Republicans Face Test As Virginia's New Legislative Majority
By Jeff E. Shapiro, Special to Stateline
RICHMOND -- Democratic dominance of the Virginia General Assembly, long a political tradition in the Old Dominion, ended with a bang rather than a whimper on Nov. 2.
Going into the election, the laws of probability dictated that the Republicans would install their first-ever working majority in Richmond. After all, they needed only one seat in the House of Delegates to claim total control of state government.
But unanticipated victories in the Washington suburb of Fairfax County and the military and resort cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach illustrated the strength of a GOP that a decade ago faced financial ruin, and to some of its own members political bankruptcy as well.
Coming off the recent balloting, Republicans the beneficiaries of an expanding economy and a rapidly changing, suburban-dominated electorate are now poised to lock in their gains, if not expand them.
The lawmakers who take office in January will redraw legislative boundaries in 2001, giving the GOP a chance to accomplish with a flick of the redistricting pen what eluded the party in past elections: Knocking off more Democrats, particularly those in Republican-friendly districts.
But first, the new GOP majority must govern. That will be easier said than done.
With 52 of 100 House seats and 21 in the 40-member Senate, the arithmetic means the Republicans cannot ride roughshod over the opposition as the Democrats did with their once-massive majorities.
And because regional considerations usually outweigh the partisan, some issues promise to factionalize the Republicans.
One area in which this is likely to be the case is the cash-starved road-building program.
In Northern Virginia, where a recent study rated highway congestion the second worst in the nation behind Los Angeles, transportation improvements are a top priority for politicians and voters.
With Northern Virginia holding a roughly a third of all House and Senate seats and an even larger share after redistricting the Washington suburbs can demand a hefty portion of a multibillion-dollar highway initiative certain to emerge from the 2000 General Assembly.
No one is more aware of the crosscurrents likely to buffet his party than Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore.
His political-action committees poured more than $3.5 million into the legislative campaigns, angling not only to oust key Democrats, but to isolate a handful of GOP moderates who have teamed with the Democrats to force Gilmore to compromise on key programs.
This coalition required him to go along with state aid for school construction. Gilmore favored a no-strings-attached approach to education spending.
Though Gilmore considers the Republican takeover the crowning political achievement of his 2-year-old administration, he recognizes that a GOP majority does not mean he now has a free hand politically.
Indeed, the day after the election, Gilmore reached out to Democrats to join the center-right coalition on which his tax cut-centric program depends. He will also need every vote he can get to push through the only state budget of his term that is his and his alone.
Gilmore will be counting on a team of relatively untested legislative lieutenants.
The House GOP caucus has endorsed Republican Floor Leader S. Vance Wilkins Jr. of Amherst for speaker, virtually ensuring his installation in the powerful post come January.
The cagey, slightly goofy former road builder from the Blue Ridge Mountains almost single-handedly established the Republican presence in the House, recruiting candidates and raising money, much of it from conservative organizations, including the National Rifle Association.
Wilkins is not to be underestimated. While lacking polish, Wilkins has a keen understanding of the legislative process. In the mid-1980s, for example, he quietly forced a Democratic governor to embrace a bill that essentially prohibited local gun-control laws.
Wilkins' successor as floor leader, Morgan Griffith of Salem, shares his predecessor's flinty conservatism and rural western Virginia pedigree.
That suburban Republicans, especially from Northern Virginia, have been largely shut out of the leadership lineup in the House rattles some in the party. The Senate Republican hierarchy, however, includes a new president pro tempore, John H. Chichester, from Stafford, on the southern outskirts of Washington.
But Chichester, like many other Republicans from the state's northern tier, tends to be more centrist. This subjects the GOP coalition to strain, and in a region where Republicans can least afford it: the suburban D.C. vote trove.