Hampton Roads Weekly had the opportunity to discuss the impact of changes in committee assignments in our House of Delegates and Senate with Hampton Roads Chamber President and CEO, Bryan K. Stephens.
HRW: As we all know, a historic shift has occurred in the Virginia General Assembly as a result of our last elections. Democrats are now the majority party in both the House and the Senate. When new committee assignments were announced recently by our new Democrat Speaker of the House Filler-Corn and Majority Leader of the Senate Saslaw, both of whom are from Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads Delegates and Senators were removed from and left out of many influential committees. Leadership and committee assignments for the most powerful committees in the General Assembly are now weighted heavily towards Northern Virginia in representation, influence, and power. What are your thoughts about this growing concern for all of us as it relates to new committee leadership and assignments in our House and Senate?
Mr. Stephens: First of all, elections have consequences, and we certainly understand that. As a result, we now have Democrats leading the Hampton Roads caucus. That change was not unexpected. I think it is essential to understand the Chamber is absolutely non-partisan. We do not look at party affiliation. Instead, we look at the issues that we believe are important to the Hampton Roads business community. One of the concerns I expressed in the meeting with the Hampton Roads caucus on the day of their first meeting of this session was not the leadership of the Caucus being Democrat, but the leadership of many of the key committees in the General Assembly is not held by Hampton Roads legislators. These important committees, such as Labor and Commerce and Appropriations, have an impact on the business community in Hampton Roads. Those types of committees where big-dollar decisions are made are vital to support a pro-business environment, workforce development, and infrastructure, which is critical to our business community. My concern is this influence has mostly shifted to Northern Virginia.
While addressing that concern, my overarching message to them was that now more than ever, unity of effort and collaboration, regardless of party affiliation, is absolutely necessary for our Hampton Roads legislators. Our region contributes greatly to the organizational structure for the economy, and we need our legislators to work together to ensure we get favorable legislation passed for our region and our business community.
I also reminded them that we are the best state in the nation in which to do business. I highlighted that we are one of the best states for education, and we are one of the top five states for K-12 education in the country. We have a 2.6% unemployment rate, which puts us in the top five states in the nation. We are also one of the best-managed states from a fiscal perspective, and we have done all of that and maintained a AAA bond rating. My point was that this did not happen within the last few years by happen-stance, it was by intent through selfless leadership on the part of our elected officials from both parties. They understood what is important for Virginians and what is important for the Hampton Roads business community, and the results are evident.
We want to continue that momentum and not be bogged down by bipartisan politics, which means we all have to work together. In the context of this discussion, that means working to ensure that we in Hampton Roads get our fair share of decision-making input in Richmond. We must ensure that these decisions don’t disproportionally favor Northern Virginia and other areas at our expense.
HRW: Do you feel they received your message, and both sides of the aisle understand the importance of the effect of this imbalance in Hampton Roads representation?
Mr. Stephens: I had the opportunity to talk to some of the senior leaders from Hampton Roads on both sides of the aisle in both houses of the General Assembly. They clearly understand and are certainly seasoned in the art of politics and governing and steadfast in their efforts to ensure impartiality. I’m also very encouraged with our newly elected officials in regard to their willingness to listen and understand the issues which impact our business community and to govern in our best interest in Hampton Roads. We believe good governing comes from open communication and collaboration from both sides of the aisle. It’s also about finding the middle ground. Just legislation requires give and take from both sides to do what’s in the best interest of the citizens of Hampton Roads. I am very optimistic our Caucus will do precisely that.
It is also necessary to look at what is vital for our business community and to realize that a pro-business, free-market economy gives us the quality of life we enjoy. That’s why I emphasized to our electeds the importance of keeping the right-to-work law that we currently have and the tremendous need to protect it. We also need to make sure that we address the quantity, quality, and cost of energy to ensure that we are mindful of this for our citizens and our business community. We have a tremendous opportunity with offshore wind that would create thousands of jobs and bring millions of dollars to our community. We must exploit these opportunities with offshore wind. There is no reason we shouldn’t be the Center of Excellence for offshore wind in the nation. Additionally, we are blessed as a region to have intercontinental subsea cables coming across the ocean from Europe and South America, and we would be remiss if we did not leverage that to the advantage of our citizens and our business community. I also discussed the importance of Workforce Development to ensure that we have the workforce to meet not only our needs now, but those in the future. I combined that with the need to add additional K through 12 funding and the importance of early childhood education. If you think about it, kids entering pre-K now will be the ones working for the companies who are designing, engineering, manufacturing, and installing sophisticated wind turbines in about 15 years from now.
Therefore, we must look at education and Workforce Development through a holistic perspective, and we need to fund it adequately. Finally, we need to protect the legal and tax reforms and regulations that we enjoy in the Commonwealth that allow businesses not only to start-up but to thrive here and then incentivize companies to relocate here. All of these things collectively are important, and there is a direct correlation with all of these things to our quality of life. We need to look at all these issues that affect business and the quality of life in Hampton Roads from a measured and pragmatic perspective.
HRW: Thank you from HRW for having vision and leadership. In fact, one of our more recent covers of our newspaper focused on “What Ever Happened to Civil Discourse?” We had a lot of different leaders talk about how to communicate effectively as leaders of the Commonwealth, and the necessity to represent all members of the community not just those who voted for them. We thank you for speaking to this. Is there anything else we didn’t touch on that you think is important to discuss in this matter?
Mr. Stephens: Proper decorum and civil discourse really need to continue in Virginia the way it has for years. This is often referred to as the ‘Virginian Way.’ We best get things done with class, elegance, grace, respect, dignity and treating other people as you would want to be treated. We need to have meaningful, substantive discussions on the issues, but we should keep the emotions out of it. We cannot allow ourselves to be drawn into a level of civil discourse that will be an embarrassment to all of us throughout the nation.
This General Assembly session, we have the entire nation watching what we are doing. I hope we are all mindful of that and the manner in which we go about treating each other as we legislate.
Bryan K. Stephens is President & CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber. Mr. Stephens returned to Hampton Roads in 2013 with extensive leadership and business experience, having most recently served as President & CEO of Kalmar LLC in San Antonio, Texas, a $250M/year major manufacturer of material handling equipment. As President & CEO, Mr. Stephens led the entire spectrum of research and development, product improvement, marketing, sales, supply chain management, production, quality control, distribution, and aftermarket parts, servicing, and maintenance of Kalmar’s products worldwide.
Mr. Stephens, a retired Colonel in the U.S. Army, served in a variety of progressive leadership roles over a distinguished 28-year career. His last assignments included Infantry Brigade Commander and Division Chief of Staff for the 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Chief of Operations and Chief of Staff at the Joint Warfighting Center, USJFCOM in Suffolk, Virginia. His military qualifications include Airborne, Ranger, Pathfinder, Air Assault, and Joint Staff Officer.
Coming from a military family, Mr. Stephens is a graduate of West Virginia University with a degree in Political Science. He also received a Master of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and a Master of Business Administration from Golden Gate University in San Francisco, California.