Vir­ginia is for wacky.

State leg­is­la­ture’s his­tory, cul­ture con­trib­ute to at­ten­tion-get­ting bills

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY FREDRICK KUNKLE IN RICH­MOND

Vir­ginia’s Gen­eral As­sem­bly doesn’t play for laughs dur­ing its an­nual leg­isla­tive ses­sion. Per­haps it just seems that way some­times.

For writ­ers at Com­edy Cen­tral and “Satur­day Night Live,” the West­ern Hemi­sphere’s long­est con­tin­u­ously op­er­at­ing demo­cratic body looks at times like one of the long­est-run­ning sit­coms. But why the leg­is­la­ture gets so much at­ten­tion may say as much about the com­mon­wealth’s un­usual his­tory as it does its cul­ture and the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate well be­yond its bor­ders.

In re­cent years, talk show hosts and oth­ers have held up the Gen­eral As­sem­bly as a na­tional laugh­ing­stock for con­sid­er­ing mea­sures that would out­law vul­gar truck or­na­ments and droopy

draw­ers, pro­hibit im­plant­ing “Mark of the Beast” mi­crochips and con­fer life­time hunt­ing li- censes on in­fants. Law­mak­ers also have tried to or­der women to un­dergo in­va­sive ul­tra­sounds be­fore abor­tions. More re­cently, the GOP sprung a re­dis­trict­ing plan on Democrats while one of their sen­a­tors, who hap­pens to be a Vir­ginia civil rights icon, was at­tend­ing Pres­i­dent Obama’s in­au­gu­ra­tion.

“Here we are again — fod­der for Stephen Col­bert’s show and Rachel Mad­dow’s news commen-

tary,” Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax) fumed in a news­let­ter to con­stituents. “I fear that the bright light of ridicule from the na­tional me­dia rou­tinely shines on Vir­ginia, yet that doesn’t bring rea­son to the Gen­eral As­sem­bly.”

And yet some­body must be do­ing some­thing right in the com­mon­wealth. Polls sug­gest that Vir­gini­ans re­main pleased with Gov. Robert F. McDon­nell (R) and sup­port­ive of the state’s gen­eral di­rec­tion. The in­creas­ingly di­verse state ranks among the top places to do busi­ness, and three of its sub­ur­ban Washington coun­ties — Loudoun, Fairfax and Ar­ling­ton — placed first, sec­ond and third, re­spec­tively, among the na­tion’s wealth­i­est.

Vir­ginia is sel­dom in the head­lines for the sort of po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion that seems like an in­tra­mu­ral sport in New Jersey, Illi­nois or the District of Columbia. And, to be fair, it was a Mary­land law­maker who sought to ban “anatom­i­cally cor­rect” ve­hi­cle or­na­ments be­fore Vir­ginia Del. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Ch­e­sa­peake) in­tro­duced his bill a few years ago to keep the state’s roads safe from the dis­play of fake tes­ti­cles.

“It’s not just one side that puts in wacky bills,” said Del. Scott A. Surov­ell (D-Mount Ver­non).

There are prob­a­bly as many the­o­ries as law­mak­ers about why Vir­ginia stands out in ways that de­light stand-up comics and stu­dents of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence.

Quentin Kidd, a government pro­fes­sor at Christo­pher New­port Univer­sity, said a strong cur­rent of Vir­ginia ex­cep­tion­al­ism cour­ses through the as­sem­bly. Trac­ing its roots to the House of Burgesses in Jamestown in 1619, the leg­is­la­ture prides it­self as the cra­dle of Amer­i­can democ­racy. Law­mak­ers know they carry on the work of Thomas Jef­fer­son, James Madi­son and other Vir­gini­ans who cre­ated the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, the Con­sti­tu­tion and the Bill of Rights, and they be­lieve they know what they’re do­ing.

But Vir­ginia is also the place where African Amer­i­can slaves first ar­rived, also in 1619, and the ugly legacy of Jim Crow found de­fend­ers well into the 20th cen­tury, and some say that what some­times seemed ex­cep­tional about Vir­ginia was just plain wrong. “There’s an in­grained cul­ture that the way Vir­ginia does things is im­por­tant in it­self, and we’ve set the tone, and we’ve set the prece­dent,” Kidd said. “We’ve cre­ated a liv­ing mon­u­ment to it in Wil­liams­burg, and we’re still stung by the slav­ery part of it.”

Oth­ers sug­gest that a re­bel­lious spirit is as much a part of the Vir­ginia leg­is­la­ture as the mar­ble tablet above the House speaker’s podium hon­or­ing Nathaniel Ba­con, who led a 17th-cen­tury upris­ing against high-handed Bri­tish rule be­fore Pa­trick Henry was even born.

