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State Democrats Cry Foul at Republican Tactics, But Were They Any Different?

Steve Helber

As we approach the end of Virginia’s General Assembly, Democrats in Richmond have complained the Republican majority has used underhanded tactics to push their legislative agenda, steam rolling bills by not scheduling hearings, killing proposals in unrecorded votes. But what happened when Democrats were in control?

Michael Pope has this look at the way things worked in the era of Democratic rule.

Democrats controlled Virginia’s House of Delegates for more than a century, from Reconstruction to the new millennium. Republicans were finally able to seize power in 1999, and they've been in charge ever since. But talk to Republicans who remember what it was like to be in the minority, and they all say the same thing.

"The Democrats, when they were in control, ruled with an iron fist."

Republican Speaker Bill Howell arrived as a minority freshman back in 1988.

“When you were assigned to your seat on the dais in the committee room, they wouldn’t let the Republicans sit together, and this was before the days of cell phones, they brought out walkie-talkies. And they were communicating to each other with walkie-talkies.”

One infamous part of Democratic rule Howell says he witnessed firsthand was the rule of three -- when longtime Democratic Majority Leader Dickie Cranwell heard something he didn’t like, Howell says he would hold up three fingers and the next three Republican bills would die, regardless of what they were about. For the record, Cranwell denies he did this. But Howell says...

“I saw that happen on some occasions. That’s the way they did it, and I don’t think that’s the way to do it. And yes, I’m sure the minority feels that the majority overreaches.”

And while Howell may not have his own rule of three now that he’s in charge, Democrats are certainly finding examples of what they call overreach. A couple weeks ago, they held a press conference, complaining about how Republicans were killing bills without even scheduling them for a hearing. Democratic Delegate Ken Plum, the longest serving House member, says Republicans are just as bad as the Democrats when they were in power, maybe worse.  

“We heard a lot of complaints about that for a lot of years about how bad Democrats were when they were doing that and now we find that is happening in many committees across the Capitol.”

Plum says that since Republicans seized power, they've come up with their own tactics, like shooting down bills in small subcommittees with unrecorded votes.

“Four people out of the House of Delegates, only four people decide the outcome and fate of those bills. I don’t recall that in the old days.”

But Republicans who remember life in the minority disagree. Republican Leader Kirk Cox says when he arrived at the Capitol in 1990, he couldn’t get anything past the majority. He recalls one time having one of his bills assigned to a committee that never met.

“I literally waited until one o’clock in the morning. Then the chairman told me that my bill was going to subcommittee number five and I go I wish they would have told me that at 11 o’clock. But OK. I get that. And everyone is chuckling in the audience, and I sort of ask why everyone was chuckling? And they go there is no subcommittee five.”

When Democrats were in control, committee meetings would stretch late into the night. In the Courts of Justice Committee, they would call the final deadline evening the Night of the Long Knives - a reference to the hundreds of bills that would be killed, sometimes in a block vote without a hearing. Democratic Delegate Vivian Watts says when Republicans took control, they changed that.

“In the early years, the only real difference between the Republicans being in control and the Democrats being in control is that when you had a 7 o’clock meeting it was at a civilized hour of 7 p.m. not 7 a.m.”

Instead of long meetings that stretched late into the night, she says, Republicans meet early in the morning and kill bills much more efficiently - and with less input.

Credit NPR

“While it may be just a matter of just a different lifestyle approach to things it does freeze out the public.”

Now that the Republicans have been in control of the House for almost two decades, one thing is clear about the era of Democratic rule in Virginia: It wasn’t as liberal as you might imagine. Republican Senator Emmett Hanger came to the House as a freshman in 1984, a time when the Democrats in charge of the House were still quite conservative. 

“On most issues, there was somewhat of a coalition of Republicans and conservative rural Democrats that would basically determine the outcome. So I think it was not a liberal body at that time. It was actually a more congenial body.”

Hanger says that dynamic led to a House that was far less driven by the ideological extremes than today.

“You still had members of the Republican party and the Democrat party that were more to the fringe that were not as much a part of the decision making if you will.”

So was the era of Democratic rule any worse than the way Republicans run the House? The answer to that question depends on who you ask. Here’s how Speaker Howell answers that question.

“Well I’m sure we both have room for improvement.”

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