Democrats in Virginia’s House of Delegates are doing something special.
Their foot-dragging, hairsplitting and hand-waving over a proposed constitutional amendment that would (mostly) take politics out of redistricting and give the responsibility to a (mostly) nonpolitical committee is a reminder: Virginia’s political class really isn’t interested in reform.
Or big ideas. Or anything, really, that might complicate their plans for another term, a better office, a slightly more generous state pension.
Partisanship has nothing to do with it. Team Red or Team Blue, all players are firmly on Team Pol when it comes to getting and keeping power.
Naturally, this leads to enormous frustration among reformers. They need to change their tactics: Put aside differences over party and policy and join in a grand coalition advocating the adoption on the citizen initiative process.
Yes, it means getting a majority of the very people who are the root of the problem — state legislators — to approve (in consecutive sessions with an election in between) such a constitutional change.
Yes, it also means relying on those very same troublesome legislators to craft a proposal that doesn’t make getting an initiative on the ballot akin to scaling Mount Everest in flip-flops.
A tough job, then. And one that’s likely to leave anyone who takes up the task thoroughly jaded about the commonwealth’s political process and players.
But it’s not impossible. Virginia has dabbled in direct democracy for a decades. Even during the age of the Martin and Byrd political machines, there was a brief moment when it seemed the old-style progressive push for the initiative might succeed:
The Progressives’ hopes for a statewide I & R amendment ran highest in 1914, when state Attorney General John Garland Pollard was elected president of the newly formed Progressive Democratic League, which included I & R on its reform agenda. That same year the House of Delegates approved an I & R amendment by a lopsided 64 to 24 vote, but the measure died in the senate.
The idea resurfaced in the late 1960s and again briefly in the 1980s. But the last time there was any serious discussion of having voters weigh in was in the wake of the 2004 battle over then-Gov. Mark R. Warner’s (D) proposed hike in the state’s sales tax.
Then-Sen. George Allen (R) and former governor Doug Wilder (D) joined forces to call for a referendum on any tax increase. Some Republicans agreed, including 2005 GOP gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore, who picked up the idea and made it part of his statewide pitch:
Our Virginia constitution recognizes that power is vested in, and thus derived from, the people. … I trust the people.
Democrats pooh-poohed the idea of allowing voters to have a hand in policy, with Democrat Tim Kaine, then the lieutenant governor, going so far as to compare referendum supporters to Pontius Pilate.
As incredibly condescending as that was, it paled to the open hostility some Richmond-area pols showed toward a voter-initiated and overwhelmingly successful 2003 advisory measure calling for the city’s mayor to be elected by the people, rather than the city council.
The General Assembly eventually had to approve the suggested change to the city charter — and it did so.