Category Archives: Politics

Must Read of the Day: Complex Cities

watch

Complicated, not complex

As former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor EM Risse likes to say, urban planning isn’t rocket science — it’s a lot more complex. Ed’s quip came to mind when reading the latest post by Charles Marohn on the Strong Towns blog. The thrust of Chuck’s post is that local government leaders act as if towns, cities and counties are complicated systems — similar to a Swiss watch with a lot of moving parts that interact in a complicated but an ordered and predictable way. But local governments and the economies and societies in which they are embedded are complex systems. The various parts interact with often ill-understood feedback loops. Complex systems have emergent properties. Local government actions often have unpredictable results. It’s an important essay. I urge you to read it.

McAuliffe Team Continues Transportation House Cleaning

mopping_floorby James A. Bacon

I’ve been out of town attending a conference so I wasn’t able to cover the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) meeting this month. But based on press coverage and press releases, it sounds like Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s transportation team is getting a good handle on things, correcting some of the more grievous policy decisions of the McDonnell administration. Hitting the highlights…

U.S. 460 probe. The state Inspector General’s Office has joined the Virginia Department of Transportation’s internal probe of the $1.4 billion U.S. 460 connector between Petersburg and Suffolk. The IG inquiry, which should be complete by the end of the month, will examine whether the state followed its own procurement rules, the Times-Dispatch reports. Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne temporarily pulled the plug when it was clear that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not yet prepared to issue permits for construction. The state racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in potential liabilities on the 55-mile route which would disrupt nearly 500 acres of wetlands.

VDOT to invest in secondary road maintenance. The highway agency admitted yesterday that only an estimated 58% of the state’s secondary roads are rated in fair or better condition, down from 65.8% in 2010, reports the Times-Dispatch. “The secondaries are deteriorating,” said chief engineer Garrett W. Moore. In years past, the state had concentrated on bringing up to standard interstates and primary roads, which together carry 78% of the state’s lane-miles of traffic. Now VDOT will focus on secondary roads. “We’re making up for nearly 20 years of not doing a lot,” Layne said.

Bacon’s Rebellion noted those same numbers in a March article about a Smart Growth America (SGA) report on the national scourge of maintenance under-funding. SGA revealed that VDOT had spent more than two-thirds of its funds on new construction between 2009 and 2011 while neglecting maintenance, allowing road conditions generally to deteriorate. SGA based its findings on Federal Highway Administration data but used a different methodology than VDOT to calculate maintenance and construction spending.

Charlottesville Bypass coming to a close. I have received word by means of a Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) press release that the CTB allocated $230 million to fund an alternative to the proposed Charlottesville Bypass that created such a furor in Central Virginia. The project package will create improvements to the congested U.S. 29 corridor north of the city by extending parallel roads that offer alternatives for local traffic, enhancing traffic light synchronization, creating an overpass at the U.S. 29/Rio Road intersection and making other spot improvements. There is no perfect solution but this is the best one available. It will reduce travel time for everyone using the congestion zone: local travelers as well as freight trucks passing through.

Bull in a china shop. Finally, there is this tidbit tacked onto the end of one of today’s Times-Dispatch articles based on emails the T-D scooped up in a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails shed light on decision-making process in the McDonnell administration to ram through spending on the U.S. 460 project before all necessary permits were obtained.

Then-Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton urged in an email last July that VDOT get permission to hire an outside lawyer and mount a public campaign to demonstrate why a supplemental environmental impact statement “is not needed or appropriate.”

“The message must be that the (Corps of Engineers) is trying to destroy Southside Virginia along the existing 460 and destroy the environment,” Connaughton said in an email to then-Deputy Transportation Commissioner Charles Kilpatrick on July 13.

The secretary further ordered Kilpatrick to solicit the support of communities and their local and regional officials. “We need their aggressive, negative reaction to the (Corps’) desire to destroy the towns along the existing 460,” he wrote.

Finally, Connaughton sought meetings with U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, both Democrats, and Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-4th. “We must have them complaining to (the Corps regional office),” he said. “We need to move … quickly,” he concluded.

