Northam’s ad­dress to state assem­bly is im­por­tant for what he did not say

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - LOCAL PERSPECTIVES - Jeff E. Schapiro [email protected]­ You can con­tact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or [email protected]­ Watch his video col­umn and lis­ten to his pod­cast on Rich­ Fol­low him on Face­book and on Twit­ter, @ RTDSchapiro. Lis­ten

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.

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