Modern Virginia is a far different place than in colonial times or the Civil War. In those days only two areas -- Richmond and Norfolk -- were the least bit urban. Farms and small towns prevailed, along with their Jeffersonian conservatism emphasizing individual liberty and limited government (translated into modern political rhetoric: No New Taxes!).
Richmond is still our capital city, but our economic dynamos are now the sprawling northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and the mini-megapolis of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and their Hampton Roads neighbors. Both areas rely on the federal government, which has both fueled their growth and sheltered them from the brunt of the recent Great Recession.
They also have given us our biggest problem: suburban sprawl and the traffic woes that go with it. The economic boom of the early 2000s saw both areas explode. The Washington suburbs have extended their tentacles west to the Blue Ridge Mountains and more than 50 miles south to Fredericksburg. In many respects we now have an urban arch stretching from Arlington south to Richmond and east to Hampton Roads -- or along the corridor traced by Interstates 95 and 64.
As a result, both northern Virginia and Hampton Roads are strangled by rush-hour traffic, which leads us to one of Virginia's modern conundrums: Those of us in the metropolitan areas desperately need to improve our roads and build mass transit, but other Virginians don't want to pay for it. While we gripe about wasting hours sitting motionless in traffic, the rest of the state elects politicians who promise not to raise our taxes to solve the problem. They won't even approve local taxes so that we can pay for it. We are stuck between our conservative rural past and our modern urban needs.
Economically, many parts of the state beyond northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have suffered severely during the recession. The consequent decline in state revenues has further complicated matters.
On the statewide level, we Virginians have been splitting our votes between Republicans and Democrats, thanks to a growing and increasingly independent constituency in northern Virginia. Conservative Republicans control the state house; Democrats, the state senate. In 2005 Tim Kaine was the second moderate Democrat in a row elected to the Governor's Mansion. In 2006, novelist and former Secretary of the Navy James Webb narrowly defeated Republican U.S. Senator George Allen, thus giving the Democrats control of the U.S. Senate. In 2008 we sent Democrat Mark Warner, a former governor, to the U.S. Senate, and we gave President Barack Obama a slim victory over Republican Sen. John McCain. But a year later we elected conservative Republican Robert F. McDonnell to succeed Kaine as governor. In a deft appeal to both urban and rural voters, McDonnell promised to fix our transportation mess without raising taxes.
Although colonist John Rolfe is best remembered for marrying Indian princess Pocahontas, he essentially founded the tobacco industry, which for 350 years was the backbone of Virginia's economy. As tobacco wanes, the state is encouraging the planting of grapes and the building of wineries.
Farm income also sprouts from apple orchards in the Shenandoah Valley; livestock, dairies, and poultry in the Piedmont; the state's famous Smithfield hams and peanuts from the Tidewater country; and seafood from the Chesapeake Bay. Industry includes the manufacturing of clothes, chemicals, furniture, and transportation equipment, plus shipbuilding at Newport News.
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