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Why Brat Beat Cantor

David Brat. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

David Brat. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

by James A. Bacon

I rarely pontificate about congressional races but I live in the 7th Congressional District, so I believe I have a few insights into how David Brat slew Goliath, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. National media have examined the race through the prism of national issues such as immigration and the Tea Party. While those issues may have had a marginal impact, I think they don’t explain much. The fact is, Cantor and Brat were both conservative candidates, and they both jostled to out-conservative the other. I think the electorate’s rejection of Cantor had more to do with style than substance. Let me give two examples.

A few months ago my wife and I had just sat down for dinner at an expensive local steakhouse, Buckhead’s, when in walked Cantor, his wife and his bodyguard. (Buckhead’s was a treat for us; apparently, Cantor is a big steak eater. He reportedly dropped $168K in campaign money on Bobby Van’s Steak House in New York and and BLT Steak in Washington, D.C.) The hostess started to seat him in the table next to ours but someone had other ideas, and the group wound up seated in a back corner of the restaurant away from everyone else. My wife joked at the time that he was avoiding me, the notorious blogger, but I am pretty certain he had no idea who I was. Here’s the point: We didn’t see him interact with anyone in the restaurant. He gave every indication of wanting to avoid his constituents. There is a reason that Cantor has the reputation of being aloof. He is aloof.

By way of contrast, my wife and I were working in our front garden a couple of weeks ago when who should come rolling down our suburban cul-de-sac street but David Brat and a lad whom I took to be his son. He yelled out something to the effect, “Hi, I’m David Brat and I’m running for Congress.” I’d met Brat a couple of times before he announced his candidacy so I spent some time chatting with him. It was getting warm and Brat had sweat stains in his underarms and perspiration on his forehead but he was upbeat and enthusiastic. I sicced him on a neighbor, and off he went like Labrador after a duck. While Cantor was entertaining the big-money special interests in New York and Washington, Brat was pressing the flesh in the 7th District.

Cantor compounded his image problem by labeling Brat as a “liberal college professor” and sticking with the charge even after it had been debunked by every objective source. The original charge was sleazy enough. But to persist in making the charge a centerpiece of the campaign after it was repudiated was an insult to the intelligence of Republican voters. Anyone who paid any attention to the campaign could see that the charge was a bald-faced lie, and I have to think that many asked themselves, “How f***ing stupid do you think I am?”

While the local Tea Party backed Brat, it was not a major factor. The simple fact is, the local Tea Party chapters are not especially strong or well-financed. The national Tea Party organizations all wrote him off. Although local Tea Partiers did contribute to Brat’s organization, it is ridiculous to see Brat’s victory as a Tea Party victory. The election reflects a dissatisfaction with politics as usual that extends beyond the Tea Party. While Cantor gave lip service to the ideal of a smaller, more fiscally responsible federal government, he came across as a pol who was all too happy to sell out to the D.C. political class. He surrounded himself with security guards and staff minions. He spent more time fund raising with special interests than listening to his constituents. Yes, he was powerful in Washington, D.C., but the folks back home were not impressed by his ability to articulate their hopes and fears.

Republican voters are sick and tired of the way business is done in Washington. They view the nation’s capital as a stinking cesspool that favors insiders. They see crony capitalists buying politicians and rigging the rules to loot the middle class. Republican voters see Republican leaders in Washington as less rapacious than the Democrats but not a whole lot better. They think term limits are a good idea because they know that, given enough time, the D.C. political culture can corrupt the most virtuous. To the middle-class voters of the 7th District, politicians are expendable. Eric Cantor was expendable. Voting for David Brat sent a message.

Behind Cantor’s Big Loss

cantorBy Peter Galuszka

There’s big political news tonight as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor loses a Republican primary to upstart economics professor David Brat, a Tea Party favorite.

While Brat’s challenge was noticed nationally, few expected Cantor to go down. But with more than 80 percent of precincts in the 7th Congressional District reporting, there’s no way Cantor can catch up.