Of course, Vir­ginia’s re­bel­lious streak has some­times mis­car­ried to ex­tremes. Down the street from the Capi­tol is the White House where Jef­fer­son Davis lived when Rich­mond was the cap­i­tal of the Con­fed­er­acy. More than a few law­mak­ers serv­ing to­day grew up when the state — urged on by the late Harry F. Byrd Sr., the former gov­er­nor and U.S. se­na­tor — rose up in Mas­sive Re­sis­tance against in­te­grat­ing its schools.

Bob Gib­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Sorensen In­sti­tute for Po­lit­i­cal Lead­er­ship, said Vir­ginia’s sense of defiant in­de­pen­dence still sends the state zig­ging when the rest of the na­tion, or at least the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, is zag­ging. That may ex­plain why in ev­ery gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tion since 1977, Vir­ginia has elected a Repub­li­can when there’s a Demo­crat in the White House, and vice versa. Or why Vir­ginia At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ken Cuc­cinelli II (R) raced to the court­house to chal­lenge the fed­eral health-care over­haul.

“There’s al­ways been a coun­ter­bal­ance to Washington in Vir­ginia,” Gib­son said. He said the flood of money and so­phis­ti­cated re­dis­trict­ing has also contributed to an at­mos­phere where ex­trem­ism rules.

Oth­ers point to the leg­is­la­ture’s sta­tus as a part-time job to ex­plain why so many odd or au­da­cious bills come for­ward. There are plenty of lawyers but also doc­tors, phar­ma­cists, teach­ers, farm­ers and engi­neers. And they re­flect the peo­ple who sent them here with their pet peeves or pet projects that find their way into the 2,272 bills and res­o­lu­tions filed this year.

Th­ese cit­i­zen law­mak­ers in­clude Del. Anne B. Crock­ett-Stark (R-Wythe), who brought down the house two years ago with her tale of an armed 82-year-old woman who asked her in­truder if he wanted to dine with the Devil. The idea of le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana has caught on in some states, but few in Vir­ginia ex­pected former Repub­li­can del­e­gate Har­vey B. Mor­gan — a grand­fa­therly, be­spec­ta­cled, bow-tie-wear­ing phar­ma­cist from Glouces­ter County — to be the guy push­ing for it. Per­haps no one lands in the spot­light as much as Del. Robert G. Mar­shall (RPrince Wil­liam).

“Bob Mar­shall is kind of a free agent and doesn’t take or­ders from any­body,” Surov­ell said. “He likes rolling hand grenades down the aisle.”

In re­cent years, Mar­shall — or “Sideshow Bob,” as de­trac­tors call him — has put forth bills re­flect­ing his op­po­si­tion to abor­tion and gay rights and his sus­pi­cions of the fed­eral government. This year, he has pro­posed that Vir­ginia look into the fea­si­bil­ity of mint­ing its own cur­rency and that the state be pro­hib­ited from co­op­er­at­ing with fed­eral au­thor­i­ties on new gun­con­trol mea­sures — bills that he said are driven by prin­ci­ple and that his crit­ics, in­clud­ing mem­bers of his own party, said are driv­ing them crazy.

“Vir­ginia has al­ways been a stand­out state,” Mar­shall said. “We were the crit­i­cal state for the for­ma­tion of the Union. Maybe there is some­thing in the water, in our blood. I don’t know, but it’s been there, and I don’t think you’re go­ing to erase that.”

Vir­ginia’s con­sti­tu­tion even en­shrines a par­lia­men­tary rule that al­lows bills to land on the floor of each cham­ber de­spite ef­forts to bot­tle them up in com­mit­tee.

And they are heard in de­bates that, es­pe­cially in the House, can be free­wheel­ing and rau­cous. Law­mak­ers whis­tle in mock amaze­ment when speak­ers score de­bate points. They wave white floor cal­en­dars as a sign of sur­ren­der when speeches run on too long. Bills deal­ing with farm an­i­mals rise or fall in a ca­coph­ony of moos, clucks and other barn­yard noises. “It’s kind of a funny place,” said Kris Amund­son, a former Demo­cratic del­e­gate from Fairfax.

Per­haps the most pop­u­lar the­ory is that Vir­ginia’s ob­ses­sions and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions res­onate across the United States be­cause the state re­sem­bles the na­tion in minia­ture. Is­sues pour into Rich­mond from in­ner cities and farms, from sub­ur­bia and Ap­palachia, from deep-water ports in Tide­wa­ter and data cen­ters in North­ern Vir­ginia, car­ried along by peo­ple who share the same pas­sions as the peo­ple who sent them.

“We go through this ev­ery ses­sion: ‘Oh my God, who would put in that bill?’ ” said Se­nate Repub­li­can Cau­cus spokesman Jeff Ryer. “At our core, we are a cit­i­zen leg­is­la­ture.”

Clockwise from top left: Gov. Robert F. McDon­nell and Del. Robert G. Mar­shall have given fod­der to Rachel Mad­dow and Stephen Col­bert.

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