One local delegate from Reston has spent more than two decades fighting for Northern Virginia's "fair share" in Richmond. The other local delegate devoted nearly two decades of service leading his hometown of Herndon before moving on to Richmond last year. The veteran finds himself increasingly on the sidelines as he watches the party in power slowly and steadily increase its hold over the capitol. The rookie is working to establish his name as an up-and-coming legislator in the party of power. With major budgetary questions unresolved and a stagnant economy, both local delegates, Kenneth Plum (D-36) and Thomas Rust (R-86) headed to Richmond over the weekend for the beginning of the General Assembly's short session.
PLUM WAS FIRST ELECTED to the Virginia General Assembly in 1977 before losing his seat, two years later. Two years after that in 1981, he took back the seat and has held it ever since. In his 24 years of service, the Reston Democrat has had a front-row seat to the ever-changing landscape that is Commonwealth politics. Right now, he doesn't like what he sees. "The composition of the legislature has changed significantly since my early days," Plum said. "The Republicans keep getting more control and the tilt to the right keeps getting more pronounced." These days, Plum, finds himself securely in the minority, a place he says he would rather not be, but will gladly defend. "I've got to be realistic here," the delegate said. "We, the Democrats, have only got 35 seats." Plum said his role is to point out "shortcomings" emanating from his Republican colleagues. "It always amazes me that some in Richmond refuse to believe that there are people who don't need government services."
Plum said he will be entering the session with a renewed spirit to protect "those people who are most vulnerable during this budget-cutting frenzy."
ACROSS THE AISLE and just a mile or so down the toll road, Herndon-based Rust is settling in to his new Richmond surroundings. Hardly a stranger to politics, Rust may be better known to many in his district as Mr. Mayor. From 1976-1984 and from 1990-2001, Rust served nearly 20 years as mayor of Herndon.
With one year of legislative wrangling under his belt, the freshman Rust is already beginning to make noise in the General Assembly, a perk benefiting an experienced rookie legislator in the majority. "After one year, hopefully I have a better understanding of how the system works," Rust said, adding that he will concentrate his priorities on education, transportation and "finding a resolution to all of the economic upheaval in the high-tech industry" that dots the Northern Virginia landscape. "My concern," the Herndon Republican said, "is that unless we key investments in infrastructure, we will have failed as a legislature."
A member of the Transportation Committee, Rust recently made headlines when he introduced legislation (HB 1485) that would add "congestion factor" based on vehicle miles traveled to the funding formula the Virginia Department of Transportation presently uses to distribute secondary road construction. Rust argues that billion-dollar road projects like the Coalfields Expressway in Southwest Virginia are blatant examples of VDOT's wasteful spending practices.
ONE THING THE TWO relatively moderate Northern Virginia legislators can agree upon is that the "short session" which begins on Jan. 8 before adjourning on Feb. 22, will be dominated by discussions of the budget, and the shortfalls therein. "It's going to be tremendously hectic," Rust said. "Clearly, the budget will be critical. I was pleased that the governor did not take money away from K-12 education."
For his part, Plum admits that there are many difficult decisions that lie ahead in the coming weeks. "These are the decisions that none of us want to make, but that is why voters send us down there."
"I'm not sure that I am necessarily looking forward to the upcoming session," said Plum. "It is going to be a challenge, no doubt about it. Actually, it is probably going to be something beyond challenging, whatever that is."
Complicating matters is the fact that all 140 legislators — senators and delegates — are facing reelection battles in the fall. "Things will get done, but there will be tough debates about where to spend money and where not to," Rust said. "I go there with a sense of anticipation, but I know we have frustration because there will be many unmet needs."
WHILE BOTH DELEGATES were vocal supporters of the soundly-defeated sales tax referendum, neither man feels voters in Northern Virginia will retaliate against the delegation come November.
"Everybody tries to interpret what [the loss] means and I think we are still learning from it," said Plum.
The veteran legislator says he believes the tax's proponents needed to embrace a broader, more open, process. "What it means, in part, is that we cannot expect the business and political community to get together to plan what to do," Plum said. "We must have broader constituencies and more seats at the table. The community is watching. We are not power brokers."
For his part, Rust does not fear a angry backlash in November. "Hopefully there won't be any lingering resentment," he said. "If anything, they will reward those of us who remained consistent with our opinions. Even if voters disagree, I think they respect a representative who doesn't waver in his or her commitment to a given cause."