There are a lot of takeaways from this defeat which has attracted national attention. Some of them are rather ugly. Here’s a quick list:

  • Republicans can’t play it both ways. They can’t be Bushies and vote for his big spending programs and then try to lead the parade of the Tea Party insurgency. That’s phony and voters know it
  • Brat sadly chose to run against immigrants, notably those here outright illegally or who perhaps lack documents because of ICE bureaucracy or were brought here as children. Some resolution is badly needed but Brat’s successful milking of this issue pushed resolution back for months if not years. The issue should be met with compassion, not nativist American hatred, which Brat has chosen.
  • The dynamics of Henrico County and the Richmond power structure have changed dramatically. Cantor was the home-grown boy, heir to Tom Bliley and he had everybody in his pocket, especially the old Richmond power structure and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. His wife was on the board of Media General, the former owner of the newspaper, and it predictably loved everything young Eric did. He was like the Paul Trible of yesteryear. But MG screwed up financially and had to sell out to Warren Buffett. While the editorial stances haven’t changed, the shakeup by the Sage of Omaha means a lot under the surface.
  • Does this mean there’s a resurgence of the Tea Party? The national media will see it that way. To be honest, I haven’t really figured the Tea Party out. I don’t know if they are tri-cornered hat crazies or serious Libertarians.

The old order is fading. The old coziness and sense of entitlement are gone.

Brat and Cantor: Two Unsavory Choices

BratCantorWebBy Peter Galuszka

The hottest political race coming up is the Republican primary this Tuesday involving the 7th Congressional District now represented by Eric Cantor, a powerful conservative who is House Majority Leader and could possibly one day be Speaker of the House.

His opponent, college professor David Brat, has gotten much national attention because Brat is trying to out-Tea Party Cantor who tried to shed his Main Street background and led the insurgent Tea Party parade during their days of glory back in 2010.

But if you want to see just how intellectually barren both men are, read what they wrote in opposing columns in the Richmond newspaper this morning. They show just how out of touch they are and how they are dominated by a tiny group of hard-right fanatics who have split the state GOP.

Brat is an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in the quaint railroad town of Ashland that might be a set for a Jimmy Stewart movie.

He spends a lot of time debunking Cantor’s ridiculous claim that he is a “liberal” college professor but the very fact that he is doing this is a throwback to the Old Virginny days of yore. First, off, what is wrong with being a “liberal professor?” Are we supposed to have academics that pass a litmus test? Maybe Brat would have House UnAmerican Activities Committees on colleges to make sure that “liberal” professors don’t poison young minds.

Secondly, the use of the term is an exercise in euphemism that smacks of the Massive Resistance days when a candidate was accused of being a “social engineer” if he or she backed integration and civil rights.

And while Brat makes some fair points about Cantor masquerading as a budget hawk, his ideas on finally dealing with undocumented foreign-born residents are downright scary and are obviously intended as a populist ploy to the lower elements of voters.

Indeed, Brat’s column raises serious questions about just how well he understands economic reality, especially when it comes to immigration. Forces are aligning for some kind of long-overdue resolution of immigration. He claims Cantor backs amnesty for undocumented workers. (If so, what’s wrong with that?)

Brat paints a weird picture in which “illegals,” working in collusion with giant corporations, are stealing jobs from “real” Virginians. I won’t go into the borderline racist and nativist aspects of his statements. They smack of the older days of the No Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan that wanted to keep non-Protestants, such as Catholic Irish, Poles, Germans and Italians, or Chinese or Japanese, out of the country.

Strangely and even more troubling, Brat simply doesn’t understand the American labor market. One of the reason so many immigrants are in some sectors of the economy, such as construction and poultry processing, are because the jobs are dirty, messy and there aren’t enough native-American workers willing or able to do them. That is why turkey processing plants in the Shenandoah Valley have so many hard-working Hispanic immigrants. Ditto construction jobs.

At the other end of the spectrum, Professor Brat ignores the dilemma at the high-end of the economy. American universities are not producing enough software and other engineers so we have to import them through visa programs. Some companies are so hungry for foreign intellectual talent that immigrants end up working just across the border in Canada where it is easier to get visas although their efforts support American firms.

This may come as news to Brat in his little college town, but the world is becoming more global and, like it or not, there will be more foreign-born people working here and elsewhere. His complaint that illegals are getting soldier jobs that Americans might want is strange. The military needs to wind down after 13 years of war. One wonders if Brat even has a passport and has traveled overseas.

