s also set aside whether you think things such as Medicaid expansion and the I-81 funding plan are good ideas. They are policy achievements to his credit; whether they are the right policy is a different question. In sports terms, Northam is akin to a star player who suffered a bad injury or other mishap but has returned to the game. His value may not be what it once was, but he still has value on the trade market.
So why would we want Cooper, and why would North Carolina want Northam?
Let’s look at the political landscape. Both Virginia and North Carolina have Democratic governors and Republican legislatures, but they have different political dynamics.
In North Carolina, Cooper and the legislature have been at odds in a long-running dispute over the state budget. From a distance, the situation in Raleigh looks a lot more like Washington than Richmond: Gridlock. We can’t pretend to understand North Carolina politics, but a divided state government in Virginia has managed to pass a budget without the troubles North Carolina is seeing. Maybe North Carolina could be persuaded that Northam could get along better with the Republican legislature there than Cooper has. We have no idea if that’s true, but that’s our sales pitch. A change of scene might help Northam; a change of governor might help North Carolina.
The real question is why we’d want Cooper. Here’s why: One of the issues that Cooper has been pushing — without much success — is a $3.9 billion bond referendum for school construction.
Does that sound familiar? It should. In Virginia, it’s been a Republican — state Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin County — who’s been pushing a $3 billion bond issue for school construction.
He hasn’t gotten anywhere either. Northam, in his inaugural address, lamented “crumbling schools” in the state, but hasn’t endorsed Stanley’s proposal. When Stanley presented his bond proposal to the Senate Finance Committee in January, he was met with swift and bipartisan rejection: The panel took just three minutes to vote down the plan 14-2.
This is why we’d want Cooper in a trade. Perhaps with the combination of a Democratic governor and a Republican legislator pushing the school bond proposal, it might have a better chance of getting through. Of course, some in North Carolina backing school bonds might want Stanley in a trade for the same reason.
We remain baffled why the school bond proposal hasn’t gotten more traction in Virginia. There are outdated schools in every part of Virginia, but the most embarrassing examples are found in rural areas (represented by Republicans) and central cities (represented by Democrats). In theory, this ought to be an issue that brings together a grand coalition. So far, though, it’s only brought a grand coalition to mostly ignore — and then kill — the proposal. The 14-2 vote against Stanley’s bond proposal united every Democrat on the panel with almost every Republican. The only two “yes” votes were from two Republicans —Bill Carico of Grayson County and Ryan McDougle of Hanover County. Carico is now retiring, so for now Stanley will have one less supporter for the plan when a reconstituted General Assembly convenes in January.
Our question is why both parties aren’t pushing school bonds. For Democrats trying to make inroads in rural areas, it seems an obvious challenge: Why isn’t the Republican incumbent working to modernize local schools? For Republicans trying to hold onto seats in the suburbs, it seems an easy way to create a different image for a party than the Party of Trump. Politics, though, doesn’t always play out the way we think it should. Both parties already have their own talking points — partisan ones, ideological ones. The school bond issue doesn’t have an ideological home — as witnessed by the fact that in North Carolina, it’s being pushed by a Democrat and in Virginia by a Republican, and a pretty conservative Republican at that. There’s also no big outside push: The business community pushed hard for I-81 funding because it sees a direct connection between a reliable road and economic growth; there’s less interest in the more indirect connection between modernized schools and a more skilled workforce in the future.
We should also point out that, in some ways, Stanley has pushed a more expensive plan than Cooper has. Cooper’s dollar figure is higher, but his bonds would include both K-12 schools as well as colleges and community colleges. The K-12 portion of his package is $2 billion, so only two-thirds the size of Stanley’s.
Obviously, there won’t be a Northam-for-Cooper trade. But we’d love for Cooper to come to Virginia and persuade some Democrats here to get behind Stanley’s school bonds — and we bet the governor of North Carolina would love it if Stanley could persuade some Republican legislators in his state to get on board with his plan.
Of course, politics doesn’t work that way, either. Too bad. We’ve got a problem here that seems easily solved, if only the politics weren’t so hard.