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In Waiting His Turn to Run,
Beyer Bowed to an Old Va. Custom

By Richard Tapscott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 1997; Page H01

Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. had just completed four years as Virginia's lieutenant governor in 1993, and at 43, the Northern Virginia automobile dealer had the statewide visibility, the money and the ambition to run for governor.

But he didn't. It wasn't his turn.

Ahead of Beyer in the state's Democratic hierarchy was then-Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, who had served eight years in statewide office and who had stood politely and patiently aside to give then-Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder a clear path to the Democratic nomination for governor in 1989.

"From the moment of [Wilder's] election, it was a foregone conclusion that Mary Sue Terry would run for governor and Beyer would run for lieutenant governor again in 1993," said Paul Goldman, a former chairman of Virginia's Democratic Party.

This fall, after another term as lieutenant governor, Beyer finally is making his run for the governor's mansion. He's up against another candidate looking to move up from a statewide office: Republican James S. Gilmore III, who was Virginia's attorney general until resigning in June to focus on his campaign.

It's a reflection of the way things are done in the tradition-rich Old Dominion: Get in the queue and wait your turn. Virginia voters like their top political leaders well-seasoned, preferably marinated for a term or two as lieutenant governor or attorney general before running for governor.

After this year, 17 individuals will have been elected governor of Virginia since Harry F. Byrd, the legendary kingmaker, won in 1925. Of those, 11 will have served an apprenticeship as either attorney general or lieutenant governor before moving into the Executive Mansion.

The tradition is credited by some observers with helping preserve Virginia's relatively scandal-free state government, because governors often have been observed in action for four or eight years before ascending. Political analysts said that governors who have held statewide office before are less likely to incite regional tensions the way they might if they owed their first allegiance to a locality.

Of course, the idea of being ladies- and gentlemen-in-waiting is not something that candidates for secondary statewide offices often discuss publicly. A spokeswoman for Beyer said he had personal and political reasons for waiting until this year to run for governor, adding that a race against Terry in 1993 would have been "a very difficult contest and would have distracted him from building a record as lieutenant governor."

Because they are coveted springboards, competition for the secondary statewide offices can be intense. As of their July reports, four Republican candidates for attorney general this year had spent more than $3.6 million among them, and three GOP contenders for lieutenant governor shelled out more than $2.1 million, far ahead of the pace set by candidates for those offices in past elections.

According to political scientists and practitioners, the line-of-succession tradition flourished first under the Byrd machine, which selected candidates for attorney general, lieutenant governor and governor and put them in office with regularity beginning in the 1920s.

James Latimer, a retired Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter who covered Virginia politics for more than 40 years, called the queue system for moving up to governor a "phenomenon that grew out of the Virginia system of politics" and the Byrd dynasty, which had a reputation for clean, conservative government.

"The commonwealth's traditions of fiscal stability and public integrity . . . are happy vestiges of the Byrd era, to which . . . Republicans have claimed relation by `marriage,' " wrote Frank B. Atkinson in his 1992 book, "The Dynamic Dominion."

Not everyone has been patient while serving in training-school posts waiting for their run at the top job. In 1949, Latimer recounts, one exasperated candidate jumped in line without getting the "nod" from the boss. "I can't wait forever," Latimer quoted the candidate as complaining. "Harry Byrd's got candidates stacked up 12 deep." In the end, Byrd's candidate, John S. Battle, won the governorship.

The system, which one politician dubbed "the House of Windsor," has outlived the boss because the political parties prefer, when possible, to choose nominees in conventions attended mostly by faithful insiders.

Even when primaries are held, voter participation is spotty. The 5 percent turnout in June was the lowest since 1949, ensuring that the most committed voters and most active party members had an outsized influence on the outcome. Virginia doesn't have voter registration by party affiliation, making it more difficult for someone outside the system to identify his or her voters.

Hunter Andrews, a Democrat and a former state Senate leader, said Virginia's decision to elect only three statewide offices -- governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general -- also has had the effect of narrowing the field of candidates with sufficient experience and name recognition to vie for governor under the system.

Virginia governors serve four years and may not succeed themselves, so pretenders to the throne can bide their time in a secondary office, knowing that there will be a vacancy at the top in the next election. Lieutenant governors, who run independent of the gubernatorial candidate, are able to fashion an identity of their own in ways that their counterparts in other states cannot when they are linked with a running mate.

Except for the fact that he is black, L. Douglas Wilder fit perfectly among Democratic Virginia governors going back to the Byrd era, Latimer said. "He did his apprenticeship in the legislature [and then] ran for lieutenant governor. Wilder worked his way up like a Byrd politician should."

Wilder, who was elected governor in 1989, did not return phone calls to his Richmond office seeking comment for this article.

Every state develops its own farm team for governor. Neighboring Maryland, for example, has more often chosen its chief executives from the ranks of Baltimore mayors, county executives and legislators.

Virginia is not alone in its tendency to select statewide officeholders to be governor. But state attorneys general and lieutenant governors across the country have not fared too well when they tried to step up to governor during the last decade, said Thad Beyle, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Of 28 lieutenant governors who have run for governor in the '90s, five have won, Beyle said. Of 22 attorneys general who entered gubernatorial contests, only two prevailed.

The system doesn't always hold, even in Virginia.

After losing his U.S. House seat to redistricting, Republican George Allen cut in line and won the governorship in 1993 by beating the attorney general, Terry. In some measure, Allen was able to short-circuit the process because there was not a Republican attorney general or lieutenant governor standing in his way.

Robert D. Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said that in Virginia, "the tradition of waiting for `the nod' is intact." Voters seem mostly satisfied with the results. Holsworth said polls conducted by VCU indicate that Virginians, by a margin of 10 to 15 percentage points, have a more positive view of state government's performance than do voters in other states.

The orderly line of succession may not hold, Holsworth said, if outsiders are able to "catapult" in during primaries or if a well-heeled candidate can spend millions of personal dollars to get the nomination for governor.

But traditions die hard in the Old Dominion.

As Louis D. Rubin Jr., author of "Virginia: A Bicentennial History," wrote in 1977, "Virginia has usually come down upon the side of order and stability at the expense of social responsibility and opportunity."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company


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