Cantor’s column is the usual Eddie Haskell boilerplate. He spends a lot of time tearing down the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have launched at least six unsuccessful assaults on it and still refuse to accept the Supreme Court’s decision of a couple of years ago.

Generously funded by the managed care industry, Cantor raises no alternatives to the current health care system that is plagued with overbilling, a lack of transparency and has cruelly prevented millions from getting coverage because of “pre-existing conditions.” Granted the roll out of exchanges was a mess last year, but health care sign ups have exceeded expectations in Virginia. The expected number was 134,800 in enrollment plans under the ACA. At the beginning of May it was 216,300.

Neither candidate talks about crucial issues such as income inequality, climate change or America’s changing role in world diplomacy. Neither talks about about poverty or smart growth or student debt.

Cantor is likely to win Tuesday but neither man seems worthy of leadership. They are just more evidence about how the right-wing fringe has been allowed to highjack the agenda. As this continues to happen, Virginia will be stuck in its ugly past.

Thank God for Obama’s Carbon Rules

chesterfield-rBy Peter Galuszka

At long last, President Barack Obama has released proposed new pollution rules that would target shutting or cleaning up coal-fired electricity plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent over the next 16 years.

The plan gives states the initial responsibility for coming up with regimes to reduce carbon through state-run carbon trading exchanges, carbon taxes, tradeoffs using renewable energy or new emissions restrictions on power plants.

While King Coal and conservative politicians, including some Democrats, strongly oppose the rules, they have been otherwise hailed as an important step in reducing greenhouse gases that are leading to climate change. “This is arguably the most important environmental rule ever written,” says Michael Livermore, a climate expert at the University of Virginia. Coal-fired plants are the country’s leading source of carbon pollution.

Coal industry and utility officials had feared Obama might come up with strict plans to immediately dun existing coal-fired plants, but the President has come up with a solution that has plenty of flexibility. In fact, one might argue it doesn’t go far enough, although environmental groups seem happy with it.

One of the reasons why the impacts on Virginia may not be that onerous is that the state’s largest utility, Richmond based Dominion, relies on coal for only 20 percent of its generation. In fact, Dominion has been planning shutdowns of its older coal plants for several years now.

Leading the list are all or parts of Chesapeake Energy Center and Yorktown that were built decades ago and are too expensive to upgrade. Indeed, according to The Washington Post, of 983 plants in the country, 63 percent are at least 40 years old. So, Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency are pretty much targeting highly-polluting, carbon-spewing plants that either are or will soon be on the shut-down list. Thus, it is ludicrous to claim that we must keep in service coal plants built when the Beatles were hot because they are needed for jobs. Why not hang on to Edsels, too?

Dominion has been busy switching plants to biomass or natural gas or building new, non-coal ones. Ohio-based American Electric Power, which operates in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields, is not so lucky since 75 percent of its generating stations use coal. Many utilities have already been achieving the carbon reduction although ones in Kentucky and West Virginia will be hardest-hit. Speaking as a former West Virginian, I must note that the economic contribution of these states to the nation overall is not that significant.

Politicians in the Mountain State predictably dumped on the rules. One who did not is outgoing U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who takes a long view.

“I understand the fears that these rules will eliminate jobs, hurt our communities, and drive up costs for working families,” Rockefeller said. “I am keenly focused on policy issues that affect West Virginians’ health and their livelihoods. However, rather than let fear alone drive our response, we should make this an opportunity to build a stronger future for ourselves. West Virginians have never walked away from a challenge, and I know together we can create a future that protects our health, creates jobs, and maintains coal as a core part of our energy supply.”

Contrast that rather statesmanlike approach with the views of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Henrico Republican, who claimed the rules were an “assault on hard working middle class families” and that it would destroy the jobs of “nearly 5,000 Virginians who work in the coal industry.”

Cantor’s musings are not quite accurate, if not downright silly. For one thing, it is doubtful that electricity rates for most Virginian – those served by Dominion – will shoot up if 80 percent of electricity generation is already non-coal.

