Behind the Scenes at the Virginia General Assembly

A few weeks into Meet Virginia and we have finally made our first venture to the great capital. Richmond in the first part of the year is a different ballgame than in later months, as January and February (and into early March) are when our legislators travel from near or far to continue in the longstanding business of making our great state better (…or worse, depending on your political point of view).

We are lucky enough to have a few pals who work “Session” during this season and were honored to get a backstage tour of our state government. We went in on a Monday and first noticed the grand buildings and architecture. We even saw some protestors out front with signs and fliers. We unfortunately missed the biggest protest Virginia has seen in modern times by a few days, but were thrilled to remember the scenery when reading about it in the news. Sadly, once inside things get a little more…well, dated.

We went into the General Assembly building first, which has the normal, courthouse-ey, sterile feeling one gets when welcomed with security guards and metal detectors. Once past the whiff of airport formality, though the unmistakable buzz of the impassioned and the ambitious takes hold. The southern hospitality Virginia may or may not be known for is certainly alive and well in the building. Everyone seems to know everyone. Everyone looks determined and clean-cut. One guy has an adorable bow tie.

The politicians and their assistants work out of this building, which is about as generic as any office you could imagine.

Virginia art dots most of the General Assembly Building's walls.

Art from Virginians of all skill levels is on all the walls, which lead you twisting through hallways and stairwells begging for an interior designer and welcoming the regular citizen to stop in and have a chat. Virginia art produced by everyone from children with intellectual disabilities to lobbyists or aides themselves have pictures up for us to enjoy (or just look at, depending…)

They were also having the 20th Annual Expressions Art Show while we were there–an arts and crafts exhibit sponsored in part by the Department of Juvenile Justice. It features works of juveniles in detention centers and raises money for the department.

Some of the student art was quite good. But once in the Capitol Building next door, one’s ideas of “art” can be more solidified between amateur and professional. The Capitol Building houses the Governor’s Gallery– professional portraits of previous Virginia Governors in chronological order (Tim Kaine’s looked particularly cheesy). The building itself is art, having been designed by Thomas Jefferson and opened in 1788 (with additions in 1904). From the intricacies of the moldings to the statues and ornate frames, this place is worthy of seeing even if you’re not into politics at all.

Being a good citizen with our Senator Yvonne Miller

But (soapbox time), our biggest lesson from this visit was how important it is to be involved in politics. We don’t mean in a red vs. blue kind of way, but in an “engaged citizen” kind of way. We met our Senator, Yvonne B. Miller, who is currently the longest serving woman in the General Assembly (since 1984). She is also the first African-American woman elected to both the House of Delegates and the Senate and is Virginia’s first female to chair a committee in the Senate.

She was welcoming to us even though we were somewhat unannounced and seemed to strike a great balance between her obligations to colleagues and to constituents. She listened to those who stopped by her office with an open ear and mind, but was quick to interrupt a plea with her take on things and clear on the difference between making promises and mere open-minded interest on a topic. I liked that honesty. In a meeting as brief as ours was, we left confident that “government” is not all networking and old boys clubs, no matter what media (and friends) can sometimes make it out to be. More importantly, though, we left feeling the knowledge that being actively engaged in what goes on around you is actually quite easy.

For those of you registered to vote, there is a Republican Primary tomorrow, March 6, as part of Super Tuesday. Find out where to vote in your district here.

Where the magic happens.

-The Virginia General Assembly is oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, beginning way back on July 30, 1619. This counts its beginnings as  the House of Burgesses, making it the oldest continuous legislative body in the New World.

-There are two houses of Virginia government: the Virginia House of Delegates, with 100 members, and the Senate of Virginia, with 40 members. Combined together, the General Assembly consists of 140 elected representatives from an equal number of districts across the state.

-During the American Civil War, the Capitol Building was used as the capitol of the Confederate States of America, housing the Congress of the CSA.

For more photos from our story, click over to our Facebook album here.

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