When Virginia Democrats dedicated his bronze image on the grounds of the state capital a few years ago, many in the party thought they had found the perfect memorial to their patron saint -- Harry Flood Byrd Sr.
But last week, the Democratic-controlled legislature, enacted what many could consider a much more fitting tribute to the founder of modern-day Virginia politics. Faced with the opportunity to eliminate their political foes, the legislature, where Democrats hold a 3-to 1 majority, approved a congressional redistricting plan that fails to unseat even one of the nine Republicans in Virginia's 10-member U.S. House delegation.
That kind of gesture may seem unfathomable to politicians in Maryland and the District, where Republicans and Democrats savor their squabbles with rare delight. But to politicians in the Old Dominion, who for years watched the elder Byrd's efforts to stamp out partisan squabbling, last week's action was as much a part of Virginia tradition as Smithfield ham.
"They didn't want to fight over it. They didn't want a confrontation," says Christopher J. Spanos, whose old boss, former 10th District representative Herbert Harris, was defeated by Republican Frank Wolf in last November's elections. "That's the history of Virginia."
To Byrd, it was principle -- usually that of a balanced state and federal budget -- that came before party loyalty. As governor during the late 1920s, Byrd succeeded in shifting statewide elections to odd years, effectively insulating state officials from the bitter partisan strife that often characterizes presidential and congressional races.
One result of Byrd's long and powerful influence in Virginia politics has been, in the words of political scientist V. O. Key, to create a "political museum piece" -- where Virginia Democrats are often more conservattive than their Republican colleagues and often feel little affinity with the national Democratic Party.
Under Byrd's leadership, which stretched from the 1920s to mid-1960s, the Democratic Party was encouraged to back conservative candidates -- a legacy that still persists.
In 1976, for instance, Virginia went for Gerald R. Ford over fellow southerner Jimmy Carter. Even after Carter's election, conservative Democratic leaders in the General Assembly never felt comfortable with him.
And it didn't take long for those same Democrats to embrace Ronald Reagan's stern economic policies, which they said simply followed the lead set by Byrd so many years ago.
When it came time to redraw Virginia's congressional map this year, few Democrats rallied to the salvation of their colleagues unseated in last fall's elections. Del. John Gray (D-Hampton), chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, made no secret of his objections to a plan by a group of Democratic dissidents that would have dumped several Republican congressmen.
"We don't need any more liberals from Northern Virginia," he told several legislators.
Democratic legislators also can't hide their delight with Reagan's plans for returning power and federal funds to the state and local levels -- creating a ready-made pork barrel that would serve to reinforce their own power.
Add to that the tradition of the "Virginia gentleman" (to whom arguing with friends is the geight of bad manners), a division among liberal Democrats over which legislative plan to support and a lack of direction from the Democratic leadership, and it is easy to see why the General Assembly's 34 Republicans were able to put together a coalition to preserve the incumbencies of the nine GOP congressmen.