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    Send your questions about campaigns and elections.
    In Virginia, the
    Term's the Limit

    By Ken Rudin
    Special to
    Friday, July 24, 1998

    Question: Virginia is the only state where the governor cannot succeed himself. Is there likely to be a change in the state constitution to allow the governor to seek a second term? – Mike Kuzemchak, Boynton Beach, Fla.

    Lame-duck Virginia governors sometimes start job hunting before their term in Richmond is up. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    Answer: Virginia is the last state to limit its chief executive to a single term, once Kentucky changed its election laws in 1992. Term-limit purists no doubt love the situation in the Old Dominion, but the truth is that Virginia's governor is a lame duck the minute he or she is sworn in. That may explain then-Gov. Douglas Wilder's decision to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. Three other Virginia governors this century – most recently Democrat Chuck Robb – moved to the Senate after their terms in Richmond ended.

    Sporadic efforts to amend Article V of the Virginia constitution, which prevents the governor from running for reelection, have failed. In 1996, the most recent such amendment offered in the House of Delegates died in committee. Since Virginia's constitution was ratified in 1851, only one person has served more than a single term: Mills Godwin, elected governor in 1965 as a Democrat, sat out the next four years and came back to win again in 1973 as a Republican. Former governor George Allen (R), who won in 1993 and had to retire last year, might seek his old job in 2001 – unless he runs for Robb's Senate seat in 2000.

    Seven governors are barred from running again in 1998:

    Pete Wilson (R-Calif.)
    Roy Romer (D-Colo.)
    Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.)
    Zell Miller (D-Ga.)
    Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)
    Bob Miller (D-Nev.)
    George Voinovich (R-Ohio)

    An additional 31 states limit gubernatorial terms: Ala., Alaska, Ariz., Ark., Del., Hawaii, Idaho, Ind., Kan., Ky., La., Maine, Md., Mich., Miss., Mo., Mont., N.J., N.M., N.C., Okla., Ore., Pa., R.I., S.C., S.D., Tenn., Utah, Va., W.Va. and Wyo.

    Source: U.S. Term Limits

    The national term limits movement has its roots in more recent history than Virginia's. In 1989, voters were dismayed watching House members try to give themselves a 51 percent pay raise. The public was further disillusioned with the Jim Wright, Barney Frank, S&L, and Keating Five scandals. Suddenly the reelection of incumbents from both parties was no longer a sure thing.

    On Election Day 1990, many who were expected to breeze to another term – such as Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) – won by the skin of their teeth. Meanwhile, voters in Oklahoma, California and Colorado passed term limits for members of Congress.

    The disillusionment with Congress continued unabated in 1992 and 1994, fueling successful term-limit initiatives in over 20 states. Limiting terms was also a key component of the GOP "Contract With America" in 1994, which was signed by more than 300 House Republican candidates. Their argument was simple: After 40 years of a Democrat-controlled House, it was time to rid Washington of dead-weight career politicians and bring in "citizen legislators" who would leave voluntarily after three terms or so.

    GOP nominee Wendell Willkie argued against FDR's bid for a third presidential term in 1940. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    In the time since the GOP won the House in 1994, many one-time backers of limits began singing a different tune. Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.), who unseated House Speaker Tom Foley in 1994 due in part to Foley's antipathy toward a state-passed term-limits initiative, now says he may need more time in Congress than the three terms he originally thought necessary.

    While the Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that states may not limit the tenure of members of Congress, 18 states have passed initiatives limiting terms of state legislators. According to U.S. Term Limits, more than 2,000 cities and towns have installed limits on elected officials, including New York, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco; all in all, there are term limits on more than 15,000 local officials.

    South Carolina Republican Bob Inglis, a leading advocate of limits, correctly observed that asking Congress to vote for term limits is a bit like asking the chicken to vote for Colonel Sanders.

    Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin:

    Ken Rudin, a former editor at NPR and the Hotline, writes the "Political Graffiti" column for The Hill, a Capitol Hill weekly. He is also the creator of's ScuttleButton contest.

    © Copyright 1998 Ken Rudin

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