ANOTHER VIEW: Democrats now 'own' Southside and Southwest economies

ANOTHER VIEW: Democrats now 'own' Southside and Southwest economies

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In 2002, when President Bush turned his attention toward invading Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned about what was frequently called “the Pottery Barn rule” —“you break it, you bought it.”

Our analogy today isn’t exact, because we’re not talking about an invasion, but the point still holds for our purposes here. Democrats have now taken over the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, which administers a roughly $430 million endowment intended to build a new economy in the tobacco-growing localities in Southside and Southwest Virginia.

On the one hand, this is not a surprise. Elections have consequences, and one consequence of the 2019 elections that saw Democrats win control of the General Assembly is that they now get to make appointments to all the state commissions where the legislature has some appointment power. The House and Senate appointments to the tobacco commission draw attention only because of this political curiosity: There are almost no Democrats from the parts of the state that this commission serves.

Democrats had the good sense to re-appoint at least a few Republican legislators from the actual commission footprint — something they didn’t do for certain other commissions, which they stacked entirely with Democrats. That’s simply hubris and overreach, something Republicans tried to avoid when they were in power. Senate Republicans are right when they say “the people of Virginia are poorly served by a legislative majority that refuses to even allow dissenting opinions to be expressed. Today’s decision . . . makes building consensus around future policy initiatives remote, if not impossible.”

Our interest here today, though, isn’t all those other commissions but this one in particular, because it deals specifically with Southside and Southwest Virginia. Of the seven Democrats appointed to the commission, only one lives in the commission’s territory — Del. Roslyn Tyler (D-Sussex). Three others at least represent districts that overlap the commission’s footprint — Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg; state Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, and state Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth. That leaves three others who neither live in the district nor represent any part of it, but are as close as Democrats could come: State Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke; Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke and Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg.

State law requires that, except for cabinet secretaries, “all members of the Commission shall reside in the Southside and Southwest regions of the Commonwealth.” No one’s likely to press the point in court but if they do, we could have a fascinating legal argument about whether Roanoke is part of Southwest Virginia and whether Richmond is part of Southside Virginia. Instead, let’s focus on the big picture: The tobacco commission will now be run by people who don’t live in traditional tobacco-growing territory. That’s what brings us back to the so-called Pottery Barn rule.

In Bob Woodward’s book, “Plan of Attack,” Powell is quoted as telling the president: “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.”

By the same principle, Democrats now own — politically speaking — all the economic problems of two of the most economically-challenged parts of the state. As with many things in life, this is both an opportunity and a risk.

The opportunity is that Democrats will have new ideas that they can now implement, and they’ll get the credit for transforming the region’s economy. The risk is they don’t, and they’ll get blamed when nothing really changes. Not that rural voters ever blamed Republicans — but if the status quo is the default, and the status quo doesn’t change when parties do, then that has the effect of exposing the new party for being just as ineffective as the old one.

We’ve often pointed out this conundrum that rural communities face: Democrats at the state and national level have little interest in their economic fate because these are conservative places that are highly unlikely to ever vote Democratic. Meanwhile, the actions that might truly transform their economies require more governmental intervention than Republican philosophy allows. Now, by these appointments, Democrats — at least seven of them — are being forced to take an interest in the fate of some vast swaths of rural Virginia. How will this work? We’ll see.

To be fair, the tobacco commission isn’t the main economic development agency for Southside and Southwest Virginia — just the most high-profile. There are multitudes of local and regional and state entities doing the day-to-day work of pitching their communities and trying to recruit new employers. The tobacco commission’s role is quite different. It’s charged with making some big structural changes in the region’s economy, and over the years it’s been more successful than it usually gets credit for. For instance, over the past two decades, it’s invested more than $150 million in laying 3,000 miles of broadband internet across the region. We’re still a long way from closing the “digital divide” on rural broadband, but that divide would be 3,000 miles wider if it weren’t for the tobacco commission. Of late, it’s focused on “talent retention,” setting up incentive programs for college graduates to live in the region — a way to reduce both the region’s population decline and its deficit of college-educated workers. Are there other ways that commission’s money should be spent? If Democrats have better ideas, we’ll soon find out. If they don’t, we’ll find out that, too.

The new appointees to the tobacco commission should not regard these as ordinary appointments. They have just been assigned a daunting task of historic proportions. The economic and demographic challenges facing Southside and Southwest Virginia — indeed all of rural America — are immense. Most localities are losing population. The population that remains is old and growing older. Traditional employers are dying out, if they haven’t died already. The new economy requires skills that aren’t typically found in rural communities. And that new economy has been clustering in a relative handful of technopolises — and it’s unclear whether the pandemic and the Age of Zoom is enough to disrupt those basic trends. Do the Democrats who now run the tobacco commission — Democrats who with one exception don’t live in the commission’s footprint — have ideas on how to reverse all the unhappy trends? Even Republicans should hope the answer is “yes.”


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