Regionalism: Overcoming the Politics of the Past

By Frank Palmieri   

Editor's note:  The following remarks were prepared for delivery before the Rotary Club of Norfolk by Frank Palmieri, a Connecticut native who is vice president of marketing for SANstor LLC, specialists in computer storage & marketing with offices in Virginia Beach and Herndon, VA.  

Palmieri holds degrees from Southern Connecticut State University, New School for Social Research, & the University of Sussex, England.

He has held faculty positions with Brighton College of Technology, Brighton, England; New England College; the University of New Hampshire; & Virginia Wesleyan College.

I find it ironic that a Connecticut Yankee, raised and educated in New Haven, would be asked to address a community service organization in a southern city on a matter of local politics. New Haven, established by Puritans who considered their Boston brethren too liberal, has three of its main avenues named after regicides of King Charles I.

By way of contrast, those who attend the University of Virginia call themselves Cavaliers - supporters of the king. Another Virginia university, William and Mary, is named in honor of the restoration monarchy of the Dutch William of Orange and his English wife Mary, King James’s daughter.  

I mention these historical differences as a way to point out that if I bring any biases to my views on regionalism in Hampton Roads, they are the biases of an outsider. Except for the fact that my current place of residence is Virginia Beach, I have no special ties or loyalties to any individuals living or dead. Moreover, I do not hold any positions of local leadership or any office in any public or private organization.

My point of departure is from the perspective of a political sociologist who has taken the time to observe the political behavior of Norfolk and especially of Virginia Beach, the key regional players, and review the history.  
As a student of politics it is not my purpose today to make a case against or for regionalism. I will leave this argument to the planners, city managers, and the practitioners of public administration.

My interest is thinking on the political level and not on the level of bureaucratic rationality. Once we have attained an understanding of the political forces that act to block regionalism, we can begin to fashion a strategy to change the politics. We can, to borrow a phrase, engage in region building. My planned comments will proceed as follows: 

  • I will briefly review on a macro level the economic and political forces that created the "new" south.
  • On a micro level we will look at the local response or strategy that emerged to respond to the changing social, political and economic environment by Norfolk as well as the former Princess Ann County and City of Virginia Beach.
  • I will close by making several suggestions or recommendations for political actions that are, in my judgment, necessary to create a positive climate for regionalism. 

As a region the South has changed a great deal since the end of World War II. The changes are the results of national economic and social policies, some originating in FDR’s New Deal. I include here:·

  • The funding under President Eisenhower of a national highway system in 1956 which authorized $25 billion for highway construction. This effort was coordinated with the Department of Defense.·
  • The passage under FDR of the National Housing Act in 1934. The act, via the Federal Housing Administration, offered banks protection by insuring mortgages of qualified borrowers. This legislation, as well as other actions played a significant role in the housing boom that took place after World War II.·
  • The movement for racial equality that brought an end to discrimination in voting, education, housing, transportation and public places. (In 1954 the Supreme Court in Brown vs. the Board of Education declares segregation in schools to be unconstitutional.

This was a ruling based on a case from Virginia, South Carolina, Kansas, Delaware and the District of Columbia. The courts in 1958 ordered schools in Arlington, Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Warren County to desegregate. The Commonwealth, rather than comply, engaged in a program of "Massive Resistance" and closed public schools. Norfolk had 10,000 students who could not start school in the fall.

In 1964 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act; in 1965 the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Voting Right Act were signed into law.) 

One technological innovation that deserves honorable mention is air conditioning. Prior to the introduction of efficient systems capable of cooling and filtering our air the heat and humidity of the south made it an unattractive place to work and live. 

Prior to the Second World War the cities and counties of South Hampton Roads were isolated communities. The harbor and two rivers separated Norfolk, the Commonwealth’s largest city at the time (about 305,000 in 1960), from Portsmouth. It is not until 1950 that a bridge-tunnel connected Norfolk and Portsmouth.

