Janet Howell has been in the Virginia state Senate for nearly 30 years. But with the political and economic gaps between regions of the commonwealth still significant, she has devised a way to try and bridge the chasms.
A road trip.
Howell (D-32nd) and her husband are planning a 10-day summer excursion through Southwest Virginia, aiming to try and bring together regions of the state that, on the surface, would seem to have little in common.
“We need to be sensitive to their feelings,” Howell said of corridors of the commonwealth that may not share values that many in Northern Virginia would consider mainstream. “The days of ‘my way or the highway’ are over.”
Howell was among the seven legislators who comprise the Arlington legislative delegation to participate in a Leadership Center for Excellence post-session forum April 20 at Army Navy Country Club.
While the annual breakfast gathering shines a spotlight on legislators’ successes and failures in Richmond, it also focuses on a discussion of how to build rapport in a body that is divided by politics, geography and economics:
• “At the end of the day, it’s really about building relationships – bringing sincerity and honesty,” said state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st).
• “Talk less, listen more – walk around in someone else’s shoes,” advised Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th).
• “Try and understand your colleagues,” said Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th).
The sentiments were similar to the previous six annual installments of the program, but the political landscape has altered substantially. The 60-day 2018 General Assembly was the first held after last November’s elections, where Democrats saw major gains in the House of Delegates, nearly walking away with the majority after years in the wilderness.
“Everything was different,” said Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th), who pointed to “a whole lot of new voices in our caucus room.”
“And these were not shy people,” Sullivan said. “It was a leadership challenge . . . to make sure all those voices were heard.”
The landscape has shifted, to a point.
“We have enough numbers to prevent terrible things from happening,” but not enough to move forward with a Democratic agenda, said Del. Mark Levine (D-45th).
Several members of the lower house pointed approvingly to a change in tone set by the new House Speaker, Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights). Hope said Cox was among those Republicans who seemed to understand the message sent by voters last fall, and praised him for permitting those in the GOP caucus to vote their consciences on issues such as Medicaid expansion.
In the Senate, where Republicans hold onto a narrow 21-19 majority, there historically has been more of a willingness to cooperate across the aisle.
State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30th) said he nabs his Republican counterparts early in the session with a simple question: “What do you have that we can work together on?”
“I really do look for a Republican [co]sponsor” for legislation, Ebbin said – sometimes finding one, sometimes not.
In general, the legislators said, rules for living that are imparted in kindergarten are equally important in Richmond.
“Act out the Golden Rule. Respect everybody, always be kind, remember what it was like when you first got there,” Howell said. “It’s not always easy. I don’t always succeed. But I do try.”