Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb's victory at the polls this week finally unlocked the door of the governor's mansion to a Northern Virginian, a lock that had held tightly since the birth of the Commonwealth in 1776.
Only one native of Northern Virginia, Fitzhugh Lee, a nephew of Robert E. Lee, had previously occupied the governor's chair in Richmond -- but by the time he was elected 96 years ago, he had moved downstate to Stafford County.
Robb, whose office as lieutenant governor is only a short walk uphill from the governor's mansion, first came to Virginia when he was a junior at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County. After college and a 10-year stint in the Marine Corps he returned to Virginia and now makes his home in McLean.
In the Washington area, Robb used radio commercials to stress his local ties. These messages have said, perhaps misleadingly, that Robb would be the first Northern Virginia governor since Westmoreland Davis.
Davis lived in Loudoun County, which now is clearly a part of the Washington suburbs, but at the time of Davis' election in 1917 was as remote in time and spirit from Northern Virginia as the wheatfields of the Midwest.
Davis was graduated from the Virginia Military Institute and later studied at the University of Virginia. In 1885, he received a law degree from Columbia University in New York. In his early 40s, after a lucrative career as a New York attorney, Davis returned to Virginia and in 1903 bought the magnificent Morven Park Estate in Leesburg, where he and his wife are buried. He later became active in Democratic Party politics and won the governor's race after a hard-fought, three-way primary.
But Davis could claim neither Virginia nor New York as his native state, since he was born at sea.
Northern Virginia, usually regarded as the ring of cities and counties bordering the District of Columbia, was insignificant in Virginia's early decades because of its small share of the state's population and its distance from Richmond. Nor did the Civil War (or the War Between the States, as real Virginians insist on calling it) help to mend that rift. While Robert E. Lee was defending Richmond, downstaters are quick to recall, Northern Virginians were living side by side with the Union army.
More recently, especially since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal era and the period of school desegregation, Northern Virginia has been regarded with suspicion by downstaters. It was viewed as a hotbed of liberalism, out of step with the rest of Virginia -- a status apparently ebbing, if Robb's career is a barometer.
Robb's Northern Virginia residency didn't spark much controversy in the campaign downstate. One political writer observed that Robb's Republican opponent, Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, was so active trying to portray the Arizona-born Robb as a non-Virginian that he didn't capitalize on Robb's Northern Virginia residency as a potential issue.
Once before, a Fairfax County resident serving as lieutenant governor sought the state's highest office, but he was unsuccessful. He was Joseph E. Willard, a member of the family that owned the Willard Hotel in Washington, and he occupied the No. 2 post from 1902 until 1906. He lost a three-way contest for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1905 -- to a Southside opponent.
Fitzhugh Lee, the only Northern Virginia native to serve as governor, was born in Fairfax County and reared in Alexandria. He served as chief of cavalry to his uncle, Robert E. Lee, in the Civil War, and later retired to a farm in downstate Stafford County, where he was living when elected governor.
Although Lee's campaign reminded Virginians of the lost days of the Confederacy, his administration was generally regarded as progressive for its time. He pushed for more support for the public schools, for the modernization of agriculture and for more industrialization.