by State Sen. Dave Marsden (This article is a reprint of an op ed from Senator Marsden in the Richmond Times Dispatch on November 2nd)
Every 10 years, “incumbency” somehow becomes a bad word when we redraw our Virginia Senate, House of Delegates and U.S. congressional districts. The one thing I have learned in my 16 years in the legislature is: Thank God for 30-year incumbents.
The General Assembly is not a full-time job; we make $18,000 per year, and most of us have other careers. We learn about the hundreds of complicated issues on the “installment plan” — in several hours per day, in hyperbusy six- or eight-week sessions in Richmond where we are literally inundated with thousands of bills and legislative ideas.
The term “career politician” becomes a campaign slogan for some challengers who think we do this to get rich and famous. Let’s draw some analogies: Who would be comfortable going to a part-time dentist or doctor, or trust life savings to a part-time investment adviser? The closest thing we have to full-time, knowledgeable legislators are those who have served for extended periods of time.
Ninety-five percent of our work involves decisions about subjects like traffic laws, agriculture policy, alcohol, gaming, insurance, banking and routine government services. On top of that, we vet and manage a $100 billion budget that funds essential services, while addressing new priorities and mandates as our commonwealth changes.
And no one becomes expert or even proficient in more than a few policy areas. We learn from each other. We learn from representatives from nonprofits, the business community and public interest groups about bills we will introduce and how we will vote.
While it always is great to have new blood, it is critical that new lawmakers offer something from their careers or experiences that can add to the quilt of skills, backgrounds and diversity that all of us can bring to the table. Running on one issue, or the absurdity that somehow a candidate “cares” more than the incumbent, is faulty logic.
This cycle has tested our new constitutional redistricting amendment, and it has been a struggle to create consensus around what are fair districts. But the process certainly has been transparent, and this is progress. Since the Virginia Redistricting Commission of legislators and nonlegislator citizens was unable to agree on electoral maps, the Supreme Court of Virginia will take up the mantle of transparency and fairness to create districts that will recognize the commonwealth’s evolution and set us up for continued good governance.
As we make decisions about redistricting, this ought to be kept in mind. We have a government to run, and you can’t run it with rookies or people who believe they are the answer to all of our problems, or big mistakes will be made. It would break my heart to lose people who know how our government operates, and what the essential needs of our citizens are, as we slowly reinvigorate the legislature with new people.
And to those who believe term limits are the answer: After 14 years in the General Assembly, if I still were in the House of Delegates, I would be about 10th or 11th in seniority out of 100 members in that chamber. Trust me, we turn over quite frequently.
We do not need term limits or redistricting to arbitrarily deprive us of the wisdom and knowledge of our veteran members. They have dedicated decades of their lives and sacrificed time with families or significant earnings to making this commonwealth what it is — which is pretty damn special.