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Winning Va. lieutenant governor would give Democrats leg up

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 9, 2013

The race to win a job that pays $36,000 a year and requires skills hardly more demanding than the ability to stand for long periods of time is attracting an inordinate amount of attention this year in Virginia.

Both Democratic candidates to be the state's next lieutenant governor say they will reverse the Republicans' move a year ago, when the GOP eschewed an offer to share power in the evenly divided Senate and used Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's all-important tie-breaking vote to organize as a working majority.

Exactly how they will do that remains an open question, but the attitudes of both candidates appear clear: turnabout is fair play.

"I fully intend to use every parliamentary maneuver available to ensure that our Democratic values are protected in that legislature," Aneesh Chopra, President Obama's former technology czar, said at a recent candidate forum.

The last 20-20 split in the chamber occurred in 1996, when Democratic Lt. Gov. Don Beyer intended to use his tie-breaking vote to allow his party to organize as a majority — much in the same way Mr. Bolling did. But Virgil Goode, then a Democratic state senator, threatened to side with Republicans if a power-sharing deal was not struck.

Mr. Chopra's opponent, state Sen. Ralph S. Northam of Norfolk, said power-sharing — where, for example, the two parties would divide committees equally or appoint co-chairmen to key panels — would be out of the question if he wins.

"The first thing that we'll do when we have the majority back in the Senate is we will re-form the committees. We will have Democratic majorities on all of them, and the power-sharing issue — it's just not going to happen," Mr. Northam said shortly afterward at the same forum.

But that could be easier said than done. Republicans point out that Senate rules adopted on the first day of the 2012 session stipulate that senators serve out their committee assignments for their entire terms and that two-thirds of members "present and voting" — which includes the lieutenant governor, who also serves as Senate president — must vote to remove a member from a committee.

A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat and the Senate Democratic caucus chairman, said that should Mr. Northam or Mr. Chopra defeat E.W. Jackson, the Republican nominee, Democrats "will invite the Republicans to do the right thing and change the rules" using a two-thirds vote.

"If they don't do that, there are some procedural things we can do that will essentially allow us to control the chamber," he said.

He declined to provide specifics, saying he hasn't even had a chance to hash out the details with his own caucus and either of the would-be lieutenant governor nominees — and that there's no guarantee a Democrat will be holding the gavel next year.

But Democratic strategist Paul Goldman, who served as an adviser to former Govs. L. Douglas Wilder and Mark R. Warner, said that internal chamber rules are just that — internal. Absent constitutional or legal barriers, he said, "the body is apt to do whatever it wants."

"These rules can be changed," he said. "These rules will be changed if a Democrat's elected lieutenant governor. Why not? It's not a legal concept. It's a political thing."

A GOP aide disagreed.

"The rules are set at the beginning of the Senate term," the aide said. "They're quite clear, and they're not changing."

In addition to the Chopra-Northam match-up Tuesday, state Sen. Mark R. Herring, Loudoun Democrat, will square off against former federal prosecutor and current businessman Justin Fairfax in the contest to be the Democratic nominee for attorney general. The winner will face state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, Harrisonburg Republican, who was nominated at a convention last month.

A handful of primary seats are also up in the House of Delegates. In addition to the statewide contests for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, all 100 seats in the House are up for election in the fall. Republicans have enjoyed an effective 68-32 majority in the lower chamber since the 2011 elections.

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