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Editorial: Three lumps of coal

Editorial: Three lumps of coal

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Consider this a stocking stuffer, although some might consider these lumps of coal:

1. Is Terry McAuliffe really a champion for ending school disparities? The former governor launched his comeback bid by declaring he’s in favor of “the biggest, boldest investment in education in Virginia history” and that he wants to “ensure that every Virginia student has access to an equitable, world-class education.” All fine words, ones that should certainly get the attention of those of us in rural Virginia who have generally found ourselves on the short end of the vast disparities in school funding.

Now for the inconvenient reality. McAuliffe proposes to “dramatically and immediately increase teacher pay.” Republicans were quick to point out that during McAuliffe’s previous four years, he only proposed an increase in teacher pay once — and that in each of those four years the Republican-controlled General Assembly appropriated more money for education than McAuliffe had proposed. Yes, those big-spending Republicans!

Here’s what no one has pointed out but we will: For all the $2 billion that McAuliffe wants to spend on education, none of it appears to be for school construction. That’s not the only form of disparity, of course, but it’s a big one. We’ve pointed out before that Lee County is trying to teach cybersecurity in buildings so old that the electrical system sometimes shorts out; that’s not a problem that, say, Loudoun County has. We also heard recently from a nonprofit that funds health sciences programs. It wanted to fund some programs at a school in Southside Virginia but discovered the school had no functioning science labs — hard to teach science if there are no science labs. State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has proposed a $3 billion statewide bond issue for school construction; both parties have joined in squashing that proposal. Why isn’t McAuliffe proposing his own version? After all, when he took office, the previous administration had totaled up $18 billion worth of school construction needs. That total probably hasn’t gone down.

Furthermore, the root of Virginia’s school disparity is baked into the state constitution, because it doesn’t require schools to be equal — something explicitly spelled out in a 1994 state Supreme Court ruling. Stanley introduced a constitutional amendment last year to fix that and it also got deep-sixed. Can we take McAuliffe — or any candidate claiming to be an education candidate — seriously if they’re not embracing a rewrite of that constitutionally backed disparity?

2. Why have so few from Southside — and no one from Southwest Virginia — applied for the redistricting commission? In November, voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that takes the power of redistricting away from the majority party in the General Assembly (currently Democrats) and hands it to a commission composed of equal numbers of legislators (themselves equally divided by party) and “citizens” who are supposed to be free of political taint. Those citizens will be picked by a panel of retired judges. But first, there’s an application process. The Virginia Public Access Project reported last week that 88 people so far had applied — the deadline is Dec. 28 — but not a single one of those is from west of Wythe County. And only six from Southside. We had editorialized earlier that the commission shouldn’t be considered fully representative of Virginia unless it had members from Southside and Southwest.

Republicans may have taken care of Southside by appointing Del. Les Adams of Pittsylvania County and state Sen. Steve Newman of Lynchburg, but that doesn’t mean the citizen side of the panel should be devoid of Southside representatives. And there are no legislators west of the Blue Ridge on the panel and, at the rate things are going, no citizen-members, either. In some ways, Southside and Southwest Virginia have less at stake than other parts of the state — there are fewer opportunities to gerrymander a part of the state that’s so heavily Republican. Still, there are some important questions at play — such as how the future 9th Congressional District should be shaped. For instance, should it taken in Franklin County? There ought to be some voices from the region speaking up on that. So what gives? There’s also a big gender imbalance in applications, with 71% coming from men. In the interests of gender balance, a female applicant from Southside or Southwest Virginia would seem to be an advantage.

3. Who are the Democrats doing the most to make it possible for Republicans to win in 2021? Some Democrats no doubt think that’s an absurd question — they’re convinced that recent political trends, powered by voter realignment, mean that Democrats will prevail in Virginia’s statewide elections no matter what. They may well be right. Check back in November 2021 and we’ll know.

But if Republicans are to win the governorship or anything else in 2021, it’ll be because of two reasons. First, Donald Trump will be out of office, and suburban revulsion toward Trump powered the Democratic victories in Virginia in every election in the Trump era. With Trump gone, the political temperature might be a lot lower — in ways that benefit Virginia Republicans. Second, any Republican victory will require voters to be unhappy about something — and the belief that Republicans would serve them better.

Republicans clearly believe one possible issue there are matters that come under the old rubric of “law and order.” Toward that end, the best thing Republicans have going for them right now are the five Democratic appointees to the Virginia Parole Board (one of whom is Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea). The board has made several controversial releases, any of which can be adroitly packaged into a devastating campaign commercial next fall. One involved the release this past summer of Vincent Martin, who was serving a life sentence for the murder of a Richmond police officer. Another, more recent, decision is to release Gregory Allen Joyner, a Lynchburg man serving a life-plus-10-years sentence for the murder and attempted rape of a high school classmate when he was 16.

There may well be extenuating circumstances for each of these — that’s not the point. The point is that, politically, these releases are a gold mine for Republicans. There are likely certain suburban voters who don’t agree with the whole of the Republican agenda but don’t like the idea of murderers and attempted rapists going free.

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