Democrats around the state have been seeing more of Rep. Herbert E. Harris, II (D-Va.) lately and are likely to continue seeing him in towns and cities far from his 8th district home.
With Democrats holding only one of the elected statewide offices at the moment, there is clearly a vacuum in the ranks of party leadership that Harris is unblushingly ready to fill. Of the state's two senators, Harry F. Byrd and William F. Scott, one is an independent and one a Republican; both the governor, Mills E. Godwin, and the It. governor, John Dalton, are Republicans. When attorney general Andrew P. Miller resigned last spring to run against Henry E. Howell for the Democratic nomination for governor, the legislature elected Democrat Tony F. Troy to fill out the remainer of Miller's term. Troy is not seeking election and his replacement will be selected in November.
As for the ranks of the state's 10 congressmen, four are Democrats - Harris, Joseph L. Fisher (10th District), David E. Satterfield (3rd), and Dan Daniel (5th). However, Satterfield and Daniel are conservative and generally vote with the state's Republicans. In keeping with state tradition, neither seems to get very involved with state politics, or show any interest in higher political office.
Not so Herb Harris. He admits to pondering the idea of running for Scott's Senate seat next year when the Republican retires from public life. And he is working, without publicly conceding it is his intention, to overcome one of his handicaps - being virtually unknown outside his Northern Virginia district.
Last spring the issue of federal judgeship nominations came up with the prospect of at least three new judgeships becoming vacant in Virginia. In the absence of a Democratic U.S. senator to guide the selection of judges under a Democratic president, Harris initiated a plan to form a commission to advise the President on who should be named.
But in a surprise move, Sen. Harry F-Byrd, armed with a letter from President Carter that the White House said was sent by mistake. stepped in to form his commission. Harris's plan was dropped, and Byrd apparently retained a political prerogative Virginia Democrats thought he'd lost when he left the party.
Harris is now heading up the Joint Campaign Committee for the Democratic ticket. a job that will get him to different parts of the state and give him a limited amount of exposure. The committee is intended to "help coordinate" the three candidates' campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general but not to replace them. It will probably raise and spend less than $15,000, Harris said.
Last weekend's four-day swing throughout the state by Harris and the Democratic ticket was organized by the Joint Campaign Committee, and was "unprecedented," Harris said.
There are thise who are less than charitable about Harris' interest in the state party chairman Joseph T. Fitzpatrick, who said the creation of the committee and Harris's nomination as chairman both came from 8th district representatives, said, "What can Herb Harris do to get local committees to get behind the ticket? They've never heard of Herb Harris . . . Somebody wanted to get Herb into the limelight."
Walter Marston who was Andrew P. Miller's campaign manager in his unsuccessful bid for the fubernatorial nomination and admits to not being very interested in the joint campaign in the first place, said of the meeting at which Harris was nominated, "I don't think many people in the room were aware that a coordinating committee was going to be created."
On the other hand. there are other party officials who said the committee was separated from the party organization - i.e. Fitzpatrick - intentionally. "They wanted to get something done," explained one.
All of this is basically unimportant except in the context of the party's disjointed history. At this point it often appears to be an organization that's about to happen.
"It seems to me Virginia has been in a state of transition for an incredibly long time," Harris said in a recent interview. "We've had a hard time, especially in the Democratic Party, in pulling people together . . . It's a question of identifying yourself with the people.
"They party structure should be one that encourages people to participate in it. We have a lot of situations where committees are a matter of inheritance, where membership is a question of being anointed."
Harris is still non-committal about his future and the extent to which his ambition is related to his concern about the party.
"To the extent that I have an additional future, success in achieving a real Democratic Party is essential," he said. And that was as far as he'd go.