It was not until 1957 that the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel was built connecting Hampton with Norfolk. It was only during the war period that Norfolk builds Military Highway.

Transportation east into the former Princess Ann County and to the City of Virginia Beach was also difficult. For many years access into the former Princess Ann County and to Virginia Beach was by rail. In fact, it was not until 1921 that Virginia Beach Boulevard was paved.

What is now known as 264 East was authorized by the General Assembly in 1962, a year prior to the merger of Virginia Beach and Princess Ann County. The Norfolk-Virginia Beach Expressway was opened five years later.

Moreover, the populations in Princess Ann County and the original Virginia Beach were relatively small. Virginia Beach only had in 1940 2,600 residents and this grew to 8,091 by 1960. Princess Ann County had slightly less than twenty thousand people in 1940; by 1960 it had grown to slightly more than 77,000 residents.

According to the 1960 census, the native Virginians of the former Virginia Beach, Princess Ann County and the City of Norfolk already were in a numerical minority. Finally, the former Princess Ann County had a land area of 253 square miles and Virginia Beach only two. Data from 1960 shows that 56 per cent of the county’s population was classified as urban and it had an average of 300 people per square mile. It is within this context that annexation, attempts at regionalism, and the merger of Virginia Beach and Princess Ann County took place. 

Annexation was to the political leaders and the residents of Princess Ann County more than just a threat. Norfolk County, now incorporated into the City of Chesapeake, had experienced annexations by Portsmouth, Norfolk and South Norfolk. Princess Ann County had also lost area, about 14 square miles, and population, as many as 38,000 residents, by Norfolk’s annexation in 1959.

It was not unrealistic to expect that Norfolk would lay claim to more of the county, especially the highly urbanized areas of Kempsville and Bayside. 

Annexation, by Virginia law at the time, was not a process of negotiations, public debate, and a choice made by a referendum of the voters. It was, to be blunt, a court ordered seizure of county lands, residents, and public assets. While the law did provide for the annexing city to compensate the county for any investments that it had made in public improvements, it had other negative implications.

The uncertainty of annexation would discourage many from moving into the county and risking an investment in a new home, if they had apprehensions about finding themselves back in Norfolk. From the county’s perspective annexation was not only a loss of tax revenue, but it would make it difficult to justify expenditures for public improvements needed to compete for an urban population and new businesses (adequate roads, schools, libraries, recreation centers and police and fire protection).

Without public and private development land values would not increase and sales of developable tracts would lag. Given the fact that the General Assembly had failed to protect the counties from annexation, Princess Ann’s leadership had only three alternatives. They could do nothing and watch Norfolk gradually extends its control into the county taking its most profitable assets and erode the power of certain political and business interests.  

The other option was to incorporate as a city in order to block Norfolk’s expansion and assure their ability to control the direction of growth, business development and maintain control in the hands of local political interests.

The third option was to enter into an agreement with Norfolk for the development of a metropolitan government. Norfolk, reacting to efforts by Princess Anne County leaders to persuade the General Assembly to change annexation laws, allegedly delayed the extension of water service into developing areas of the county. Sidney Kellam, the father of Virginia Beach, approached Norfolk and came away with an agreement to study the development of a metropolitan government for the Norfolk area.

They also agreed upon a five-year moratorium on annexations against Princess Ann County, and a promise not to seek during this period any changes in the state’s annexation laws. Shortly after this announcement Norfolk granted water service to three new county subdivisions. A study commission, consisting of six local governments, chaired by Sidney Kellam was established. At this point I need to say a few words about the Kellam political organization.

Sidney’s father, Abel Kellam, served a clerk of the circuit court of Princess Ann County. Sidney during the 1930’s had been elected five times as treasurer of Princess Ann County. His brothers had served as state judges and in the Virginia State Senate. At the time of the merger the Kellam political organization controlled the politics of the former City of Virginia Beach and Princess Ann County.