As for the coalfields, this may come as news to a flatlander like Cantor, but employment in the Virginia coalfields has been dropping since 1991 and hasn’t been much more than 10,000 in modern times. That’s about the size of Newport News Shipbuilding or CapOne in the good years.

The true reasons why coal employment has fallen off are that coal seams have become thinner and more expensive to mine and hydraulic fracking for natural gas has made it an obvious replacement for coal. It’s not so much “Obama’s War on Coal” but “Fracking’s War on Coal.”

A few other points:

  • As Virginia prepares its carbon reduction plan it is going to have to give a serious rethink to renewable portfolio standards. These are guidelines intending to reduce so much carbon by building wind, solar and other renewable energy programs to reduce dependence on fossil fuel. Unlike Maryland and North Carolina, Virginia’s standards are voluntary. This is a typical sop to business interests but the equation has just changed.
  • What’s left of the Virginia and the rest of the Central Appalachian coalfields are going to stay on the decline but there are saving graces. What the Cantors of the world don’t tell you is that there is still a robust export market from those regions for both thermal and metallurgical coal. Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources has been concentrating on building up coal exports to Europe, whose energy picture has been darkened by recent Russian aggressiveness. Russia supplies Europe with about a third of its natural gas and that, in fact, can be switched in part to coal.
  • What the Cantors of the world also don’t tell you is that while there will be some coal jobs lost, there will be new ones created in making wind turbines or solar panels. Doing so is expensive and progress lagged because it was cheaper for utilities to just use cheap coal and foul the air. They don’t get to do that anymore and that should clear the way for more manufacturing of renewables.
  • Getting rid of some coal will improve the health of sufferers of lung disease in places such as the Ohio River Valley. Dominion out to take a harder look at its Chesterfield Power Station, its No. 1 carbon polluter, which spews out nearly 7 million tons of CO2 a year.
  • Another possibility is putting together carbon exchanges or taxes in Virginia. Plenty of foreign countries have done so. In the U.S., the states leading the way are the most progressive, such as those in New England, Maryland and California. Such exchanges helped reduce ozone-harming nitrous oxides back in the 1990s using, in part, market exchanges.

Guess who led on that? A Republican named George H.W. Bush. Who knew?

Why Executive Fiats Are Needed

idiot gets shotBy Peter Galuszka

Two initiatives — one on the state and the other on the federal level– show just how untenable the politics of confrontation has become. It is forcing the executive side to take charge at the expense of the legislative.

Democrats Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Atty. Gen. Mark Herring are exploring ways to have the governor take emergency authority to continue operating the state of no budget is passed by June 30. Herring has brought in a constitutional ringer from the University of Virginia to help out.

Meanwhile, on Monday, President Barack Obama will unveil new rules to stem carbon dioxide pollution at electricity power plants. This will most likely involve some kind of cap and trade system that actually has worked for a couple decades for preventing emissions that contribute to acid rain.

Obama is late in promulgating the rules because King Coal and its well-paid lobbyists and members of Congress want to blunt the impact on coal-fired electricity plants that provide about 40 percent of the electricity in this country. They and the annoyingly boring global change naysayers have rendered Congress useless in addressing one of the most pressing issues of our time. Result? Gridlock.

So, Obama is taking executive power through existing law, namely air pollution laws that date back to Republican Richard M. Nixon.

It’s a shame that there can’t be intelligent discussion about either issue. In Virginia’s case, the stubborn resistance by conservative Republicans in the House of Delegates to expanding Medicaid has deadlocked action on passing a $96 billion two year budget.

Turns out that the fiscal situation is even more dire because of a $350 million shortfall this year in revenue which is the result of many wealthy Virginians taking advantage of capital gains tax law changes that made it better to ditch stocks last year as they did. The shortfall will only snowball if nothing is done. Localities and state employees will be severely impacted.

Hence McAuliffe is seeking out a Constitutionally-acceptable way to keep the government going regardless of what hard-liners like House Speaker Bill Howell do.

So, there you have it: rule but executive fiat. To be sure, in Virginia’s case, there are possible ways to get out of the mess, namely Republican Sen. Emmet Hanger’s compromise plan on Medicaid. But when it comes to global warming, forget it. The power of the Koch Brothers and the fossil fuel industry is simply too great. No matter what practically every climate scientist in the world says, we are having to answer to the deniers.

