Northam’s address to state assembly is important for what he did not say
Rehearsing his televised message to the Virginia legislature, Gov. Ralph Northam clocked off at 35 minutes. His staff estimated an additional 10 minutes for applause — maybe.
The real deal went on and on and on. In the measured manner you’d expect from the pediatrician he is, Northam spoke for an hour, pushed into prime time, aides said, by unanticipated applause.
But the Democrat had plenty to say — about the economy, a 17-year-low in joblessness, tax relief, raising teacher pay, ensuring abortion rights, curbing firearms, controlling opioids, extending broadband into the countryside, cleaning up the environment, decriminalizing marijuana, and ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment.
That wasn’t all.
For those who may have forgotten, Northam gave an inventory of his first-year accomplishments, most notably bringing Virginia fully under the Obamacare umbrella.
And because it’s in the job description of a Virginia governor, Northam took a swing at Washington for the partisan gridlock that has brought a vast swath of the federal bureaucracy to a halt.
But Northam’s State of the Commonwealth address, which may have you squirming in your seat, occasionally checking your watch or that Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech squeaker, was distinguished by what he didn’t say.
He made no mention of proposals to depoliticize redistricting, reduce the influence of money in politics and expand gambling, allowing casinos and sports betting.
To varying degrees, Northam favors all three.
Mentioning them in the one speech by a Virginia governor that nearly everyone in the political realm watches, listens to or reads would have heightened their significance. That usually is the desired effect. In this instance, however, it might have brought them low.
All are big deals this year. All are of a piece. All threaten to get Northam crosswise with the General Assembly’s slender Republican majority, imperiling prized elements of an agenda with which Democrats are spoiling to take back the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate in November.
At least nine proposals so far have been introduced to diminish partisanship in congressional and legislative redistricting.
Some merely pretty up the process but still leave it entirely in the hands of the General Assembly. Others remove politicians from mapmaking altogether. All are a response to growing outrage among voters that redistricting subordinates the preferences of the many to those of the few.
Northam, as a candidate and an incumbent, has endorsed redistricting reform. He has also said he will not sign into law in 2021 new boundaries that have not been vetted by an independent panel.
But Northam isn’t saying what qualifies as such, leaving open the possibility that he might do as Republican Bob McDonnell did in 2011: talk the talk but not walk the walk by naming what passes for an independent commission, consider its findings and then ignore them, approving a redistricting plan favorable to his party.
That Northam has not endorsed any of the pending measures could stir doubts about his sincerity on the issue, suggesting the reform impulse is just rhetoric.
His silence may assuage Republicans, many of whom are terrified of redistricting reform, having seen the advantage they achieved in the House through gerrymandering nearly erased by a wave election in 2017 and federal court edict in 2018. Or it may be a warning that Northam would use the full weight of his office to draw Republicans into oblivion.
Indeed, so jittery are Republicans over the possibility they will be forced to run this year in reconfigured districts, possibly guaranteeing a Democratic take-back of the House, they say little on the record about the continuing litigation that could produce a Republican-hostile map even while the GOP is still in charge, albeit barely.
Republicans’ fear: impolitic or impertinent public comments become damning evidence, making it easier for the trial court to approve unfriendly lines and for the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm them.
Northam is aloof on redistricting because, in politics, adversaries are not given to unilateral disarmament, especially in an election year.
Neither party will relinquish any potential advantage — be it psychological, as in Republican anxiety engendered by Northam’s reticence on redistricting, or practical, as in Northam’s endorsement of a $10,000 cap on campaign contributions and a ban on corporate donations but his refusal to turn down such cash until a prohibition becomes law, if ever.
At this point, about a halfdozen bills — Democratic and Republican — would set new restrictions on political giving.
The Democratic bills target business donors, those with the deepest pockets, including the electric monopolies, whose four- and five-figure largess has been sworn off by growing numbers of Democrats, including announced and prospective gubernatorial candidates.
Many of these Democrats are mining a rich vein of small donors, whose generosity doesn’t have to be made public if it’s less than $100.
But a Republican measure would change that, requiring disclosure of all contributions, regardless of size. Might a bit of sunshine create bothersome administrative obstacles for Democratic candidates, possibly compelling small donors to put away their checkbooks and debit and credit cards? Maybe that’s the point.
So, too, is keeping money flowing to political-action committees controlled by Northam and legislative leaders in both parties and in both chambers, where Democrats need at least two seats not only for absolute control of the General Assembly but all of state government.
And in the gambling debate, the cash spigot is becoming a geyser.
Backers of a proposed casino in benighted Bristol, among them men and women who made a fortune in Southwest Virginia coal long before it hit bottom, have stroked checks for $550,000 to six PACs.
Northam’s committee recently received $25,000, an amount that could be verboten under the aforementioned Democrat-proposed restrictions. But it’s a mere bagatelle compared with what Kirk Cox landed.
The Republican House Speaker’s PAC got $200,000. It was the backers’ largest donation. Cox is no fan of gambling but has yet to say or do anything that could sink legislation to launch a Bristol casino. And the venture’s supporters are probably just fine with that.
Seems Northam is not the only politician who recognizes the value of keeping his mouth shut.
Gov. Ralph Northam delivered his State of the Commonwealth speech to the General Assembly on Wednesday.