In today’s Virginia Beach Phil Kellam, Sidney’s nephew and a prince of the city, is in his second term as Commissioner of Revenue. The Kellam business interests during this period should also be noted. They included the beachfront Thunderbird Motel, Kellam and Eaton, which dealt in insurance and realty, and the Bank of Virginia Beach, of which Sidney was chairman of the board. 

While Norfolk was diverted by the agreement to explore with Virginia Beach a metropolitan type government for the region, private merger discussions were in progress in the county and Resort City. In September of 1961 it was announced that a merger between the City of Virginia Beach and Princess Ann County was being considered. Without going into great detail, let me recall some of the outstanding moments of the merger campaign.

A merger campaign executive committee was established and chaired by Ivan Mapp, a lieutenant in the Kellam organization and later elected to the position of Commissioner of Revenue in the new Virginia Beach (Ivan is still living and has retired to the Eastern Shore). Members of the Norfolk City Council take out and sign an ad in the local newspaper announcing that it is opposed to the merger and that it would not approve being prevented from annexing additional county territory.

At a meeting held at the Pine Tree Inn Norfolk’s Mayor Duckworth indicated that his city might need to impose a payroll tax if the merger was approved. Finally, the Norfolk City Council passes a resolution threatening that it may be forced to cut off the water supply to the county if the merger passes. Ignoring these threats the merger was approved by 7,476 to 1,759 in the county and 1,539 to 242 in the city. At a post referendum celebration two campaign workers came to the gathering carrying a stretcher with a bandaged and bloody effigy of Norfolk Mayor Duckworth.

When Sidney Kellam arrived and he saw the effigy it was reported that he turned to his two supporters and said: "I wouldn’t do that," he said. "I wouldn’t do that." Duckworth’s effigy made a quick exit.  Sidney Kellam, the political boss of a small beach resort and a rural county, in one bold political move accomplished three goals.

  • First, he was able to avoid entering into a metropolitan regional government as an unequal or junior partner to the City of Norfolk.
  • Second, he was able to bring about a merger that brought to an end any further encroachment by Norfolk into the county and set the stage for the continuing growth of the former county.
  • Third, he not only protected the county from annexation, but he was able to protect and sustain his base of political power.

The merger, in short, was a conservative force to maintain control in the hands of locals and certain business interests. While I have no evidence, it seems plausible that Sidney Kellam, his key political supporters, as well as county-beach business leaders understood the economic implications of the revolution occurring in the south in the post war period.

The original Virginia Beach, as we emerged out of the war years, was little more than an insignificant East Coast resort. The county was for most of its history the home for poor dirt and pig farmers who were land rich but income poor.  For beach business leaders the continuing presence of Navy personnel, the interstate road system, as well as the increasing availability of cars and air conditioning would make it possible to draw local visitors as well as thousands from the vast north-eastern market that was now little more than a day’s drive away.

County landowners, moreover, saw, for the first time, an opportunity to sell their land not only to Norfolkians fleeing integration, but also to northerners fleeing high taxes, over crowding, declining cities and racial conflict.  It was these two groups, the beachfront boys and the county pig farmers, who formed the basis of the political alliance that created the current City of Virginia Beach.

One should remember that Sidney Kellam’s personal business interests placed him in contact within both of these groups. The basis of this political coalition is clearly articulated in the city’s 1963 charter.  The merger charter contains a provision, challenged in court by anti-merger forces, that provides for a special taxing districts (originally intended for the resort area), as well as the expenditure of county funds to promote the beach resort. In return for this guarantee the county’s locals were allowed to use the charter of old Virginia Beach to create a new City of Virginia Beach.

One fear that the Princess Ann locals and the beach boys surely must have had was how would they keep the new residents from taking control of city government and drive up property taxes for more and better municipal services, especially schools. In part this was easily addressed by the small number of voters, who, even as late as 1963, were mostly white due to the exclusion of blacks by the Virginia poll tax. For generations the isolated, sparse population of the county had built a system of close ties and family relationships that made it easy for locals to identify, especially if they had been anointed by Mr. Sidney and his cohorts, "their" kind at the polls.

