Ken Plum: Virginia Democrats must avoid Republican mistakes
“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787. “It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” Mr. Jefferson would have been pleased with the voter rebellion of 2019 that shifted power in both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in two decades.
With all the history-making details of the outcome of the 2019 elections, some of what happened is a repeat of past events from which there is a great deal to be learned. In my first term in the House of Delegates in 1978 there were 78 Democrats; that number dwindled to 47 in 2000 when Republicans assumed control of the House.
Republicans had been treated shabbily under Democratic majorities, and they never passed up an opportunity to point out the arrogance and unfairness of the Democratic majority. For decades Democrats had not put Republicans on committees that met.
When Republicans took over the majority in the House, they told stories over and over of Democratic abuses of the past to justify minimizing Democratic participation in the legislative process. Republicans were doing the very things about which they had complained for decades. To the victor goes the spoils. It was time for revenge.
Republican campaigning to take the majority never fully transitioned to fairly governing the Commonwealth. Retribution was sought for past grievances. I and many others were removed from major committee assignments. Committee operations were changed to keep Democratic bills bottled up with no recorded votes. In all ways the Republican majority was no better than the Democratic majority had been.
Some examples of abuses: Gerrymander districts to protect Republicans and to reduce chances of Democrats getting elected; Stack committee membership to ensure that their bills were the only ones to get passed; Add subcommittees without adhering to proportional membership or recorded votes to dispose of bills on gun safety, ERA ratification, or nondiscrimination in a way to leave no fingerprints or blame.
Democratic legislators have many stories they can relate about their suffering over the last couple of decades under Republican dominance. The campaigns that just ended were full of dirty tricks. Democrats may well be in the mood to seek revenge; payback can be so sweet.
I believe, however, Democrats must act as though we have learned from past mistakes. Winning the majority puts Democrats in the position to bring about critically needed reform in the legislative process and to act on legislation for which they were not able to get a hearing over the last couple of decades.
Flipping the General Assembly should be more than a color change from red to blue: it needs to be a change to a more open and transparent government. I believe that voters do not want political wrangling; they expect reform of the way business has been done in the past. The majority must provide leadership for meaningful reform while ignoring temptations for revenge. A history of bad deeds should not be repeated.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.