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OPINION: The Legislature Is the Prize

The Democrats need to get their house in order soon.

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Blackface. Moonwalking. A sexual assault allegation. More blackface. A second assault allegation. "Indentured servants." After all of these scandalous reveals, how have the state's three top statewide officials stayed in office for so long?

Some look at the refusals of our governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general to resign as the fault of another executive a little farther north in Washington And it is true that thanks to our nation's president, a scandal isn't what it used to be. Donald Trump's behavior before or after election would have been disqualifying for almost any other politician in the past. Still, Virginia's state leaders, especially Gov. Ralph Northam, lack the bravado and mutant personality that Trump employs to defuse even his most ardent critics.

Instead, the persistence in office of Northam, Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring might just be due to timing. Any single revelation Virginians heard in the last few weeks might have led to an immediate resignation. But the combination of these multiple problems, piled on top of each other, make it extremely hard or Virginians to know what exactly they want to happen.

This is especially true for Democratic partisans, who have watched gleefully as Virginia has turned in recent elections from red to purple to blue. Democratic voters and officials are loath to give up that power and momentum. If a series of multiple resignations were not lined up properly, any one of the three top officials could be replaced by a Republican.

This partisan concern is almost certainly why Herring is the least threatened of the three. Of course, Herring also handled his own blackface admission much more adroitly than the governor's news conference and subsequent ham-fisted apology tour. But more importantly, if Herring stepped down, his replacement almost certainly would be elected by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Herring has demonstrated over the last few years how the Attorney General's Office can be used to advance his party's ideological goals; Democrats do not want to watch Mark Obenshain as the state's lawyer undertake similar efforts to unravel all of Herring's accomplishments.

While Northam's office is not threatened in the same way, his designated replacement, Fairfax, might be even more problematic. Thanks to the sexual assault allegations against him, not to mention his initially tone-deaf and ongoing defiant response to those allegations, Democrats are faced with the horns of a dilemma. Who do they want as their governor: the accused racist or the accused rapist? Rather than choose, state Democrats seem to be waiting it out.
But at what cost?

Northam persistently has made the case that if he stays in office, he is uniquely situated to help correct racial inequality due to his desire to atone for his mistakes. But Democrats should be skeptical of Northam's ability to be a strong voice for anything. His budget negotiations with the Republicans in the legislature amounted to calling for more support for racial equity, with little effect. Since then, Democrats have claimed credit for anything that was already in the budget that seems to advance that cause. Northam still has the ability to veto the bills passed by the General Assembly this past session; but in his weakened state, will he use it?

The key point to note here is that historically, governors are relatively weak executives. When the Founding Fathers drafted the federal Constitution, one goal was to create a limited but powerful executive branch. This was not the case for state governments, where constitutions and law have instead celebrated the tradition of legislative power. There was no Alexander Hamilton arguing for an energetic executive at the state level. Instead, state legislatures determine policy priorities in most states.

This power imbalance is especially pronounced in Virginia, where governors are limited to single, four-year terms. Legislators can stymie a governor's priorities, knowing that a new guy will be along in a few short years. Northam's immediate predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, chose the expansion of Medicaid as his signature issue, and lost on it every year. Democrats finally got their expansion of the program only after a wave of victories in the House of Delegates scared the Republicans into action.

This year bills on drug decriminalization, reduction of penalties for suspended licenses, gun control and other Democratic priorities all died in the House or Senate. The Equal Rights Amendment was the subject of a national campaign by progressive activists, including a statewide bus tour and protests throughout the session. It was blocked by a single Republican committee chairman.

This fall, every legislative seat is up for election. Democrats were expecting big gains after recent Blue Wave elections, including one two years ago that almost tipped the House of Delegates into their hands. But these waves relied in part on an enthusiasm gap between parties driven by national politics. What if Republican voters in Virginia are now newly emboldened by the Democrats' scandals? What if the state's African-Americans and progressive women are reluctant to turn out for the party led by Northam and Fairfax? The damage here is not just in terms of turnout. Democrats have relied on energetic efforts by canvassers, donors, volunteers and progressive organizing groups. What if they all sit out this year?

Sure, governors are important; but control of the state legislature is the true prize in Virginia politics. If the Democrats do not get their house in order, they may lose this prize. They may lose everything.

Richard Meagher is associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College. He blogs about state and local politics at rvapol.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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