Unified voice?

Published 8:46 pm Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Virginians are an independent bunch. The commonwealth’s penchant for autonomy has deep historic roots and reveals itself in spheres ranging from religion to government and even to the establishment of political boundaries.

Virginia’s Baptist movement broke away from established church structures during the colonial period and was an important catalyst in the early American drive toward religious freedom. Today, Baptists, who operate free of any oversight of a central religious authority, are the largest religious group in the state.

The value placed upon independence by Virginians, who call their state the Birthplace of Presidents and whose home was also the home of many of the nation’s Founding Fathers, is evident in the United States organizing document, the U.S. Constitution, which owes its Bill of Rights in part to the desire by Virginians like Patrick Henry and George Mason that individual liberties be protected against the inevitable growth of the power of the federal government.

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Even the state’s political boundaries owe something to the ideal of self rule. Unlike most of the other 49 states, Virginia gives its cities autonomy from the counties around them. That’s a hard concept for folks who aren’t from the commonwealth to understand, as any Suffolk resident can attest if they’ve ever had to fill out a form that asked for both the city and county of their residence.

Perhaps with such a long and ingrained history of independent thinking and action, it is not all that surprising that the concept of regionalism has always been such a hard sell for parts of Virginia. To be sure, there are parts of the state where regional cooperation has been embraced. Northern Virginia is the obvious example, but one could argue that region’s embracement of the concept is also a clear example of the influence of Federalism from nearby Washington, D.C., and the more liberal attitudes of NoVa’s neighbors. In short, NoVa is the exception to the rule of resolute independence thriving in the rest of the commonwealth.

It is, therefore, also unsurprising that a governor with deep ties to both the federal government and to Northern Virginia would see regionalism from a different perspective than many of the people who have spent their lives here. Gov. Terry McAuliffe was in Norfolk this week, touting a new initiative, GoVirginia, which is intended to leverage the strengths of the Hampton Roads region to attract investment and tourism.

McAuliffe sees the potential for a unified voice among the cities of Tidewater. But many in the area see the likelihood they’ll end up spending their tax dollars to solve the problems of neighboring localities.

While it’s been said that a rising tide lifts all boats, the better analogy is that of a system of locks on a canal. The water that lifts boats moving from a lower point to a higher one does not rise on its own — it must be pumped or sluiced from one point to the other. If there’s an effectively unlimited supply of water, there’s no problem, but economies don’t work that way, and a regional approach aimed at raising the standards of one city must rely on the contributions of its neighbors for success.

Virginia’s demographics are changing, and even the communities of Tidewater are experiencing an influx of people for whom the long history of independence are not a part of their genetic character. McAuliffe’s call for a regional approach to development will likely gain better traction than similar calls from other politicians in recent history.

But there are still enough folks in these parts doggedly holding to their ideals about independence that one wonders whether the latest encouragement to a more regional approach to the area’s problems will have any more success than the ones that came before.

GoVirginia might seem sensible on the whiteboards in the offices of bureaucrats in Richmond, but we suspect that it will prove less enticing to the individual voters of Suffolk, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and Norfolk — and perhaps even less interesting to those Middle Peninsula localities separated from the rest of Hampton Roads by the mighty James River.

In the end, each of us is a citizen of a particular city or county. For many of us, the clarion call should be not GoVirginia, but GoSuffolk.