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Schapiro: For Virginia, a political transition defined by the politicians' anxiety
stressful months AHEAD

Schapiro: For Virginia, a political transition defined by the politicians' anxiety

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Todd Gilbert, the just-installed Republican speaker of the House of Delegates, got a makeover: new suits, trimmer and less funereal than those he usually wears; shirt-and-tie combinations at once understated and natty; and sleek oxfords ideal for creeping through the corridors of power but useless for mucking about his vest-pocket-sized farm in Shenandoah County.

If the stylish togs somehow make Gilbert — known by his mountainous countenance, The Rock-like bald pate and occasional churlish snarl — appear less menacing, then appearances are deceiving. Witness his real-time scolding on Twitter of Ralph Northam during the Democratic governor’s farewell address to the General Assembly on Wednesday night.

Gilbert — in private, witty, attentive, often brimming with questions and curious about the complexities of Virginia history that contributed to Northam’s post-blackface racial reckoning — was fully in character online: sneering and sarcastic, all but labeling Northam the poster boy for white guilt. Democrats, including Gilbert’s predecessor, Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax, replied with rhetorical spitballs.

It was among the more noticeable tense moments of a freshly convened legislative session that promises to be defined by more of them over the next two months.

There will be tension between the new Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, and election-chastened Democrats; between the Republicans who rule the House and the Democrats who run the Virginia Senate; and among legislators in both parties who have been doubled- and tripled-up in districts drawn by the Virginia Supreme Court because the politicians sabotaged the voter-approved commission that was supposed to depoliticize redistricting.

In a General Assembly in which, at one point, roughly half of its members — incumbents and just-elected — were dumped into districts with other incumbents, legislators will spend more time looking over their shoulders, assessing colleagues as possible primary opponents or general election challengers. Some of this will ease, with incumbents moving to new open seats. Several have already announced they will move, satisfying residency requirements.

However, such complications could accelerate, particularly for House members, if a federal court orders a special election for this November by siding with a former state Democratic chairman who argues last fall’s balloting was unconstitutional, having been held in outdated districts. They remained in place because of delays in receiving census data from Washington. State law requires elections held the year districts are reset.

With a special contest, House candidates would have to run in three consecutive elections — 2021, 2022 and 2023, the first and third, regularly scheduled. This hasn’t happened since the early 1980s, when federal courts and a Republican U.S. Justice Department found that House Democrats had advanced redistricting plans that illegally diluted Black voting strength.

That wave of elections, coming as Democrats were bouncing back statewide, hastened the Republican Party’s growth in the General Assembly, lifting to the ranks a future star: George Allen. He would serve as governor and U.S. senator before flaming out in a racial calamity in 2006.

And then there’s the coronavirus pandemic.

Masks and, to some degree, vaccinations are statements of party affiliation. Democrats wear masks; Republicans don’t. The Youngkin inaugural throw-down; floor sessions in the House, where sneeze screens were removed; and committee hearings that attract herds of lobbyists and onlookers — all are potential super-spreader events, transforming the seat of state government into a giant Petri dish.

There are few habitués of the state Capitol who aren’t expecting a spike in infections there. Earlier strains of the virus have sickened politicians, including Northam, and killed one, a Republican state senator from deep-red Southwest Virginia.

That Youngkin, whose position on jabs is Trumpy (get ’em if you got ’em), has named a mandate-skeptical Johns Hopkins doc cum Fox News talking head as his COVID-19 guru, speaks to Youngkin’s high-wire act on this continuing public health emergency. He wants to acknowledge the hostility of the right to perceived nanny-ism while affirming for the center, and even the left, that government has a role in protecting people from themselves.

Because of this balancing act, which helped Youngkin to a slender victory over Terry McAuliffe, Youngkin is viewed in national Republican circles as perhaps the kind of presidential or vice presidential candidate who could simultaneously appeal to the disaffected working-class voters who gravitate to Trump and middle-class suburbanites revolted by him. This is often a consequence of the disproportionate national attention Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election receives.

Youngkin could give voters beyond Virginia an opportunity Monday to judge for themselves.

In his first State of the Commonwealth message, he will address the legislature in the late afternoon rather than the customary time, 7 p.m. This way, recorded coverage of the speech might not only lead local newscasts across the state but be available through the evening to national outlets, such as Youngkin-favored Fox. He’d also have time to do a live-shot or two.

This celebratory stuff is a distraction, albeit brief, from the disruption synonymous with the transfer of power from one party to the other.

Across the bureaucracy, Democrat-appointed agency heads — some of whom quit rather than be replaced — were told in the run-up to the Youngkin inaugural (either in person, by correspondence or, in some cases, news release) that the new regime no longer required their services. This qualified many for separation pay under a program Democrats fashioned in response to an expensive house-cleaning by Allen after his election for governor in 1993.

Other agency directors received letters asking them to remain on the job for at least four months, giving Youngkin time to gauge their performance, test their loyalty or find replacements.

The fate of these appointees is largely overshadowed, for now, by huffing and puffing over Youngkin’s choice of a Trumpster for Virginia natural resources secretary. Senate Democrats are spoiling to block confirmation of Andrew Wheeler, a coal lobbyist who ran the Environmental Protection Agency. Youngkin is defiant, declaring he’s fighting for Wheeler.

Could appearances be deceiving?

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond and 89.1 FM in Roanoke, and in Norfolk on WHRV, 89.5 FM.


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