Retro vs. Metro: Trying to Understand the New Virginia


Map Competitive Grants

Today, like every Wednesday following an election, the political pundits are dividing the nation between red and blue and in Virginia, that’s fairly easy to do — if the locality has a population density that is less than 225 people per square mile it goes into the red column, higher, and it belongs in the blue column. Of course, there are a few exceptions to this rule (wink, wink, Northampton County), but as a whole, Virginia is much like the rest of the nation in that red and blue have far more to do with population densities than individual candidates.

There is, however, a great danger in oversimplifying the maps and story line that is modern government in the Old Dominion.

The true issue that few people seem willing to acknowledge is this: There is currently no such thing as “Virginia” and the same issues that broke the state apart 150 years ago have not gone away — even though 55 of its western counties have.

Whether you cross into the Mountain State at its northern terminus just south of Pittsburgh, into its western city of Parkersburg or drive past the locally owned fill up station on a bumpy city street from Bluefield, Virginia, into Bluefield, West Virginia, it makes no difference — ask the average local and they’ll tell you, loudly, that they’re a proud West Virginian.

The same thing is true in Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Ohio, Vermont and dozens of other states across the nation; however, in Virginia, there is no such thing as Virginia pride.

Here, in the Commonwealth, we identify as being from “NOVA”, the Southside, Southwest Virginia or the Tidewater and we couldn’t be more different.

Republican vs. Democrat or conservative vs. liberal is not what is at issue in the Commonwealth.  Our greatest political disconnect has very little to do with party affiliation and far more to do with regionalism, which often gets wrongly interpreted as typical partisan politics.

While CNN and the local television outlets are determining the final count of the state’s legislative houses, dividing the members between R’s and D’s, the real contest in the state’s General Assembly is Metro vs. Retro — a showdown that extends far beyond the voting booth, and whose implications will have dire consequences regarding education, law enforcement and even the state’s economy.

The metro areas of the state are easy to spot.  It’s the cities around Washington, D.C. (“Northern Virginia”, NOVA for short), the state’s eastern counties around Norfolk and Virginia Beach, as well as the greater-Richmond area.  Basically all places where large densities of people are.

And, as was the case in the days leading up to the American Civil War, the wealthy, eastern Virginia gentry are now beginning to wield a level of legislative power that is reaching an ungodly level!

Consider the fact that voters in Fairfax County alone elected 17 different members to the Virginia House of Delegates, compared to only eight different delegates being elected from all localities west of Roanoke — an area that consists of roughly 18 counties and covers about 200 linear miles.

Yes, one Virginia county has twice the legislative power as 18 counties do.

Though there are undoubtedly several individuals who live in Southwest Virginia who voted opposite their friends and neighbors and are pleased with the results of this week’s statewide election, the reality is that even the bluest of blue Democrats who live west of Roanoke should be fearful of what the changing demographics mean for the place they call home.

As the old adage goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and in Virginia’s “Retro vs. Metro” battle, “Metro” just about has all power and this is beginning to have terrible consequences for the conservative and liberals whose homes are beyond the Blue Ridge.

We’ve already begun seeing this played out as the Code of Virginia is literally being rewritten by only a handful of counties in order to offer themselves special tax incentives and other privileges that aren’t afforded to the rest of the state (see §58.1-3824, which authorizes Fairfax County transient occupancy taxing privileges that are not allowed to other localities).  If that isn’t enough, check out §58.1-3831, which gives Fairfax and Arlington Counties power to levy tax upon the sale or use of cigarettes, a privilege granted to no other Virginia county.

Perhaps if they hadn’t re-written the Code Book to benefit themselves, they wouldn’t need to send so much money to aid the “pauper counties” in “App-ah-Lay-sha”.

Must be nice to run an entire state!

Yes, this issue is not unique to Virginia and is being seen from Florida to California; however, what makes the Commonwealth’s situation very unique is the fact that while one region is growing exponentially in population, power and wealth, the region opposite it is deteriorating in all of these categories almost as rapidly.

In Virginia’s Appalachian region, the state’s six most western counties (Wise, Lee, Scott, Russell, Dickenson, and Buchanan), have all experienced decreases in population between 1980 and 2016, with five of the six having lower populations today than in 1950.

Compare this negative growth to Fairfax County, Virginia’s most populous county: In 1950, the county’s population was 98,557, but while Southwest Virginia has gone backwards in growth, Fairfax’s population has expanded 11.5-fold to 1,142,234 residents, 13.6% of Virginia’s entire population.

And this is only one example.

Virginia Beach’s 1950 population was 42,277 (Then Princess Anne County) compared to Wise County’s 1950 population of 56,336.

Today, Virginia Beach has grown more than ten-fold to 452,745, while Wise county’s population is 39,228.

The lasting effects of this will be huge and touch everyone in the state’s silenced region.  Whether it’s funding for schools, needed law enforcement tools, or infrastructure projects, the divide between Metro and Retro is only deepening and spells even more struggles for Southwest and Southside Virginia.

On October 13, 2017, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced $6.1 million in Homeland Security grant awards.

The governor stated that the grants would “fund vital projects to enhance Virginia’s strength and resilience against all threats.”

Below is a map of all the competitive grant award recipient localities — some localities received so many, the dots had to be placed into the neighboring locality:

Map Competitive Grants

In the defense of the grant awarders, the money went to the population centers, which makes sense… Unless you’re a rural Virginia police officer whose radio doesn’t work.

Grants have become a major source for how all states distribute funding – even Federal dollars which pass through states on to local communities.

Moving forward, every rural Virginia teacher, police officer and local resident needs to be aware of the lasting effects a growing “Metro” population confined to the state’s east is having, especially in the face of a shrinking “Retro” population in the state’s west.

While the 2017 Virginia elections may have signified a change in power in the state house, the real change in power will come in the days following the 2020 Census, when the counties of Virginia’s West sit down in the back of the room while the ruling gentry from the East dole out the power to themselves.

154 years ago, Virginia fractured and was cut in half due to the level of power held by the eastern counties and though the odds or logic in forming a State of Southwest Virginia  are about as high as the elevation of Tangier Island, the state’s far southwest region is growing just as resentful of the folks who rule from Richmond as the representatives from Kanawha and Wheeling were two centuries ago.  Come to think of it, the New Virginia is a lot like the Old Virginia.

Virginia’s problem today is the problem it’s always faced: Retro vs. Metro.

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