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The Political Divide, Statewide Races, and Dealing with the Pandemic: Political Analysis for Friday, January 22, 2021

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Schapiro with a microphone between them.
Political Analysis for Friday, January 22, 2021

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times Dispatch joins VPM's Craig Carper for this week's political analysis. Topics include the divide between state Democrats and Republicans, the race for statewide office including the gubernatorial contest, the debate over how to handle the pandemic, and the new redistricting commission. 

Craig Carper:  From VPM News in Richmond, I'm Craig Carper.  Joining me now from the Richmond Times-Dispatch is political columnist and VPM’s political analyst, Jeff Schapiro.  Jeff, good morning.

Jeff Schapiro:   Hi there, Craig.

Carper:  The transfer of power in Washington from Trump to Biden is spotlighting a power struggle down the road in Richmond with Democrats embracing the new president and Republicans trying to look like they're not running from the old one.

Schapiro:  Inauguration Day was very interesting at this end of the interstate.  In the state Senate, of course the Senate meeting in a socially-distanced setting out at The Science Museum of Virginia, you know, a large television screen was installed, and the Democrats who have the majority of Senate seats, 21 of the 40, stopped and sponged it all up.  The Republicans went off and had some sort of a caucus.  It was not an occasion, clearly, for both parties despite the new president's appeals to Americans to come together, to be bipartisan, to find common ground on these big issues.  The governor, also a Democrat, trying to, you know, kind of bask in the reflective glow of the new Biden administration sent a letter to the president saying that he has an ally in Richmond.  But all of this touchy-feely stuff, all this feel-good stuff, represents a very dramatic change from quite literally a few hours earlier when Ralph Northam was battling with the Trump administration in the countdown hours to its conclusion over a federal disaster declaration in Virginia.  The president refused this request and one from Governor Hogan of Maryland, as well.  Both States contributing thousands of national guardsmen and guardswomen to the security effort in Washington, largely a result, of course, of the attack on the Capitol.  This declaration would have meant money for the state, assistance with its own security.  As I said, the governor described this as a slap in the face.  The Capitol, of course, here in Richmond has been in lockdown or was in lockdown from last weekend until after the inauguration.  Capitol Square looking very much like a fortress.  And on Monday, and as well on Wednesday, when there were big events planned at both ends of I-95, there was, shall we say, superlative presentation of security at the Capitol.  The gun rights people staged this motorcade, but there were, as well, the Boogaloo Boys turning out in their camo and helmets and body armor and firearms.  At one point it was clear that there were more reporters out than there were heavily armed right-wing extremists, and this has been the pattern in an otherwise peaceful and traditionally people-accessible capitol.

Carper:  And Joe Biden swearing in as president signals that Virginia’s campaign for governor and the other statewide offices is in full swing.

Schapiro:  And a good deal of copy generated by the Republicans.  Kirk Cox, the former speaker, one of the Republican candidates for governor who picked up endorsements from two former governors, Republicans George Allen and Bob McDonald, even took a swing at Terry McAuliffe for his anti-gun stances.  What I think is interesting about this, McAuliffe promising further restrictions if he's elected governor a second time.  It was the Republicans who, after that mass shooting in Virginia Beach in 2019, sat on a pile of proposals by Democrats to more strictly control firearms in Virginia.  The electorate was infuriated by this, and it clearly contributed to the Republican party's loss of the legislature, and of course, Cox’s toppling as speaker.  We can't talk about the Republican gubernatorial nomination without talking about Amanda Chase.  The Chesterfield senator and Trump sound-alike remains unchastened.  Now in the face of possible censure in the Senate for expressing support of the attack on the Capitol, she said these were patriots who had stormed this citadel of government.  As a first step towards a possible censure, she was stripped of her final, her only remaining committee assignment on the Local Government Committee, and the vote was 37 to 1.  The only opponent was Chase.  By the way, all of this is taking place in the run-up to yet another meeting of the Republican Party Central Committee; that's its governing body.  This will be the third session, this weekend, on the possibility of replacing the convention, a members-only convention, for an open-to-all primary.  Among the Democrats, Terry McAuliffe with a big fundraising report - over $6 million raised, more money than all gubernatorial candidates in both parties combined.  And then sort of an interesting twist in a bottom-of-the-ticket race.  Jay Jones, the delegate from Norfolk who was opposing Mark Herring, the Democratic incumbent attorney general who's running for a third term, did a little Doug Wilder like rope-a-dope.  First, he attacked Herring for approving a criminal investigation of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.  This is all an outgrowth of questions about the conditions under which a contract was made to remove the Confederate monuments from around the city.  Stoney, of course, endorsed Jones, and Jones is suggesting that this is retaliation.  This investigation is retaliation, or at least the AG’s sanction is a retaliation.  And then, also, I thought it was interesting, Jones went after Kirk Cox for accepting the Allen endorsement, suggesting that it is a sign of racial insensitivity by Cox, in particular, and in the Republican party, in general, because, of course, it was George Allen who labeled an Indian-American “macaca” in 2006, and that contributed to his narrow defeat for the U.S. Senate.

