The idea for a new Virginia holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been perking in Richmond for weeks, but it didn't get the go-ahead until Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) said so, just hours before legislators convened in joint session and he surprised them with it in his annual State of the Commonwealth address.

Gilmore had little real news to report in his 40-minute speech Jan. 12--after all, his administration's pocketbook is bulging; he merely repeated what he had said a year earlier on abortion; and he didn't gloat too much about the historic Republican majority, although he acknowledged one rousing ovation with, "I guess it's been a long time coming, hasn't it?"

So the new King Day proposal captured the headline the next morning, and Gilmore had himself a political win-win, extending a hand of friendship once again to African Americans and floating an idea that supporters of the old Lee-Jackson holiday would look churlish opposing.

How did Gilmore reach his decision? Supporters of the governor said that in the end, it came down largely to a conversation the governor had earlier in the day with two of his most trusted aides, M. Boyd Marcus Jr., his political alter ego, and Mark A. Miner, his press secretary and a moderate voice on the Capitol's third floor, where they all work with the rest of Gilmore's inner circle.

Aside from the frankly political considerations--Which interest group may be infuriated? Are we reopening old racial wounds that have been healing since the 1984 inception of Lee-Jackson-King Day?--Gilmore was determined to show that it is possible to be as partisan and unyielding a conservative as he is and still forge ties, albeit symbolic ones, to blacks.

"This policy has no boundaries," Miner mused the next afternoon. "There is no reason for anybody to be against this."

The King Day idea was also a small case study in how Gilmore operates, letting ideas filter through the top reaches of the executive branch and sitting down with pros he trusts to reach a decision--at or very near the end of the day.

MLK Move Garners Support

Footnotes to the MLK Day news: Several well-known politicians rushed to endorse the proposal of Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), including his predecessor, Republican Senate candidate George Allen, who also came out last week for Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the GOP's presidential sweepstakes.

More interesting was an endorsement from future gubernatorial Democratic candidate Mark R. Warner, of Alexandria.

Warner fired off a nice note to Gilmore, applauding many of the policies the governor outlined and hailing his "indication that you want to work with Democrats in a bipartisan manner."

And the new King holiday? "It is the right thing to do," the Democrat told the Republican.

Human Services Shake-Up

Upheaval at the state secretariat for health and human services, a little-covered agency that spends billions of dollars in taxpayer money every year:

Under Claude A. Allen, one of two African Americans in Gilmore's 11-member Cabinet, the HHS secretariat has been pilloried, predictably, by Democrats and liberal Republicans terrified that protections for the state's neediest citizens were getting snipped and cut by zealots determined to bring tough new accountability to services such as welfare benefits, child health insurance and other programs for fragile families throughout Virginia.

In one day, Gilmore announced two high-profile transfers: Scott E. Daniels goes from being a deputy secretary to Allen to being the assistant commissioner for policy at the Social Services Department, also under Allen.

Clarence H. Carter, who as top commissioner of the Social Services Department was also a senior black official in Gilmore's Republican administration, will direct the trustees of Virginia's tobacco settlement foundation.

In a statement, Carter said he had been privileged "to preside over the redefinition of the social safety net" in Virginia, cutting public assistance cases by 51 percent.

Meriwether Takes the Helm

Gordon Meriwether, whose resume in public and political life reads like a What's What for Northern Virginia, is the new chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, succeeding Emilie Miller.

Check this out on Meriwether: vice president of DynCorp, the Reston tech heavy; lay leader at Messiah United Methodist in Springfield; Naval Reserve captain; Leadership Fairfax alum; and the man to see in Springfield Democratic circles as the party's district chairman.

Fairfax continues to be the crown jewel in statewide elections, Meriwether said.

The mission of his Democrats in the next two years is "returning Chuck Robb to the Senate as well as retaking the General Assembly and the Governor's Mansion."

"We will work to make that happen," Meriwether said in a statement.