Virginia Republicans today picked Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. to be their first speaker of the House in a century and an ally from Southwest Virginia to be his top deputy, passing over the leading Northern Virginia candidate for both jobs.
Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax), who dropped out of the speaker's race against Wilkins last week, ended up with little opportunity to campaign for the second job of majority leader because Del. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) had already locked up enough votes for a first-ballot victory today.
The result will be a Republican leadership in the House headed by delegates far from the party's base of power in the suburban areas that sprawl from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads.
Rust, who said he was disappointed not to win a leadership job, called the decision to elect leaders from outside Northern Virginia a missed opportunity for the party.
"I think that ultimately the growth of the party is going to come out of the suburbs," Rust said. "We needed to have somebody who came out of that to have a voice that's going to resonate, and we don't have that."
Wilkins, from Amherst County outside Lynchburg, and Griffith, from just outside Roanoke, pledged to bring fairness to the House of Delegates. Republicans have long contended that during a century of Democratic rule, leaders of that party treated the opposition unfairly, keeping GOP delegates off important committees and stealing promising bills.
State Democratic Party Chairman Kenneth R. Plum, a delegate from Fairfax County, acknowledged that party leaders were not always fair in their treatment of Republicans, particularly in committee representation. "Their willingness to overcome that, I applaud," he said.
But Plum said he was surprised that no lawmaker from Northern Virginia ended up in any of the top House jobs. "It's astonishing to me that Northern Virginia Republicans weren't able to assert themselves and have some representation in the leadership," he said.
Wilkins and Griffith disputed the suggestion that Northern Virginia, which makes up more than one-quarter of the Republican caucus, is not well represented among the party's leaders. Six committees--including Appropriations, Finance, Education and Transportation--have Republican co-chairmen from Northern Virginia.
"Northern Virginia is extremely well represented," said Wilkins, 63. "We have a pretty broad mix in our caucus leadership."
Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, agreed. "We've got plenty of people in leadership now," he said. "Look at the committee leadership, which is where the action really is."
Today was the first gathering of House Republicans since they won their first majority in the House of Delegates on Nov. 2. The party gained three seats, giving the House 52 Republicans, 47 Democrats and one independent, who usually votes with the Republicans.
The caucus met at party headquarters in downtown Richmond for about two hours. Several new members were introduced, including Del.-elect Thomas M. Bolvin, who defeated veteran Democratic Del. Gladys B. Keating in a close race in southern Fairfax County.
Wilkins easily won the Republican nomination for the speakership. Rust and the other contender for the job dropped out last week. Griffith, regarded as a rising young star with sharp parliamentary skills and an aggressive style, also won the majority leader's job on the first ballot. Del. Leo C. Wardrup Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) kept his job as head of the GOP caucus in the House. Del. John S. Reid (R-Henrico) kept his job as House whip.
All but Wilkins assumed their jobs immediately. He must win a vote on the House floor on the first day of the session in January, but that is considered a formality because the majority Republicans vow to vote as a bloc on such organizational issues.
At a news conference after the meeting, the new leaders pledged to bring Republican ideas to the House but said they would not initiate major change immediately.
"The change in the General Assembly has been incremental," Wilkins said. "You will see us tend toward the general Republican focus of less government and more individual responsibility, but it will be a gradual shift."
The only suspense today was over the majority leader's job. Griffith had campaigned hard for it, as had Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach). Rust was nominated as well, but he was hurt by his late entry into the race.
Griffith, 41, is a lawyer and was first elected to the House in 1993. He has impressed his Republican colleagues with his grasp on the sometimes-mundane details of parliamentary procedure and his willingness to engage in floor battles with Democratic leadership, including the man he replaces as majority leader, Del. C. Richard Cranwell, a Democratic powerhouse from neighboring Roanoke.
Griffith fought for proportional representation in the House, meaning that each committee's percentage of Republicans and Democrats should roughly equal the percentage of the parties' representation in the House as a whole. He also won notoriety for leading an unsuccessful revolt on a bill to name former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher an honorary Virginian in recognition of her service as chancellor at the College of William and Mary.
Cranwell used the majority leader job to make himself the undisputed lead strategist for the Democrats, but Griffith said he would continue to focus heavily on parliamentary issues and organizing the caucus for floor debates.
"Making the process work is probably my number one issue," he said. "I have been somewhat combative, but I pride myself on being fair."
Callahan called him "made-to-order to be a floor leader."
CAPTION: Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst) speaks to reporters after his election in Richmond. He says he plans "a gradual shift" rather than major changes.
CAPTION: Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax) left the race for speaker last week.
CAPTION: S. Vance Wilkins Jr., lunching Friday in Amherst, said, "Northern Virginia is extremely well represented" in the GOP leadership.