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Local Politics as it Should Be but Seldom Is

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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.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. JohnMcC says:

    I bet that a modern-day de-Tocqueville would find quite a bit of healthy democracy. Here in St Pete (aka ‘God’s Waiting Room’) we’re becoming quite a lovely water-front city and we’re having a pretty fierce mayoral election with significant national interest. And everyone is behaving pretty damn good.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  2. CSK says:

    I’d attribute a lot of the civility to the fact that these two men (both of whom seem very nice) appear to have so much in common.

    The real knock-down drag-outs require A) two opponents who are diametrically opposed and B) a much larger stage that commands greater press attention, at least a statewide venue.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  3. Franklin says:

    A story that doesn’t make my blood boil. Nice, thank you!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. Jen says:

    Glad to hear it. It’s depressing that this is so rare as to elicit commentary. I think the district wins no matter which candidate is ultimately victorious in this race.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  5. Andre Kenji says:

    I bet that there is no large amount of outside money in this race. The problem is that large amounts of money is nationalizing every single race.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. Tyrell says:

    Local politics can be highly patronist and where I am at would be described as familial. The mayor’s relatives are on the town council and local police force (5 1/2 on the force). The mayor is also the chief of police. The mayor owns a lot of the town property.

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  7. barbintheboonies says:

    This is so good to hear I hope it catches on. We can all start to pull together. PLEASE.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  8. James Pearce says:

    “Rather than withdraw to ideological extremes, they are converging toward the middle, staking out similar positions on many issues.”

    This is the only way we are going to make it out of this century without a second civil war: by finding consensus.

    A couple other things I’d note: Hurst, the Democrat, supports gun rights and doesn’t appear to be overly preoccupied with “social justice” type concerns. The guy could very easily get a bunch of retweets and Facebook likes if he started talking about confederate monuments and transgender(ed) people in the military, but he seems to have slightly larger, and, dare I say, more important issues to discuss.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  9. CSK says:

    Trump lowered political discourse to new depths of stupidity, vulgarity, venality, ignorance, bigotry, and sheer buffoonery. What’s appalling is how many people think this is a good thing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  10. grumpy realist says:

    @CSK: A lot of the sound and fury seems to be generated by talk-show radio and internet trolls. People who aren’t doing anything with their lives and seem to think that it would be just one big giggle if the US devolved into another Civil War.

    Of course, one also has to wonder what Putin’s troll army has been doing….

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  11. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Yes, a lot of the sound and fury is generated by talk show hosts, semi-literate crackpot bloggers, and bots–but it is received awfully enthusiastically by a good segment of the populace. If there weren’t an audience for the noise, it would fade away to a whisper.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  12. CET says:

    “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.”

    All too true. And thank you for posting this – I think the good news gets too little publicity.

    I have mixed feelings about the causes and results of low turnout in local elections though. On the one hand, the optimist in me thinks that if local politicians (at least in my area) were better at clearly articulating positions on issues on websites or other readily available formats, rather than the occasional speech or interview in the local paper, we’d have a lot more involvement. On the other hand, it seems like that could easily turn into something with the problems of national politics (outside funding, bumper sticker slogans, emotional online screeds, etc, etc) just writ smaller.

    As an aside, I will never understand why we don’t have election days on a weekend. If we (as a country) actually gave a s**t about voter turnout, that seems like it would be the easiest way to increase it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. CET says:

    @CSK:

    Yea…. I don’t know what the solution is though. The evidence appears to suggest that people are (in many ways) basically chimps, who need to feel like they are part of an in-group and that they are morally justified in being hostile to most/all people outside their group. It seems like a constant struggle to try and keep that impulse in check enough that society continues to function in a relatively peaceful and tolerant manner.

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  14. CSK says:

    @CET:

    The reasons for holding elections on Tuesdays are religious, and date back to the late 18th century. It was not possible for people in rural areas to travel to and from polling areas and still make Sunday and sometimes Saturday services. Monday wouldn’t work for the same reason. Wednesday was market day.

    The current argument for keeping elections on Tuesdays is that it would be difficult to find polling staff willing to work on weekends.

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  15. Tony W says:

    @CSK:

    The current argument for keeping elections on Tuesdays is that it would be difficult to find polling staff willing to work on weekends.

    Let’s not sugar coat it – the current argument for keeping elections on Tuesday is actually because that day suppresses voting from people who cannot afford to take even part of a day off work.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  16. gVOR08 says:

    When I began to follow politics, decades ago, I came up with an aphorism to explain why local politics seemed boring compared to national politics, “There aren’t Republican and Democratic positions on collecting trash.” That was true at the time, but now Republicans have gone so far right many of them regard municipal trash collection as intrusive big government “collectivism”. It’s this Republican move to nutcase right that has made current politics so divisive.

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  17. Jen says:

    @Tony W: Exactly.

    I’ve long felt that it should be a national holiday, but permanently on that Tuesday so it doesn’t get turned into a three-day weekend thing where people buy mattresses or head out of town.

    I know the logistics of it are darn near impossible (all of the people who do have to work–how would they vote? or are we closing every gas station, every emergency room…etc.?) but we really need to make it easier for people to exercise their franchise, not make it harder for them.

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