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The Climate Politics Almanac: Virginia's History, Part II

A political history of Old Dominion, continued to the present day.

A continuation of our previous post about the history of Virginia.

2000-today: The Virginia Way under the Democrats

In 2000, Mayor Tim Kaine pushed for a change to the city’s charter that allowed for Richmond to popularly elect its mayor. In order to ensure that Black voters would not be disenfranchised in the election of Richmond’s mayor, a compromise was settled on over a unique system: the candidate who wins a majority in five of the city’s nine council districts is elected, even if that candidate does not win an overall plurality of votes citywide. In 2004, Doug Wilder became the first mayor to be elected under this system. Wilder had previously made history in 1989, when he became the first Black governor elected in the United States.

In 2001, Wilder’s former campaign manager and telecom millionaire Mark Warner re-claimed the governor’s office for Democrats in a campaign that brandished Warner’s support for coal mines and demonstrated strength in Virginia’s rural counties. 

Virginia’s conversion to a blue state has been fueled by rapidly diversifying and growing suburbs in the affluent northern counties of the state. This has led to a transformation on salient social issues like gun safety in recent legislative sessions, and in January 2020, Virginia became the 38th and final state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, though the 1982 deadline set by Congress remains an obstacle to formal ratification. 

Still, the “Virginia way” can be seen alive and well in the business-friendly and conservative culture of the state’s politics. The military has a strong presence throughout Virginia, which is home to military institutions like the Pentagon and sea-rise-threatened Norfolk Naval Base, and ranks near the top among states with active duty military populations. Law enforcement and national security also have a major presence, with the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, and the FBI training headquarters near Quantico. Northern Virginia counts defense contractors among its dominant employers, with Booz Allen Hamilton located in McLean, Lockheed Martin partner Leidos based out of Reston, and General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman both headquartered in Falls Church.

A few of the defense contractors located in Arlington, Virginia.

As governor, Mark Warner lured Phillip Morris into relocating its headquarters to Richmond with the promise of low taxes, and the state has one of the strongest regimes of local preemption against anti-smoking ordinances of any state nationally.  Richmond is also somewhat of a banking hub; its East Main Street neighborhood has been called “Wall Street of the South,” and the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond has generally been led by monetary hawks, often friendly with the financial sector

In recent years, Virginia has faced a racial reckoning, hastened by a violent Neo-Nazi/neo-KKK rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and the national response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Over the summer of 2020, demonstrators tore down statues of Confederate generals and leaders along Richmond’s ritzy Monument Avenue, leaving the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, repurposed as a community space, as the only Confederate monument left standing. In September 2021, Lee’s statue was taken down as well, and the statue of Richmond native Arthur Ashe, the first Black tennis player to ever win a singles title, is now Monument Avenue’s final remaining monument. 

“Unite the Right” Rally, Charlottesville. Credit: Anthony Crider

Despite this progress in dealing with Virginia’s racist past, Democratic politics in Virginia continues to be defined by white moderates in the mold of the state’s two senators, Warner and Kaine. A progressive movement has emerged to challenge this status quo, but has faced numerous setbacks. Former Rep. Tom Perriello formed an organization called the New Virginia Way after his progressive challenge to Ralph Northam in the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary fell short. In the 2020 election for Richmond Mayor, Aleksis Rodgers ran on a platform for police reform, but lost to incumbent Mayor Levar Stoney, a “protege of former Governor Terry McAuliffe” who supports maintaining the police budget. And progressive candidates were mostly defeated in the June 2021 Democratic gubernatorial and legislative primaries.

Bob McDonnell and Terry McAuliffe

Virginia holds its gubernatorial elections in the year following national presidential contests. Since the 1970s, Virginia voters have exhibited a pattern of electing a governor from the opposite party of the one occupying a White House, regardless of which way Virginia voted in the most recent presidential election. In 2008, a diverse coalition mobilized for Barack Obama, handing Virginia’s electoral votes to a Democrat for the first time in over four decades, but in 2009, that same coalition did not materialize.

Despite winning a low-turnout gubernatorial election with only 40% of voters participating, Republican Bob McDonnell entered office as a rising star. He became known nationally for joining with congressional Democrats to push for offshore oil drilling and signing a notorious law requiring mandatory ultrasounds before abortions, but his national profile was soon overshadowed by an almost cartoonish corruption scandal involving bribes from the CEO of a company making dietary supplements. (McDonnell was ultimately acquitted in an eponymous US Supreme Court case that further eroded already-weak jurisprudence around corruption.)

In the wake of McDonnell’s corruption scandal, former DNC Chair and one-time alligator wrestler Terry McAuliffe bucked the trend of Virginia electing governors from the out-of-power party in 2013. McAuliffe defeated an extreme conservative and ardent climate change denier in state Attorney General Ken Cuccinnelli, though he underperformed polls and won a closer-than-expected election. Despite a major effort to win control of the state senate in 2015, McAuliffe faced a Republican majority in both chambers throughout his governorship. McAuliffe’s “proudest achievement” therefore occurred through executive order, when he overcame a state supreme court ruling by restoring voting rights to over 156,000 convicted felons through an “individualized” approach. 

