If the Virginia Democratic Party establishment has its way, the party will nominate a ticket comprised entirely of Northern Virginians.
Even if the party establishment doesn’t have its way, the party might still nominate a ticket comprised entirely of Northern Virginians — the front-runners from governor and attorney general are from there, and so are four of the six candidates for lieutenant governor.
Is this wise? The answer to that might depend on whether you live in Fairfax County or Franklin County.
Here’s what we can say with more certainty: This has never happened before.
The fact that it might happen now underscores the demographic and electoral trends that are remaking Virginia.
Of course, for a long time there was no such thing as “Northern Virginia,” the Army of Northern Virginia notwithstanding, at least in the sense that we now use the term “Northern Virginia” to refer to Washington’s sprawling suburbs.
When Westmoreland Davis of Loudoun County was elected governor in 1917, Loudoun County was farmland — and Davis was elected on the strength of his agricultural advocacy through the Southern Planter farm magazine he published. For much of the mid-1900s, the state’s political power then was concentrated in Southside — Harry Byrd’s residence in Frederick County notwithstanding. Not until Charles Robb in 1977 was a “true” modern-day Northern Virginian elected to statewide office (as lieutenant governor); not until his election in 1981 did one become governor. That was considered noteworthy then. Of course, so, too, was that fact that Robb was not a native Virginian. Now such considerations rarely even merit mention.
Now consider the current politics: The entire top echelon of Democratic leadership in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly is from Northern Virginia. Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn. House Majority Leader Charniele Herring. Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw. The chairs of the two budget-writing committees — Janet Howell in the Senate and Luke Torian in the House. Two of the state’s top three elected officials — Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring — are both from Northern Virginia. Only Gov. Ralph Northam, a son of the Eastern Shore who most recently lived in Norfolk, is the exception.
Depending on the outcome of the Democratic primary, and the November elections, there might not be any exceptions. In the gubernatorial primary, four of the five candidates are from Northern Virginia, including front-runner Terry McAuliffe. (An asterisk: Jennifer Carroll Foy grew up in Petersburg although she most recently represented Prince William County). Only Jennifer McClellan of Richmond isn’t from Northern Virginia. In the lieutenant governor’s race, Hala Ayala, Mark Levine, Sean Perryman and Xavier Warren all live in Northern Virginia (although Warren grew up in Pittsylvania County). The only two exceptions are Andria McClellan of Norfolk and Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, about whom we shall have more to say later. In the attorney general’s race, incumbent Mark Herring is from Northern Virginia, challenger Jay Jones of Norfolk isn’t. Most of the party’s establishment has endorsed McAuliffe, Ayla and Herring, who would become the state’s first all-Northern Virginia ticket. (Northam backs Jones for attorney general).
Don’t look to Republicans for regional diversity. Of their 17 candidates for statewide office, the only one from this part of the state is former Roanoke sheriff Octavia Johnson, whose candidacy for governor is not taken seriously. Depending on whom Republicans nominate, it’s possible every single candidate for statewide office will be from Northern Virginia. Given the Republican strength in rural Virginia, it’s surprising there’s not a candidate from that part of the state, but there isn’t.
Here’s some more historical context: To find the last time either party nominated a ticket from just one part of the state, you have to back to 1961 when Republicans nominated Clyde Pearson of Roanoke for governor, Hazel Barger of Roanoke for lieutenant governor and Leon Owens of Russell County for attorney general. That assumes, of course, you count Roanoke as part of Southwest Virginia, something that those further southwest often resist. In any case, those were also the days when Republicans were, in many ways, a regional party and not yet a true statewide party.
We in this part of the state should be careful to characterize Northern Virginia as the political enemy, not if we hope to get anything done. Still, it’s hard to avoiding pointing out the obvious: Democrats from Northern Virginia, particularly House Democrats, have shown an unmistakable hostility to one of the things that rural Virginia needs most — more state funding for schools, particularly school construction. Republicans don’t get a pass on that; they didn’t fix those problems during all the years they ran the General Assembly but Democrats run it now, and Northern Virginia Democrats have shown a particular disdain the needs of rural Virginia.
If Democrats in rural Virginia object to this Northern Virginia hegemony, they have some obvious alternatives. They could vote for McClellan for governor. Aside from being the only non-Northern Virginian in that field, she’s also shown the most interest in school funding issues. She hasn’t gone as far as the most vocal champion for school funding — that would be state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County — but she did, at least, vote for his proposed constitutional amendment to end school disparities and his proposed $3 billion bond issue for school construction.
McAuliffe’s supposedly “big and bold” educational plan does neither. For lieutenant governor, rural Virginians could vote for Rasoul. Aside from being the only candidate from outside the urban crescent, he’s also the only one who has made a concerted point to campaign here. These aren’t endorsements (we don’t do those); these are just appraisals of the candidates’ records and residences. Many Democratic leaders endorsed Ayala because they say they want a woman on the ticket. Interestingly, the only woman ever elected to statewide office in Virginia — former Attorney General Mary Sue Terry of Patrick County — has endorsed Rasoul because “there is a larger issue and that is geographic balance.”
It’s unclear how much geographic balance matters these days. In a digital age, people often identify themselves in ways other than their ZIP code.