The Virginia General Assembly convened for its 2023 session in Richmond Jan. 11, 2023. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)
I was something of a young pup in the Virginia Capitol press corps, at least in terms of tenure on the beat if not age, in 2001 when an astonishing number of exits from the Senate and House of Delegates shook Capitol Square.
Almost all of the 12 delegates who announced their exits ahead of the 2001 elections for the 100 House seats were Democrats. Many of them, just a few years earlier when their party held the majority, pretty much ran things. Among the retirees were the immediate past House speaker, Tom Moss, and the former majority leader, C. Richard “Dickie” Cranwell.
The reason was redistricting.
In 2001, for the first time in Virginia history, Republicans dictated the decennial reapportionment by virtue of House and Senate majorities they won in 1999. In so doing, aided by quantum advances in digitized demography and computer technology, they redrew the lines to the Democrats’ maximum disadvantage. So surgically precise was the digital remapping that Republicans were able to select the exact block on which Cranwell resided and place it into a Republican-voting district where his chances at reelection ranged from nil to nada.
As of last Friday, the number of announced House retirements had reached 14, eclipsing 2001’s high water mark, according to a tabulation by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan tracker of money in state politics. Add in six senators’ retirements, many with decades of tenure, and 20 pending departures that represent the aggregate loss of 325 years of legislative experience. Six of the announced farewells are from lawmakers with 20 or more years of experience, and they account for 204 of those years, or 63% of the cumulative institutional memory loss.
Another 12 delegates and one senator are also leaving their seats to seek another office rather than seek reelection — many of them are delegates avoiding a primary clash with another sitting delegate. The senator, Jennifer McClellan, D- Richmond, left to fill the vacant congressional seat of the late Rep. Don McEachin.
The reason, again: redistricting. But this time it wasn’t partisan.
Four years ago, Virginians approved a statewide referendum establishing a nonpartisan commission to take over the nakedly partisan process that the Legislature had always handled. After the commission’s abject failure to do its one job, the task was taken over by the Virginia Supreme Court. This yielded dramatically reconfigured legislative and Congressional lines which, refreshingly, showed no regard for incumbency.
In the House, there are 22 districts in which two or more incumbents reside, including 20 that pair sitting delegates of the same party.
In the Senate, eight of the 40 districts pit two incumbents against each other, including six in which sitting senators are of the same party. Those include the districts of retiring Sens. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, who have swapped the powerful title of majority leader back and forth for most of the past decade, depending on whose party held the slim majority.
How the departures will affect the partisan balance of power in the General Assembly that will take its seat next January is hard to predict. A gauntlet of primaries — many of them sure to be bruising — cloud this fall’s general election contests.
The infusion of new blood into the process is healthy and inevitable. Bob Holsworth, a longtime Richmond-area political analyst and retired dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, calls Virginia’s new nonpartisan redistricting system “a backdoor term limits law” for the number of incumbents it has pushed from the stage.
“If you like term limits, then you think this is fantastic. If not, then it’s problematic,” he said.
New lawmakers come to Richmond with new perspectives. They are less bound to the hoary traditions of the House and Senate or the norms of political deportment and increasingly act as mavericks. They’ve also, in recent years, tended to be more doctrinaire – Democrats who tend to be more liberal and Republicans who are more conservative or “Trumpy” — which confounds the lost legislative art of compromise.
Another consequence of losing so much collective experience, particularly in the Senate, is an indirect shift of power away from elected lawmakers, Holsworth said.
“That’s going to be a challenge,” he said. Newbies who replace veteran leaders who bring decades of institutional knowledge to their powerful roles overseeing critical policy areas of government will face a time-consuming learning curve. Until the replacements learn the ropes, the process seeks out others to fill the expertise gap.
“The challenge is that power doesn’t go away. That power goes to the staffs and to the lobbyists,” Holsworth said. “That power will still be there, but a lot of it won’t be in the hands of legislators until they catch up.”
Lobbyists and legislative staff in Virginia already enjoy outsized importance and input by virtue of one of the most abbreviated annual legislative calendars in America. Our General Assembly has routinely busted its deadlines for finishing essential work within those truncated timelines throughout the 21st century.
“The other person who will benefit from this will be the governor. He has a large staff and advisers to help him,” he added.
Finally, there’s a wistfulness at seeing these legislators who have been fixtures on Capitol Square for generations leave. Like them or not, these are the personalities that animate the staid, unchanging, dry-as-dust legislative process. The friendships they forge over those decades of service can’t just be turned off on the way out the door.
But for every one of the long legislative careers that end this year — some of which, like Saslaw’s and that of Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, exceed 40 years — there was that scary first day of their freshman terms when they were at the bottom looking up and asking directions to the restrooms.
Even in an institution with historical roots more than 400 years old, change remains the only constant.
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