Vote “Yes” / Vote “No”

In addition to the usual Federal races on Tuesday, there will be ballot questions for local voters.  Here’s where I stand.

The first involves a proposed constitutional amendment permitting localities to exempt from real property taxes the surviving spouses of military members killed in action defending our country.  I plan to vote “Yes.”

The second is an advisory referendum in Fairfax City which seeks the input of citizens on whether City Council members should serve a four-year term, instead of the current two-year term.  I plan to vote “No.”

The first vote is self-explanatory (and optional to local governments).  The second vote requires a little bit more explaining …

I live in Fairfax City and have been aware of its political traditions since my father first ran for City Council in 1972.  I was elected to the Council myself in 1998 and made it through a re-election cycle (alas, unopposed).

Like most, if not all, towns and small cities in Virginia, the Council members currently serve a two-year term by our charter — and have to run for re-election every other year.  To the best of my memory, only two Council incumbents have been defeated since 1996.   That’s a 96% re-election percentage.

That’s not an accident.  The City is very stable and families tend to stick around or move back.  When I was on the Council in 1998, five of the six members were Fairfax High School graduates — and four of us were there at the same time.  That’s a wonderful thing, except that it tends to reinforce a certain inertia in local politics from having the same crowd in control of City Hall.

One of the other downsides is we don’t get the diversity of candidates that we should.  I note that we have not had a minority candidate run for office in the City since the Sixties.  (Yes, I said “candidate,” not elected official).  For a City with a 40% minority population, we’ve got to do a better job in getting people involved.

Going to a four year term will cut in half the opportunity for new people to run for office.  That’s not right.  We need new voices, new experiences, and new faces.

Yes, there is an irony in having me raise this issue, since I’m probably the best (worst?) example of a family legacy in Fairfax City politics.  I also have supported the current Council in their various elections and count them all as friends and colleagues.  But we need to give other people a chance … whether or not they get in.

So I’m voting “No” on the referendum.

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“The McRib is Back” (and other things I learned in Richmond today)

This morning I was back in Richmond.  Ironically, it was not for state politics but rather an argument before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

I wrote last month about appearing before the Virginia Supreme Court.  That’s nerve-wracking enough.  This is more so.

The Fourth Circuit, which meets in Richmond, represents the Federal judicial system from Maryland to South Carolina.  So you got lawyers from all over the Atlantic Coast.  I was appealing a judgment rendered last fall in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.  (If I win the appeal, I’ll be happy to provide details — until then, it’s too painful to discuss).

The Fourth Circuit courthouse in Richmond is located down the hill from the State Capitol.  Legend has it that the Feds put it there to block the Assembly’s view of the James River.  (Just letting people know there was a Federal government …)  It’s a great piece of classical architecture with a dramatic mural in the first-floor Law Library, which depicts Pocahontas saving Captain John Smith from decapitation by half-naked Powhatan warriors.  (Not sure how that is surviving the current cultural wars).

Waiting for the argument took nearly all morning.  Then our case was called and I started getting battered with questions from the three-judge panel.  Finished the argument, shook hands with my opponent, and walked up the hill to my office at the GA building.  An hour later, I was putting Richmond in the rear view mirror.

Stopped at the McDonald’s on Chamberlayne Road and learned (much to my pleasure) that the McRib is back!

Also learned today that Ed Gillespie is a Redskins fan, except when they’re playing the Eagles.  Um, okay.

(We interrupt this regular program to wish you a very happy “Bashaud Breeland” Day.  Please enjoy it responsibly).

Headed to Vienna tonight for the Halloween parade.  Give me a shout-out if you’re there.

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E-Day Looms for Warner Re-elect

Today was a stunning fall afternoon.  Sharon had the older children and I was in charge of my three year old Ida Grace.  (Is it “babysitting” when you watch your own kid?)

In the afternoon, I took Ida by the house of FCDC chair, Sue Langley, in Vienna for a reception with U.S. Senator Mark Warner.   It was a gathering of the Democratic “Old Guard” in Fairfax County, a group that knew Mark as Doug Wilder’s campaign manager in 1989 and then supported him when he ran for U.S. Senate in 1996.

Ida is not a political person.  Instead, she feel asleep on the couch in Sue’s basement, which meant I was free to introduce Mark to the familiar masses.

I recollected Mark as a candidate in ’96 and the state party chair in ’91-92, when I was law student at UVA volunteering on local races.  Even then Mark was building a network all across the Commonwealth.  In introducing him today, I had to ask — why do you even want to be involved with this dysfunctional Federal government?

Mark’s response was the right one.  We need a Federal government that works.  That represents the people who pay taxes.  That is free from the predictable posturing, tub-thumping and general time-wasting that has overtaken both the Left and Right wings of our Federal congress.  (Insert “Ebola” reference here).

It’s been a strange campaign cycle.  I have yet to see Mark’s opponent at a single community event, either in Richmond or Nothern Virginia.  It has been a shadow candidacy.  I doubt that anyone would recognize him if he walked naked down Maple Avenue at the annual Halloween Parade.  He is a cipher.