Terry McAuliffe’s proudest moment. (via Steve Kettman)

The Northam Governorship

In 2017, Virginia returned to form by electing Democrat Ralph Northam by a comfortable 9-point margin. A centrist Lieutenant Governor and former state senator who had once considered switching parties, Northam appeared to have the Democratic primary field to himself when Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 led to an unexpected challenge from former Congressman Tom Perriello.

Perriello—a beloved figure on the left due to his vocal support for Obamacare and Waxman-Markey during his single term in the US House—centered his campaign on opposition to the Atlantic Coast pipeline, which was strongly supported by Dominion Energy, and which Northam waffled over.

Northam ran as a stronger champion of women’s reproductive rights, earning an endorsement from NARAL, which objected to Perriello’s support for the Stupak amendment while in Congress. Northam also won support from gun safety groups, which criticized Perriello for once touting an “A record” from the NRA. In the June 2017 primary, Northam won by about 12 points, with Perriello performing well in rural counties but losing badly in the more vote-rich D.C. suburbs, where Northam’s Washington Post endorsement, establishment support, and ‘Trump resistance’-heavy messaging carried the day.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s inauguration, 2018 (Wikimedia)

Northam’s governorship appeared to be over early in 2019, when all of the state’s top Democrats called on him to resign after a photo from his medical school yearbook surfaced showing one person wearing blackface while another person donned KKK robes. Northam successfully waited out the controversy when Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax was accused of sexual assault and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface too, disrupting Virginia’s line of succession such that Northam could not step aside without risking handing over power to the Republican House of Delegates speaker who literally held his position by virtue of a Republican candidate’s name being drawn out of a bowl.

In November 2019, mere weeks after securing Democratic trifecta control in Virginia for the first time since 1993, Northam let it slip that he did not view repealing Virginia’s right-to-work law as realistic. Although full repeal of right-to-work has been introduced by Democratic legislators since re-assuming the majority, it does not have the votes to pass. However, in 2020, Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act and joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, significant steps on climate policy (Ed.—which will be explored in full in tomorrow’s post).

In March 2021, Virginia became the first state in the south to abolish the death penalty, a remarkable achievement in a state that ranked second only to Texas in number of executions. In April 2021, Governor Northam signed a law that made Virginia the first state that was formerly part of the Confederacy to legalize recreational marijuana. Northam had signed a decriminalization law the year prior, and prospects for full legalization seemed strong, but Northam assisted the efforts by pushing to speed up the timeline for the law’s implementation and insisting on measures that would ensure the law was implemented equitably.

These signature criminal justice accomplishments, along with funding for historically black colleges and police reform laws that banned no-knock warrants, were cited as key examples in a New York Times piece exploring how Northam had regained trust in the Black community after his medical yearbook photo leaked. Northam continues to deny that he was in the photograph, and a May 2019 investigation into the matter was inconclusive, but the Virginia political establishment appears to have moved on, and there is even some talk of Northam running again for governor in the future once he is eligible.

Virginia’s Tenuous Status as a Blue State

Still, Virginia’s transition toward a more reliably blue state with lower levels of racial resentment has been unsteady. Even during Democratic governorships, Republicans have maintained a foothold in state politics for most of the past decade, often controlling one or both of the state legislative chambers. A 2019 court ruling that some of Virginia’s House of Delegates districts improperly concentrated Black voters led to redrawn legislative maps that bolstered Democrats’ successful efforts to briefly take back the chamber. Hyperbolic appeals to voter fears about crime and race have been a staple of Virginia Republicans’ statewide campaigns, with mixed success.  In 2014, when former RNC Chair Ed Gillespie came very close to defeating Warner, Gillespie made his closing argument a stirring defense of the former name of the Washington Football Team. In 2017, Gillespie ran over-the-top ads about MS-13 in his losing campaign against Northam. 

In 2021, McAuliffe attempted to become the first governor in Virginia history to reclaim the office without changing parties. Pointing to progressive achievements that occurred mostly through the state budget, such as expansion of pre-K funding, McAuliffe prevailed easily over an unusually crowded and diverse Democratic primary field, but watched his small but steady lead slip away in the final weeks of the general election. Glenn Youngkin became the first Republican to win a statewide campaign since 2009. Republicans also won back control of the House of Delegates and swept the constitutional offices, as Lieutenant Governor-elect Winsome Sears became the first Black woman in her position and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares became the Latino to win the AG slot.

Tomorrow, an overview of Virginia’s contemporary climate and energy politics. Then the Almanac looks closely at the 2021 elections.

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