RICHMOND, VA – Del. Danica Roem (Manassas) on her first day at the Virginia General Assembly Building in Richmond, VA. Like other newly elected Democrats from northern Virginia, Roem has seen most of her proposed bills die in the GOP-controlled legislature. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
RICHMOND — The blue wave that leveled the balance of power in the General Assembly last fall was driven largely by voters in rapidly growing Northern Virginia, who swapped veteran Republicans for Democrats in counties like Fairfax and Prince William.
But it also wiped out much of the region’s seniority in the legislature, a key reason that many of the bills sponsored by the newcomers – including several that aim to address specific problems in the D.C. suburbs – have failed to survive even a committee hearing.
Down went a bill prohibiting cars from using bike lanes to pass another car on the right, an issue that resonates in traffic-choked communities in the region that are trying to become more bike-friendly.
A bill to suspend rush hour tolls on I-66 for carpoolers during the state’s road-widening project inside the Beltway also quickly died. So did another that would have prohibited mapping software companies from suggesting local neighborhood streets as faster routes during rush hour.
Meanwhile, Northern Virginia state legislators were battling to keep a $150 million Metro funding bill from leaning too heavily on their region, in the form of higher taxes and transportation funds already meant for other projects.
Political analysts say the loss of veteran Republican delegates Dave Albo (Fairfax), Jim LeMunyon (Fairax) and Jackson Miller (Prince William) is making it harder for the region to get its concerns addressed while the freshmen Democrats who replaced them are still learning to navigate Richmond’s political terrain.
With the Washington suburbs growing much faster than the rest of the state, Northern Virginia will likely develop more clout as its new lawmakers gain seniority and legislative districts are redrawn after the 2020 census.
But for now, their power is limited in a political climate where Republicans still maintain a majority in Richmond – however slim – with few of their members hailing from Northern Virginia.
“The political shock wave of this last election was really a Northern Virginia story,” said Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy.
But, “as much as it says about where political momentum is in Virginia as a whole, it doesn’t mean practically anything right now because all those new legislators are in the minority, so they can’t really pass things that Republicans don’t support,” he said.
Northern Virginia has long had a complex relationship with the rest of the state, which both depends on and frequently resents the more urban, wealthier area.
The region is home to nearly a dozen Fortune 500 companies and some of the country’s wealthiest counties, with its residents making up a third of Virginia’s population of 8.5 million people.
That translates to nearly half of the $13 billion in annual personal income taxes collected by the state, according to Fiscal Analytics Ltd., which analyzes Virginia’s economy for local governments.
Over the years, the region has benefited from local lawmakers in powerful positions.
During his four decades in the state senate, recently deceased Republican Charles J. Colgan was instrumental in getting state funds for road improvements in his Prince William County district. In 2013, Del. Tom Rust (R-Herndon) helped usher through a state transportation funding law that has largely benefited the region. Rust left the legislature after declining in 2015 to seek reelection.
But the region’s long shadow has also provoked disdain among lawmakers from other parts of the state, who’ve argued that D.C.-area problems like traffic congestion, transit, crowded schools and poverty should be handled with local money.
Del. Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax) recalled learning that shortly after he was first elected in 2002.
He had co-sponsored a bill that would change the state’s school funding formula so wealthier jurisdictions like Fairfax could better deal with their increasingly crowded classrooms and teacher shortages — a perennial goal for Northern Virginia jurisdictions who argue that they are being shortchanged under the current formula that favors localities with lower overall property values.
“When they figured out it was a Fairfax plan, it just went down,” Hugo said.
Hugo, who narrowly hung onto his seat last fall, is now the sole ranking Republican in the General Assembly from Northern Virginia and is serving as chair of his party’s caucus.
The position has helped him push legislation that has benefited his district, including a law signed last year that exempts defense contractors in the area from local business and professional license taxes.
His new Democratic colleagues, however, are struggling.
Del. Lee Carter (D-Manassas) looked deflated inside the state legislature’s Pocahontas Building one recent afternoon after six of his bills had failed, including one that sought to punish drivers in Northern Virginia as much as $500 for not yielding to pedestrians crossing highways.
“At a certain point, you have to wonder whether these decisions are being made based on the merits of the ideas or not,” he said. “It’s been rough.”
Nearby, Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas) fine-tuned her argument for a bill calling for a study of ways to alleviate traffic congestion on Route 28, a signature issue that helped her win office to become the country’s first openly transgender state lawmaker.
Roem — who’d been passed over for a spot she coveted on the House transportation committee — was hungry for success after seeing two bills fail that proposed reforms to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, moving her to pull another FOIA bill from consideration.
After Roem delivered an impassioned speech before a House rules subcomittee, the Route 28 bill died. In the same meeting, two more of her bills —dealing with commuter rail in her district and suicide prevention in local schools — also failed.
Frustration on the part of the Northern Virginia lawmakers is bipartisan.
In a Senate transportation committee meeting earlier this week, Sens. Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William) and Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) mounted a united front to roll back rush hour tolls on I-66 until the state widening project is finished and new commuter parking lots are built near the Beltway.
Their complaints about area commuters being forced to pay as much as $47 were echoed by a trio of Northern Virginia lawmakers on the committee, but their colleagues seemed mostly indifferent.
Sen. John A. Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake) noted that rush hour tolls are also set to go into effect along I-64 in the Hampton Roads area.
“I don’t see why Hampton Roads should be treated differently than Northern Virginia,” he said.
The bill died in a 7-6 vote, with promises from the Department of Transportation to try to speed work on the commuter parking lots.
McPike and Black were visibly angry.
“We have a tremendous problem here,” Black told the committee.
“Our families can’t wait,” added McPike, before they both left.
Political analysts say Northern Virginia’s fortunes are bound to improve after redistricting in 2021, when the area’s increasing population is likely to lead to more seats in the General Assembly.
Former delegate Albo, whose decision to retire opened the door for Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax) to win election in November, said any new seats for the region will help with funding for local schools and transportation.
“The Northern Virginia delegation is very tight on issues of funding and money,” Albo said. “So the more seats we have, whether it be Republican or Democrat, are only going to help us.”