Home Virginia Politics Reform in Virginia Means Dashing the Specter of the Byrd Organization

Reform in Virginia Means Dashing the Specter of the Byrd Organization

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by Thomas Bowman, cross posted from Resolute Strategies Group

Many high-profile, liberal state laws became effective in Virginia on July 1. These laws begin to unravel generations of systemic injustice faced by the Commonwealth’s minority residents. The Commonwealth of Virginia elected its first liberal legislature in 2019 since Reconstruction ended in 1880, completing a centuries-long ideological transition of the state Democratic Party from conservative to liberal.

It is bizarre to consider now, but for much of Virginia’s state-party history, the Democrats were the evil, conservative (racist) overlords, dominated by the Byrd Organization, and the Republicans were the moderate (relatively speaking), less-racist, anti-establishment reformers who were mostly relegated to the hills of Appalachia. By the time Virginia Republicans started gaining power in the 1990s, the flipping party ideologies had reached a tipping point. When the Republican Party cemented control on the state legislature in the early 2000s, it was merely a continuation of the conservative Virginia establishment hostile to liberal reform.

That is why the 2019 election is so significant. It marks the first time that Virginia decided to elect a liberal legislature in living memory—and this time the Democratic Party of Virginia is the liberal reformer.

Democrats came to power this year with a mandate to be ambitious. After all, liberals had over 100 years of reforms to make, and the Republican legislature stuck its finger in the dyke of reform, ultimately causing the release of kinetic energy that spilled over and swept them out of power.

Now what?

Democrats must destroy the last vestiges of the Byrd Organization to prevent the conservative political machine from ever reigning terror in Virginia again. To do that requires understanding what the Byrd Organization was and how it worked.

What Was the Byrd Organization?

The Byrd Organization was a decentralized group of elected officials in each county and city, called courthouse rings, who held the key local government offices and ran local party affairs. Courthouse rings included the local election officials, clerks of court, sheriffs, and judges who were appointed by the Democratic majority in the General Assembly.

It pioneered the fiscally conservative, pro-business philosophy that was a bipartisan trait of all successful Virginia politicians until the 2019 General Assembly election. The origins of this governing philosophy had their roots in Byrd-era double-speak meant to keep minorities and working-class Virginians oppressed and maintain a quasi ‘slave-like’ economy. 

How Did It Operate?

Every level of the Byrd Organization played a role to disenfranchise black people and keep the conservative Organization politicians in power.

Election Officials: Found excuses to reject black votes and fix elections for the Organization politician when necessary.

Clerks of Court: Assembled (white) jurors to sit for a jury trial in the circuit court, and provided an “orientation” to prepare jurors for the courtroom proceedings.

Sheriffs: Arrested black people and let white people off with warnings when possible.

Judges: Convicted and sentenced black people harshly while being lenient on white people who committed the same alleged crimes, disenfranchising the black convict and maintaining the white person’s right to vote. These positions require an appointment by the General Assembly and needed the approval of elected officials loyal to the Organization.

Commonwealth Attorneys: Used the cover of “prosecutorial discretion” to charge black people with felonies to disenfranchise them while charging white people only with misdemeanors or dropping charges altogether.

If Virginia Democrats want to hold power long enough to affect meaningful reform, they need to attack the foundations of the Organization’s power. They can start with civil service reform; attacking poverty by increasing wages and allowing workers to organize; drastically reducing the number of felony crimes; and disarming sheriffs and local police who continue disproportionately arresting and disenfranchising, and sometimes even killing, minorities—the standing mission of the Organization.

Accomplishing these policy objectives will keep Virginia’s liberals in power by growing their electoral base and providing relief to oppressed people in the Commonwealth. It will also make Virginia a better place to live for everyone.

Democrats also need to attack the ingrained political messaging telling them to be “pro-business” and “fiscally responsible.” In the context of Virginia politics, these phrases originated as euphemisms for white supremacy.

Pro-slavery evolved into “pro-business,” as racist factions sought “dog whistles” to keep the plantation economy alive. “Fiscally responsible” was intended to convince voters to reject social programs like Reconstruction and the New Deal that would have empowered minority Virginians.

Yes, the Byrd Organization even rejected the wildly popular New Deal. Sen. Byrd was vehemently opposed to the program, which he estimated would help more black people than white people. He even convinced a young charismatic politician seeking to court his endorsement to flip-flop against it. That man was the “populist” Governor Bill Tuck, who had previously gone on record supporting it.

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the racist systems that persist in Virginia today, as the plague is most severe in areas that lack access to social services—mainly urban black and poor rural communities. Finally dismantling the last remaining vestiges of the Byrd Organization once and for all is a lasting way to contain the virus and stop the epidemic. Dismantling the Byrd Organization requires disarming local police, reforming the civil service, appropriating new spending in minority communities, increasing social safety nets, and attacking poverty by requiring local hiring clauses in procurement to ensure minorities build wealth that can stay within the community.