When Virginia Republicans nominated state Sen. John H. Chichester of Stafford County for lieutenant governor last year, most party officials -- and a lot of Democrats -- were confident he would easily win the election.
But the nomination proved to be Chichester's zenith. Since his defeat in November by Democrat L. Douglas Wilder, Chichester has assumed a low profile in the General Assembly, and even has lost his seat on the state Republican Central Committee.
He has not offered a single legislative proposal this year -- the only one of the 40 members of the state Senate who did not introduce at least one bill or resolution.
"He just didn't do anything this year," observed Senate Minority Leader William A. Truban (R-Shenandoah). "He was tired, worn out and hurt."
Said to be still smarting from the loss of the race he entered as an overwhelming favorite, the 48-year-old Chichester blames the media for doting on Wilder, the first black nominated for a major state office in Virginia, and for failing to cover his own campaign fairly. He declined to be interviewed for this story, but he did pause long enough to describe some reporters who covered his race as "liars."
In private, associates say Chichester spreads the blame around. At a post-election Republican caucus in Charlottesville, they say, Chichester blamed fellow Republicans and his campaign staff for the loss.
Dennis Peterson, Chichester's campaign manager, said the candidate was part of the problem. "He was a bundle of indecision -- his own worst enemy -- and he never changed," Peterson said in an interview.
When Chichester failed to show up for a GOP caucus the night before the current General Assembly session, he was stripped of his seat on the state Republican Central Committee. "It was a crisscross in communications," said Truban. "He never told anyone he wanted to stay on."
"He's withdrawn from us," said another Republican. "We try to give him a wide berth, because you never know how he is going to react."
Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria), who is Chichester's seat mate in the eight-member GOP cluster in the corner of the Senate chamber, said that during the first few weeks of the session, Chichester was "ill at ease" watching Wilder preside over the Senate, wielding the gavel and power of the office for which they competed. "He was obviously under a strain, but he's gotten over it."
"John feels a great deal of bitterness toward the press," Mitchell said. "But none toward the voters, or his opponent. He's not that kind of fellow. He's very pleasant to be around."
Wilder agrees. He said Chichester "recognized that the contest was over. He knows I'm interested in presiding over all the Senate, and he pledged his full support."
Although Chichester "never did make as much noise as some of us," said Mitchell, who introduced 25 bills this session, Chichester is less active than in his nine previous sessions. He seldom participates in floor debate, choosing to sit quietly in his seat, marking his legislative calendar in advance on how he plans to vote and occasionally offering a floor amendment, often of a technical nature.
Five times this session, Chichester, who owns an insurance agency, has opted not to vote on bills involving the insurance industry.
Senate Rule 36, under which a member abstains for reasons of a possible conflict, is being invoked a record number of times this year, perhaps because of the criminal charges pending against Sen. Peter K. Babalas (D-Norfolk) over one of his votes last year and a court ruling that toughened the effect of the law.
Chichester said recently he has not invoked Rule 36 "more than I generally have done." He said he has voted on some insurance legislation, but he would not explain how he makes the distinction, and declined further comment.
During the fall, campaign news accounts of Chichester's support for legislation helpful to the insurance industry damaged him, Peterson said. "It made it difficult to attack Wilder. He was no longer Caesar's wife."
Peterson was alluding to news stories in late September that disclosed that during the 1984 session of the legislature, Chichester sponsored and won approval of a bill that effectively prevented state insurance authorities from fining insurance agents for the same offense for which his company was fined $250 a year and a half earlier.
Chichester contended at the time that the action was merely an attempt to repeal a law that was "absolutely silly . . . . I don't have a conflict-of-interest bone in my body."
Peterson said Chichester's attitude about the media was a major problem. "He never understood the role of the press," said Peterson, who now works as a legislative aide. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Peterson recalled, "he'd call from some place in the state and say: 'Get these reporters out of there. How did they know where I was going to be?' And I'd say: 'John, I put out a press release. We need them.' "
Chichester also became withdrawn from his staff, Peterson said. "In the last four or five days, we had no contact with the candidate." According to Peterson, Chichester didn't show up at scheduled strategy meetings, saying "the plane was grounded."
