Local Legislators Get to Work in the Trump-era

by Taylor Goelz

February 8, 2017

Cover Photo Credits

The air of change was evident during the Pre-General Assembly Town Hall at McIntosh Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, on the evening of January 5th. After the death of State Senator John Miller last year, former State Delegate Monty Mason was able to successfully take over his seat, making way for newcomer Mike Mullin to take Mason’s former position. Both men emphasized how Miller influenced them and how they would honor his legacy by continuing to fight for policy areas Miller supported; issues like election reform and public education. Continuing on this path places Mason and Mullin in opposition to the Republican majority in the Virginia General Assembly, but also with the new administration in Washington D.C.

In the aftermath of the shocking election of Donald Trump last November, many politicians, political activists, journalists, and citizens have started to emphasize the importance of state and local government as a place for change, activism, and for standing up to the Trump administration. This isn’t a novel reaction. After the re-election of George W. Bush and Republicans to all three branches in 2004, liberals were also shaken. How were they going to advance their policy objectives under an unsupportive federal government, they wondered? Their response? Put a new spin on an old idea – federalism.

In 2004, Judge David J. Barron framed federalism as “the emergence of why-go-to-Canada-when-you-have-federalism discussions”. This election cycle has brought up these ideas again, but with a different spin. Traditionally, federalism has been a balancing act of state versus federal control of issues. The classic, and well known example thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, is the Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson battle over federal assumption of states debts after the Revolutionary War. Hamilton fought for a big, powerful, all-encompassing federal government, whereas Jefferson pushed for stronger states’ rights. Today, this new strategy of federalism is being used as a way for the opposition to make themselves heard against a majority. This new interpretation of federalism has invited motivated, passionate and oftentimes new individuals to become involved in the political process. State Innovation Exchange, a progressive organization based in Madison, Wisconsin, predicts that state legislatures will be the best and most effective venue for the continued advanced of progressive policy reforms under the Trump Administration.

Mason and Mullin both heartily believe in the importance and the possibility of change at state and local levels, something they made evident during the Town Hall. The plethora of “new faces” that Mason commented on being in attendance highlight that residents of Virginia are recognizing the impact they can make at a local level. Both Democrats won in regions that went red during the election, showing a distinct difference among the electorate between state and national political preference.

At the beginning of the Town Hall, both Mason and Mullin spent time discussing their priorities for the VA General Assembly session which began on January 11th and will wrap up February 25th. Mason emphasized a focus on expanded voting rights, non-partisan redistricting, computer trespassing penalties and expanded absentee voting. So far, Mason has followed through on his words, acting as patron on several pieces of legislation on all these policy areas. In the House of Delegates, Mullin has also been backing up his areas of policy interest with legislative proposals on improving mental health services, focusing on first-time domestic violence offenders and expanded pretrial appeal capabilities. Both men projected the image of a united team from the Hampton Roads area in Richmond.

Policy topics covered during the open question-and-answer period ranged from environmental protection, to gun rights, to the Electoral College, but all questions had a demanding edge. Residents of their districts wanted to know what Mason and Mullin were going to do for them, how they were going to do it, and when. The group of around 50 individuals was packed tight into the room, most over the age of 65. Despite the older age of most of the attendees, Senator Mason pointed out that there were many individuals in the crowd that he hadn’t seen before, something he was very excited about. The impact of Donald Trump and his election on Virginia was the last topic of the evening. Mason and Mullin both hesitated, but seemed to anticipate that a Trump question would come up during this session. Mason emphasized the fact that there was a high level of uncertainty about this administration, more so than any other in the past. With a budget deficit this session in Virginia, Mason offered the possibility that programs tied to federal funds may be cut due to funding uncertainty. Both men ended on a positive and resilient note, saying they would “stay the course” in Virginia and continue to fight for policies they felt were important to the state.

Although Mason and Mullin didn’t outright oppose Trump during the meeting, the nature of the policies they are supporting put them in opposition to the new administration – especially on mental health, the environment, and criminal justice reform. Their calm demeanors and get-to-work attitude showed that Virginia democrats aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, a sentiment being expressed in other states as well.

The idea of Democrats using federalism might not work as well in Virginia, where more conservative members make up the majority of the VA General Assembly. However, all 100 Delegates will be reelected this November, putting the state’s Democrats in an early position to show resistance to the Trump administration. Also, recently the Republican Governors Association has poured $5 million into a political action committee to aid the GOP in taking back the governor’s mansion, another sign of how vital that race is, and how nervous Republicans are about losing it. Virginia therefore is in a unique position where the state has the opportunity to play a significant role in the opposition of the Trump administration using this “new federalism”

Taylor Goelz is a 1st year MPP Student at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review