Crossing the Aisle
Background as a journalist helps effort to untangle political gridlock
Forty years ago this fall when I arrived at the University of Virginia as a student, the place had a much smaller feel.
Virginia was a smaller state in 1968, and its politics had been one-party Democratic for the previous swath of the 20th century.
But changes in political demographics, habits and loyalties began rolling more rapidly across the state about the time I rolled into Charlottesville from Arlington and discovered that journalism could not be a major at UVA but could nicely dovetail with politics as an extracurricular activity.
News and politics consumed my volunteer activities. The years spent at the on-Grounds radio station WUVA covering, writing and reading news became some of the best preparation the University provided for my subsequent 34-year career in journalism. Even better, eight years after leaving UVA, I would also meet my future wife, Sarah McConnell (Col ’77), in the Charlottesville radio news business.
My fellow student journalists and I covered Student Council-sponsored grape boycotts, elections, conventions and anti-war demonstrations. This helped me gain a distaste for tear gas and a taste for exploring individual differences.
I was also a sports junkie. I would drive our intrepid WUVA news crew on weekends—and even Wednesday nights—to games over the next several years in Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Clemson, Greensboro and Charleston, W.Va. All-night drives to and from a political event in St. Louis and to the first Earth Day celebration in Philadelphia cemented my desire to cover news wherever I could convince an editor to send me.
I’ll never forget Barry Parkhill’s cool dribbling in the last extra seconds of a 1971 game against second-ranked South Carolina along the right side of the key before he hit a fade-away jump shot that sank the Gamecocks, 51-50. University Hall erupted.
As a Wahoo-trained reporter, I since have been privileged to cover Virginia’s transition from a Democratic blue state to a Republican red state to its current status as a purple state with both parties calling the Old Dominion very competitive. Through all the colorful change, relying on UVA’s student-run Honor System provided a framework for smelling out those who lie, cheat or steal.
When I left my newspaper career in April to become director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at UVA, I took away a desire to help restore a spirit of bipartisanship that has slipped as the tone of politics has coarsened.
Now, as I happily rejoin the University at age 58, I am proud to be part of an organization that promotes the efficacy of discussing policy solutions in an atmosphere of trust, civility and respect across party lines.
I loved covering politics and government in Charlottesville, Richmond and across Virginia, and it offered me a front-row seat to observe and record the service of seven governors and 20 sessions of the General Assembly.
Today, voters are asking more of both reporters and politicians.
Virginia, thankfully, is not yet as politically gridlocked as Washington, but is more and more adopting national trends. Politicians who used to speak and socialize with each other across the aisle find themselves discouraged from doing that.
Generally, the happiest and most successful political figures I’ve covered, from Southwest Virginia’s Linwood Holton to Richmond’s Gerald Baliles and Alexandria’s John Warner, employed the civil exchange of views with members of the opposite party who also were colleagues and friends.
In its 15 years, the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership has become a national model for successful bipartisan training, with more than 1,000 graduates. Last November, a healthy crop of 48 Sorensen alumni won elections across Virginia.
Reflecting our role as a nonpartisan institute made up of sometimes fierce partisans, 18 were Republicans, 18 were Democrats and 12 won as independents. Sixteen graduates now serve in the Virginia General Assembly, and they all know how to work across the partisan aisle.
I’ve watched these mostly young legislators learn the ropes and sometimes defy the trend to retreat into partisan camps. Voters love such defiance.
Just as the University’s image and reputation grew during my four years from 1968 to ’72 and continues to flourish, I think Virginia can nourish and grow a spirit of service that would enhance the political and social atmosphere in our halls of government.
I am happy to be back at the University working with dedicated individuals who share the same passion that made my first four years here such a great introduction to the civic and political realm that guides the Commonwealth.