Richmond Times-Dispatch political columnist Jeff Schapiro told a Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce crowd last week that businesses may be the ones to get legislators unstuck.
“I think that business allows itself, maybe needlessly at times, to be pushed around by the political class,” Schapiro said during a Dec. 1 breakfast panel discussion of the impact of the 2016 presidential election. “These cats are in safe districts. I think they have become increasingly transactional in their view of politics and policy, and they respond primarily to those who stroke them checks.”
Instead of “accommodation,” Schapiro asked what would happen if businesses united and became, in his words, “petulant” to legislators.
“How would the legislature respond if there were unity among corporate interests on a particular point, that maybe had to do with the continuing intransigence of the legislature to fix problems?” Schapiro asked. “What if the business community said ‘not a dollar more?’”
Chamber president and CEO Tony Howard agreed that the business community could do a lot.
“I don’t know if petulant is necessarily the word I would use,” Howard said. “…I would say more insistent and a little less deferential, which is not to be confused with disrespectful.”
Howard said business leaders could stand to be more insistent, instead of treating legislators with deference that they would not grant in other relationships, such as with employees or vendors.
“It’s going to require the business community to step up in a big way, and it’s not necessarily in the DNA of a lot of CEOs,” Howard said. “They don’t necessarily see their job or their responsibility as advocating for public policy change. Their job is to increase shareholder value.
“I would make the argument… that that is a way of increasing shareholder value, but it’s a long-term way and it’s imprecise.”
Howard said businesses can’t wait for another crisis situation, such as in transportation, to get involved in policymaking.
“I think if the business community collectively can come together through groups like the Chamber and start to be more forceful, and hold elected officials more accountable on these issues, then we’ll start to see real progress on these issues,” Howard said. “Because management by crisis is the least effective school of management out there.”
Much the morning’s panel discussion centered around lawmakers crippled by partisanship—in Richmond and Washington—and the chances for finding middle ground in a political sphere characterized by partisanship and “Trumpism.”
“Loudoun County is accustomed to shock and awe candidates—after all, you elected (former Sterling supervisor) Eugene Delgaudio as supervisor,” Schapiro said. “Some of us remember when Eugene was standing on street corners, literally, protesting against Democratic candidates, so maybe Eugene was onto something in terms of politics as theater.”
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) asked the panelists, Schapiro and George Mason University Professor Toni-Michelle C. Travis, if there was a national voice for moderation. Neither seemed optimistic.
Schapiro said much of that can be put down to “hyper-partisan gerrymandering” largely benefitting Republicans, who, he said, also enjoy outsized representation because conservative, white, males are the most reliable voters. Democrats, he said, have “an enduring problem in terms of their ability to turn out” in state and local elections.
Virginia’s voters also encourage partisanship because so many of them came to the state from elsewhere, he said. Partisan issues are a simpler, more convenient way to understand politics and vote.
And voters everywhere tend to find themselves in cultural and political bubbles, consuming only content that reinforces instead of challenging their views, Schapiro said, a segmentation only exacerbated by social media.
The election does not bode well for moderation in the state General Assembly either, Schapiro said.
“Richmond legislative politics, which has been increasingly tribal in the past 20 or so years, will probably become even more so,” Schapiro said. “I think the presidential primary will embolden some of the more restive Republicans to become even more so.”