- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2000

RICHMOND Halfway through this year's Virginia General Assembly session, Gov. James S. Gilmore III's prediction of a new era in politics in which Democrats break ranks to vote with Republicans is at least partly coming true.

On several important issues Democrats have crossed party lines to vote with Republicans, breaking ties in the GOP's favor or offering extra votes for their margin of victory.

Chief among these issues are two elections measures that counter long-standing Democratic positions.

One, requiring voters to show identification at the polls before voting, failed last year with all House Democrats opposing the measure, thus killing it on a 50-50 vote. This year, however, the bill passed when three Democrats who opposed the measure last year joined 52 Republicans and Lacey E. Putney, Bedford independent, in voting for it.

The other bill, requiring the state to use actual enumeration counts from the 2000 census rather than the statistical sampling preferred by the Clinton administration, passed last Thursday 55-43, with two Democrats joining the 52 Republicans and Mr. Putney.

Republicans say breaking party ranks is a matter of simple mathematics and power politics.

"Last year, [the Democrats] had to have party discipline. They had to have every single vote. This year it doesn't matter. Even if they have every vote, they don't have a majority," said Delegate John A. "Jack" Rollison, Prince William Republican.

For their part, Democrats say their defecting delegates are simply voting their conscience something they've always done. And they point out they've held together on many important issues, the way they have always done. On Monday, for example, they dealt a blow to one of the governor's bills on judges making political appointments.

But Democrats acknowledge the difficulty of holding party lines against the Republican juggernaut.

"Let the record show I burst out laughing," said the House Democrats' chief whip, Thomas M. Jackson Jr., when asked about party discipline this year.

Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat, said there's no coercion from party leaders, just a request that they stay together, "because there's no more power structure to keep us in line."

Without control of the state's finances, the Democratic leadership can't dole out rewards the way they used to. And because Republicans now can, there's added incentive to cross the aisle.

That was the case last year when Delegate Lionell Spruill Sr., Chesapeake Democrat, voted with Republicans to give them a key two-vote margin on a bill. In return, he won more funding for Norfolk State University, a traditionally black college.

Mr. Spruill, who is black, has continued his streak this year, siding with the Republicans in defeating Democrats' attempt to alter health maintenance organization legislation. He said no deals have been made for his vote and he is just voting his conscience, but he also pointed out he is expecting $25 million in new funds for Norfolk State and another traditionally black college in the new budget.

Also this year, there's less pressure for Democrats, having lost the majority, to punish the Republican administration.

"It's a lot harder to 'stick it' to the governor with 47 votes," said H. Morgan Griffith, the House majority leader.

One example the administration points to is the vote on cutting and freezing college tuition costs. Last year, the debate was tooth-and-nail and the vote very partisan. This year, the bill breezed through.

More cracks in the ranks will come on other big issues, Republicans predict. The jury is still out on what will happen with transportation legislation, but lawmakers said to expect a strange coalition before the issue is settled.

Democrats, many of whom spent the summer running against Republicans and the governor on that issue, are under pressure to return home with something. So while party leaders might again like to pin a loss on the governor, Republicans said Democrats may join a coalition in order to show their constituents results.

"I think that you're seeing Democrats protect their own self-interests and look after their own regional interests, and many times that's contrary to the party line," Mr. Rollison said.

Mr. Gilmore, in a brief interview yesterday, said he and his staff have noticed the trend.

"I think it's better," he said. But he also pointed to a continuing "ironclad coalition" of Democrats and "one or two maverick Republicans" who have thwarted some Republican bills.

The most recent example came Monday night, when several Republican delegates with a history of siding with Democrats crossed the aisle to help defeat a political reform bill Mr. Gilmore had called for. The measure would have ended the practice of judges appointing fellow judges which the governor argues is a political decision when the assembly is not in session.

Over in the Senate, lawmakers have always been more prone to cross party lines, and this year is no exception. Five Republicans voted against putting party affiliation on the ballots, but those defections were partially offset by four Democrats voting for it. The final tally was 20-19.

Sen. J. Randy Forbes of Chesapeake, one of the Republican leaders who predicted a change in party politics after the elections, said there have been some defections, but the biggest change in the Senate has come in committee.

"What we always objected to in the past is when [a bill was killed] just because it was a Republican bill or because it's a Democratic bill," he said. This session there hasn't been much of that, he said.

But intraparty bickering which used to be associated mostly with Republicans has struck the Democratic camp.

Last week Sen. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat, took the Senate floor to distance himself from the Democratic transportation plan, which used general fund money for roads and rails. He was joined in his remarks by Sen. Charles J. Colgan, Prince William Democrat.

And earlier this session in the House, former Speaker Thomas W. Moss Jr., Norfolk Democrat, torpedoed an attempt by Delegate C. Richard Cranwell, Roanoke Democrat and minority leader, to pin Republicans to a damaging vote on the state lottery. Mr. Moss questioned whether an amendment Mr. Cranwell offered was permissible. The new speaker, S. Vance Wilkins Jr., ruled it was not.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide