Richmond has no shortage of bitter politics

Perhaps the most volatile issue that threatens an otherwise good marriage is not lack of communication, or different interests, or even infidelity. If we believe marriage counselors and psychologists, the biggest overall stress on marital bliss and family is money, pure and simple. Both too little money, and too much.

For better or for worse, most of us do not have to worry about how to manage too much money. (I wish.) The lack of it, however, especially in a down economy and impotent stock market, often seems to bring out the very worst in people. Cutting costs and suddenly living below one’s expected means can perpetuate all types of problems that, in more normal times, barely scratch the surface of our thinking.

Such financial strains apparently don’t only apply to marriages and families. A case in point: the General Assembly in Richmond. Local political leaders and the media this week are beginning to witness an acrimonious atmosphere in the halls of the State Capitol that is uncommonly stressful for all concerned, well beyond the typical, healthy adversity that normally pervades all political bodies. The culprit, we’re told, is the severe financial mess that the commonwealth finds itself in early 2003. Well, that and perhaps something more familiar.

A deep recession that has not noticeably lessened in recent months, and necessary cuts in both state programs and jobs, appear to be taking its toll among Virginia’s elected officials, many of whom have never had to confront dire financial hardships of today’s magnitude. The bottom line appears to be that personality conflicts (reportedly along the lines of gender and race) are starting to seriously hamper a political process that already has its share of divisiveness.

This is a part of politics that the public rarely sees: the personal side that does not affect the rest of us directly. Most lawmakers will acknowledge privately that there are some aspects of their jobs that they relish. Apart from a certain local prestige and power, there is usually an enjoyable part to the job that is not bound by party affiliations, seniority or public stances. Making laws, although not always a pretty sight to behold, can be challenging and rewarding even for those in the minority party at any given time and sometimes the convoluted process of turning ideas into reality can be downright rewarding.

Today, however, lawmakers in Richmond talk about bickering and ugliness that make their already-stressful responsibilities more taxing than usual (no pun intended). Politicians of both major parties describe the current climate at the state capitol as depressing, even sad. Smiles are few and far between. An exceptional lack of cooperation in making difficult choices has compounded the problem, and a general atmosphere of unpleasantness has resulted in a testiness, and distrust, among many of those who were elected to deal effectively with some of the hardest choices Richmond has had to make in decades.

Add to the mix, charges of racism which is not unique to Virginia’s political heritage, especially given the wide disparity of social attitudes that have existed among various parts of the commonwealth for more than 200 years. The partisan name-calling involving Verbena Askew, the first black female to serve as a Newport News Circuit Court judge, led to charges of racism when white lawmakers failed to reappoint her to the bench after she was cited in a sexual harassment suit nearly three years ago.

That’s where it gets tricky, of course. Would the judge have undergone the same critical scrutiny had she not been black, or maybe not even been female? No one can say for sure, but it’s clear that racial sensitivities still seem to play a role in the political process. Obviously we haven’t come as far as some of us may have thought, here in the winter of 2003. Several black Democratic lawmakers angrily charge that no white judge would have undergone the highly personal questioning that Judge Askew endured in her seven-hour hearing. White Republican colleagues deny the accusations. (On the House side, only Republicans voted to remove her; Two Democrats joined in on the Senate side.)

So it seems what goes around, indeed does come around. Are there still white lawmakers with some racist tendencies, however subtle? Yes, of course. There are parts of central and southern Virginia that haven’t switched their wall calendars since the Fifties. Are some black lawmakers a bit too quick to play the race card? No doubt.

Yet what comes between these two extremes here in the 21st century must have a lot of young people scratching their heads. White, black, Hispanic or Asian, conservative or liberal, to the young generation of voters we can only say now that the deliriously prosperous and unreal 1990s are over and some rough times befall us, welcome back to the real world of small-time politics, Virginia-style.

John Merli has been a Prince William County resident since 1984, and a Potomac News columnist since 1985. He has worked in the media for more than 30 years. E-mail him at: [email protected]

Similar Posts