Local Politics as it Should Be but Seldom Is
Via memeorandum, I came across a WaPo report with the clickbait headline, “In a polarized Virginia district, differences between the Republican and the Democrat may surprise you.” It takes quite a while to get to a point but it’s an interesting read.
The short version, Chris Hurst, a former local news anchor who came to national prominence when his reporter-fiance was murdered on air, is running as a Democrat for the House of Delegates against Republican Joseph R. Yost, the incumbent. The “surprise” is that they’re running a relatively centrist campaign on local issues and, thus far at least, doing so in a completely civil fashion with quite a bit of agreement.
Their district is as polarized as any in the state — one side of Brush Mountain voted for Donald Trump last fall and the other for Hillary Clinton.
But at the center of all that attention and pressure, Hurst and Yost are doing something interesting — something that suggests Washington’s hyperpartisan toxicity doesn’t have to play out at every level: Rather than withdraw to ideological extremes, they are converging toward the middle, staking out similar positions on many issues.
Both are opposed to the huge natural gas pipeline proposed for the county. Both want to protect manufacturing jobs, support public schools and create better mental-health services.
Yost won the endorsement of the Virginia Education Association — almost unheard of for a Republican. Hurst, the gun violence survivor, touts his support for gun rights.
And neither is a big fan of President Trump.
This sort of thing is the civics class ideal of American politics. The central premise of the system is that government power should be concentrated at the local level, where people who know the issues that face their community can best deal with them. As a bonus, politics would naturally be more civil, since it’s neighbors talking with neighbors.
If it ever worked that way, it hasn’t in years. For a variety of reasons, most of us pay far, far more attention to national politics. Even though states and localities still control the issues that impact us on a day-to-day basis far more than the folks in DC, far fewer people vote in local elections—or even know who their local representatives are. Virginia has seemingly gone out of its way to diminish voter interest in state and local races, scheduling them in odd-numbered years when there are no national officials on the ballot.
Increasingly, we’ve flipped the script with local races are often proxies for national fights. Party identification generally outweighs knowledge of the candidates and sloganeering about “family values” and such trumps the intimate knowledge of local issues that is supposed to exist.
So, what’s different in this race? Mostly, it’s an unusual district:
From the outside, it would be easy to make assumptions about the 12th District. It is part of the red backcountry, the edge of Appalachia, home to the working-class whites who helped put Trump in office.
Except it’s more complicated than that. The crest of Brush Mountain is the line between Giles and Montgomery counties. Virginia Tech and Radford University are on the Montgomery side, which is economically diverse with upscale neighborhoods full of professors and business leaders. Occasional modest “We love our Muslim neighbors” signs can be spotted on the shady streets of Blacksburg.
In Giles, where the biggest employer is a factory that makes cellulose acetate and other materials for filtration devices, many of the little towns — Pearisburg, Narrows, Rich Creek, Newport — are struggling, their business districts darkened by empty storefronts.
In terms of natural beauty, though, Giles is wealthy beyond measure. The Appalachian Trail winds through the county for 50 miles, some of it along the spectacular New River Gorge. The 69-foot Cascade Falls draws nearly 150,000 visitors every year.
Those resources produce a pragmatic environmentalism among locals. There was little objection a few years ago to a natural gas pipeline for the Celanese plant, for instance, because it eliminated the factory’s coal waste and supported jobs.
But the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline is just passing through on its way to Pittsylvania County and draws almost universal outrage in both Giles and Montgomery.
The candidates are unusual, too. They’re both very young, idealistic, and have overlapping interests.
Many people assume Hurst is running on the issue of gun control. The Pride Fund to End Gun Violence hosted him at an event in Washington last month, along with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam — rare recognition for a candidate in an obscure state district race.
But Hurst’s position is not what advocates on either side may think. He’s a gun owner, he said; Parker liked to shoot, too. He’s leery of steps to broadly restrict access to guns. Instead, he favors measures to treat mental illness and keep guns out of the hands of children or domestic violence offenders.
Even the standard Democratic call for universal background checks is too broad, he said: “I’m just not as matter-of-fact, black or white with guns as I think people expect or want me to be.”
Guns are a nuanced issue in the district. Hunting and shooting are part of growing up here, but so is the memory of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a mentally ill student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17.
Hurst would much rather talk about raises for teachers, or his opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The need for more mental-health services. Better special-education programs. Unsexy topics that don’t make the national news but that people in the community wrestle with every day.
What he learned from the depths of his personal tragedy, he said, is the importance of place. “I came through the other side believing that I wanted to stay here and give back to the people who gave me such strength and support when I needed it,” he said.
At 31, Yost, like Hurst, seems mature for his years. He’s quiet in the General Assembly, seldom making speeches. With his round, tortoiseshell glasses and scruffy facial hair, Yost comes across as a young history professor.
He grew up on a farm in Giles County, went to the public schools and graduated from Radford with degrees in criminal justice. “I’ve never lived outside the boundaries of my district,” he said.
Much of what he has done since jumping into politics in 2011 is rooted in local concerns that don’t follow easy partisan patterns.
Yost worked in criminal justice for a time, in jail diversion and crisis intervention training — helping the mentally ill get treatment instead of incarceration.
In the legislature this year, Yost sponsored bills to prohibit the death penalty for the severely mentally ill and to study ways that people in jail can get Medicaid services immediately upon release. The first stalled in committee; the second was signed into law.
He has also sponsored legislation to make it legal to farm hemp in Virginia — which would help struggling farmers — and favors increased education spending. In rural areas, he said, schools do much more than teach; they’re community centers.
But Yost is most definitely a Republican. He’s a loyal rank-and-file vote for the party’s majority in the House of Delegates and thinks that government should have limits. It’s his conservative outlook, and maybe his polite demeanor, that make him hesitant to even talk about Trump.
“Federal issues don’t have the impact here they do in other parts of the state,” Yost said. “Trump doesn’t come up. We talk about our issues.”
And more than anything, that intense local focus is Yost’s secret weapon in the race against his hyper-articulate challenger. He has spent years grinding away at small-bore constituent services.
He and his aide scour the community columns in local newspapers for birthdays, anniversaries, awards, kids bagging their first buck — and Yost sends that person a copy of the article with a hand-signed note of congratulations. Dozens, every month. During the school year, he writes to every student who lands on the A/B honor roll — all 1,500 of them. “I have great strength in my arm,” he deadpanned.
It would be wonderful if we could export this model across the Commonwealth and across the country. But it certainly looks to be an anomaly born of peculiar local conditions and a unique confluence of candidates.