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KEEPER OF THE FLAME

Frank B. Atkinson column: Virginia can show the way, again

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Lead art for Sunday Commentary page E1 Feb 3

Former Gov George Allen (left) and U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott at the 2006 shad planking near Wakefield.

By Frank B. Atkinson

Virginia’s big commemoration year, 2019, is upon us.

Four centuries ago, representative government was first planted at Jamestown; Africans first arrived; women were first recruited; entrepreneurship began to flourish; and a Thanksgiving tradition was born. We will make much of these crucial beginnings — and the tragedies and triumphs that marked the journey they began — throughout this year of “American Evolution” programs and events across Virginia.

I was moved to write this column, however, by more recent events. Two of them, neither of which made news, got me thinking seriously about what some have called the “Virginia Way.”

Personally, I prefer to think of it as the American Way, with our 400-year-old commonwealth serving as keeper of the flame while the harsh gales howl in our nation’s capital.

It is important to hold onto hope that our national political climate can improve. And, if history is a guide, Virginians are as likely to supply the catalyst for this change as anyone.

***

The first event, shortly before Christmas, occurred at the Executive Mansion. Gov. Ralph Northam and First Lady Pam Northam hosted a holiday reception for the former Virginia governors, first ladies, and their cabinet members. It was a very thoughtful gesture, and apparently an unprecedented one.

As my wife, Diane, and I visited with old and newer friends, former colleagues from Gov. George Allen’s team, and counterparts from administrations of both parties, I was struck by how natural and convivial was the fellowship. The festive mood of the season contributed, but there was something distinctly Virginian at work as well: All present shared a bond — a sense of what an extraordinary privilege it is to serve as or with a governor of the commonwealth.

That same sense of awe and honor swept over me again a month later when a larger group — veterans of Allen’s 1994-1998 administration and various campaigns — gathered to say “thank you” to Governor Allen and his first lady, Susan, on the 25th anniversary of his inauguration.

A quarter century is a long time in life and an eon in politics, but friendships easily were rekindled, favorite stories were retold, and memories flooded back as youthful “A-Team” images moved across the screen.

What impressed me most about this event, though, was the emphasis on accomplishments — actions taken more than two decades earlier that had tangibly improved the lives of everyday Virginians.

At a time when so much political behavior is angry and self-focused, a relentlessly negative spectacle of intransigent personalities seeking to impose their will and crush the opposition, here was a reminder of something quintessentially Virginian and American: the unifying power of a positive politics of reform.

***

For those who do not recall the story, George Allen began his 1993 run for governor 27 points down in the polls. He emerged the winner by an 18-point landslide, a turnaround likely to remain unmatched. Most commentators of the day attributed the stunning result to a combination of personality and policy — to the young candidate’s upbeat, “Reaganesque” disposition and the broad, cross-party appeal of his ambitious agenda.

Allen was a happy warrior, spirited in his advocacy and given to sports metaphors that about half of his audience understood on a good day. But he was championing practical solutions rooted in conservative ideas he was sure would work for everyone, and people across an unusually broad political spectrum responded.

The ideas were plentiful.

A year into Allen’s governorship, Michael Hardy of The Times-Dispatch wrote: “For a self-described conservative, Governor Allen has been nothing less than radical. He’s actually doing what he promised voters he would. ... [His agenda] is among the most far-reaching of any Virginia governor this century, many legislators and analysts agree.”

No one gave the upstart GOP governor much of a chance of getting his program through a General Assembly controlled by Democrats. But the naysayers underestimated folks on both sides of the partisan aisle.

Four hectic years later, as Allen left office with sky-high approval ratings, the remarkable list of his administration’s accomplishments included new nationally acclaimed academic standards, a “truth-in-sentencing” system and juvenile justice reforms, an innovative economic development partnership armed with performance-based incentives, the nation’s first comprehensive welfare reform program, tax relief for seniors, new urban and rural enterprise zones, regulatory and budget process reforms, a 10,000-person downsizing of the state government workforce, family-friendly parental notification and child support enforcement laws, an innovative public-private transportation act, a water quality improvement fund, eye-popping new job and investment announcements, college funding to supplant tuition increases, and reform-based investments in public schools that the leader of the Virginia Education Association called the “best budget we [in education] have seen for a number of years.”

Nearly all of the reform measures have stood the test of time. Many produced changes we now take for granted, like consistently low violent crime and recidivism rates, the ability to identify underperforming schools and target help to them, and the commonwealth’s success in diversifying its economy by attracting major new high-tech investments, to name just a few.

Of course, each governor and those who served with him are rightly proud of all they accomplished on their watch. And so are members of the General Assembly, without whom none of the progress would have been possible. But that’s the point: In Virginia, we’re able to work together to get things done.

***

In a divided government, things get done only when politicians put the people first — when those in office place a higher value on making a difference than on making a point ... on growing their base rather than radicalizing and pandering to it.

Now, I will be the last to romanticize the political arena. There are significant and often sharp differences that divide people along partisan, philosophical, and other factional lines. Those differences not only are inevitable; they are indispensable, because the robust exchange and spirited competition of ideas is how free people find their way forward.

But there is a common humanity that transcends those differences, and there is a Golden Rule that binds that humanity, and there is an ethic of service that emerges from that rule.

We all tend to get caught up in our contests and forget those truths, so it is helpful when leaders like the Northams and Allens come along to remind us — with simple gestures of kindness and audacious acts of leadership — that we belong to a noble democratic tradition and our purpose is not just to fight and win, but to serve and improve.

Americans need to see such examples of decency and service triumphing. That will not happen unless we stop bemoaning the failure by others and become a source of those examples ourselves.

As we commemorate major events in Virginia 400 years ago that shaped our nation and its ideals, the milestones will remind us of the special responsibility and opportunity we have as stewards of this history.

But the most important history could well be that which Virginians make today, as we hold up proven examples of positivity, creativity, civility, and grace for a nation that sorely needs them.

Frank B. Atkinson served in the cabinet of Gov. George Allen as counselor to the governor and director of policy. He is an attorney and consultant with McGuireWoods in Richmond and a member of the 2019 “American Evolution” Commemoration planning committee. He can be reached at fatkinson@mcguirewoods.com.

At a time when so much political behavior is angry and self-focused, a relentlessly negative spectacle of intransigent personalities seeking to impose their will and crush the opposition, here was a reminder of something quintessentially Virginian and American: the unifying power of a positive politics of reform.

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