For Dems, ‘welfare reform’ wasn’t always an untouchable phrase


CHANGING TIMES, PLACES: Once upon a time, in a land not too far away, Democrat Don Beyer pushed welfare reform legislation. The former lieutenant governor and businessman now has a clear shot at a congressional seat.

By Kathryn Watson |, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — For Democrats, the words “welfare reform” haven’t always translated to “untouchable phrase.”

In fact, the presumptive next congressman of the 8th District, considered one of the most securely Democratic districts in the nation, helped write Virginia’s first welfare reform legislation.

As Virginia’s lieutenant governor, some two decades ago, Don Beyer worked with Republicans on a entitlement reform bill, something challengers such as Patrick Hope used against him in the primaries.

Of course, as the state’s second-in-command, Beyer had to cater and compromise with the other party, to help oversee the entire, fiscally conservative state.

“Some of what he sort of emphasizes is going to change depending on who he’s representing,” said Harry Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College.

But Beyer, who handily won the crowded Democratic primary Tuesday and is expected to easily win the election contest in November, doesn’t need to cater to Republicans anymore.

Today, his top priorities include LGBT rights, keeping the rich heavily taxed, protecting federal employees from budget cuts, strengthening gun restrictions, maintaining funding for Planned Parenthood with tax dollars and supporting Affordable Care Act implementation, as his website clearly describes.

“Welfare reform is, I think at this point, kind of a loaded phrase in Democratic politics,” said Geoff Skelley, political analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “But Beyer has raised money for Obama; he’s done all kinds of things. His activities since he was lieutenant governor — he’s been an ambassador for Obama, literally (Switzerland and Liechtenstein). I think activities like that have kept him from having his Democratic credentials really questioned at the end of the day.

“I know he’s been attacked as conservative by some, but that’s kind of analogous to (Republican Mississippi state Sen.) Chris McDaniel calling (Republican Mississippi U.S. Sen.) Thad Cochran a liberal or something like that. It’s not really quite believable,” Skelley said.

The message depends on the audience, certainly, but the message also reveals how much the Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, has moved further from the middle and closer to one side. Political pundits pay lots of attention to the tea party faction of the Republican Party, but there’s also been a shift nationally, if perhaps slower and less extreme, to the left for Democrats, Skelley said.

“There’s a trend on the other side to a certain degree,” he said.

Gun control, one of Beyer’s big pushes, perhaps more than any other single issue epitomizes this shift .

“I used to write about how Mark Warner rewrote the playbook for Democrats in Virginia because he actually paid attention to Southwest Virginia and he tried to play nice with the NRA,” said Wilson, the Roanoke College professor. “In contrast, last year you’ve got Terry McAuliffe saying, I don’t care if I got an F from the NRA. I’m proud of it.”

Beyer has kept in step with the governor on this issue, pledging to push for tougher background checks for weapons purchases and banning high-capacity magazines.

“After every mass shooting, there is a lot of support for banning high-capacity magazines, but then the months go by and Congress does nothing,” Beyer’s issue brief says. “I’m committed to pushing for this sensible reform, and I’ll stand up to the NRA in Congress.”

To some extent, these changes in Democratic policy and tactics can be traced back to the urbanization and demographic shift of Northern Virginia.

“Essentially, I think (Terry McAuliffe) was saying, I don’t need you guys. Because I’ve got the folks in Northern Virginia,” Wilson said of McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign message last fall.

“It’s been a slow but steady process of rural Virginia losing power and Northern Virginia gaining power,” Wilson said. “This part of the state loses representation.”

That urbanization of Northern Virginia can be attributed largely to the influx of federal spending and a growth of sectors that support the federal government, something that has boosted the region’s minority population in the process.

“No wonder Virginia is turning into a blue state,” political blogger James Bacon wrote when George Mason University’s Mercatus Center released a study on Virginia’s dependence on federal spending and contracts.

Commitment to keeping those full-time federal jobs and contracting positions securely in Virginians’ hands has to be a top priority for any congressman in the 8th District. After all, about 40 percent of Northern Virginia’s economy depends directly on the federal government.

“As the representative of a district with one of the largest populations of federal workers in the country, I pledge to champion their interests and to work diligently to protect them from unfair targeting in future budget battles,” Beyer pledges on his website.

The burgeoning needs of the Pentagon, along with other government departments, has attracted growth of the technology industry in the region, said Frank Shafroth, director of George Mason University’s Center for State and Local Government in Fairfax.

“Northern Virginia, I compare it more closely to the Silicon Valley than any other part in the United States,” Shafroth said.

The 8th District certainly compares to Silicon Valley in wealth and education. It’s one of the most learned in the country, with about 60 percent of residents having at least a bachelor’s degree. The median household income is north of $90,000. The median home value is more than half a million dollars.

The lure of the technology industry, among other things, has attracted brilliant minds from around the world, changing the ethnic makeup of the region and tilting the district’s politics further left, Shafroth said. As with courting women voters, Republicans’ efforts to attract immigrants haven’t caught up.

Beyer has made immigration reform a platform issue, too.

“You can sense the huge change that’s occurred over that time period,” Shafroth said.

Beyer will face Republican Micah Edmond and a host of third-party candidates in November.

Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for, and can be reached at, or on Twitter @kathrynw5.