By Mason Votes Staff Writer Ethan Vaughan
George Mason University Professor Toni-Michelle Travis is teaching an American State and Local Government class that focuses on Virginia and Fairfax County, giving students a firmer awareness of the political forces in the community where they live.
Over the years, the class has also featured guest speakers like city planners, state representatives, BOV member Vince Callahan, Delegate Tim Hugo, and former students who now work in state government.
Travis, who has been in the Department of Public and International Affairs for the last 25 years, teaches one section of the Government 304 course each semester which this fall has about 40 students.
Travis believes that by concentrating on such a specific area of government, her students will “gain an appreciation of the history, tradition, and culture of Virginia,and how the best-managed state in the country is run.”
It’s worth learning, she said, “Virginia is a unique and peculiar state.”
Among other things, students learn that Virginia is the only state in the Union whose governor is limited to one consecutive term, it stands alone with New Jersey in holding off-year elections, its budget covers a two-year rather than a one-year period, and its judges are appointed by the state legislature rather than being elected by the people.
Virginia is also a strict Dillon’s Rule state, meaning that a localities can only take those actions specifically allotted them in the state constitution.
“It’s a mother-may-I rule,” Travis said. “A few years ago, Fairfax County wanted to build a park, so they went down to Richmond and the legislature passed a bill approving it. After a few months, though, the park was overrun with weeds; the legislature had forgotten to put a clause for maintenance in the bill, so Fairfax County had to petition Richmond for permission to cut the grass. It covers even simple things.”
Travis’s students have responded well to her local approach.
Senior Erik Amason said that the class was “more interesting than it sounds” and added that Travis’s instruction “has increased my pride as a Virginian and made me think higher of our state in relation to the rest of the Union.”
“I was particularly interested in Dillon’s Rule,” Halima Ali, another of Travis’ students, said. “Virginia seems slow at accepting changes in the political system.”
Travis agreed. “I’ve never taught this course through the lens of Democrats vs. Republicans, because that’s not what’s going on; it’s urban vs. rural, NOVA vs. ROVA.”