When Republicans reclaimed the governor's mansion and the House of Delegates after November elections in Virginia, Democrats were left only with a narrow 21-19 majority in the state Senate to block the GOP agenda and protect the raft of progressive legislation they passed in the last two years.
And with Republicans also winning the lieutenant governor post, which can cast the tie-breaking vote in the state Senate, the GOP needs to win over only a single centrist Democrat to claim the necessary majority to advance legislation.
That puts Democratic senators like Chap Petersen, a moderate from Northern Virginia with a history of bipartisan cooperation, in an unusually powerful role as the Legislature prepares to convene next month to consider a two-year, $158 billion budget proposal and Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin's “Day One” agenda, which includes a series of tax cuts, a promise to roll back liberal education reforms, and a host of other issues.
Petersen, for his part, is rejecting the notion that's he's in a position to play a Joe Manchin-type role in Virginia as a centrist senator who holds sway over whether the governor's legislative agenda can move forward.
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“At the end of the day, I’m a part of a team, and that team is the Democratic caucus,” he said. “There’s gonna be issues where I step out. It’ll be done after careful thought.”
He did say, though, that on issues of taxes and education, he may well be prepared to break with Democratic orthodoxy and support parts of Youngkin's plans.
For example, Petersen said he's interested in a tax cut that would help working families. Specifically, he cited a proposal to increase the standard deduction on Virginia income taxes, which Petersen said is a means to cut taxes from the bottom up and benefit working families.
“Cutting taxes for working families — that to me is the most Democratic issue of all,” Petersen said.
It also meshes with part, but not all, of Youngkin's tax-cutting plan.
Another issue where Petersen might align with Youngkin is education. Petersen already bucked large elements of his own party last year when he teamed with another Democrat who sometimes finds himself at odds with his party, Sen. Joe Morrissey, and Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant on legislation to ensure in-person instruction for public school students in the current school year.
Petersen's strong support for in-person instruction intertwines with a major theme of Youngkin's campaign.
Petersen and Youngkin have also expressed concerns about changes to the admission standards at Fairfax County's elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. The changes eliminated standardized tests as a major determinant of who is granted admission; critics say the changes obliterate high academic standards in the name of equity and diversity.
“There’s probably been a couple issues where I have challenged the party orthodoxy,” he said.
The potentially pivotal role that Petersen could play in Youngkin's agenda is not lost on the governor-elect. Youngkin called Petersen a few days after the November elections to introduce himself, Petersen said, and the two had a friendly conversation.
A Youngkin spokesperson declined to discuss his outreach efforts to Petersen, but Youngkin in recent public comments said generally that he is “encouraged not only by the leadership of the Republicans but also the bipartisan support on a number of fronts.”
Democratic Majority Leader Richard Saslaw expressed little concern about defections in a brief phone interview.
“A lot of this has been overhyped,” he said. “We’ve got to see what they (Republicans) are going to put in, and then we’ll look at it as a caucus."
Petersen, a bow-tied lawyer from Fairfax, has been in the General Assembly for the better part of 20 years. He knocked off a Republican incumbent in the House of Delegates in 2001, and served two terms before a failed run for lieutenant governor. He then ran for state Senate in 2007, knocking off another GOP incumbent.
Over those 20 years, Fairfax County has become far more liberal, but Petersen's moderate outlook has found a home in the state Senate, which has avoided huge ideological shifts even when party control of the chamber flips.
“I may have been a Joe Manchin type, but I was one of a few Joe Manchins in the Senate. I mean, the Senate defeated a number of House bills that we thought were overreaching, but that’s kind of our role," he said. “The House of Delegates tends to swing between extremes, and then the Senate tends to be the more moderate body.”
At the same time, he said he was proud to support significant legislation advanced by Democratic majorities the last two years, including voting rights bills, and criminal justice reform, including abolition of the death penalty.
“I don’t think of myself as a centrist,” he said. “I just try and think of myself as somebody who thinks independently.”