When someone asks "what did you do on your summer vacation?," Janet Howell will have a ready answer: She went to Southside and Southwest Virginia.
This might not be remarkable except for one thing: Howell is one of Virginia's senior state legislators, having represented a state Senate district in Fairfax County since 1992. She's not just any senior state legislator, either. She's a member of the Senate Finance Committee, through which the state budget must pass. A Democrat, she's in the minority in the General Assembly at the moment, but politics have a way of changing. Republicans currently hold a slim 21-19 advantage in the state Senate. If Democrats manage to flip just two seats in next year's legislative elections, Howell would become the chair of Senate Finance, a position whose power sometimes rivals that of the governor. Howell may not be a household name in this part of the state, but the votes she casts in Richmond have a direct bearing on all of us.
That's why Howell's summer vacation - we use the term loosely - matters to us.
Back during the General Assembly session earlier this year, Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, had a complicated but clever bill to grant tax breaks to companies that set up operations in certain economically-distressed localities. When the bill got to Senate Finance, Howell was skeptical, and voted against it. Then Morefield paid her a visit. A long visit, during which he made an eloquent case for just how desperate some parts of rural Virginia are. Howell, who represents a district very unlike Morefield's, was moved. She switched her vote; his bill passed, and Howell resolved to make a field trip to see first-hand the conditions that Morefield had described.
Last week she wrapped up her 10-day trip, which took her from Farmville to Danville to Martinsville to Hillsville to Marion to Abingdon to Bristol to Wise to Grundy to Tazewell to Roanoke . She'd been to Southwest Virginia before, but never in such an extensive way. Here are some of her impressions:
She was surprised by the enthusiastic reception she received. In some places, a delegation of 20-30 community leaders turned out to greet her. "I'm not used to people thinking I'm important," she said. Perhaps that's so in the shadow of the nation's capital, but in rural Virginia, a state legislator is an important figure, and a senior one is clearly someone that rural leaders understand they should get to know. We also understand all too keenly where the power in Virginia now resides; it's in our interest to make allies in Northern Virginia, no matter which party they're in.
She learned that the definition of Southwest Virginia varies. In the urban crescent, there's sometimes the tendency to think that anything west of Charlottesville is Southwest Virginia. The further Howell went into Southwest Virginia, though, the more she learned that many people there don't even count Roanoke as part of Southwest Virginia. In any case, Southwest Virginia is not monolithic. Blacksburg is very different from Bristol, and both are very different from Big Stone Gap.
She heard lots of stories about the social effects of communities that routinely see their young adults leave because there are so few job opportunities."Devastating" was the word she used. That's not something she hears about in Northern Virginia.
She was particularly impressed by the University of Virginia's College at Wise. In fact, she's already posted a recommendation on her website: "I am hopeful that some of my constituents will consider going to UVA-Wise. The educational quality is excellent and for students who want a smaller campus and student body and who love active outdoor recreation, it is a great option."
The saddest thing she saw? A row of houses in the Russell County community of Dante with signs warning "keep out." Her host told her the signs were probably prompted by the prevalence of opioids - and drug-dealers - in the area.
Her biggest surprise? How strong the community colleges in Southwest Virginia are. Specifically, she was surprised at how attuned they seemed to be the economic needs of the community they serve. "That was significant for me," she said. She's read reports by the legislature's auditors who have complained that some community colleges aren't particularly responsive to local needs. That wasn't what she saw, or heard, at all. She said she intends to question the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission about its findings.
Her other big surprise? How cheap houses are compared to Northern Virginia."I was stunned by the housing prices," she said. She mentioned one large house she saw "with a view to die for" that was for sale for $350,000. In Northern Virginia, that house would have been $1.2 million, at least.
She was impressed that Pulaski County voters approved a school bond referendum last fall. Lots of people in rural Virginia complain that the state doesn't provide enough funding for their schools. Howell said that schools in suburban district have their own challenges - with lots of students for whom English isn't a first language. She said whenever her constituents hear rural areas asking for more state funding, they complain that rural areas refuse to raise their own taxes. She said that Pulaski's vote helps counter those arguments. (We should also point out that rural areas are a lot poorer and have a lot less to tax than suburban localities.)
She wants to see more cooperation between local governments. She said she heard good stories of some local cooperation, but was also struck by just how many different agencies there are all trying to do much the same thing but not talking with each another. The unspoken implication: Richmond can't really help localities that aren't first helping themselves.
So now what? There's no specific legislative action to come out of her trip, just a better awareness of a part of the state that's very different from her own. "I think I'll be more sensitive to what people from this part of the state are saying," she said. That poses a question of its own: Howell's 10-day trip was her own idea. Perhaps Southwest Virginia communities ought to invite other legislative leaders to come spend a week or more here?