Democrats now 'own' Southside and Southwest economies

Democrats now 'own' Southside and Southwest economies

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In 2002, when President Bush turned his attention toward invading Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned about what was called “the Pottery Barn rule” —“you break it, you bought it.”

Our analogy isn’t exact, but the point holds for our purposes. Democrats now have taken over the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, which administers a $430 million endowment intended to build a new economy in the tobacco-growing localities in Southside and Southwest Virginia.

On one hand, this is not a surprise. Elections have consequences, and one consequence of the 2019 elections that saw Democrats win control of the General Assembly is they get to make appointments to all the state commissions where the legislature has some appointment power. The House and Senate appointments to the tobacco commission draw attention only because of this political curiosity: There are almost no Democrats from the parts of the state this commission serves.

Democrats had the good sense to re-appoint a few Republican legislators from the actual commission footprint — something they didn’t do for other commissions, which they stacked entirely with Democrats. That’s simply hubris and overreach, something Republicans tried to avoid when they were in power. Senate Republicans are right when they say “the people of Virginia are poorly served by a legislative majority that refuses to even allow dissenting opinions to be expressed. Today’s decision ... makes building consensus around future policy initiatives remote, if not impossible.”

Of the seven Democrats appointed to the tobacco commission, one lives in the commission’s territory — Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex. Three others represent districts that overlap the commission’s footprint — Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg; state Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond; and state Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth. That leaves three who neither live in the district nor represent part of it, but are as close as Democrats could come: State Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke; Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke; and Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg.

State law requires, except for cabinet secretaries, “all members of the Commission shall reside in the Southside and Southwest regions of the Commonwealth.” No one’s likely to press the point in court, but if they do, we could have a fascinating legal argument about whether Roanoke is part of Southwest Virginia. Instead, let’s focus on the big picture: The tobacco commission will be run by people who don’t live in tobacco-growing territory. That’s what brings us back to the so-called Pottery Barn rule.

In Bob Woodward’s book, “Plan of Attack,” Powell is quoted as telling the president: “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.” By the same principle, Democrats own — politically speaking — all the problems of two of the most economically- challenged parts of the state. This is both an opportunity and a risk.

The opportunity is Democrats will have new ideas they can implement, and they’ll get the credit for transforming the region’s economy. The risk is they don’t, and they’ll get blamed when nothing changes. Not that rural voters ever blamed Republicans — but if the status quo is the default, and the status quo doesn’t change when parties do, then that has the effect of exposing the new party for being as ineffective as the old one.

We’ve often pointed out this conundrum rural communities face: Democrats at the state and national level have little interest in their economic fate because these are conservative places that are highly unlikely to ever vote Democratic. Meanwhile, the actions that might truly transform their economies require more governmental intervention than Republican philosophy allows. Now, by these appointments, Democrats are being forced to take an interest in the fate of vast swaths of rural Virginia. How will this work?

The tobacco commission isn’t the main economic development agency for Southside and Southwest Virginia — just the highest profile. Multitudes of entities try to recruit new employers. The tobacco commission’s role is different. It’s charged with making structural changes in the economy, and it’s been more successful than it gets credit for. Over two decades, it’s invested more than $150 million in laying 3,000 miles of broadband internet across the region. We’re a long way from closing the “digital divide” on broadband, but that divide would be 3,000 miles wider if it weren’t for the commission. Of late, it’s focused on “talent retention,” setting up programs for college graduates to reduce the region’s deficit of college-educated workers. If Democrats have better ideas, we’ll find out. If they don’t, we’ll find out that, too.

The new appointees to the tobacco commission have just been assigned a task of historic proportions. The challenges facing Southside and Southwest Virginia are immense. Most localities are losing population. Traditional employers are dying out. The new economy requires skills that typically aren’t found in rural communities. And that new economy has been clustering in a relative handful of technopolises — and it’s unclear whether the pandemic is enough to disrupt those basic trends. Do the Democrats who run the tobacco commission have ideas on how to reverse all the unhappy trends? Even Republicans should hope the answer is “yes.”

— The Roanoke Times

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