Photo by Chris Smith
It’s fitting that the last vote Republican state Sen. John Watkins cast was one that underscored both the kind of lawmaker he was during his 34 years in the General Assembly and the kind of place the statehouse has become.
In August, Gov. Terry McAuliffe called a special session of the General Assembly to redraw new congressional districts by Sept. 1 as ordered by a federal court of appeals. Within hours of convening, though, Senate Democrats moved to adjourn the session, an action that seized the task from the hands of the Republican-dominated legislature and handed it to the courts.
To the Republicans, the move was a political affront, made worse by the vote itself: Watkins sided with the Democrats. In a statement, Senate Democrats say they had heard the House Republicans planned to adjourn until Aug. 31, one day before the court-ordered deadline for new boundaries — and then push their own plan through. Watkins relayed a similar story after the session.
“They were setting us up,” Watkins says. “Why would I condone something like that?”
Watkins, who will retire in January, has never toed the party line. His status as a Senate swing vote gave him an outsized influence in the chamber, and even the state legislature as a whole.
Sen. Thomas Norment Jr., the Republican Senate majority leader from Williamsburg, says Watkins’ decision to side with the Democrats “came as no surprise.”
“He has an admirable sense of independence, even though he has always run as and been a Republican,” Norment says. “When he thinks something is right, that is going to prevail over what may be politically expedient.”
Asked whether his impending retirement affected the way he approached the redistricting session, 68-year-old Watkins answers flatly, “No — I was a maverick before then.”
It was redistricting that first landed Watkins, then 34, in the General Assembly back in 1982. Population growth in Chesterfield County resulted in a new seat and the local Republican committee approached Watkins, who was working for his family’s nursery business at the time, about running. He won the seat, and served in the House, then dominated by Democrats, for 15 years. He ran unopposed for the Senate in 1997.
That was a different time in Virginia politics, Watkins laments. “It used to be you would disagree in a committee room or in a debate on the floor and three hours later you were having dinner together somewhere, talking about things other than what you argued about.”
The Virginia Senate that Watkins is leaving is unrecognizable from the one he first joined, says Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington professor. Fifteen years ago, there was a bloc of moderate Republicans whose unpredictability gave them a lot of power in the Senate. As moderates such as John Chichester and H. Russell Potts Jr. have retired, that bloc has shrunk during the last 10 years, giving way to a more polarized legislature, Farnsworth says.
“Watkins is one of a dying breed of moderate lawmakers in the Virginia Senate,” he says. “For someone used to more centrist control, Watkins, looking to the future, may think it may not be as appealing as the past.”
Appealing or not, Watkins still found a way to be effective in the more partisan statehouse. In 2013, he was instrumental in the passage of the state’s landmark transportation legislation, which replenished depleted road maintenance coffers, as well as funded mass transit and highway construction projects. The year before, he introduced the legislation that led to the overhaul of the Virginia Retirement System. Both efforts required bipartisan support, and he counts them among his greatest accomplishments.
One of the Senate’s most senior members, he chaired the Commerce and Labor Committee, a prominent post, and held spots on the Finance and Transportation committees, as well. His departure comes at a time when the region is hemorrhaging clout, seniority-wise, in the Senate. Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico, also considered a swing vote, is retiring when his term ends later this year. Henry Marsh, a Richmond Democrat who had served since 1991, retired in 2014.
The retirements leave Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, as the region’s longest-tenured member in the Senate. Though he and Watkins didn’t always see eye-to-eye, McEachin says he learned the importance — and difficulty — of championing regionalism from Watkins during the time they worked together.
“We didn’t have the same letter after our name, but we oftentimes could find areas of agreement,” McEachin says.
Watkins announced his retirement last November.
His decision spurred what has become the must-watch race of the state’s 2015 election cycle. The 10th District is one of Virginia’s most diverse, stretching from rural Powhatan County across the sprawling suburbs of Chesterfield and into the city of Richmond. Both parties prize it because either can win it, a rarity in gerrymandered Virginia.
Vying for the seat are Daniel Gecker, a longtime real estate developer and Chesterfield supervisor, and Glen Sturtevant, a first-term Richmond School Board representative. Gecker, a Democrat, had outraised Sturtevant by a margin larger than two-to-one when this article went to press. Before Election Day, some estimated the campaigns would spend a combined $2 million.
The stakes are high, Farnsworth says. The race will likely decide who controls the Senate going into the 2016 budget session. No matter who wins, though, the partisan clashes are likely to intensify, he adds.
Watkins endorsed Sturtevant in September. If the 33-year-old wins, Watkins says, he can help usher in a new era of leadership in the state Senate, one that’s more concerned with finding solutions than squabbling over social issues.
“There has got to be solutions,” he says. “There can’t just be lines in the sand.”