In a state where one vote is often all that separates a bill from becoming law or fading away, majority control matters, even when the controlling party’s advantage is razor-thin.
In the Virginia House of Delegates, Republicans hold a 51-48 edge with one vacancy. For most votes this year, however, that vacant seat was occupied by a Democrat, narrowing the GOP’s advantage to two seats.
In a showcase of majority dominance, House Speaker Kirk Cox was so confident in his ability to herd his caucus that he let one of his members catch some rays in Cocoa Beach, Fl. instead of attending the 2019 reconvened session of the General Assembly, the biggest day of votes this year. In allowing Del. Rob Bloxom (R-100) to stay at the beach, Cox signaled a 50-49 edge was good enough to win.
During the general session, which lasts about two months, legislators are typically only absent for things like illness and family emergencies. Being excused to go on vacation is not unheard of, but also not common. That’s especially true of the reconvened session, a constitutionally mandated vote-a-thon that brings lawmakers back to Richmond, typically for one day in April, to consider gubernatorial amendments and vetoes.
Vetoes require a two-thirds majority to overturn, but only a simple majority is needed to approve gubernatorial amendments. Thus, close votes are frequent and attendance records are ordinarily spotless. Over the last five reconvened sessions, just two members of the 100-member House have been granted leave: Bloxom and Del. Jeff Bourne (D-71).
On this day, however, House Republicans’ single-vote advantage turned out to be just as good as two, so hardly anyone batted an eye at Bloxom’s empty seat in the House chamber on April 3.
“My wife teaches, and her spring break was that week,” Bloxom said in an email. “We had a vacation planned for our family before the date of the reconvened session was finalized. I bought a round trip plane ticket to fly to Richmond and back, but with the Speaker’s permission, he confirmed my vote wouldn’t be a deciding vote on any measure and granted me a leave of absence. I just ate the plane ticket.”
The Eastern Shore Republican missed 69 votes, including 24 votes on the budget bill that could have tipped the scales (six budget bill votes were decided by a single vote).
Cox’s decision may have been tied to Bloxom’s track record of contrarianism. In the 2019 general session, Bloxom took six positions — the most of any delegate this year — that left him all alone on the short end of lopsided floor votes, including one February vote on the budget bill.
The Dogwood has reached out to Cox’s office for comment and will update this story pending a response.
Serving in the General Assembly is a part-time job. The regular session is a maximum of 60 days long in even-numbered years and 30 days long in odd-numbered years, unless extended by a two-thirds vote of both chambers. The reconvened session adds one day to lawmakers’ workload, and the governor can also call special sessions later in the year for pressing matters or emergencies.
Bloxom has made it known that lawmaking comes second to family gatherings (he promised not to miss any of his son’s football games when elected) and running his business, a local auto parts store. He rarely hosts town halls and his election campaigns are trimmed down compared to the average House candidate’s.
“It can consume your life if you let it,” Bloxom said in an interview with the Virginia Mercury. “You’ll lose your family, you’ll lose your business, you’ll lose everything because for some reason you think you’re so important the state can’t operate without you, which is totally false. Whichever guy gets it next, the state will move on. Maybe in a little bit different direction, but it will move on.”
Bloxom’s casual approach has worked for him in the past, but Democrats see him as a vulnerable target headed into the Nov. 5 elections. His opponent, first-time candidate Phil Hernandez, a Democrat, is mounting the most robust challenge to the seat since Bloxom replaced Del. Lynwood Lewis during a special election in 2014. Hernandez has walloped Bloxom in fundraising. One month this year, he raised $95,700 to Bloxom’s $475, and by the end of August Hernandez had $245,000 cash-on-hand compared to Bloxom’s $66,000.
Recent voting trends suggest Bloxom’s job could be at risk, too. More than half of voters in the 100th district, 53%, voted for Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in 2017. And 54% cast ballots for U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D) in 2018. The 100th could be a chance for Democrats to pick up one more seat as they look to regain control of the House for the first time in two decades.
If they’re successful, Republicans may want to impose a stricter vacation policy. Unless, of course, Democrats win handily, in which case it might not matter.