Incoming Republican leaders of Virginia's General Assembly met today to begin flexing their newfound power, but decided on a short-term course of moderation toward ousted Democrats that tentatively includes retaining their longtime clerk in the House.
With some Democrats bracing for retribution by the GOP, a group of eight Republicans sat down for an important round of housekeeping that suggested a take-it-slow approach among those now firmly in control of the legislature after the party's election victories on Nov. 2.
The group's leader, Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (Amherst), whom Republican House members have selected as the new speaker, said later that the House was already a "pretty efficient" operation and that he would alter only those legislative mechanics "that seem to need changing."
As for House Clerk Bruce F. Jamerson, the target of some spirited discussion this afternoon, "some want to keep him, others don't," said Wilkins, promising a speedy "consensus" on the fate of the high-profile parliamentarian who has been in that office since late 1991.
"We want to have a smooth transition," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (Fairfax), 68, a 32-year veteran of the legislature. "We want to be fair. We're making history."
Other Republicans echoed Callahan's call for wary collegiality, even as they noted that several leaders of the new GOP majority in the House want to exact a measure of internal revenge for the years of heavy-handedness they believe they suffered under the Democratic majority.
Life at the Capitol was reordered Nov. 2, when voters sent a clear Republican majority to the House and retained a narrow GOP edge in the Senate. In both chambers, Republicans are now deciding day-to-day procedural rules, coveted committee assignments and staff hirings in a bureaucratic empire they once only dreamed of ruling.
Today's two-hour session, held at Wilkins's request, was the first lengthy discussion he conducted on those issues and others, including the fate of Jamerson, who infuriated Republicans two sessions ago with a floor ruling crucial to the slender Democratic majority.
GOP leaders said privately that although Jamerson's future was not assured--he awaits election when the full House convenes in January and raw feelings about him linger--there was an emerging view that keeping him on would be smarter than installing a replacement in eight weeks.
Seemingly minor decisions such as whether to keep a Democratic-leaning clerk will not make many headlines, but Republicans and Democrats alike are looking for such signals to gauge how Wilkins and his team are apt to behave come January.
The speaker and his lieutenants know that well, they said today.
"There is a strong feeling we want to get it right," said H. Morgan Griffith, 41, a Salem lawyer who as new House majority leader will have Wilkins's ear.
"That doesn't mean we will always get it right--there may be some times when we don't--but Vance wants to be the best possible speaker," Griffith said. "He knows it doesn't reflect well on him or us if there is a blatant return to the partisanship of before."
Several Democrats--as well as a handful of Republicans--have expressed misgivings about whether Wilkins, a lawmaker for more than 20 years, would use his new office to impose personal views on an important branch of state government. So far, Wilkins, who will be confirmed as speaker when the House convenes, has espoused a measure of moderation.
Wilkins, 63, has already spoken about the transition with his predecessor, Democrat Thomas W. Moss Jr., 71, a delegate since 1966, GOP leaders said. And Griffith's counterpart, Del. C. Richard Cranwell (D) from neighboring Roanoke, has invited him to lunch back home this Friday.
Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington) said he was heartened by what GOP lawmakers had been saying. "They can say this is the time for payback, or say--instead of looking back--they're going to look forward," Brink said.
"The comments I've seen so far from Vance say they're doing the latter."