Lawmakers responded with a common refrain as roving packs of reporters chased them through the corridors of the Capitol this week seeking comment on the rolling scandal that’s now grown to engulf the state’s top three elected officials:
We’re focused on the legislative work the people sent us here to do.
It’s a brush-off for sure — few want to venture out on their own with a statement at this point.
But legislators from both parties also insist it’s absolutely true, arguing the political chaos is unlikely to have a meaningful impact on the course of this year’s legislative session, even as it unfolds at the always-hectic midway point, when bills cross from one chamber to the other.
While some staffers privately voiced skepticism at the business-as-usual posture, committees and floor sessions have indeed continued with an air of absolute normalcy.
Lawmakers interviewed candidates for a vacancy on the Supreme Court of Virginia on Tuesday.
And they continued work on a particularly convoluted budget debate, which involves extensive input and negotiation from the state’s chief executive, Gov. Ralph Northam, who has stopped venturing out in public after admitting and then denying appearing in a racist yearbook photo.
Governor still represented in budget debates
“I’m communicating daily with (Northam’s Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne) as we always have and working with my colleagues in the Senate, so it’s business as usual,” says Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, who chairs the House money committee.
It’s the same story in the Senate, where Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, says there’s been zero impact on the lawmaking process.
“Not at all,” he says. “The chaos that may be going on with the Democrats is not impacting it. We’re still working together collaboratively.”
Top Democrats offered a similar line, although Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw of Fairfax, perhaps feeling a bit more embattled with his party suddenly in unprecedented turmoil, was more reluctant to share his assessment.
A live look at downtown Richmond. pic.twitter.com/rBQKERkK9s
— Elliott Robinson (@EDevonRobinson) February 6, 2019
First he declined to weigh in, saying he didn’t “want to comment on anything that’s going on within 50 miles of Richmond,” as his campaign manager, Andrew Whitley, physically blocked a reporter from approaching him.
With Whitley still serving as a human shield, Saslaw eventually offered a response in a tired-sounding voice.
“The budget’s doing fine,” he said. “We’re going to do fine. It all comes out in the wash. It always does.”
‘It’s like the dog in the burning room cartoon.’
Not everyone is so confident. Some staffers say that while committees and floor sessions continue as always, few are paying attention and party employees who usually monitor the proceedings have been pulled elsewhere.
“It’s consuming all of our time,” said one Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “We have a precious amount of time. The budget dropped on Sunday. Everyone’s supposed to be reading it. I guarantee you the legislators are not looking at the budget right now.”
Efforts most likely to fall through the cracks are regional in nature, not partisan, such as pushes to increase transportation funding, the aide said, wondering whether Democrats would be able to mount a vigorous debate from their wounded posture when the budget hits the floor.
Another Capitol Square staffer voiced concern about the lack of attention being paid to the Supreme Court vacancy, in which a Republican senator’s sister is among those under consideration.
“Everyone is telling the media — it’s like the dog in the burning room cartoon. This is fine,” said the person, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We don’t know who is going to be governor.”
But others offered a tamer assessment, saying when the legislative gears begin turning, everything “just moves.”
“When these members are telling you they are focusing on session, they really are,” said a senior Republican aide.
Northam goes underground, but begins signing bills
Because Democrats don’t hold a majority in either the House or the Senate, their potential to sway the course of policy debates has always been limited. On top of that, many big discussions had already run their course by Friday, when news of the photo of one person in blackface and another in a KKK robe on Northam’s medical school yearbook page was first reported.
Major Democratic priorities championed by Northam and his party — including a package of gun control legislation and a push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment — have long since been voted down by the Republican majority.
Likewise, lawmakers have already reached agreement on legislation to reduce evictions, clean up coal ash ponds and provide a $700 million economic incentive package for Amazon’s new offices in Northern Virginia.
Northam, who is able to get to his office from the Executive Mansion through an underground tunnel, signed the Amazon legislation Monday with neither fanfare nor formal public notice — a defensive crouch he can presumably hold as he continues to resist calls for his resignation.
As lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, who is now facing a sexual assault accusation, presides over the Senate, a job that keeps him in front of the press and his colleagues but is largely ceremonial. His official duties are limited to leading the floor sessions and breaking rare tie votes.
Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted Wednesday to also wearing black face, has no formal role in the legislative session, though his staffers frequently appear before committees to speak on bills.
A tremendous distraction
But of course, with pressure building and calls for resignations being lobbed and renewed at all three men from all directions, things could change at any moment.
If any were to step down, it would trigger a potentially convoluted line of succession that, in the most extreme case, could end with Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox serving as governor.
And even without a resignation, no one denies the current environment poses a tremendous distraction in what is a typically staid and subdued environment.
This photo illlustrates how overwhelming the chaos is right now at Virginia’s Capitol. St. Sen. Louise Lucas taking a moment as reporters surround her looking for comment on the latest disclosure that AG Herring wore blackface once in college @nbcwashington pic.twitter.com/EpYtocFVi4
— Julie Carey (@JulieCareyNBC) February 6, 2019
Camera crews sprint through the hallways. Lawmakers brace for contact with reporters before entering the corridors. Aides huddle together for hushed conversations.
The revelations on Tuesday that Herring had also worn black face appeared to weigh particularly heavily on members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
After a meeting with Herring, Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, cried as he stood on Senate floor with Fairfax before session began. As the day wound to a close, Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, leaned against her car, head in her hand, surrounded by reporters.
Members of both parties appear to have landed on a common coping mechanism: Avoidance.
“Everybody was so fed up with it today they all left early,” noted an aide.