Hang on. June will be a lively month.

Sen. Emmett Hanger’s Good Idea

emmett-hangerBy Peter Galuszka

Could some seemingly small technical changes in legislative tactics and voting powers on an obscure commission clear the way for passing a state budget and expanding Medicaid in some form?

Sen. Emmett Hanger, a Republican senator from Augusta, thinks so. If he’s right, there could be a way out for both Republican House Speaker Bill Howell and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe who are taking the stubborn impasse right up to the wire of June 30.

Hanger is proposing technically separating Medicaid expansion to 400,000 lower income Virginians from the budget debate, but with a twist.

There would be legislation linked to the budget requiring changes in the voting of a legislative commission known as the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission (MIRC) which was formed in 2013 and must agree that enough positive change in the Medicaid program is taking place to allow expansion. It would most likely occur through private insurance exchanges of some type.

“By October of this year we might be able to begin some limited enrollments,” Hanger told me in an interview.

I called him because, frankly, I didn’t understand media accounts of what he was proposing although the reports indicated that there could be some kind of breakthrough involved. My undergraduate degree is in international relations and I used to study diplomacy. I realize that such types of granular give and take can bring tremendous progress. I am intrigued.

Of course, I could be dead wrong and Virginia will not pass a $96 billion, two-year budget, the state will lose its good bond rating, government will shut down at least in part, teachers won’t get paid and those caught in health care limbo between Medicaid and Obamacare will remain there.

Talking with Hanger gave me some perspective that I didn’t have and haven’t read in the Mainstream media.

First, he said that the General Assembly has already approved Medicaid expansion. It did so last year with former Gov. Bob McDonnell in office. But it also created the 10 member legislative Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission to identify problems and offer improvement suggestions for the state’s Medicaid program. No expansion can occur unless the commission approves. Hanger is chairman of MIRC.

By law, any expansion of Medicaid must be approved by a supermajority vote of the commission. That means that a majority of the five Senate members of the commission would have to say yes. Ditto a majority of the five House members.

Hanger’s proposal would make it a straight majority vote of six out of 10 members from both Senate and House sides. Plus, they won’t vote to approve expansion, only to disapprove it. In the meantime, MIRC would set clear metrics to benchmark what reforms are truly wanted.

Medicaid expansion would involve some kind of private health exchange (now dubbed “Marketplace Virginia”), and there would be added safeguards that there would be adequate copays by participants and ways to make sure that emergency rooms aren’t suddenly flooded with newly insured patients. He also wants a workable data system to keep track of patients and payments and other safeguards to prevent abuse. There are at least 17 categories of improvement areas.

The Senate would concede and use the House’s budget bill. The House would drop “Marketplace Virginia” from its bill and would concede that addressing additional Medicaid reforms would be required.

“Technically, it delinks Medicaid expansion from the budget bills,” says Hanger. But he adds that many seem to have forgotten that the General Assembly actually approved of Medicaid expansion last year “if a series of reforms were taken.” He says his plan would insure that just that happens and he believes it could happen quickly while the budget impasse is resolved separately.

He says that Howell, who has stubbornly resisted any Medicaid expansion this legislative session, seems amenable. So does McAuliffe.

The danger, of course, is that decoupling Medicaid from the budget bills takes away leverage points from both sides. Democratic Senator Dick Saslaw fears some kind of trick as do some Republicans.

My view is that sure there’s that risk, but it’s getting really late to keep playing chicken. My view also is that McAuliffe has done a hell of a lot more to compromise than Howell has.

Also, in my view, a private exchange is not the best way to go to expand Medicaid but the reality is that Virginia has a highly conservative legislature. Other conservative states such as Indiana have managed health care expansion through private exchanges, so I guess half a loaf is better than no loaf.

It seems that Hanger’s proposed deal might just get that, and not too late, either. It’s worth a look since the financial and health alternatives are truly terrible to contemplate.