This control by local, personal political relations was supported by other factors.

  • First, the Navy as an institution, as long as their specific needs were addressed, had little or no interest in local politics. Given the dollars that the Navy contributed and still contributes to the local economy, they have had ear and the ready cooperation of the local political and the city’s administrative leadership. Many Navy personnel, moreover, even if they became homeowners, are just temporary residents who are unlikely to take an interest in local politics.  

As long as the young military personnel were provided with a variety of venues for entertainment, they would be very unlikely to take an interest in local politics. For those who stayed in their retirement years, only a few will try to play a role in the city’s politics. The real game, however, is obscured and difficult to learn. Being politically naïve their attempts to at elective office were easily frustrated and they drifted away discouraged and disillusioned.

  • Second, the electoral system established for local offices also facilitated keeping the city under the control of beach interests and county locals. The system of at-large elections, May voting and non-partisan candidates have acted to suppress wide voter participation. It has been for many years easy to bring out a small number of locals and allied interests to vote in order to achieve success at the polls.

The political relationships put into a mutual alliance by Sidney Kellam in 1963 are still operative almost thirty years after the merger.

Unless this political arrangement is challenged and pushed aside, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to bring about a regional government. The simple fact is that in Virginia Beach and, I suspect, in Chesapeake the political elements most likely to support regionalism are unable to get the funding to support their campaigns and are marginalized by the system. The City of Norfolk, despite the success of Virginia Beach, is still very much the leading local community in Hampton Roads. Within its borders are the two state universities, as well as a medical school and leading hospitals. It is also the headquarters for the small number of major corporations that call Norfolk their home. Moreover, major banks, law and accounting firms still make downtown Norfolk their primary place of business.

Finally, it hosts the ports and a number of significant military commands. Norfolk’s administrative, political and business leaders, if they have a genuine belief in the benefits of regionalism, will need to assume the role of leadership to achieve a regional political structure. My specific region building actions include the following: 

  • First, from my reading of history, societies are reluctant or slow to change unless they are confronted by a crisis. Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Suffolk, as long as the major engines of income production continue to function, will not be willing to change. Virginia Beach, as well as Chesapeake and Suffolk surely must recognize that at some point the pool of cheap labor and farmland for housing, businesses and roads, as well as intensified exploitation of the beachfront will come to an end – land is a finite resource and labor markets change. The policies of the past that promote and feed this economic behavior need to be reconsidered and new policies implemented that will direct our efforts away from land speculation, development and tourism.
  • Second, one does not need to get every city in Hampton Roads to simultaneously agree to enter into a regional authority. Two or three cities could form a regional authority and establish the conditions under which other cities could join. Moreover, being part of a regional type government will have to offer some real benefits. The Commonwealth could grant to regional governments an exemption from the Dillion Rule and thus allow greater taxing flexibility. Those cities that are part of the regional entity should be prepared to utilize their flexible taxing authority as a means to promote regionalism. This will create within those cities that are outside of the regional government internal supporters, especially among those who would benefit from a different tax policy, for regional membership.  
  • Third, despite the access to Lake Gaston, water still is a major problem for many of the cities in the region. For a fair compensation Norfolk should be willing to transfer her water processing system to the regional authority. For those cities in the region with water problems or no processing capabilities of their own, this would provide a powerful incentive for membership in a regional organization. 
  • Finally, to bring about a regional entity it will be necessary to develop within the various communities alternate cadres of political leaders and supporters. Again, one cannot mount this type of intervention in every community so you will need to be selective with your targets. Moreover, I do not believe that you will be able to build regional political support among the incumbent leaders in the various cities.

The incumbent leaders are already closely tied to local interests and are reluctant to risk their political positions. Efforts will need to be focused on alternate political forces and activist in the various cities, and techniques will need to be used to enhance their credibility as forward thinking leaders of the future.