Sunday, March 13, 2005

Drawing the Lines in Virginia State Politics

Well, I've raised my head above water for what seems to be my *montly* blog post. As my health steadily improves, and my real-world obligations lighten, I hope to be posting on more frequent basis in the near future.

Earlier this week, Ian Welsh wrote a compelling post on BOP about political payback in the context of drawing your own moral lines: the lines over which you will not step, and the lines over which you will not be pushed--which got me thinking about how lines, and the lack thereof, are shaping up to effect the election cycle in Virginia this year.

Here in Virginia state politics we have a growing cadre of relatively young men in elected offices, from backgrounds that range from comfortable to privileged--the Golden Boys of the Virginia Democrats. (In fairness, because of Virginia's "civilian legislator" system, and the cost of mounting campaigns in the northern part of the state, it is very difficult for anyone but a person of means to *afford* to be involved in state politics. Welcome to the farm leagues of the plutocracy.) Our aspiring young politicos enter public life at such a tender age that they are essentially untried and untested: they have never faced a real moral choice, never had a need to draw their own lines. They may have equivocated once over whether to study or go drinking maybe, whether to lie to impress a girl, whether or not to wear white after Labor Day, but not much of any greater magnitude. And then suddenly, they are in Virginia state politics, showered with checks from lobbyists, being advised by the party machinery to cast their legislative votes with an eye to relection rather than good policy. (Get thee behind me, DPVA.) Let's just say our Golden Boys didn't receive life lessons in in drawing lines before they got into politics, and now that they are in state government, we don't see them picking up this skill on the fly.

Somehow, when they have been faced with tough votes in the last two legislative sessions, the question has turned from "does that cross *my* line," to, "what do I have to do to get voted back in 2 years?"

We have our equivalents to Senator Byrd here at the state level, too--and, unsurprisingly, they tend to be on the top end of the demographic scale. In the meantime, the Virginia Democrats are so starved for life-blood that the Golden Boys are held up as the Young Turks and rising stars of the party--despite their voting records.

Unfortunately, we have a number of young state Democrats on the wrong side of some very big lines right now, most notably regarding votes in the past two sessions on some horrific bills attacking civil rights for the GLBT community and attacking reproductive rights.

Now, I suspect some readers will accuse me of age-ism, and I don't want you to get me wrong. I do a great deal of work on lowering the entry barriers for young people (down to high school and middle school students) into the political process--because the only future for the Democratic party is to open the doors and let people in. However, in Virginia at least, the Democratic party doesn't seem to understand that just because someone is willing to knock on doors and make fundraising calls (and granted, those characteristics are already rare enough in potential candidates), that doesn't mean he or she will make a good legislator. (I'm writing "he or she" out of old academic habits; the reality is that we have a handful of truly kick-ass women in Virginia politics, but their numbers are far too small, and the overwhelming majority of candidates we field are men--in fact, affluent white men. So much for the big tent myth.) We're worried about winning for winning's sake, with little eye to good governing, which is how we wind up with so many Republicans in Democratic clothing. Personally speaking, before the Democratic party backs a candidate, I'd like to make sure that person can not only do a good job of getting elected, but also do a good job once he or she is in office. And before a politician tells me what I can do in my bedroom, or in my uterus, or how to raise my children, or how to live my life...well, I'd like *him* to have done a little bit of living and growing up on his own time. In other words: learn how to draw your own lines before you make a career out of legislating mine.

In the political world, all that lobbyist money and relection pressure can make lines pretty hard to see, especially for someone not used to drawing lines at all. (The lines seem to wind up obscured by the strings attached to the checks.) In political terms, winding up on the wrong side of a line is very often known as "abandoning the base." The GOP pushes wedge issues that hinge on homophobia and racism, for example, for that very reason: they have established that modern Democrats will consistently take the bait, chase after swing voters by voting *with* the GOP, and abandon their base. In campaign terms, the base is coincidentally the same people who knock on doors, put up yard signs, and stuff envelopes. And, even if our Golden Boys aren't willing to draw a line, some of their abandoned base are drawing their own lines this cycle.

I've been working on volunteer recruitment this week for some progressive campaigns, which has given me the opportunitiy to talk with Democratic activists I know in different parts of the state. A common theme I've heard from these grasstops people has been, "Can you believe how (various Golden Boys) voted last session? What the hell is going on?" Activist after activist has said, "I'm not going to work against the Golden Boys, but I feel really betrayed, and I'm certainly not going to lift a finger to help them this time around."

BOP readers know that across the country, Republicans significantly raise more campaign money than Democrats, which is why Democrats rely on grassroots
support to win. Grassroots is another term for the unpaid labor of your base--a base that's been shut out and kicked around pretty thoroughly, in some quarters of Virginia, for the past 2 years.

The 2005 Virginia state election cycle is just getting warmed up. Primaries all over the state are up and running, candidates going straight to the general election are staffing up and revving their fundraising machines, and the statewide candidates are feverishly gathering ballot petitions and running laps around the Commonwealth. Virginia Democrats that voted to court lobbyists and swing voters instead of drawing their lines and voting their conscience in the past two legislative sessions are about to receive a very abrupt wakeup call when the activists they count on stay home.

Ian wrote earlier that "...while redemption is always possible, it's a bitter road you're better off never having to walk." In Virginia politics this year, that bitter road may include losing some Democratic seats in the General Assembly. Hopefully our Golden Boys will take advantage of the time off to go home and finally learn how to draw those moral lines.