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Editorial: Ben Chafin's legacy

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If you’ve somehow made it this far through the pandemic without knowing anyone who has passed away due to the virus, now you do.

State Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, passed away Jan. 1 due to complications from COVID-19. He was 60 and just a few weeks ago was a healthy, vital man taking part in the General Assembly’s prolonged special session. This virus is a cruel thing, passing over some, sickening others only mildly, but then striking down others for apparently no reason.

While you may not have known Chafin personally, if you have even a passing interest in Virginia politics, you know his name and you know his work — work that will outlive him.

Chafin was the personification of the realignment of politics in Southwest Virginia or, more broadly, America at large. The districts he represented — first in the House of Delegates, later in the state Senate — had long been Democratic strongholds back when it not unusual for Democrats to represent rural areas.

Joseph Johnson, a Democrat from Abingdon, spent 22 years representing the district — running unopposed every time. When Johnson retired in 2013, Chafin succeeded him as a Republican — and Chafin had no opposition.

The next year, when a state Senate seat unexpectedly came open, Chafin ran in the special election. That was a district that had been held by Democrats since 1975. Chafin won with 59.6% of the vote and was reelected twice more by even wider margins — and never faced a Democrat on the ballot the last two times.

Chafin was as politically secure as an officeholder can be. Were it not for this vicious virus, Chafin likely could have served however long he wished. Politically, his threat was never from Democrats but from demography, and the threat that the next redistricting might squeeze a Senate seat out of Southwest Virginia and transfer it to more populous Northern Virginia. Already the district Chafin represented was a massive one, stretching from the Kentucky line into Montgomery County — geographically bigger than many congressional districts.

Many political obituaries called attention to Chafin’s strong support for the rights of gun owners, which liberals might not think is much of an accomplishment, but which put him in perfect harmony with the vast majority of his rural constituents. Chafin’s most consequential vote might have been in 2018 when he was one of four Republicans who broke party ranks to expand Medicaid — one of those career-defining “profile in courage” moments. Chafin famously said then: “I came to the conclusion that ‘no’ just wasn’t the answer anymore, that doing nothing about the medical conditions, the state of health care in my district, just wasn’t the answer any longer.” Republicans who still grumble about Medicaid expansion would do well to remember what Chafin said then. We’ll never know the numbers, but surely there are some Virginians alive today who wouldn’t be if it hadn’t been for that vote.

Chafin has a claim to another legacy, one that’s not as dramatic but someday might be just as transformative. He was one of several Republican legislators in Southwest Virginia who took a more hands-on approach to economic development than legislators are normally expected to take. More specifically, along with Del. Terry Kilgore of Scott County, Del. Israel O’Quinn of Washington County and state Sen. Todd Pillion of Washington County, he was instrumental in forming the InvestSWVA group that has set its sights on trying to win a share of the technology economy for Southwest Virginia. Some may scoff at that — we hear regularly from some of those skeptics — but if the effort succeeds, Chafin will deserve some of the credit. This is the Wayne Gretzky approach to building a new economy in a part of the country that desperately needs one: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Here’s another profile in courage: Chafin represented the heart of Virginia’s coal country, but in trying to reposition the region as “the energy innovation capital of the East Coast” — to use InvestSWVA’s words — that implicitly put him on the side of promoting the coalfields as a future site of renewable energy. If there’s ever an opportunity to name a business park in the region, naming it after Chafin would be a very appropriate way to memorialize his service.

That’s for another day, a better day that we hope is coming. Today it’s worth remembering this: On the day that Chafin passed away, he was one of at least 1,917 Americans who succumbed to COVID-19. The next day the number was up to 2,373 — and all those numbers will likely grow as more data trickles in. The highest daily death toll came on Dec. 30, when 3,808 Americans died due to the virus, according to numbers compiled by The New York Times. For comparison purposes, 2,977 people died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and 2,403 perished at Pearl Harbor. We are now living through a Sept. 11 or a Pearl Harbor almost every day. We just experience it differently because we don’t see photographs of burning buildings or Navy vessels, but far too many families are still living through their own private horrors. Sometimes those individual deaths even make their way into the news when the virus fells someone of public stature, as it did with Chafin, or with Luke Letlow, the 41-year-old congressman-elect from Louisiana who died Dec. 29, both cases that underscore the virus’ lethality isn’t confined to the old or the infirm.

We must remember this: Right now, the United States — the world’s most advanced nation — has the world’s highest infection rates. The World Health Organization on Monday listed our infection rate at 61,204 cases per 1 million people. By contrast, the two countries next door, Canada and Mexico, are running rates of 15,709 and 11,196. Why is this? Chafin’s home county of Russell County is running a rate that almost matches that incredibly high national average, and there are some parts of Virginia even higher — Bland County, Lee County, Smyth County and Tazewell County in Southwest Virginia; Emporia, Greensville County, Martinsville, Nottoway County and Sussex County in Southside County; Richmond County on the Northern Neck and Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley. That means they all have some of the highest infection rates in the world. We ask again: Why is this?

Today we mourn the passing of a man in whom voters placed their trust, but we also must mourn the passing of many others whose names will never make the newspaper unless it’s an obituary.


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