I was in Manassas for dinner with my father last monday (along with all the WMD), and I came way ruminating about State Senator Chuck Colgan and the state of affairs in the General Assembly…and I arrived home thinking that Senator Colgan mirrors all that is good and bad about the General Assembly.
First elected in 1975, Colgan is the senior member of the State Senate. Other than Lacey Putney, I do not know of anyone else in the General Assembly with more seniority than Senator Colgan. He had already been there twenty years when the power sharing agreement of 1996 kicked in, and it was not until the 1999 elections that he moved into the minority.
My instinct is that Colgan wins re-election this time around. I lost count of the number of yards in Manassas with signs for Colgan (Dem) and Jackson Miller (GOP). This is Parrish Country, and people are used to splitting tickets. I tend to think the GOP missed their chance in 2003…the GOP star was-if not ascendant-then more nearly so than today. It was Colgan’s first contested election in at least a decade and he was rusty. He is a pro-life [NOTE: originally read pro-choice and was overlooked in editing] catholic who can get a larger share of the pro-life vote than most democrats, and he has not offended anyone.
Maybe that is the question that got me thinking. If he hasn’t offended anyone, then what is he doing in Richmond and why is he running again? Perhaps more important, what does his candidacy say about what we want in an elected official?
Colgan has always been a nice guy. He was elected to the PWCo Board of Supervisors because he was a nice guy. He became chairman of a fractious board because he was the only person who could get along with the Four Horsemen, those wild men who fought amongst themselves as often as they agreed. Colgan went to the State Senate because he was a nice guy. Everyone in the Democratic Party liked him, while many carried a grievance of one type or another with then incumbent Selwyn Smith. Colgan beat Smith in a primary during the 1975 Harris purge, and then won election to the senate…but in doing so he cost PWCounty the funding to widen Va. 234 from Manassas to Route 1, a tale I recount here.
Since then the only piece of legislation I can readily remember as attributable to Colgan is the “Hustler Bill”. There arose a cry back in the day before the Internet about magazines like Hustler being readily available and viewed by our impressionable youth in places like a 7-11 store. This bill said that such magazines had to be displayed in such a way that customers could see the title of the mag but not what else might be on the cover.
Beyond that, as he piled up seniority and clout, nothing major happened. It was not until he had been in office for more than 20 years that funding came available to widen Va. 234, and that was more a function of Harry Parrish becoming head of the House Finance Committee.
I tend to think Colgan has functioned in much the way of a Byrd Machine courtier, following the party line and not causing much trouble. But he has always seemed strangely disconnected from his district, always reacting and never leading.
The current illegal immigration imbroglio is a good example. Senator Colgan has been in public office for pushing four decades, and a resident of Prince William County. He had to be aware of the changes taking place, and had to have an opinion of what could/should be done even as the issue got hotter and hotter. Yet he did nothing-neither introduced legislation addressing the issue nor stating there was no issue to address beyond bigotry. Now, in the midst of a campaign, he begins endorsing courses of action. This late call to action indicates:
a) He truly has no idea how to attack the perceived illegal immigration problems until now, which does not speak well of him as a leader, or
b) He truly has not thought there was an issue to address until now, which few will believe, or
c) He is endorsing courses of action only because he is in a contested election.
None of these options show him in an appealing light. But his tenure is I think a very Virginia thing. Say what you will about big change in Northern Virginia, I think most Virginians past and present share the idea that no one’s property or person is safe when the legislature is in session. Guys like Chuck Colgan have filled the General Assembly for years, making sure not to rock the boat or to be leaders. I don’t know how fair it is to score him for a lifetime of keeping a seat warm and listening to constituent requests.
But is that what we need today?
We have serious problems, and need serious people to deal with them. Yet neither party seems to have serious people; neither party offers a vision of where to go or how to get there. The GOP has to point back to the Allen/Gilmore terms to show their great achievements. The Democrats offer platitudes instead of programs, confident that the GOP will screw up enough to put the Dems back in charge. But what will the Dems do once they get there?
Maybe it is because no one is willing to lead, maybe it is because no one is willing to have enough SOB in their blood to stick to their guns or their principles (well, except for the Cooch, and not everyone is happy about that!). Such a man was the man Colgan replaced. Selwin Smith was respected enough that he went on to serve as Direct of Public Safety for both Governors Godwin and Dalton, and had enough clout in Richmond that when he was nominated for a seat on the Virginia Circuit Court for Prince William County he got the seat, despite not being endorsed by the local bar association. Selwyn was never a man who went along to get along. He was a mover and a shaker who stuck to his guns-imagine what he might have been able to accomplish for Prince William had he stayed in the legislature and continued to work with Ed Willey and Hutner Andrews? What would have happened had the people kept him in Richmond instead of a nice guy w/a good attendance record?
Chuck Colgan is a nice guy, an honorable man. He built a business and grew it, and recently sold it for so much he doesn’t have to work and Colgan family college tuitions are paid for generations to come. He is typical of the low key, low impact Virginia legislator the commonwealth has had in place for years, and perhaps his time is passing. The GOP won’t get him this time, but I suspect this is his the last time in the traces.
Yep, Chuck Colgan is a nice guy and an honorable man, and likely heading back to Richmond.
But I think we need more than that. We need legislators who want to lead, not simply hold a seat. We need parties that offer a clear direction and tell us how they will make things work. We need public officials who have the foresight to identify challenges before they become problems and the skills to create measures to meet those challenges.
I have no reason to think that Senator Colgan will work any differently if reelected. He will still be nice, honorable, unaggressive, voting the party line. I have no reason to think the legislative parties will be any different. Each will blame each other for the problems of the day and when the dust settles and the smoke clears we will be no better off than we are today.
But wouldn’t it be nice if things were different? If all legislators sought solutions instead of waiting for one to present itself? If the parties formulated, offered and elocuted a vision of what they want Virginia to be and how they want to get us there?
One day things will be different…but I fear that day will not anytime soon. We are still in the day of Chuck Colgan, and until we pass unto a new mindset in the legislature not a lot is going to get done.
UPDATE: Apparently I am not the only person who has noticed the large number of split ticket yards with signs for Chuck Colgan and for Jackson Miller.