Virginia Republicans have a lot to be thankful for this holiday, having secured a historic legislative majority in the elections three weeks ago. Now, their daunting task of governing begins.
So far, they seem to be proceeding with some degree of caution, dutifully electing their new leadership team in the House of Delegates--led by veteran lawmaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst)--and meeting in Richmond on Sunday afternoon to map strategy on the humdrum mechanics of taking over that chamber.
New rules of engagement are in the works, committee assignments are being reconfigured and the GOP must get a handle on the warren of Capitol offices that Wilkins now controls. From pencils and paper to personal computers and perks such as parking, the man to see in Richmond today is the gentleman from Amherst County, outside Lynchburg.
Wilkins is taking what Del. H. Morgan Griffith of Salem, his right hand as majority leader, is calling a "team" approach to this transition time, assigning trusted lieutenants such as Griffith and Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III of Prince William County to find out quickly what needs changing.
The new speaker paid the outgoing Democrats a muted compliment by saying the House already runs pretty well, but certainly change is afoot. For instance, Wilkins wants to see considerably less legislation introduced by delegates, who are always eager to burnish their election-year resumes with all the bills they've sponsored for folks back home.
The flow of legislation is but one facet of the balancing act that Wilkins must learn immediately. A fierce partisan not known for always having a deft touch with people, Wilkins must maintain great poise even while being whipsawed by his own troops, bitter minority Democrats, the Gilmore administration, lobbyists and other interest groups.
His relationships with fellow Republicans may be the most interesting part of the game to watch, for there are already cracks in what many view as an unstoppable bloc of newly empowered Republicans.
For instance, just hours before Wilkins was nominated for the speakership by GOP delegates, a fretful band of five moderate Republicans gathered at a home in Richmond's West End to compare notes on how to negotiate a starkly more conservative House.
Meeting early that Sunday afternoon at the home of Del. Anne G. Rhodes, a centrist who has tangled repeatedly with Gov. James S. Gilmore III and other GOP leaders, the legislators aired their concerns about internal caucus rules, Wilkins himself and a prospective leadership role for a Virginia Beach delegate with strong ties to televangelist Pat Robertson and other Christian conservatives.
"It was just a private meeting to talk about where we're going," Rhodes said. "I'm encouraged by efforts to look at ourselves, to think about governing in a responsible manner. We are trying to lead in a responsible direction."
But, Rhodes added, "I don't know what I see long term."
The group has periodically irked Gilmore during his two years in office by leaving the GOP reservation and siding with dreaded Democrats. Northern Virginians Vincent F. Callahan Jr. and James H. Dillard II were there, as were Robert S. Bloxom of the Eastern Shore and Phillip A. Hamilton of Newport News.
Rhodes denied reports circulating around the state that she and her pals were ready to bolt the party, but the deep divisions in the GOP are apparent and very much on the minds of Wilkins and other leaders.
Interestingly, the speaker is keeping Callahan close by, trusting the judgment of the veteran from McLean. Callahan has a powerful perch as chairman of the Appropriations Committee but, more important, he has seen it all in his more than 30 years as a General Assembly member.
Callahan was easily the most liberal member of the inner circle that met with Wilkins the following Sunday to chart transition moves. The steady Fairfax County legislator is preaching calm wherever he goes, sometimes quoting Winston Churchill's famous warrior's maxim, which was inspired by the horrors of World War I:
"In war: resolution," Churchill said. "In defeat: defiance. In victory: magnanimity.
"In peace: goodwill."
GOP Governors Elect Gilmore
The country's Republican governors showed their colleague Gilmore some goodwill in California last week, electing Virginia's chief executive the vice president of their national association, putting him in line for the chairmanship during his final year in office.
For some reason, Gilmore aides had been nervous that Gilmore's opposition to taxing Internet purchases would hurt him with enough governors such as Michael O. Leavitt of Utah, chairman of the National Governors' Association, to cripple his chances to become vice chairman of the Republican Governors' Association.
In the end, Gilmore was elected handily, pledging to work hard to repay the favor of money he received from the governors association in his 1997 campaign and to stump the country for reelection funds for GOP governors in the coming year.
"It's also a chance to get on the road and take the Republican message all across the country," Gilmore said from the La Costa resort in Carlsbad, Calif., where members of the governors association were meeting.
"We'll build up the Republican message on tax relief, education, high technology and inclusion," Gilmore said. Gov. George W. Bush "has reached out to Latinos; in Virginia, I'm reaching out to African Americans."
Gilmore said he wasn't particularly troubled that there was "obviously disagreement" among the governors about Internet taxation. Some executives want to guard their state's share of any revenue from such taxation.
"There is no solid evidence that states may lose revenue," Gilmore said. "My focus is the consumer--creating a frictionless, tax-free enterprise zone for them."
With the Virginia model of electing Republicans under his belt, Gilmore said he was looking forward to participating in the governors association's "fairly sophisticated" program of fund-raising over the next year. Eleven Republican governorships are up for grabs in 2000.