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Virginia Politics
With Toni Travis
Professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Virginia House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R) is dogged by new allegations of improper sexual advances following claims that Jennifer L. Thompson, a worker at an office complex he used, received a $100,000 settlement from Wilkins after he allegedly harassed her several times last year. An increasing number of politicians say Wilkins should be removed from the speakership if he does not resign.

Read the most recent story: GOP Delays Verdict on Wilkins (Post, June 11)

Toni Travis discusses Wilkins's situation. Travis has taught and conducted research on the roles of race and gender in American government, elections and public policy. Currently, she is the host of Capital Region Roundtable, a public affairs television show on GMU-TV.

The transcript follows:

Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


washingtonpost.com: Today we welcome George Mason University professor Toni Travis, who will take questions about Vance Wilkins.

20003: What is it with men in power and philandering? Does it happen more often, or is it just better news?

Prof. Toni Travis: In politics it is very easy to abuse power, particularly when you have spent many years in the legislature. In this case, Mr. Wilkins may be more bound by a set a social rules that no longer apply, but that he still follows.

Virginia Beach, VA: House Finance Chairman Harry J. Parrish (R-Prince William), is quoted in today's Post story on Wilkins: "She could have stopped it at any time. All she had to do would be to slap his face. She may have brought it on herself."

Is it a good idea for the Republicans to attack Wilkins' alleged victims?

Prof. Toni Travis: No, it is not a good idea to attack any of the parties. More information (the truth) needs to be known. It is always easy to attack those who claim to be victims.

Alexandria, Va.: Professor,

Are you at all surprised at how quickly Vance's brethren in the GOP turned on him?
To be honest, I'm not. Given the fact that he ruled with an iron-fist over his caucus -- I'm not surprised that they're not giving him the benefit of the doubt when he gets into trouble.

Prof. Toni Travis: The Republicans in Virginia are not a united party. This unfortunately may be an excuse for those who dislike the Speaker's style to try to remove him from office.

Charlottesville VA: Will this impact Virginia's redistricting? I understand that Wilkins was strong-arming about this..

Prof. Toni Travis: This would only impact redistricting if the Court ordered that a new map be drawn. I don't believe the Speaker Wilkins would have any influence over the court system.

Staunton, Va.: Clinton was impeached but not convicted -- is there any recourse in Virginia such as this to save Wilkins' role as Speaker of the House?

Prof. Toni Travis: Wilkins would not be impeached. The party would prefer that he resign and end the matter. It just creates tremendous turmoil within the party.

Alexandria, VA: All in all, how much will this hurt what already appears to be reeling state GOP?

Prof. Toni Travis: The Wilkins matter could really hurt the Republican party which may have to really rethink its strategy for the next election cycle. It will also cause a reassessment of leadership.

Fairfax, VA: Could you contrast/compare the Wilkins situation with that of former President Clinton? Here Mr. Wilkins admits no wrongdoing but settled with $100K for the good of the party. Mr. Clinton settled a "worthless" case at a much higher dollar cost. He maintained that there was nothing to the allegation. Both men had other women making similar allegations as the women at the center of the settlements. In President Clinton's case, a sizable number of women. Why is it that the Virginia GOP is willing to toss aside their leader and the national Democrats ruthlessly supported Clinton?

Prof. Toni Travis: Both are complicated situations. In Virginia the Republican Party wants to remain the majority party for many years to come. Wilkins might be seen as expendable. He has certainly not committed an impeachable offense.
In Clinton's case, the issue was the U.S. constitution and what constituted a high crime. While he may not have any morals he did not sell or misuse his office. Consequently, Democrats defended their sitting president.

Central Virginia: This whole incident smacks of rank hypocrisy: Wilkins spent contributions to hire a private investigator on Senator Robb, criticized Clinton and supposedly has "family values." And, he has continued to support his staff on listening in to a conference call by Democratic leadership. I also love how the Republicans justified their private meeting under Va. laws but yet said that a conference call among Democrats was part of an open meeting and hence not privileged.

Let this guy stay! He will help the Democrats incredibly and perhaps revitalize that party (the Dems). OTOH, if you want to truly be a family value party (hmmm), why not make him resign and say that there's no place for unwanted groping, pining against walls and sexual battery. Which step do you think the Republicans will take? Wilkins seems pretty intent on staying.

Prof. Toni Travis: This unfortunate situation is of great benefit to Democrats. However, Republicans must consider upcoming elections and the need to have women support the party. If Wilkins is pushed out it will probably be because party leaders want the women's vote and want to assert family values are important.
Politics is full of ironies. The unexpected always happens.

Charlottesville VA: What is the status of the eavesdropping charges? Is it still being investigated and is Wilkins implicated in anyway that we know of?

Prof. Toni Travis: The first set of charges were dropped. I believe that they will be brought up again in a different court, which could still hurt the Republican party. Wilkins was connected to the matter through a staff member in his office. There may be a more substantial connection that will be revealed.

