Frenemies: No matter who wins, we lose

With so much going on in the executive branch, it's easy to neglect what's happening in the General Assemblyl as the session hits its . midpoint. File photo. With so much going on in the executive branch, it’s easy to neglect what’s happening in the General Assemblyl as the session hits its . midpoint. File photo.

So here are a few things you should know about Virginia’s Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment and Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw. They have a combined senate tenure of nearly 60 years, and have spent much of the recent past switching leadership positions as the Republicans gained, then briefly lost, then gained the majority again. They are both prodigious fundraisers and campaigners, and have become such permanent fixtures in the senate that one can easily imagine the capital cleaning crew arriving at night, hoisting each leader carefully from his chair and then stowing them in a well-appointed closet until the session resumes the next day.

They are also self-described “good friends,” and maintain a highly cordial relationship even whilst fighting to gain control of the closely divided senate chamber for their respective parties. In fact, back when disgraced former Governor Bob McDonnell was still considered a choirboy, it was well known that Norment and Saslaw would dine out together, often with a powerful lobbyist picking up the tab.

Of course, such ostentatious displays of ethically dubious behavior is largely a thing of the past, thanks to the fallout from McDonnell’s multiple corruption convictions. But even if they can’t enjoy quite as many lobbyist dinners as they once did, there’s little doubt that the two senate leaders are still a couple of (very white, very old) peas in an exceedingly comfortable pod.

And this shared bonhomie was on full display at a recent debate at Christopher Newport University. The purpose of the debate was ostensibly for the two party leaders to lay out their competing visions for the future, and to explain why their respective parties should have control of the senate in 2016.

But from the very first moments it was obvious that the two men would be, at best, only occasional combatants. Questioned about his then-undisclosed romantic relationship with a lobbyist whose firm was pushing legislation before the senate, Norment responded with a typical display of high dudgeon:  “I find that opening question to be a supercilious, impertinent question. You know very well I don’t discuss my personal life.”

This being a debate and all, you might have expected Saslaw to press the attack, and point out that this is the exact sort of ethical compromise that landed Bob and Maureen McDonnell in federal court. But instead Saslaw echoed Norment’s self-serving indignation, and then attempted to elicit sympathy as he discussed recent revelations that his former campaign treasurer had embezzled more than $650,000 from his campaign.

Unremarked upon by either man was how, exactly, a state senator can amass a reelection war chest so large that more than half a million bucks can be siphoned off without anyone noticing for almost a year. The answer, of course, is huge donations from companies with business before the senate (companies like TitleMax, a predatory “car-title lender” that has given around $37,000 to Saslaw, a staunch defender of the industry).

Toward the end of the debate, the two old bulls got into a tussle about who was more business-friendly, with Norment touting his caucus’ high scores from the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, and Saslaw huffing “go ask Dominion, go ask any of these companies—beer and wine wholesalers, banks, the development community—every one of them will tell you… I’m the most pro-business senator.”

And in the world of Virginia’s most powerful state politicians, that is obviously the only thing that matters.

Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, twice-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.