What next, Virginia?
With last week's historic legislative elections embedded in their minds, the state's leading Republicans and Democrats plan to settle down this weekend to begin charting Life After Nov. 2.
Democrats go first tomorrow night, when the party's wise heads converge on Richmond for two days of soul-searching and what-iffing about elections that turned over the General Assembly--fully, finally--to the GOP, much to the visible relief of Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R).
Gilmore's partisan opponents do have some results to cheer, chiefly the unseating of two-term state Sen. Jane H. Woods (R-Fairfax) by Leslie L. Byrne, as well as a handful of House of Delegates races that prevented November's first Tuesday from becoming a rout at the ballot box.
But they have too much to mourn. Gone is Stanley C. Walker, of Norfolk, 76, the silver-haired senior Democrat of the Senate. Gone is Del. Glenn R. Croshaw, of Virginia Beach, 49, a 14-year veteran whose Capitol desk, number 15, was in fabled Coffin Corner, home to the Young Turks who constitute the backbone of the House Democrats.
Both Walker and Croshaw were hurt by perceived lapses in judgment, what former party chairman Paul Goldman angrily called "the corrupt politics of abusing your political office for personal gain."
Gone, too, is the House speakership held for eight years by Del. Thomas W. Moss Jr., of Norfolk. That office, one of the most powerful in state government, will be filled by a victorious Republican. Regardless of who gets the job, that white male will be master of at least 51 other delegates--and Gilmore's new best friend when the assembly returns to town.
Democrats will lick all those wounds and more when the party's steering committee and larger central committee meet in Richmond shortly, but there will be other concerns just as pressing as the freshly felt disgrace of losing the House on the watch of the conservative Gilmore.
Most immediate is the future of two-term U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb as he heads into the brutal fight next year against former governor George Allen, the GOP candidate determined to unseat Virginia's junior senator.
To even be competitive, Robb must rally troops demoralized by what happened last week and get them juiced for an expensive slugfest against a popular and well-financed former chief executive of the state.
Robb plans to be out of state this weekend, but he will have plenty of eyes and ears working for him at Richmond's Sheraton Park South Hotel.
Mark R. Warner, the party's unsuccessful Senate candidate in 1996 and another former state chairman, plans to be on hand, both as a Robb ally for next year and as someone with his eyes on the governor's race in 2001.
Warner undoubtedly will be parsing the long-term effects of being a member of a party well out of power and whether a) Republican lawmakers will commit enough errors to warrant voters' returning to the Democratic fold and b) a not-so-loyal opposition can make headway with voters by proposing sensible alternatives to GOP ideas.
Meeting first tomorrow night is the Democrats' 40-member steering committee, a kind of policy-setting board of directors for the state party. Saturday morning, about 250 members of the party's central committee will take up routine housekeeping chores--budget matters and the like.
Craig K. Bieber, the party's top staff member, said the November meetings had been scheduled eight months ago to avoid interfering with December meetings at the local level, focusing on reorganizing those smaller party units.
Bieber pooh-poohed the few activists who were grumbling about the timing of this weekend's meeting, so close to the Nov. 2 defeats.
"We gave it our best shot," Bieber said of the elections. "The fact that we came as close as we did is pretty remarkable."
Republicans, meanwhile, will set the stage for the ascendancy of the GOP's first House speaker, as legislators meet in Richmond on Sunday to see whether Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr., 63, of the Lynchburg area, really has the 30 votes he's telling folks he has to win the coveted job.
Nipping at the front-runner's heels is one well-known Northern Virginian, Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr., 52, who may have more speakerlike finesse but got a late start behind Wilkins in the IOU-collecting department. Wilkins has been around legislative circles for more than 20 years, Rust less than decade.
If Rust doesn't capture the big job, look for him to run for majority leader, the important traffic-cop and floor-debater post for the Republicans.
Even there, internal competition could be stiff. Also in the mix will be Republican Dels. Robert F. McDonnell, 45, of Virginia Beach; H. Morgan Griffith, 41, of Salem; and possibly John S. Reid, 57, of suburban Richmond.
One development to watch in the weeks ahead will be the ways in which Republicans carry themselves as they assume a broader mantle of power, what state Attorney General Mark L. Earley (R) called the "sober responsibility" of true leadership the other day.
Will they try to work in concert with Democrats on issues as diverse as mental health and better transit systems, or behave much like Democrats did toward them for years--in a high-handed, turf-obsessed way that brooked very few compromises?
The day after the election, Gilmore tried to strike a note of detente, telling a Capitol news conference that he intended to reach out to all voter blocs, particularly Democrats who serve in Richmond.
Yet he also made it clear that the humiliating years of being lorded over by Democrats continue to stick in his craw.
He complained bitterly to reporters about the "mania" Democrats showed in preserving every iota of their power; the "great crime" they committed by skewing the 1991 redistricting too much in their own favor; the "death lock" they held on true democracy's robust debate in the General Assembly.
Musing on the election's results, Gilmore said, "I hope, now, that Democrats will feel free to be a little freer in representing their districts, instead of just their party, and their ideas and approaches to government--instead of just their party.
"Maybe this is an opportunity, now, to free up this system, to liberate it so that . . . all these issues can, in fact, come forward," Gilmore said.