Richmond Mayor Jones Bunts

richmond-flying-squirrels-comic-nutzyBy Peter Galuszka

In a blow to Richmond’s business elite, Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones has withdrawn, at least for now, his $80 million project to build a new minor league baseball stadium as part of a mixed-use, publicly-funded development in the city’s historic Shockoe Bottom.

The stadium had been up for a council vote Tuesday night but  ran into trouble when three swing vote councilmen indicated they’d vote it down. Jones says it may come back.

The new stadium which would be home to the Minor League AA Richmond Flying Squirrels was to anchor a new slave museum and mixed use development near the city’s Main Street station downtown. The current location is the crumbling Diamond on North Boulevard.

This is the third time a plan to move the stadium to congested Shockoe Bottom has run into trouble in 10 years. Failure to replace the Diamond was one reason why the AAA Richmond Braves bolted to the Atlanta suburbs a few years back. There are a number of reasons why the plan is dead, at least for now:

  • Secrecy. The third attempt sprang from Venture Richmond, a marketing group controlled by the city’s business elite. From the git go and true to form in corporate Richmond, everything was done behind closed doors. Even when Jones announced the plan formally in November, it was dotted with questions such as what to do about a slave museum since neighboring ground is hallowed with the blood and tears of slaves. Deadlines were missed and missed again to explain what the plan was all about.
  • Bad PR: The arrogance of the city’s controlling interests and the low esteem with which they hold ordinary citizens is breathtaking. The editorial section of the local paper ran story after story propagandizing for the Shockoe stadium. They even ran one incredibly tasteless and bizarre cartoon on a Sunday editorial page. A young-African-American woman, neatly coiffed and carrying design shipping bags, walks arm-in-arm with her studly, white husband wearing a Squirrels cap while playing catch with their mixed-race youngster. One assumes they are walking to the new ballpark past the slave museum. Get it? “Look how far we have gone from torturing slaves to our happy interracial family today.”
  • No other ideas allowed. A Chesterfield development firm came up with a counter proposal to build a new stadium near the Diamond site and add some badly-needed retail. The Mayor and his kin reacted vigorously to shut down the plan. Emails came up among the ruling elite that the plan was not to keep suburbanites in their comfort zones. A big advantage with the so-called RebKee idea is that no public money would be involved to keep the ballpark at its convenient and popular location.
  • Public money? Part of the Shockoe plan would have involved millions in public funds. Some $79.6 million would be funded through bonds let by the Richmond Economic Development Authority. Councilman Jonathan Baliles worried that the city had voted an amendment to be let off the hook for the bonds. They didn’t want to have the “moral obligation.” If not the city, then who gets the tab if it goes bad?
  • The fans don’t matter. Gee in all of this mess and intrigue, no one seems to be asking the Squirrels fans what they think. A few takeaways are that most of  them come from the suburbs and polls show that most like the current site just fine since it is where Interstates 95 and 64 connect. Many are moms and dads with 10-year-olds. Apparently in the thinking of the city’s ruling elite who push the idea of Richmond being “the capital of creativity,” these average suburbanites don’t count. They don’t fit the image of the hip, cool, tat-sleeved yuppie dabbling in the arts or software that they so badly want to use as marketing for the New Richmond they envision. Fact is, many fans with a van-load of kids probably aren’t interested in downing craft beer or designer cocktails right after the game. They probably want to get their tuckered-out tykes back to their boring, car-centric suburban homes. Apparently, they don’t count. I attended a Squirrels game a few weeks ago for Chesterfield Monthly and out of 12 families I spoke with only one wanted to leave the current Boulevard site.

My takeaway? The Squirrels are showing a lot more patience and class than the Braves. Either start something serious at the Boulevard site or come up with a few honest, open and clear proposals. It should not be up to just Richmond, however, even though they own the stadium, since their fan base is out of the city. And if Richmond fails, screw the city and built it at Short Pump or at some other suburban location. Try to stick with private money.

A Building Year

sarvis

Photo credit: MyFoxDC.com

by James A. Bacon

Ask Robert Sarvis if he thinks he really has a chance to win the race for the U.S. Senate, and he won’t insult your intelligence with a lot of bogus reasons why he just might be able to pull it off. Even though the Libertarian candidate garnered 6.5% last year in his run last year for governor, he acknowledges that many of his votes came from Virginians who just couldn’t stomach the Democratic and Republican nominees. The same cannot be said of his opponents this year. But he still makes a strong case why pulling the Libertarian lever won’t be wasted this fall: He’s building the Libertarian Party for the future.

