A Northern Virginia delegate dropped out of the race for speaker of the House today, clearing the way for S. Vance Wilkins Jr., a rural conservative lawmaker, to become the first Republican in the House's top job.
Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax), a brainy and respected lawmaker, withdrew from the contest after spending much of the past year running for the job. After five years in the House, he was deemed by many delegates to be too new to unite the Republican caucus. Rust, who then endorsed Wilkins for speaker, becomes a leading candidate for House majority leader.
Rust's decision has left Wilkins, a partisan battler and one of the House's most conservative Republicans, to take the GOP's speakership nomination when the caucus meets Sunday, following the party's historic takeover of the General Assembly in the Nov. 2 elections. The speaker is officially selected by the full House when the session begins in January.
Many regard Wilkins, 63, of Amherst County near Lynchburg, as a founding father of the modern GOP in Virginia for his work recruiting and bankrolling candidates across the state. He sold his construction business a decade ago so he could pursue his legislative career and build the party full time. He was elected House minority leader in 1991.
Wilkins has long been a lightning rod since the Republicans grew from a tiny minority when he joined the House in 1978. Democrats and some Republicans expressed concern today that Wilkins would be out of step with the suburban lawmakers who now dominate the legislature.
Republicans completed their takeover of state government last week by winning several suburban races in which their candidates portrayed themselves as advocates of gun control, growth management and more investment in public schools and transportation.
Wilkins is from the small-government wing of the Republican Party and is a staunch supporter of property rights, gun rights and family values. Through committee appointments and decisions about the flow of bills, the speaker can have an enormous effect on the legislature's agenda.
Wilkins said he would strive to be fair and impartial as a speaker in the tradition of John Warren Cooke, a Democrat who presided over the House when Wilkins first came to the legislature.
"I thought he was fair and he was straightforward and he had the good of the commonwealth at heart," Wilkins said today. "I would like to lead in the same vein."
Wilkins's climb to power has been as a party leader. In the legislative campaign that ended last week, Wilkins spent more than $284,000 to help GOP candidates across the state. Rust spent more than $82,000 for Republican candidates in hopes of bolstering his quest to become speaker.
Democrats and many moderates from suburban areas were rooting for Rust and lamented Wilkins's rise.
"I think it's potentially tragic for Northern Virginia," said Del. Kenneth R. Plum, of Fairfax, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "I question his ability to rise above the battles of the past to lead a new Virginia which is mostly suburban, which I don't think he understands."
Even Rust, who praised Wilkins today, said, "I think Vance needs to be sensitive to the suburban base of the Republican Party. It's extremely important. And it's something we'll have to work through during his speakership."
Wilkins was born and raised in Amherst. He was trained as an industrial engineer, and after a brief stint in the Air Force, he ran a construction company in his hometown. He is married and has six children.
He disputed the suggestion that he would have trouble understanding suburban issues, saying, "I realize the speaker's job is different than the delegate from Amherst's job. You have to change your perspective as you go into different jobs."
Republican lawmakers praised Wilkins as conservative but not stridently ideological. And Northern Virginia lawmakers said that the region's control of several key chairmanships would keep it from losing power in the legislature.
"I've known Vance forever," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "I think he'll be very amenable to where we're coming from."
Rust now becomes a candidate for the job of majority leader, a post that would make him leader of the Republicans as they operate on the House floor and negotiate to get bills passed.
Del. Robert F. McDonnell (Virginia Beach) and Del. Morgan H. Griffith (Salem) have also been lining up support for that position.
Rust's effort to become speaker essentially ended as a fellow Northern Virginia Republican, Del. John A. Rollison III, of Prince William, faxed around a letter of support for Wilkins. It included the names of 29 supporters, more than enough to ensure Wilkins's election on the first ballot among the 53-member Republican caucus on Sunday.
Today, Rollison endorsed Rust for the majority leader's job, saying, "My dream ticket would be to have Vance as speaker and Jack as majority leader."