Welcome to KnowVA
Welcome! It's an honor to have you.
So, let’s get right to it: what is KnowVA? And why should you devote your limited time on this planet of ours to reading these words?
Basically, it’s a blog that examines politics and policy from DC to Northern Virginia down to Richmond and beyond to illuminate and explain how American government works. Think of it as just enough of a “local” blog to make it relevant to folks who live in Northern Virginia, but significant enough for you to read even if you’ve never stepped foot in our great Commonwealth.
Why should this interest you? My hunch is that people who read about politics are in general looking for voices to help explain just what the heck is going on. Especially given the rise of Donald Trump, people are questioning and reexamining all their previous assumptions. God knows I am. I don’t know if I have all the answers, but I am intensely curious, and I think there’s real value to putting an argument down on paper and seeing how it flies in the real world.
Obviously, the great political events of our time are happening at a national level, and I expect to focus on these quite a bit, but I think it’s important to be able to zoom into local and state issues when the time arises. I don’t expect everyone to interested in the failed Meals Tax in Fairfax County or how energy utilities buy influence in Richmond, but I also think we are too dismissive of the importance of local politics. If nothing else, understanding how state and local legislators set the rules will give you greater tools for figuring out why politicians and voters act the way they do.
Why put a special focus on Virginia? A few reasons:
1. I am utterly astonished (despite some amazing local reporting) at how little compelling, consistently engaging analysis there is of Virginia politics and policy. There’s certainly some out there, but I get the feeling there’s a hunger for more, especially beyond bland editorials and opinion pieces.
2. Virginia suffers from the opposite problem of national politics—there’s plenty of amazing original reporting, but not nearly enough contextualizing and clearing away of debris. Most people who go looking for some pithy perspectives on Presidential or Congressional politics can find it. I don’t feel that way about Virginia.
3. Virginia is a fantastic microcosm of the greater trends and political battles going on across the nation as a whole. Virginia as a whole is trending blue, thanks to new migrants and increased diversity in the north and other urban corridors. Meanwhile, gerrymandering and lower voter participation in off-year elections have allowed Republicans to maintain control of the General Assembly, even as Democrats dominate statewide races with higher turnouts. Massive economic and cultural changes in Virginia mirror the nation as a whole as well. Urban Virginia is resurgent, suburban Virginia is aging and deciding how it wants (if at all) to grow, and rural Virginia is trying to figure out how to balance its way of life with the need to compete in a global economy.
4. Selfishly, my wife and I plan on living here for the next 50 years, so it’s nice to write about home and the issues in our community.
A lot of my motivation comes from the fact that despite living in Northern Virginia for the vast majority of my life, I never truly appreciated how much of my life was affected by what happened in Richmond and the county government center. Sure, I voted in local elections and dutifully supported my Democratic elected officials down in Richmond, but I didn’t comprehend how much was at stake and how much absolute craziness was afoot.
That’s changed thanks to having had the great opportunity to work in Richmond these past few years as my wife obtains a law degree in not-so-nearby Charlottesville. And having lived and breathed this community for a while now, I finally feel like I have a little bit of authority to make the case that you should care deeply about what happens here.
So, consider this: what makes Virginia so interesting and significant is that it has all the dynamics of Congress, with legislators representing diverse areas, but with very little of the gridlock common to DC. Legislative sessions only last three months, and legislators are forced to compromise and find common ground quickly. You can watch the Virginia Senate floor and see an actual debate going on. And yes, that debate may consist mostly of talking points and not change many minds, but it’s really quite refreshing.
But there’s another side to Virginia politics, one that deserves much more exposure and public attention. It’s loosely called “the Virginia Way”, meaning that the bipartisanship and good will that make Richmond a commendable place are largely at the behest of large business interests and the spreading around of political access. It’s a world where big law firms write most of the laws, where entrenched companies like Dominion Energy and Altria (even by my jaded standards having working in DC for years) have an unusual amount of access and power, and where the part-time nature of staff and legislators (while positive in some regards) leaves the entire system open to a limited legislative agenda focused on the needs of those who have already won.
And let’s be clear: I’m not some doe-eyed teenager here. I’ve been working in politics for over a decade now, and I believe deeply that most legislators are good people who do a commendable job. But I’ve seen firsthand now how a well-run state government can nonetheless go down some baffling roads in terms of public policy.
Again, before coming to Richmond, I didn’t really understand how many policy issues ultimately run through your state capital. Why is your commute to work so long in Northern Virginia? It’s basically Richmond deciding to under-invest in roads and public transportation. Why are teachers paid less in Virginia compared to other states? Again, a huge chunk of education spending is allotted by Richmond. Why aren’t we expanding Medicaid in Virginia even after we’re paying the federal taxes for it? It’s Richmond (well, Republicans in Richmond for that one).
It’s this dynamic between process, politics, and policy that made me want to create this blog, because it’s this pattern of incentives that really frames every issue in Virginia and beyond. And thankfully, we the voters get to decide the contour of these incentives.
If we want to end gerrymandering, all we have to do is vote in the people who support an amendment to the Virginia Constitution. If we want to forbid payday lenders from being able to charge 400% interest or insert mandatory arbitration clauses in their contracts, we just have to vote for those candidates. It’s an elegant, responsive system that works quite well when people organize, vote, and lobby.
My father—a lobbyist himself—told me early on in my career that the voters have all the power. I still believe that intensely. It’s very easy to be cynical and to say that the rich and privileged always win, and there’s no reason to fight. And while that may be true 90% of the time, the little guy wins all the time in American politics. Look at civil and LGBT rights, the march to universal healthcare, or even (in the eyes of a lot of people) our current President-Elect.
So, yes, I hope to write quite a bit on national politics, Congress, and a lot of the big issues of the day. But I also want you to see quite clearly that it’s ultimately human beings at every level of the game who make these decisions—often in messy and in contradictory ways—and that because it always boils down to people, any change is possible.
But that’s enough pomp and circumstance for now. I hope you’ll join me and the other voices I hope to charm into posting here for a journey into the souls of DC and Virginia.
It’s going to be great.