Falls Church, Virginia: The postponement of a decision on the fate of Vance Wilkins by the Virginia House Republican Caucus is extremely bad news for the Republican Party, the House of Delegates and the integrity of the political process in Virginia. Because the Caucus met in secret session, the public has no way to know if truth was spoken behind the closed and guarded doors.

It is absolutely outrageous that Wilkins could not answer the Caucus' questions in a more than three-hour meeting; in fact, it calls into question the basic honesty of Wilkins, who now appears to have added prevarication to the charges against him. On what basis does he need a week to prepare his answers? Wilkins spent months working out the $100,000+ sexual harassment settlement with his attorney and Jennifer Thompson's attorney; but now he says he needs another week to think about it before answering his colleagues' questions.

His arrogance is breathtakingly appalling; his position is unequivocally not acceptable; he cannot be trusted. In sum, Vance Wilkins is a good ol' boy turned bad ol' boy.

A much more troubling aspect to this development is that each and every member of the Caucus who agreed to let him "off the hook" for a week is now complicate in Wilkins' behavior. This is dishonorable conduct, both on the part of Wilkins and the Caucus. They all are losing rapidly any claim to represent their constituents properly.

"Let him go abroad to a distant country; let him go to some place where he is not known. Don't let him go to the devil, where he is known."
----Samuel Johnson in Life of Johnson

E Joseph West
Falls Church, Virginia

Prof. Toni Travis: The extension of time will give Wilkins, as well as the party time to regroup. The party may need the time more than Wilkins. I am sure that Republicans were not satisfied with his answers after 3 hours. Political parties operate by their own internal rules. However, the future does not look very good for Mr. Wilkins.

Capitol Hill: The interaction I've had with Speaker Wilkins in the past has painted him (in my mind), a close-minded, non-progressive -jerk]. Is it just me, or is he seen this way by many others in VA politics? Maybe that's why the Repubs have turned against him so quickly?

And how is his wife reacting?

Prof. Toni Travis: Mr. Wilkins is a rural Virginia Republican. This may mean that he is non-progressive on many issues. Virginia politics is only slowly changing as northern Virginia delegates assert their clout.
His wife is publicly with him. What is the expression? - Stand by your man.

Arlington, VA: Prof. Travis, What do you think would be Wilkins's wisest move at this point, for himself and his family, for the Republican Party and for the state?

Prof. Toni Travis: The easiest way out is to resign and to save the party any further problems. However, he worked so hard to produce the Republican majority that this will be difficult for him to do without significant pressure.

Springfield, VA: The behavior of Mr. Wilkins is sleazy, but we had a President who engaged in sleazier behavior and kept his job. Shouldn't Mr. Wilkins be held to the same standard?

Prof. Toni Travis: I think Clinton and Wilkins have engaged in questionable behavior, but the Virginia situation is not a question of impeachment. Maybe we need new ways for removing officials from office when they engage in such behavior.

Reston, Va.: You stated that Wilkins will not be impeached.

Is that a provision of the state constitution, or just something you don't think will happen?

Prof. Toni Travis: I don't think that the legislative body, including members of either party would take steps to impeach. I would have to review the state constitution to see what the grounds for impeachment are.

Richmond, Va.: Isn't the question now when, not whether, the Speaker will resign?

Prof. Toni Travis: Typically, I agree. His days are numbered. However, several people have asked about Clinton. How many times did we think his days were numbered?

Fairfax, VA: Is part of the reason for the GOP's reaction the fact that this is not a surprise to anyone? A friend of mine remembers visiting Wilkins' office for a college class and being completely creeped out by the way he looked her up and down. She said he gave off lecher vibes. Do staffers warn new female employees about him as they do with Strom Thurmond?

Prof. Toni Travis: No, I don't think the Virginia GOP thinks of this as routine or acceptable behavior. Old attitudes and behavioral patterns are hard to change. I think Mr. Wilkins is far behind the times.
I do not know if staffers are warned about specific legislators in Richmond. As you say, there are many stories on the Hill that new staffers hear early on.

Arlington: I don't see where we need "new ways" to remove people from office who behave badly. That's why we have elections!

Prof. Toni Travis: Sometimes voters want elected officials removed before the next election. There was a recall petition circulated in Washington, D.C. once shortly after M. Barry was elected.
Impeachment is a complicated process.

Charlottesville VA: Wilkins has promoted himself as anti-sleaze and used that platform to market himself to his constituency. What are the chances he could hold on to his office in a such a conservative Christian community?

Prof. Toni Travis: Local voter will frequently return incumbents. It depends on how forgiving his constituents are in this case. I think the bigger problem is the reaction from the Republican party and not his constituents.

Alexandria, VA: This isn't a question. You're doing a great job, really well, professor. For example, you were right: state prosecutors dropped charges so that federal prosecutors could bring charges in federal court, without some of the restraints in interviewing people and defenses available to the former GOP exec. dir. in state court. E.C.

Prof. Toni Travis: It is a fascinating situation, isn't it? This is not what the textbooks teach about political parties.

washingtonpost.com: That's the last question. Thank you to our readers and Prof. Travis.

© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company