Column – So this was 2022, for better and for worse
Published 4:41 pm Friday, December 30, 2022
Wasn’t it just the other day that Virginians were shaking our heads in dismay at a motionless cordon of traffic tens of miles long stranded overnight in brutal, subfreezing temperatures on a stretch of Interstate 95 north and south of Fredericksburg?
That was the first head-turning news event of 2022, when the year was still in its infancy. Plenty has happened in the days, weeks and months since then. Some of it was encouraging. Some of it was discouraging.
It may feel a bit unseemly to read the obituary for 2022 while it’s in its final hours and not yet officially consigned to the ages. But unseemly is what I do. It’s my job.
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Here’s my take on the big moments of the past year.
Snowmageddon on I-95 (Jan. 3-4)
Beleaguered from almost two years of COVID-19 pandemic privations, the term of Gov. Ralph Northam was just a week from its end when a snowstorm of unexpected severity left more than 800 vehicles gridlocked on a bitterly cold 40-mile stretch of the freeway for up to a day and a half.
Among the drivers encamped overnight in the frozen hellscape was U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, whose normal two-and-a-half-hour commute to Capitol Hill for the resumption of Congress turned into a frigid 27-hour in-car bivouac. The same was true for unknown hundreds of shivering travelers.
An after-action report blamed a freakish storm that began as a blustery rain after an unusually balmy holiday but unexpectedly turned into a serious winter storm that slammed the region with sleet and snow. The assessment faulted poor communications and a torpid initial response by Northam’s administration, but conceded that the rain beforehand made it impossible to pre-treat the road with brine or salt. Miraculously, there were no deaths or serious injuries in vehicles parked overnight and unreachable by first responders or even the National Guard.
In the aftermath, Northam’s Republican successor, Glenn Youngkin, has issued preemptive emergency declarations seemingly every time weather forecasts have called for a heavy frost.
Our full-time/part-time legislature (most of 2022)
After two years of total Democratic hegemony in Virginia government, voters acted in 2021 to return to divided government to Richmond. They put Republicans in the top three statewide elective offices and gave them a narrow House of Delegates majority.
The result: a legislative session that passed a state budget at the last minute to head off a partial shutdown of state services when the old budget expired at the stroke of midnight on June 30. The task of appointing two justices to fill vacancies on the short-handed state Supreme Court as it struggled with a growing backlog of cases also stretched out for interminable months. And they never got around to filling a vacancy on the State Corporation Commission, which will be down to just one of its three judges after Judith Jagdmann resigns effective the end of this month.
Along the way, legislators buried partisan differences and did dog lovers like me a huge solid: they put new restrictions on a cramped, corporate beagle-breeding mill in Cumberland County that bred beagles as medical experimentation subjects. The facility finally closed this year after a series of damning federal reports on its conditions. The pups were released to shelters, and many are spending this holiday curled up with their adoring adoptive humans.
Unemployment claims backlogs (all year)
The Virginia Employment Commission finally made significant inroads into mountains of unemployment compensation claims that had languished for months on end from the early months of the pandemic. But it’s still not over.
The agency was unprepared for an avalanche of unemployment claims resulting from layoffs and business failures starting in the spring of 2020. A withering report from the General Assembly’s investigative arm faulted poor management of the agency, scant oversight by Northam’s administration and outmoded technology for the failures.
According to data the VEC provided last week, the agency removed or completed just over 900,000 cases in 2022, or 88% of what it received during the year. About 700,000 of those matters awaited the agency on Jan. 15 when Youngkin took office and sacked the agency’s previous leadership. Nearly 333,000 new matters came in since then. Of the 127,282 cases still pending, three-fourths are appeals of denied claims, 18% are potential fraud claims and just 6% are claims awaiting adjudication.
Slightly more than 90% of the 258,320 potential fraud claims with an aggregate monetary value of $1.56 billion in January have been investigated, according to VEC. The current dollar value of the 24,170 potential fraud claims awaiting investigation as of last week was just over $160 million.
Gun deaths (all year)
The rate at which Virginians are killing one another with firearms has climbed at an unsustainable rate the past three years. And it was driven home mercilessly by several mass killings that have shocked the conscience of the commonwealth.
With nine days left in this year, 20 separate mass shootings have killed 37 people and wounded 75 in Virginia in 2022, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. The GVA, a nonprofit online database of firearm violence collected from law enforcement, government, media and commercial sources nationally, defines mass shootings as events in which four or more people are shot or killed.
For 2022, Virginia ranks fourth nationally in mass shootings, trailing Texas (86 deaths, 193 wounded), California (60 dead, 190 wounded) and Illinois (51 dead, 254 wounded). As if that ranking isn’t damning enough, the number of mass shooting fatalities thus far this year is already more than double Virginia’s 2021 total of 16. In 2020, three were killed and 46 were injured in Virginia mass shootings.
Nearly half of 2022’s deaths occurred this fall. They include the Nov. 13 slaying of three University of Virginia football players on a bus returning from a class trip to Washington. A fourth player was wounded and a female student was also injured. On Nov. 22, seven people were fatally shot and six others were wounded in a Chesapeake Walmart.
An uneventful midterm (Nov. 8)
Finally, something unambiguously good: Virginia’s 2022 midterm congressional election.
I don’t laud it because of who won and who didn’t. For the record, Republicans flipped one Democratic U.S. House seat in Virginia.
What made this election good was it worked. Candidates ran hard, but when the votes were tallied, they accepted that the results expressed the will of the voters. The election wasn’t without warts. None ever are. But it was clean and it was well-run, affirming the faith I and others who have closely watched state elections for decades have in Virginia’s system of elections.
Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at email@example.com.