Carper:  And the state's response to the pandemic, in particular, Governor Ralph Northam's handling of it is driving the legislature's debate over COVID-19, as well as trying the patience of Virginians eager to be vaccinated.

Schapiro:  You know, all across the state sign-ups and cancellations because of miscommunications and dwindling supply are really contributing to the public's frustration with this.  Of course, in the Richmond-Henrico Health District, which handles a lot, it's going to be handling a lot of vaccinations in this area, the metro area, 6,000 people signed up and were bumped because of a complication and a screw up or a miscommunication.  You know, the governor, our doctor governor, is trying to get things back on track.  He visited one of these mass vaccination sites in the Richmond area.  He's telling people that the problem is really with the federal government, particularly the old Trump administration, but he is taking heat in the legislature from Democrats and Republicans about getting kids back into classrooms and away from those computers, if they have them.  They essentially make up these virtual classrooms.  Virginia is now averaging about 6,000 cases of COVID a day.  That's down from nearly 10,000 on Sunday.  And among the ideas being batted about the legislature, Siobhan Dunnavant, a Republican senator from Henrico, has introduced some legislation backed by Democrats that would allow any qualified healthcare provider, and that would, of course, include Dunnavant, herself a physician, to administer, to volunteer to administer COVID vaccinations.  One last note, the inmates in Virginia's prisons, of whom a third have tested positive for COVID, that's roughly 8,000 out of 25,000, they are in the process of receiving their vaccinations.  There've been some inducements here.  That includes stamps, it includes phone time, it includes snacks and personal care items.  Anything to get them into the clinics, get shots in their arms, and try to control these outbreaks behind bars.

Carper:  And finally, the bipartisan redistricting commission meets for the first time amid controversy over one of its Republican members and concern that the commission won't be able to draw fresh House districts in time for the November election.

Schapiro:  Yeah, this is a Republican civilian appointee, if you will.  His name is José Feliciano He’s from Fredericksburg.  He's a pro-Trump guy, and he has been apparently posting online lots of things that suggest, you know, Trump indeed was denied the reelection, that the Biden victory was rigged.  He's also used misogynistic language to describe female athletes and female actor/activists.  So now there's a big push to have him removed from the commission.  This is a push by the Democrats, interestingly enough, many of whom or most of whom actually opposed the redistricting reform initiative that is going to be turning redistricting over to this commission.  There's a larger issue here, and that is when can the commission actually begin its work?  The census data are late.  The holdups are attributed to the old Trump administration’s legal disputes over when to actually end the census count, and whether there should be a count of undocumented residents.  So, the question will be, could it be too late to set lines for the fall House elections?  So, would delegates and candidates run in old districts?  This raises the possibility, some say, of three consecutive House elections, one this year, one next year in what presumably will be fresh districts, and then again in 2023, when all the delegates would be up.  Not necessarily the case, neither party is interested in three straight elections.  Maybe there's an opinion that can be procured from the attorney general that would allow them to run in existing districts and bypass an interim election, though a court could order that.  So, we're going to have to do a wait and see.  I guess, what is coming out of all of this is that redistricting, which was never an orderly process, and now with this new and untried system, it can be downright disorderly.

Carper: Alright, thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Jeff, we will catch up again next week.

Schapiro:  Safe weekend to you.