Virginia Politics Inside Out

I think Virginia is a fascinating place.  I have no idea if Virginia is a bellwether of any particular national significance but it has more cultural significance than most places.  I'm biased in that respect.  I lived there for twenty-two years and my parents and almost all of my extended family still does.

I grew up in a small town in Central Virginia.  I lived less than an hour from Thomas Jefferson's estate at Monticello, not much further from James Monroe's Ash Lawn, and barely five minutes from James Madison's Montpelier.  The park in my hometown is named for Zachary Taylor.  Most of the eastern theater of the Civil War was fought a short drive from my home; The Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Fredericksburg, and Cedar Mountain.  Along with dozens of others just a short way further (Bull Run, Bull Run again, Brandy Station, Petersburg, Cold Harbor, and others).  

Virginia seceded from the Union and had the largest number of slaves of all the eleven Confederate states.  It hosted the Confederate capital in Richmond.  The state was proudly "redeemed" following Reconstruction and a loyal member of the "Solid South" with an essentially unbroken string of twenty-four segregationist Democrats in the Governor's mansion beginning in 1874 (the 1878 governor was a bit of an anomaly). 

As the major parties began realigning, Virginia began following much of the rest of the south in voting for more conservative Republican candidates.  The Governor's mansion was more evenly split (though more often Republican than Democrat) but starting in 1968, the state went Republican in ten consecutive presidential elections.  Now Virginia is urbanizing in the east and north, becoming increasingly affluent in the suburbs around Washington, and becoming increasingly purple.  But its history looms large.

I've told this story numerous times but it's still powerful to me and it merits telling again. 

My mother and father both supported Barack Obama in 2008 (I did as well but missed voting by about six weeks).  By election day in November, the election was leaning his way but most of the country still held their breath or knocked on wood or crossed their fingers.

I sat in my basement on the floor with my mom sitting on the couch over my left shoulder and my dad sitting left of her.  Returns started coming in on the east coast and the big New England states turned blue immediately.  Pennsylvania went for Obama and Florida looked favorable.  We knew he was going to win and my parents were thrilled and relieved.  But Virginia was close and we kept watching.

At 11:13pm Virginia became the first state in the former Confederacy to cast its electoral votes for a black man (Florida followed minutes later and North Carolina the next day).  It was the first state of the Jim Crow solid south to elect a man with a Kenyan father to the presidency.  

When Virginia turned blue on CNN's election map my dad clapped and pumped his fist into the air.  My mom started crying.

That memory still defines Virginia for me.  It's a state that still has difficulty reckoning with its shameful history.  Its a commonwealth that, in my time as a politically aware human, has tripped and stumbled into a more and more progressive and sensible state.  It is a socially conservative Jim Crow state that voted twice for the country's first black president and once for its first female major party nominee.  It has elected smart progressive governors, two of whom have moved on to represent the state in the Senate.

I thank my friend James for taking the time to dive into the issues of this year's gubernatorial election, because I no longer live there and couldn't speak to them in as much detail.  But Virginia is still a symbol for me.  I think of Virginia as the kind of place that I want the country to be.  A place that really reckons with the darkest parts of its history and learns from its mistakes.  A place that can move past its authoritarian, segregationist roots and become progressive; slowly, steadily, and in a way that makes sense for its citizens.

This election makes me wonder if the purple years were an anomaly.  I know better than many the power that Confederate monuments and coded racial rhetoric still carry in the rural south, but Virginia seemed to be tipping the scale the other way.  Tonight we'll see if that message still works in the upper parts of the old south; the progressive fringe of the old Confederacy.  I hope it doesn't.  Until tomorrow night I'll vote for my local candidates and hold my breath.  Knock on wood.  Cross my fingers for Virginia.

I hope my friends in the Commonwealth are voting.