A group of Northern Virginia Democrats has launched a campaign to block the conservative Speaker of the House of Delegates, A.L. Philpott, from chairing next month's party convention to nominate a U.S. Senate candidate.
The anti-Philpott forces, led by several women delegates from Fairfax County, are charging that the speaker's longstanding opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and his recent reference to black House members as "boys" disqualify him from any leadership role in the party.
"He's behind the times, he's out of touch with the world as it is today," said Mary Cahill of Reston, chairman of the 10th District party committee. "He (Philpott) represents old massive resistance, male supremacy Virginia."
The campaign began earlier this week when the 28-member steering committee of the Fairfax Democratic Party unanimously adopted a resolution -- clearly aimed at Philpott -- calling on the convention to elect a chairman who supports the national party platform, particularly in regard to ERA. A similar resolution has garnered support among some Arlington Democratic officials.
Although Cahill claimed that the movement has support "from all over the state," its chances of success seem problematical at best, other party leaders said today. The convention chairman -- a purely ceremonial post -- is elected by the convention delegates, but traditionally has gone to the House speaker.
State party chairman Alan Diamonstein dismissed the anti-Philpott sentiment, saying that the "custom has been and will continue to be that the Speaker will be the chair." He added, however, that, as in previous conventions, he expects the delegates will also elect a woman as cochair when they convene in Roanoke on June 4.
The new movement is only the latest in a series of controversies to surround Philpott, a taciturn 62-year-old legislative veteran from Henry County in the rural southern part of the state.
As speaker, Philpott has long aroused the ire of women's groups by resisting efforts to bring the ERA to a full vote on the House floor.
He also has found himself under fierce attack from black legislators who blamed him and his conservative allies for the defeat of a series of bills in the last General Assembly session, including a Martin Luther King state holiday and a measure banning state tax exemptions to segregated private schools.
The black anger peaked last month after a meeting with the four black members of the 100-member house to discuss their complaints. Asked later by a reporter at the Shad Planking, an annual political gathering in his native Southside, Philpott said of the delegates: "I've never had any problems with those boys."
Philpott publicly apologized for the remark after black legislators said they found it insulting. But close friends of the speaker say he was deeply embittered by the experience, saying he frequently used the word "boy" without reference to race.
Philpott refused to comment on the movement."I'm not making any statement, I'm not getting involved in any more controversy over those things," he said.
So far, the movement has attracted little sympathy from state legislators. Del. Benjamin Lambert (D-Richmond), one of the black members at the meeting with Philpott, and Del. Dorothy McDiarmid (D-Fairfax), the leading ERA proponent in the House, both said they were unaware of the anti-Philpott campaign and saw no reason to support it.
"It's crazy," added Del. Warren Stambaugh (D-Arlington). "I'm tired of these litmus tests in the Democratic Party; we're becoming worse than Jerry Falwell, for Christ's sake. If we start having litmus tests on everything, there are lots of things that would disqualify half the Democrat office-holders in this state."