Waning influence in Richmond

Published 10:46 am Saturday, December 31, 2011

Area business and community leaders will get some face time with their General Assembly delegation when the Franklin-Southampton and Isle of Wight chambers of commerce host pre-legislative-session breakfasts next week.

Here’s a legitimate question to ask lawmakers at the Franklin-Southampton gathering:

How will you effectively represent the interests of a rural community located an hour from your home base and whose voters will have little influence on your re-election?

No offense to Harry Blevins, Louise Lucas, Rick Morris and Roslyn Tyler, who ran in the districts handed them, but Western Tidewater’s legislative clout has plummeted from the days of Paul Councill and Richard Holland standing tall in Richmond for their hometowns.

Franklin and Southampton County haven’t had a resident legislator since Councill’s retirement from the House of Delegates in 2005, but their influence in the General Assembly was weakened even more this year by the forced retirement of Sen. Fred Quayle, R-Suffolk, and voters’ ouster of Rep. Bill Barlow, D-Smithfield.

Quayle, whose district was eliminated during decennial redistricting after the 2010 census, and Barlow, who lost to Morris last month in a reconfigured 64th House District, were the next best alternatives to resident lawmakers.

In their place are Blevins, a resident of Chesapeake in metropolitan Hampton Roads, and Morris, a Carrollton resident who commutes to Virginia Beach. Both seem to be good fellows.

Blevins, even though he didn’t have an opponent in last month’s election, spent some time in Franklin this fall making the rounds with Mayor Jim Councill. Blevins is decent and likable and, by all accounts, a respected lawmaker who quietly but effectively does his job in Richmond.

Less is known about Morris, whom I dubbed the “phantom candidate” for his TV- and mail-heavy campaign against Barlow, but he made a good impression recently as my guest on “Our Town,” a weekly radio show on WLQM-FM. I especially like his interest in seeing neighboring school divisions reduce administrative costs through shared services­—a subject that Franklin and Southampton’s elected and appointed leaders have repeatedly flunked.

Regardless, the legislative interests of a rural area like Western Tidewater rarely are compatible with those of metropolitan and suburban areas. When those interests are in conflict, a good legislator will inevitably follow the wishes of the majority of his constituents.

In Western Tidewater, the majority we are not.

Franklin and Southampton County combine to make up a scant 5 percent of the total registered voters in Blevins’ 14th Senate District. The voters of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake make up 76 percent.

In Lucas’ 18th Senate District, Franklin and Southampton compose 9 percent of the registered electorate. Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Suffolk make up 64 percent.

The numbers are slightly better­—but still weak—in the House, where Franklin and Southampton make up 12 percent of Morris’ district and 23 percent of Tyler’s district.

To repeat the question that should be asked constructively but candidly of lawmakers: How will you work to represent our community’s interests in Richmond?

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.