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Power Sharing In The General Assembly? It's Happened Before

AP Photo / Steve Helber

With Democrats and Republicans so evenly split in the House of Delegates, members may be forced into a power-sharing agreement.   Virginia’s previous experience with power sharing had mixed results.

The year was 1997 and Republican Jim Gilmore had just been elected governor. Democrats held a one-vote majority. That is until Gilmore tapped three House members to join his administration, including a Democrat who opened up a seat the Republicans won in a special election. Before the new members could be seated, though, Democrats used their temporary majority to elect a speaker and set up the rules of the House.

Gilmore says that move didn’t get the 1998 session off to a good start.  “There was an absolute entitlement of the Democratic Party to organize and to always be in the majority, and therefore when they had an opportunity when they had a temporary majority when the new person was seated they thought it was perfectly legitimate for them to do a power grab.”

Democrats eventually lost their hold on power when that Republican was seated and they were forced into a power sharing agreement.  “This was a moment of even-up, cutthroat politics," Gilmore remembered this week. "There was no friendliness here. The Democrats believed they had an absolute entitlement to rule and therefore this was a jarring change in Virginia politics.”

Delegate Vivian Watts, a Democrat from Northern Virginia, remembered it differently. "I think that’s most unfortunate, not a reflection at all of what happened.” 

Watts says there was no power grab because the House could not seat new members who had only been elected the previous night.  “They’re the ones who set the election for the new members for the night before we convened, and we know from this last election how easy it is to invert numbers and make mistakes.”

And so the Republicans were stuck with the Democratic speaker because they didn’t have a supermajority needed to unseat him. They did end up with evenly divided committees, which were all led by co-chairs — one Democrat and one Republican. Delegate Ken Plum, a Democrat from Northern Virginia, helped create the plan for sharing power.  "Part of the power-sharing agreement was that we would have co-chairs of committees. My personal experience co-chairing a committee with a Republican was that it worked just fine,” Plum remembered.

Plum says the session may have started off on a contentious note. But the power-sharing agreement eventually evolved into into a way of doing business that had its own merits.  “As a matter of a fact, some of the things that might have been a hassle if one was in control over the other suddenly was no longer a hassle because we were both in control of those things and we had to work them out ourselves.”

That is not a view that’s universally shared. Some, like former Republican Delegate Dave Albo, felt the system of double leadership on every committee was a bit much to take.  “You have to have one engineer driving the train. When do the bills get heard? What bills go to subcommittee? Who’s going to be on the subcommittees? All the things keeping the trains running on time, and that doesn’t work very well when you have two people trying to do it.”

Memories of how that 1998 session began are not just relics of a bygone era. They may be a roadmap for things to come if the House of Delegates ends up with a 50-50 split after the recounts and lawsuits are over.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.