Peterson said that when Chichester vowed not to come to the GOP's election night rally at the Richmond Marriott Hotel if he lost, "we holed up in our room so we didn't have to answer questions." Chichester "finally called from Ashland about 20 minutes away and said he'd meet us in the ballroom."
Peterson said that while he has no relationship with Chichester, he holds no bitterness toward him.
"He's the consummate salesman -- that's why he's so successful in the insurance business. He can charm the husk off the corn. He makes a wonderful first impression. A nice guy."
But Peterson said Chichester's advisers told him that to beat Wilder, attacks would be necessary.
"There was nothing to go by," Peterson said. "But we knew we could not win without contrasting their records.
"To John's credit, it troubled him to go on the offensive. He was frustrated running against him," said Peterson, who said everyone in the campaign was worried that whatever they said or did in attacking Wilder's record might be interpreted as racist.
To make matters worse, Peterson said, the legislative voting records of Chichester's running mates, Wyatt B. Durrette for governor, and W.R. (Buster) O'Brien for attorney general, were used against him by the Wilder campaign. "Buster and Wyatt had frequently voted with Doug," on issues the more conservative Chichester wanted to attack.
"Doug had it both ways, and skillfully used it. His race was an asset. But what is his philosophy? I challenge you to find it."
If Chichester had chosen to attack Wilder, he had the ammunition, Peterson said, citing three issues -- a state Supreme Court reprimand on Wilder's handling of a client's case as a private lawyer, his failure to pay personal property taxes on his Mercedes-Benz and repeated complaints about the condition of a vacant house he owned.
Another "watershed" in the campaign, Peterson said, was a debate at St. Catherine's School in Richmond.
"We think John won on points, but lost on style," said Peterson. Wilder charmed the largely white, upper-class audience of teen-age girls, and the applause that greeted his performance was widely interpreted as a sign that his race was not a disadvantage.
After that, Peterson said, Chichester and Wilder made about half a dozen appearances together, and the "the more they did, the worse John got . . . . He'd cancel debate briefings and rehearsals and rejected written statements as unmanly."
At a meeting on Oct. 13, with the election less than a month away, Peterson said former governor Mills E. Godwin and other financial backers in the room pledged $60,000 "on the spot" if Chichester would agree to use negative advertising.
Chichester relented and Peterson, who had a camera crew standing by, dispatched it to Wilder's rundown property. The next morning, Peterson flew to Philadelphia and produced three commercials that attacked Wilder on the issues of the house, the car and the reprimand.
"While I was in the studio, John called," Peterson said. "He had changed his mind -- we could make one 30-second commercial, but 20 seconds of it had to be something like him and his wife Karen walking, holding hands. The last 10 seconds could be negative. But for every time we ran the negative spot, we'd have to run three positive ones."
Peterson said he ignored the advice, produced three negative commercials, and the next day drove to Hampton and played them for Godwin, "who liked them and said, 'We'll pay.' "
But, Peterson said, when he told the candidate, Chichester "was furious. Keep him Godwin away from me," Peterson said Chichester told him. "I don't care how much money they have."
Peterson pointed out that Godwin was campaigning for Durrette, not Chichester, when the former segregationist governor denounced Wilder for attempting to repeal "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" as the state song.
Peterson compared Chichester's refusal to approve negative advertising to the "rope-a-dope" defense employed by former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who, when facing an opponent, covered his face with his hands and dared his opponent to hurt him.
"Hit me, hit me -- that's what John said to Wilder, to The Washington Post, to everyone who attacked him," Peterson said. "But he wasn't strong enough to take it. And he wouldn't counterpunch. It was a nonsense strategy."
Finally, five days before the election, with some polls showing Chichester trailing by 13 points, Chichester agreed to allow the negative commercials to be aired. But by then, Godwin and his associates were not willing to foot the bill, so there was only enough money for limited showings.
Peterson credits the negative commercials for closing the gap to four points by Election Day, pointing out that Chichester came closer to winning than either of his running mates in the Democratic sweep.
It was not enough, Peterson said. "It was like the fall of Saigon. We couldn't get out fast enough."