(BTW I actually listened to his alternative to Obamacare explained a couple weeks ago at the Small Business Summit and it was literally incomprehensible.  Does anyone think that issuing a 100 million new tax credits will create jobs for anyone except CPA’s?)

And yet there is a genuine discontent out there.   I know it.  Mark knows it.  The Obama wave from years ago is in the history books.

Any election that is won this cycle by a Democrat must be done on personal connections and smart campaigning.  That’s where Mark is best.  Even then, he’ll do well to pull a decent margin (say 8 points) against a relative nobody.

In the meantime, it’s back on the doors for the last couple weekends.

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Data Collection (Part Deux) in Virginia

See yesterday’s article in the Virginian-Pilot.

Again, Virginia law (Section 2.2-3800) is very clear:  government cannot hold personal information in covert databases, which are inaccessible to ordinary citizens.  Nor can it collect this personal data “except as explicitly or implicitly authorized by law.”

Phone records which reveal your cell or home phone numbers are, by definition, records which contain personal information.  While an agency can gather this information by subpoena or warrant for a criminal investigation, it cannot simply hold the data ad nauseam in a regional database until it is deemed relevant.  This is exactly what 2.2-3800 was designed to prevent.

We need some sort of ombudsman (the AG’s office?) to bring everyone into compliance.  The law is already on the books and it’s clear.

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A Brief History of Alcohol in Virginia

A couple days ago, the Governor announced that our recent budget shortfall would be covered (in part) by an increase in taxes on ABC products.  But how did we get an ABC?  And why does the state regulate alcohol sales?

The history begins many hundred years ago and thousands of miles away …

In the late 17th century, the English Crown, having recently conquered Ireland, decided to colonize the Catholic island nation with Presbyterian Scots, who were becoming a surplus population in Lowland Scotland.  These “Ulstermen” and their families moved to northern Ireland, where they attempted to scratch out a living on the rocky soil.  Like their Irish neighbors, they soon found that working for the English landlord was a losing proposition, due to the expensive “rack rents” put on all cash crops like wheat and potatoes.  Pretty soon, the Scots-Irish figured out a way to beat the system — distill the produce into liquid form and sell it on the black market.  They made the whiskey late at night under a harvest moon and called it “moonshine.”  Tax issue solved.

A generation later, unhappy with their step-child status in northern Ireland, the Scots-Irish began to migrate by the hundreds of thousands to America.  They originally landed in Pennsylvania, then migrated south down the Valley into western Virginia and western North Carolina — the “border country” of frontier America.  Pretty soon, they had filled up the ravines and valleys across the Appalachians with small farms.  And, yes, they brought their recipes for “moonshine,” as the old Irish whiskey was called, both for personal consumption and for sale.

These small farmers were pretty much ignored, until the first U.S. Secretary of Treasury, the New Yorker Alexander Hamilton, came up with a Bloomberg-esque idea to raise revenue while tackling a public health issue –  tax the sale of whiskey which was becoming a big market out west.  The frontier went up in arms.  The resulting “Whiskey Rebellion” almost ended the United States before it started.

A few years later, President Thomas Jefferson repealed all Federal taxes on whiskey and the mountain counties remained safely Democratic for a hundred years.  During this time, liquor production was still a small-time affair in rural communities in western Virginia, which lacked access to railways or roads. Alcohol consumption and production in the 19th century (and there was a lot of it) was driven by big-city breweries and distilleries.

All that changed with Prohibition.  In 1919, the U.S. adopted the Volstead Act which made the production and sale of alcohol illegal. All major breweries and distilleries were closed.  America went dry.

Suddenly, the family stills in western Virginia became relevant again.  Isolated by geography and time, the mountain residents still had the recipe for “moonshine” and now the demand for illegal liquor was off the charts.  There have been a lot of histories written about Franklin County (“the Wettest County in the World”) and neighboring counties like Franklin and Henry which were deeply involved in moonshine sales during Prohibition.  I won’t duplicate it here.  Suffice to say that a black market economy was created, which was legendary in scope.

With the repeal of Prohibition, the economic demand for “moonshine” mostly disappeared and things returned to normal.  In Virginia, the repeal led to the 1935 creation of the Alcohol Beverage Commission (or “ABC”) which regulated and taxed all sales of alcohol, at least in those counties which allowed it.  (By now, it’s all of them)

The system works as follows:  ABC itself handles the distribution and sale of spirits and hard liquor (whiskey, vodka, etc).  For beer and wine, it established a “three tier” system, which requires all brands to sell their products through a distributorship, which then supplies convenience stores, grocery stores and restaurants.  The advantage is that quality can be managed and taxes collected from the distributors, while retailers must obey laws relating to the marketing and sale of alcohol.

As a result of this system, Virginia has a robust market with lots of consumer choice (like farm wineries or the new micro-brews) and competitive prices, which also provides local jobs and a revenue stream to the Commonwealth.  By and large, it’s a system that’s both safe and accountable.

You no longer need a shotgun or an iron cask to have a drink in Virginia.  But that is how it all got started.

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