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Will Northern Virginia Become the 51st State?
Comments () | Published November 1, 2008

Then in April 1861, days after Fort Sumter, Virginia’s leaders voted to leave the Union. The state’s northwest area opposed secession and within months moved to free itself from Richmond. A new government was formed; elections were held for a governor and representatives to Congress. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln welcomed into the Union its 35th state, West Virginia.

Culturally, economically, and politically, Virginia has again become two states. The question for Northern Virginia is this: Why not secede?

On a warm August evening in the town of Galax in southwest Virginia, the sun is slipping behind tree-covered hills. It’s the second day of the 73rd annual Old Fiddlers Convention, which the host, Lodge No. 733 of the Loyal Order of Moose, says is the oldest and biggest in the world. Each year, in a park off Main Street, as many as 50,000 people gather to hear musicians from all over the world but mostly from the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

Tonight features competition in the fiddle, dobro, and mandolin. Harold Mitchell, brother of Galax (pronounced “Gay-lax”) mayor C.M. Mitchell, handles the emcee duties on the park’s wooden stage, his drawl and cowboy hat complementing the music: “Here’s contestant number 101, Jennifer Bunn, playing ‘Squirrel Heads and Gravy.’ ”

Former governor Mark Warner, the Democratic candidate to replace the retiring Republican John Warner in the US Senate, is due on stage later. At first, one might wonder what Warner would have to chat about with folks here. A Harvard-trained lawyer, he made millions in tech ventures; parts of southwest Virginia only recently got high-speed Internet access. The property taxes alone on his $6-million Alexandria home are more than the average Galax family makes in a year.

During his 2001 gubernatorial campaign, Warner showed up at the fiddlers convention in a polo shirt and pressed jeans—“like he’d just left the country club,” Matt Bai, a writer from Newsweek, told Warner aides Dave Saunders and Steve Jarding for their book, Foxes in the Henhouse. “I think I actually cringed.”

Warner credits his win that year to his barnstorming through southwest Virginia and Southside, the rural region from south of Richmond to the North Carolina border. The candidate sponsored a NASCAR team, and the campaign wrote a bluegrass theme song that opened, “Mark Warner is a good ol’ boy from up in Novaville.”

The line got laughs, but growing tensions in the state can make association with suburban Washington a political liability. Longtime Northern Virginia politician Leslie Byrne, who campaigned statewide for lieutenant governor in 2005, says, “I feel like I have a big nova embossed on my forehead. There’s a great deal of mistrust and resentment of Northern Virginia in the rest of the state. They think we look down on them, that we’re better than the rest of them.”

Virginia isn’t the only state where regional rivalries threaten the peace. There’s bad blood between Chicago and downstate Illinois, between Baltimore and DC’s Maryland suburbs, between Northern and Southern California. In the 1970s New York City mayor John Lindsay, Norman Mailer, and Bella Abzug campaigned to turn the five boroughs into the 51st state.

In a 2006 satire, Washington Post Style writers catalogued the differences between “NoVa” and what it called “RoVa,” the rest of Virginia.

“In NoVa, a ‘fur piece’ is something a woman wears on a special occasion. In RoVa, a ‘fur piece’ is a unit of distance.

“In RoVa, they like freshly killed venison. In NoVa, they like Alfred Lord Tennyson.”

The truth is, Virginia is the least Southern of the Southern states save Florida. Nor is Virginia a hillbilly haven. Seven of ten residents live in metropolitan areas, whether in Northern Virginia, Richmond, or the Tidewater area.

Still, major parts of the state are known for tractor pulls, motorbike racing, conservatism, or other staples of Southern culture. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, the world’s largest evangelical university, enrolls 20,000 students, making it about the size of the University of Virginia.

Racism occasionally flares. At the fiddlers convention, a few Confederate flags fly over the sea of RVs that house performers. A man who notices a Warner aide with a Barack Obama button says to me: “I hate blacks—all of them.”

The Northern Virginia suburbs began to pull away from the Old South decades ago. As the federal government swelled during the New Deal and World War II, newcomers poured in from all over the country. Major corporations set up headquarters here after Mobil Oil’s 1987 move from Manhattan to Fairfax. By 1990, half of Virginia residents were born outside the state, with most of the transplants landing in Northern Virginia.

The rest of the state didn’t take well to the new arrivals, says Til Hazel, the Northern Virginia lawyer and developer who helped create Tysons Corner. “You gotta realize, Virginia is a very proud and old state,” he says. “It’s a place where tradition and family values mean a lot. Things like when you got to Virginia, who was your grandfather—they mean a lot to people.

“I don’t like saying this, but it started with the fact that ‘they’re not like us.’ ”

In Richmond today, two-thirds of the residents were born in Virginia. In Alexandria and Arlington, natives are outnumbered by transplants four to one.

Northern Virginia has become the sunbelt of the Northeast, says Virginia Tech’s Lang, drawing from places such as New York and New Jersey—states that couldn’t be more different from Old Virginia.

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 11/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles