Republicans arriving here to complete their historic takeover of the State Capitol are acting triumphant but a little spooked. The ghost, they say, is the leader of an earlier GOP takeover: Newt Gingrich.
Five years after Gingrich stormed into Washington declaring a "Republican Revolution" in Congress, Virginia's Republicans are crafting an agenda less ambitious but, they hope, more enduring than Gingrich's.
"Survival first," said Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst).
The rural conservative expects to culminate decades of party building with his election Wednesday as speaker when the first Republican majority in the history of the House of Delegates is sworn in for the 60-day General Assembly session.
A net pickup of three House seats in November's elections has made GOP power in Richmond almost total. In the past decade, Republicans have taken the governorship, the lieutenant governorship, the attorney general's office and both houses of the General Assembly. The Republican takeover of the Virginia House, the only switch in party control in the nation this year, gives the GOP unprecedented political power in an Old South state.
Yet Virginia's new House majority has chosen to keep a Democratic holdover as clerk. And GOP lawmakers are letting the minority Democrats keep a fair share of power on House and Senate legislative committees--a courtesy the Democrats only recently extended to Republicans, who for more than a century were in the minority.
The GOP leadership plans to avoid a big party push on such issues as major new tax cuts, school choice or new abortion restrictions, though all those issues are being pushed by individual Republican lawmakers.
On most issues, legislative Republicans are content to follow the lead of Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), who has proposed a large transportation spending package and an anti-drug initiative. He also is trying to protect more than $1 billion in approved tax cuts.
Wilkins, widely regarded as a partisan fighter, is earning praise from party moderates for his inclusive approach. His agenda is topped by two items that Democrats might as easily have proposed: an early-grade reading initiative and a plan to preserve farms and forests by purchasing development rights from landowners.
Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax), the main rival to Wilkins's bid for speaker last fall, has dubbed the Republican reticence to take on controversial new issues "the Newt Gingrich syndrome." He describes it this way: "We want to make sure that we don't try to do everything at once because that may not be well received."
Gingrich, wielding his 10-point "Contract With America," became speaker of the House of Representatives in 1995 as Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. He promised massive tax cuts, a presidential line-item veto and congressional term limits, but a backlash weakened his power, leading to Gingrich's resignation after the November 1998 elections thinned the GOP majority.
State Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) said the gradual nature of the Republican takeover of state government accounts for the take-it-slow approach this year. Republican governors in the 1990s abolished parole, reformed welfare and cut the car tax even before GOP power in the General Assembly was solidified.
"The Republican majority is a mainstream conservative group. Virginia should not expect radical changes," Mims said.
He added that gradualism suits the Virginia General Assembly, the oldest legislature in the New World, with a heritage dating to 1619: "We ought to act differently in Virginia than the group in Washington sometimes acts."
Democrats are spending this week adjusting to smaller offices and diminished power, and they are treating Republican pledges of bipartisanship with wariness. Many Democrats are worried that Wilkins will use his clout to assign lawmakers to committees to dilute Democratic power on important issues.
"We'll find out when I get my committee assignments how extra-nice they're being," quipped new state Sen. Leslie L. Byrne (D-Fairfax) as she hung pictures in her legislative office.
The Republican majority remains slim, 52 to 47 in the House with one Republican-leaning independent, and 21 to 19 in the state Senate. The setup could concentrate power in the hands of a few moderate Republicans who are willing to team up with Democrats on specific issues, lawmakers said.
Both sides are talking about a new era of bipartisanship that could shape legislation on some issues. In fact, the relative balance between the two parties could sharpen the regional divides among legislators of both parties that dominate on such issues as transportation and gun control.
This legislature will divide up the $2.4 billion in surplus and increased revenue expected in the next two years, thanks to the good economy. That fight is almost certain to pit region against region.
"What I've found out since I've been down here is things are more regional than partisan," said Del. R. Creigh Deeds, a Democrat from mountainous Bath County, along the West Virginia border.
Gilmore's proposed two-year budget, totaling $48 billion, is a blueprint for legislators, but changes are almost inevitable. The same is true for his proposal to spend $2.5 billion more on transportation projects over the next six years.
Republicans and Democrats from Northern Virginia are fighting to make the transportation package larger, though they probably will encounter resistance from lawmakers elsewhere in the state.
Ideological alliances may transcend party lines as well. Some Democrats from Southside and Southwest Virginia have a history of joining with conservative Republicans from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads on social issues, particularly abortion.
Advocates of new restrictions, including a 24-hour waiting period and hospital-style regulations for abortion clinics, say the new Republican legislature will be more supportive of such measures--even if the GOP leadership doesn't push them.
Del. H. Morgan Griffith (Salem), the new Republican majority leader, predicted that the 24-hour waiting period for abortions would pass the General Assembly this year, but not because of the efforts of the GOP leadership.
"It won't be part of a grand design," Griffith said.
Republican leaders are taking a similarly distanced position on the proposal to give $2,500 tax credits to parents who send their children to private or parochial schools.
Wilkins said he'd likely vote for such a proposal but he's not pushing it as a party position--at least not now as the GOP leadership focuses on a smooth transition instead of hot new issues.
"What good does it do us if we make all these changes and we lose the House and they all get undone two years later?" Wilkins said. "I really want to get something done, and not just put on a show."
Virginia General Assembly Issues
A look at the major issues the Virginia General Assembly will consider during its 60-day session that begins today, including proposals offered by Democrats and by Gov. James S. Gilmore III and his Republican colleagues.
Gilmore/GOP position: Gilmore has proposed a $2.5billion package for transportation over six years. Some Northern Virginia Republicans favor spending more.
Democratic position: Many Northern Virginia Democrats want to spend more on roads and transportation than Gilmore does. But there is wide disagreement on how much to spend and how to pay for the projects.
ISSUE: Tobacco settlement money
Gilmore/GOP position: Gilmore wants to use 40 percent of the settlement for transportation, 10 percent to fight youth smoking and 50 percent to help tobacco farmers and their communities.
Democratic position: While the Democratic leadership has signed off on the Gilmore approach, some Democratic lawmakers think more money should be used to fight smoking and its related illnesses.
Gilmore/GOP position: The governor has proposed spending $600 million on higher education, including $23 million to help make George Mason University a high-technology showcase. Gilmore also wants additional funding for K-12 but is proposing no raises for teachers.
Democratic position: Many Democrats want to see raises for teachers and favor more spending than Gilmore has proposed for K-12 and higher education.
Gilmore/GOP position: Gilmore is generally opposed to government restrictions on growth, but some Republicans from rapidly growing areas favor them. GOP leaders are pushing a plan to pay rural landowners not to develop their property.
Democratic position: There is no party consensus on growth control measures. Many Democrats support proposals to pay landowners not to develop their property.
Gilmore/GOP position: Gilmore's proposed budget calls for $1.6 billion to continue phasing out the car tax and cutting other levies.
Democratic position: Some Democrats want to speed the planned reduction in the food tax. Last year, Gilmore signed off on a measure to reduce the 4.5 percent tax on groceries by half a percentage point a year, beginning this month. The tax is slated to be reduced to 2.5 percent.
Gilmore/GOP position: The governor does not plan to push new abortion restrictions this session. But some GOP lawmakers hope to impose a 24-hour waiting period and to require hospital-style standards at abortion clinics.
Democratic position: Most Democrats oppose new restrictions.
Gilmore/GOP position: The governor has proposed $10 million in tax incentives to prod employers into letting workers do their jobs from home computers rather than contributing to rush-hour traffic congestion. Gilmore also supports a ban on taxing goods
Democratic position: No unified position.