News & Politics

New Dominion of the Imagination

To better imagine Northern Virginia as the 51st state, we asked experts for suggestions for state symbols, elected officials, a state university, and more. Send your nominations to [email protected].

Sutton’s warbler, the perfect bird for a hypothetical state. Photograph courtesy of Powdermill Avian Research Center

For governor, a natural choice is Tom Davis. Davis, who grew up in Fairfax, has had a hand in the region’s growth for nearly 30 years, first from the Fairfax Board of Supervisors and then as a member of Congress. A moderate Republican who’s retiring in January, he’s eschewed statewide races where he would face opposition from downstate conservatives, but he’s very popular in Virginia’s DC suburbs among Democrats and Republicans alike.

“The state of Northern Virginia is a cause Tom Davis could get behind enthusiastically,” says University of Virginia political pundit Larry Sabato. “It’s his only chance to become a state governor.”

For lieutenant governor, we suggest Vienna congressman Frank Wolf, Virginia’s most senior member of the House. A veteran of congressional battles over funding for roads and Metro, he would double as the new state’s transportation czar.

State Capital 
Alexandria is the pick, as it’s already been a state capital. During the Civil War, Virginia leaders opposed to the war set up a “Restored Government of Virginia” in Alexandria, which remained under Union control. The Masonic Temple, which sits on a hill with a commanding view of the city, could be used as the capitol building.

State University 
Northern Virginia as a state would not be complete without a topflight public university to build regional pride. Raymond Ritchey, a major developer with Boston Properties who has lived in Northern Virginia since 1976, says the region is steeped in Colonial history and traditions that aren’t reflective of the diverse culture here today. “A major national university can be a rallying cry for our region, a unifying force for all the people who call Northern Virginia home today,” he says.

With funding and nurturing, George Mason University could make people forget their loss of the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. It would need a strong undergraduate program, a nationally renowned medical school, and a nationally ranked football team. “Just look at what George Mason’s Final Four run a couple years ago did for the area,” Ritchey says.

State Beverage
Virginia Gentleman, the only bourbon whiskey made outside Kentucky, was distilled on a farm in what is now Reston for more than 50 years before moving in 1987 to the Fredericksburg area.

The 51st state should steal two of Virginia’s most popular politicians—Jim Webb and Mark Warner. Webb gets the nod because of his strong 2006 election, where he won 59 percent of the Northern Virginia vote. Warner gets the other seat; in his Senate race against Jim Gilmore in November, he’s likely to post the best showing ever for a Democrat in Northern Virginia.

State Flower
Andrea Weeks, a George Mason University professor who studies flowering plants, suggests the swamp-rose mallow, a large white or pink flower that blooms along the Potomac: “They’re big and showy, like state flowers usually are.”

Weeks wanted to nominate the Virginia bluebell—Bull Run park has one of the nation’s biggest collections of the flower—but thought it was already Virginia’s state flower. Told that the dogwood held that honor, she said, “Oh, boy, I just failed my state citizenship test.”

State Bird
Smithsonian ornithologist John Rappole recommends Sutton’s warbler (Dendroica potomac), a yellow-throated bird found in Northern Virginia, West Virginia, western Maryland, and southwestern Pennsylvania. Its discovery in 1940 made national news as the first new species identified in more than 20 years. Experts today say it’s not a species at all but a hybrid. “A mythical species as the state bird for a mythical state might not be bad,” Rappole says.

Butch Brodie, director of the Mount Lake Biological Station at the University of Virginia, polled colleagues about possible state birds. No one could think of anything but the turkey, Brodie says: “It seems to have a ring of justice for the DC area.”

State Tree
“My first thought was the cell-phone tree,” says Jill-Anne Spence, arborist for the city of Falls Church. She sees cell-phone towers camouflaged as pine trees everywhere in Northern Virginia: “In my business, you know they’re not trees. But if you’re zooming by at 90 miles an hour, you couldn’t tell the difference.”

For real trees, she nominates two species native to Northern Virginia: the pawpaw, a beautiful conical tree whose leaves feed the caterpillars that become zebra swallowtail butterflies, and the black gum, which “in the fall turns bright, bright red—the reddest of all our trees.”

This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles like it, click here.  

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