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Behaving Like a Commonwealth

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Gov. Ralph Northam’s press conferences are weird, unsettling events. They’re free of the fireworks and drama that are a regular feature of the president’s wild pressers. But there’s a sense of quiet despair and dictatorial impulses about them.

Northam is frequently befuddled on these occasions, as he was last week when he was asked why Virginia’s nursing home deaths had tripled overnight. He had no idea. And as he was weeks ago when a reporter asked about his plans to help the homeless during the health crisis. Again, not a clue.

At other times, Northam displays flashes of irrational stubbornness.

On Monday, for instance, Northam was asked if he would consider reopening Virginia by regions. After all, there are four localities with no infections at all and more with very few positive tests or hospitalizations.

Northam’s answer ? No.

Northam responded as he has several times before, insisting that Virginia is a commonwealth and we’re going to behave like a commonwealth.


I dug out my battered Webster’s to check the definition of “commonwealth.” In the simplest sense, it means “a group of people united by common interests” or “a political community founded for the public good.”

Nothing about commonwealth having uniform rules across every inch of the territory.

Come to think of it, wouldn’t it serve the common good – the common wealth – for at least part of Virginia to be back in business and generating revenue to send to Richmond?

Yes, I know, the U.S. has four commonwealths: Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Kentucky. When these states were formed they were designated as commonwealths in their constitutions, but in reality they are no different from any of the other 46 states.

Again, this time from Merriam-Webster: “The distinction is in name alone. The commonwealths are just like any other state in their politics and laws, and there is no difference in their relationship to the nation as a whole. When used to refer to U.S. states, there is no difference between a ‘state’ and a ‘commonwealth’.”

Which raises the question, why is Northam so hung up on the “c” word?

I called a local historian to ask if I was missing something about commonwealths that would require citizens to be treated with rigid uniformity. He said no. “Commonwealth was a term that started to be used more often in the 16th and 17th centuries in England. It just meant a government for the common good or commonwealth. It became more closely identified with a republic as time went on… But that has nothing to do with complete uniformity of laws across the commonwealth.”

More than you wanted to know. Definitely more than Ralph Northam knows.

In other words, there’s nothing in Virginia’s commonwealthiness to prevent the governor from opening the rural parts of the state – you know, where crops are grown and coal is mined – while keeping closed parts of Virginia where the infection rate is high and the inhabitants live in high-rise ant colonies and ride public transit.

In a pointed editorial, Why Must Southwest Virginia Wait On The Rest of the State?” The Roanoke Times on Tuesday pointed out that only two members of the governor’s COVID-19 Business Task Force come from west of the Blue Ridge.

Too much of the pandemic has become unnecessarily politicized — and polarized. Yes, Republicans have been the loudest voices pushing for the economy to reopen and yes, most of Southwest Virginia votes Republican. However, we can’t help but point out that some other Democratic governors — from Andrew Cuomo in New York to Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania to Jared Polis in Colorado — have approached things on a regional basis. Northam’s decision not to in a state with such geographical differences as Virginia – and such a wide disparity in infection rates — is curious, indeed.

The paper gently mocked Northam’s silly contention that if he allowed parts of Virginia to open, people from other corners of the Old Dominion would rush in, bringing disease with them.

If every business in those zero-infection localities reopened today, would we really see a caravan of people from Northern Virginia driving down to a barbershop in Bland County or to a diner in Dickenson County? wondered the Roanoke Times.

No, we wouldn’t. Northern Virginians don’t even like Southerners.

The Times noted that using Northam’s logic, the entire U.S. should remain locked down until New York’s coronavirus outbreak ends. After all, what’s to stop people from the Bronx from getting in their cars and driving to the pristine mountains of Virginia, bringing their New York pathogens with them?

Northam seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding about what being part of a commonwealth means. Will someone please toss a dictionary to him at his next presser?

This column was published originally at

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