Va. to Allow Presidential Primaries
By Craig Timberg
RICHMOND, Feb. 22 –– The General Assembly has voted to allow either major party to hold a presidential primary the last Tuesday in February next year, a move that could thrust Virginia into the thick of the parties' decision making.
Republican and Democratic leaders here have reservations about the idea. Neither state party routinely selects its presidential nominees by primary. But Virginia Republicans in particular see the possibility of a primary as a way to become players in presidential politics.
Supporters of the idea hope a primary would come one week after New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation vote and a week before primaries scheduled in California and New York, though jockeying for early slots in the presidential vote has left the primary calendar still fluid. Many politicians think the national party nominees will be chosen by the second week of March 2000.
A primary would "get presidential contenders in here for a change," said Sen. John Watkins (R-Richmond), the bill's sponsor. "I just see it as an opportunity for . . . Virginia to see some of these presidential prospects before November."
Also today, as the General Assembly moved toward a weekend adjournment, a House committee passed a bill 14 to 12 allowing police to pull over motorists for not wearing seat belts, a change that opponents contend would lead to police harassment of black people and other minorities. The vote revives the issue and sends it to the House floor. Hours before the deadline for all committee action, a Senate committee passed a package of health care bills known as the "Patients' Bill of Rights."
The bill allowing a presidential primary, which won approval in the Senate two week ago, passed the House today in a 90 to 9 vote. Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) plans to sign the bill.
Party leaders worry about the logistics of a primary election when Virginia does not register voters by party affiliation. Under the bill passed today, either party could hold a primary, regardless of what the other decides.
Democrats, who vote for delegates to the national nominating convention in caucuses dominated by party activists, are cool to the idea because an experiment with a presidential primary in 1988 led to a vote for Jesse L. Jackson -- not the centrist candidate they had hoped for when creating a "Super Tuesday" of southern states.
Craig Bieber, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said the prospects for a Democratic presidential primary in 2000 were remote, but he held open the possibility that a surge in support for the idea could change minds at a party meeting in May.
Virginia Republicans, who now elect presidential delegates through an elaborate state convention system, are more excited about the idea of a primary. But the Republican National Committee has rules that could scuttle the idea.
The committee restricts primaries in states that don't register their voters by party affiliation. But committee spokesman Tom Yu said national officials would review Virginia's plan if the state party is interested in creating a presidential primary.
Chris LaCivita, executive director of the state GOP, said the issue is likely to come up at the party's March 20 meeting. He put the odds of a Republican presidential primary in 2000 at "fifty-fifty." Maryland's presidential primary is scheduled for March 7, 2000. The District's is scheduled for May 2, 2000.
In other legislative action, the bill giving police the power to pull over motorists not wearing their seat belts passed the House Transportation Committee, which earlier this month had rejected a virtually identical bill. The passed version, which has won approval in the Senate, now goes to the full House.
A police officer now can write a ticket for the offense only if motorists have been pulled over for another offense.
"This is strictly a safety issue," said state Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach).
Del. William P. Robinson Jr. (D-Norfolk), the committee chairman and senior member of the legislature's black caucus, said the bill would give police officers more authority to harass minority motorists.
The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee reworked nearly a dozen House-passed bills on health care to match a single one passed by the Senate. Approved were proposals to allow patients to seek binding arbitration before the state insurance board on complaints about insurers. Lawmakers also voted to expand patients' rights to see specialists and choose from a wider variety of drugs.
The committee also approved, over the objection of the governor, legislation that will allow government employees and their organizations to discuss working conditions with public officials.
Staff writer Donald P. Baker contributed to this report.
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