Thursday, May 21, 2009

When the weird turn pro

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

_ Hunter Thompson

As an avid blog reader, I guess I’m about to lose my amateur status.

Welcome to the first installment of what I hope will be an ongoing conversation about Williamsburg, Virginia, politics and anything else that catches my, or your, interest.

Let me introduce myself.

I currently cover tourism, city government (sometimes it’s a little hard to tell where one of those stops and the other begins), state politics and government and various other topics (I’ve learned more about archeology over the last three years than I ever thought I’d know) for the Virginia Gazette, the semi-weekly community newspaper of Williamsburg, James City County and York County.

I’m a native Virginian, born and mostly bred here. My Dad was in the Air Force when I was child, so I also lived in Maine (which I was too young to remember), Texas and Montana. My Dad was a radar operator, so we got sent to all the scenic edges of the U.S.

I did my time in the Air Force as well, living in Texas, Mississippi and Germany.

After the Air Force, I went to VCU, majoring in political science.

I still live in Richmond, in a 100-year old house on one of the less fashionable streets in Church Hill.

I’m on my second (and last) marriage and I have two children, an 18-year-old daughter who just finished her freshman year of college and a 15-month-old son.

After college I went to work at the Lynchburg News & Advance, first on the night-copy desk, later as a reporter. I covered beats including Appomattox County, business, cops and courts and, for most of my tenure there, state politics and government.

Full disclosure: After leaving the News & Advance I went to work in Democratic politics. First as a consultant and campaign manager, then as a member of the Democratic Caucus Staff, then as a member of the party staff.

I didn’t go into politics because I particularly enjoyed the give and take of the political process. Some people do. I got involved in politics because I was interested in public policy. I saw it as a route to having an impact on statewide policy. That didn’t happen, largely because I worked on a lot of losing campaigns.

I don’t think I was mean enough for partisan politics. I was mean enough to deal with Republicans – in fact I often wanted to be meaner than my employers allowed me to be – but I wasn’t mean enough o deal with the machinations of fellow Democrats.

Also, while I identify as a Democrat, a lot of Democrats would say I’m not a very good one. There are some issues, notably the death penalty, gun control issues and criminal justice issues, where I’m pretty conservative.

There are others, such as economic justice issues where I, as the son of a man who drove a forklift for a living and the first person on either side of my family to graduate from college, come down on the populist or progressive side.

I’ve voted for Republicans for every office from commonwealth’s attorney to president – if you consider John Anderson in 1980, a Republican – when I thought they were running the better candidate.

In covering the General Assembly, I made friends on both sides of the aisle. In fact, I know and like three out of the four men running for governor this year. Creigh Deeds, Brian Moran and Bob McDonnell are all nice guys. I don’t know Terry McAuliffe.

Among the more admirable people I covered in those years, I count former Republican Delegates Joyce Crouch and Preston Bryant (currently Secretary of Natural Resources) of Lynchburg and Ann “Panny” Rhodes of Richmond.

The two nicest people I’ve met in politics are Gov. Tim Kaine and former lieutenant governor Don Beyer. They each rate high on the “guy you’d like to have a beer with” scale.

I returned to journalism with the Richmond Free Press, but was again lured into politics when the ill-fated Don McEachin for Attorney General campaign offered me what I considered at the time a ridiculous amount of money to serve as their communication director for the general election after his original press secretary left to have a baby.

Between the McEachin campaign and the Gazette, I served as communications director and part-time lobbyist for the Virginia Organizing Project, a grassroots, community-based organization pursuing a progressive policy agenda in Virginia.

In the last several years I’ve watched, but not participated in, the action in the political blogosphere in Virginia. The Virginia Democratic “netroots” had a huge impact on Sen. Jim Webb’s election in 2006 and that has spurred both parties to put greater emphasis on the blogosphere.

I think that’s a good thing overall. More voices, discussing politics and policy from more perspectives, is a positive development.

Blogs have, on occasion however, acted irresponsibly. (As has the “Main Stream Media.”).

Inaccurate stories have been given widespread distribution. Rumors have been reported as fact. The tone of the political blogosphere is frequently corrosively uncivil.

But the netroots have also at times put stories in better perspective than the MSM and have fostered, in some cases, a healthy and respectful debate from both sides of the political spectrum.

The blogs I try to keep up with on a regular basis are:

 Not Larry Sabato – Ironically, this blog is at its best when it concentrates on what made the real Larry Sabato famous – detailed analysis of election returns and districts.

Blue Virginia – Lowell Feld was a pioneer in the Virginia blogosphere and is still, in my mind, the best.

Vivian J. Paige – more than just politics.

Waldo Jaquith – always a good read whether the subject is computers or congressional races.

7 West – written by two Democratic state legislators. Not updated often enough.

Too Conservative – Good insight into the Virginia Republican Party’s introspective side. I just skip the inside baseball stuff about Loudon County.

Bearing Drift – Closer to the Republican Party line than Too Conservative.

Tertium Quids – A more intellectual approach to Republican blogging.

So what do I hope to add?

I think I bring a unique viewpoint to the discussion because I’ve experienced the legislature and political campaigns both from the perspective of a reporter and from the inside, as a staffer.

I have friends on both sides of the aisle, which helps give me a more balanced perspective.

I also understand why the dreaded “MSM” does what it does. Since both the left and the right wings of the blogosphere spend a lot time complaining about media bias, it’s tempting to say we must be doing our jobs pretty well. It’s tempting, but it’s not always true. We do have our biases, although they aren’t always the biases we’re accused of having. And we do sometimes fall down on our job. The prelude to the war in Iraq, when the national media totally failed in its responsibility to ask questions and question assumptions, is one obvious example.

So let’s talk about the media, the candidates, the campaigns, the issues and whatever else we want to discuss.

I see this blog as a way to talk about what I think about campaigns and issues.

In straight news reporting we tell you what the participants think. Or at least what they say they think. There’s only so far you can go in news reporting to separate spin from fact, because the rules of the game say you have to quote both sides, even if one or both sides is totally full of it.

So here, I’ll comment on campaigns and candidates, and try to separate the legitimate arguments from the ridiculous ones. But I won’t be endorsing any candidates. Like an umpire in baseball, I’ll try to call it down the middle. Hopefully, I’ll have a consistent strike zone for both sides.

You should feel free to do so in the comments, if you’d like. I’d say to try to keep your comments civil and to avoid ad hominem arguments aimed at other posters, but I’ve read enough blog comments to know that’s probably not going to happen. At least try to watch your language, we’re linked to the Virginia Gazette website and it’s a family newspaper.

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