I caught up with Sarvis a couple of weeks ago when he was in Richmond. We sat in a booth at Kuba Kuba, a great little Cuban restaurant in the Fan, and munched deep-fried plaintains. No one seemed to recognize him as the third most serious candidate for Senate this year. Perhaps the same could have been said of Republican Ed Gillespie as well, but the Republican candidate would have been accompanied by his campaign minions. Sarvis, who lives in Northern Virginia, was traveling alone. His incredibly low profile in early May did not augur especially well for his odds in the campaign but it was fine with me. We got to chat without interruption.

I was curious: Why was he running? Campaigning against Gillespie, a savvy Washington insider with access to boodles of cash, and Democrat Mark Warner, an entrenched senator who could tap millions in PAC money, was a political suicide mission. The two heavyweights could raise more moolah than Sarvis could dream of. They had professional campaign organizations. They had the backing of the Democratic and Republican party organizations. What did Sarvis have? A Rolodex of volunteers, an email list of mostly nickle-and-dime contributors, a Twitter account and a Facebook page with about 17,000 followers between the two of them.

Here is his argument: The Libertarian Party built considerable momentum last year — 6.5% was a darn good showing for a third party candidate in Virginia. He also snagged 15% of the vote among young people (18 to 29-year-olds). He wants to maintain that momentum. He may not win this election but if the youth is the future, libertarians can reasonably hope to fare better in the years ahead.

One advantage Sarvis does enjoy is great name recognition for a third-party candidate. He is taking advantage of that to build a stronger campaign organization than the one he had in 2013. Lots of people were involved but he had no campaign manager. “Last year,” he says, “we were flying by the seat of our pants.”

The campaign is bigger than him, he says. He was working to get Libertarians on the ballot in all of Virginia’s congressional districts. For the first time in its history the Libertarian Party of Virginia has recruited candidates for every congressional seat. (Gathering the 1,000 signatures from registered voters to get them on the ballot is a different matter.) Libertarians can stretch resources by sharing campaign literature and contact lists, and Sarvis wants to ensure that, at a minimum, each candidate has a website. As for renting mailing lists and email lists, he conceded, that was probably beyond the means of his campaign. “The lists cost money. We’re not playing at that level.”

That’s an understatement. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, as of March 31, Warner had shaken the trees for $7.2 million, Gillespie had scooped up $2.2 million and Sarvis had raised… $0. None of the big moneyed interests that bankroll political candidates are likely to support a Libertarian committed to shrinking the size and scope of government along with the size and scope of those moneyed interests’ influence on government. As far as I could tell, Sarvis had no particular plan for beating the bushes. While he is obviously intelligent and passionate, I did not detect the kind of hunger, drive and chutzpah that it takes to shake down donors for thousands of dollars.

Still, Sarvis may fare well again as the “None of the Above” candidate. Public approval of the two-party duopoly continues to plumb new lows, Congress as an institution ranks somewhere between drug dealers and child molesters in the popular esteem and, in the wake of Obamacare and the VA scandal, vast swaths of the electorate have lost faith in the competence of the federal government. “Last year, the candidates were the negatives,” said Sarvis. “This year it’s the federal government.” Both Warner, a senator, and Gillespie, a former lobbyist, are Washington insiders. Voters tired of a choice between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee will cast a vote for the Libertarian.

Sarvis had not yet honed his key campaign themes. Refreshingly, he didn’t recite a litany of highly honed talking points. But there was no sign of the message discipline characteristic of successful candidates.

I shared my conviction that most Virginians are “natural libertarians,” pragmatists who just want to live their lives and be left alone, with no great desire to impose their views and values on others. Virginians are worried that government spending is out of control but they are not doctrinaire Libertarians who hew to radical notions such as scrapping Social Security, privatizing the military or legalizing heroin. Sarvis agreed. “We want to show our pragmatic, moderate side,” he said. He wants to position himself as someone interested in governing. Continue reading