Political Fixture Strives for Comeback

Leslie Byrne chats at a forum for lieutenant governor candidates in Alexandria last week. Three other Democrats are running for the nomination.
Leslie Byrne chats at a forum for lieutenant governor candidates in Alexandria last week. Three other Democrats are running for the nomination. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The first woman ever elected to Congress from Virginia is running her ninth political campaign from behind an almost-bare folding table.

Leslie L. Byrne, a fixture in state politics who has competed for just about every office the state offers, is now running for the Democratic Party's nomination for lieutenant governor. She is working with a small staff from a squat office building in the shadow of Fairfax's cable-access television tower.

The walls are so thin that a quiet sneeze in the next room can be heard clearly. Guests are invited to sit in one of two sagging armchairs she picked up at a yard sale.

If she wins the primary election June 14, Byrne said, she will get far nicer digs, probably part of joint offices with Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who is running for governor. It would represent the first step of a comeback for the Fairfax activist known as a shrewd but sometimes abrasive politician who lost her last elected job in 2003.

That was when redistricting by the General Assembly's Republicans put her in a neighboring state senator's territory. Byrne said the move was an attempt to get her out of politics. This statewide run is her response.

"They can't redistrict me out of Virginia," she said. "They can try, but they can't. I've looked it up."

Byrne will first have to beat three other Democrats who also want the state's second-highest job, including fellow Northern Virginian J. Chapman Petersen, a state delegate who has raised about twice as much money for the effort.

Byrne is running on her decades of experience and the extensive network of loyal supporters that comes with it. First elected to the House of Delegates in 1986, she went on to serve 3 1/2 more terms in Richmond before her election to Congress. Many prematurely predicted her elected career over in 1994, when she was defeated by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R) after only one term. She came back to serve in the Clinton administration and then won election to the state Senate in 1999.

On brochures, the 58-year-old Utah native is pictured smiling in front of the word "EXPERIENCE" written so large that the last letters fall off the page. "Leslie Byrne has so much of it," the motto below reads," we just can't fit it all on the page."

The influential Richmond Crusade for Voters cited Byrne's record in endorsing her last week. The group encourages the political participation of blacks in Virginia's capital, far outside Byrne's traditional Northern Virginia power base. Warren Kennedy, chairman of the group's research committee, said Byrne would be the most effective of the four hopefuls.

"We wanted a candidate who would be able to support the agenda of Democratic nominee Tim Kaine," he said. "I don't think the others could even come close."

Her record includes some high-profile losses, however, and some Democrats fear voters might prefer a fresher face. Besides the loss of her congressional seat, Byrne also ran unsuccessfully for her party's nomination for U.S. Senate in 1996 against an Alexandria businessman named Mark R. Warner. Byrne acknowledges making some enemies when she threatened to challenge caucus results that gave the nomination to the future governor.

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