Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr., who will become Virginia's first Republican House speaker in more than a century, introduced himself to Northern Virginia in a speech to business leaders yesterday by calling for innovative solutions to the region's traffic problems and tougher penalties for drug users.
Wilkins said the state should consider tax breaks for people who telecommute, greater investment in mass transit and construction of toll roads to ease traffic congestion. To fight crime, he said, Virginia should require that first-time drug offenders serve time in jail.
Arguably the second most powerful politician in Virginia government, Wilkins told board members of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce that the fortunes of Northern Virginia's high-technology businesses are linked to the state's schools and universities.
"Education is part of the answer for finding qualified employees," Wilkins told the business leaders, who have complained for several years about a severe shortage of highly qualified workers. For Wilkins, who hails from a southern Virginia town of 2,200 in Amherst County, the speech was an important step toward bolstering his standing in Northern Virginia, said several Fairfax County politicians who attended.
Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax), who challenged Wilkins for the speakership, praised Wilkins for making the trip and for making the effort to understand the issues that are important to Northern Virginians. "The fact that he's here and working with Northern Virginia is very important," Rust said.
Wilkins did not focus much on Northern Virginia during his 10-minute speech, referring specifically to the region only during comments about transportation projects that need funding, including the "Mixing Bowl" interchange in Springfield and the extension of Metrorail to Dulles International Airport.
At one point, Wilkins challenged the state's publicly funded universities to "be the best in country in at least one field." He offered one example: Virginia Commonwealth University's efforts to become a leader in biotechnology, a move that Wilkins said could help revitalize downtown Richmond, where the college is located.
Gov. James. S. Gilmore III (R) announced yesterday that he would ask the legislature for an additional $23 million for George Mason University, much of that for high-tech initiatives. But Wilkins made no mention of George Mason or of Northern Virginia Community College.
"I don't think you can expect that someone's going to come up here and be Northern Virginia's speaker," Rust said. "But he's somebody who's willing to learn."
Wilkins was first elected to the House in 1977 and was one of the architects of the Republicans' march toward control of Virginia government, which culminated in the election of a GOP majority to the House on Nov. 2.
For his part, Wilkins made light yesterday of criticism that he doesn't understand the high-tech world of Northern Virginia. He joked that in a meeting with top chamber officials last week, he was advised that he should not come dressed in overalls to the speech and that he should wear shoes to the McLean Hilton event because residents of Northern Virginia are much more sophisticated than those from downstate.
"They gave me good advice," said Wilkins, who was dressed in a suit and tie, to the laughing crowd.
Most of the new House Republican leaders will be delegates elected far from the party's base of power in suburban areas that sprawl from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads. That fact has caused some concern among Northern Virginia business and civic groups. Wilkins has said that he understands the difference between representing a district from southern Virginia and addressing the statewide concerns of the speaker's job.
A House Republican caucus picked Wilkins to be speaker Nov. 14, but the job won't become official until his selection is confirmed by the General Assembly in January, a vote that is considered a formality.