Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax County said today he will relinquish his Democratic Party leadership post after the legislative session, in part because of intense criticism by party colleagues over his role in a racially divisive judgeship battle.
"It's time for somebody else to do this," Saslaw said in an interview. "I can be just as effective in the trenches."
Saslaw's decision was encouraged by some Democrats but mourned by others, especially fellow Northern Virginians.
It followed a week of blistering criticism from African American and other colleagues about his opposition to Newport News Circuit Court Judge Verbena M. Askew, the first black woman to serve on a Virginia circuit court.
Askew was elected to the judgeship in 1995, when Democrats ran the General Assembly, but sought reelection in a Republican-controlled legislature.
Saslaw said the criticism, which had not abated since Askew's defeat on Jan. 22, played only a "minor part" in his decision to step down as the Democratic leader. Saslaw, a senator since 1980, turns 63 next week and will seek a seventh four-year term in the Nov. 4 election, he said.
"I voted what I believe was correct," said Saslaw, one of only two Democrats in two large legislative committees who voted against a second term for Askew. "That's over."
However, several Democratic senators said Saslaw had irreparably damaged his standing in the party caucus and probably had to go. They said Saslaw hurt himself first when he contradicted two black colleagues and declared on the Senate floor that the seven-hour confirmation hearing Askew endured had been fair, and then by voting against Askew in the Courts of Justice Committee.
"Rather than being the leader of the Democrats, he was giving cover to the Republicans," said Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), a black member of the courts committee. Lucas had likened the Senate's white Republican majority to a "lynch mob" for what she said was a biased confirmation process.
"I talked to Dick every day for a week and said, 'Don't do this,' but he wasn't hearing," Lucas said. "I don't think he had a clue about how broadly this hurt people."
A courthouse colleague accused Askew of sexual harassment in 2000, resulting in a $64,000 settlement, and Saslaw said that aspect of the judge's record -- and what he said was Askew's subsequent retaliation against the employee -- disqualified her from the bench.
In the aftermath, Saslaw tried with limited success to mend fences. He invited the Senate's five black members to dinner Tuesday night at his favorite Richmond restaurant, where he announced his intention to quit as leader; one of them refused to attend.
The battle over Askew was an extraordinarily polarizing event in the life of the legislature, where tempers tend to run hot, especially in election years. The judge's defeat heightened tensions along racial and gender lines -- divisions that were exacerbated this week when GOP lawmakers ousted a Democratic woman from the state water board.
"This session, pretty obviously, is tearing the heart out of many people," said state Sen. W. Roscoe Reynolds, a Democrat from rural Southside who is a member of the courts committee.
Reynolds, who is white, said he too was troubled by Saslaw's role in voting to end Askew's judicial career.
"I told him that a certain number of his actions were disrespectful to other members of the caucus," Reynolds said. "I told him it's got to be 'we,' instead of 'me.' "
Being leader of a 17-member minority in the 40-seat Senate conferred little real power on Saslaw, who assumed the post in 1998. But he was an acknowledged master at making the most of what the Democrats had. In early 2001, he and his bloc of votes joined forces with moderate Republicans to force a stalemate on the state budget, embarrassing the Republican governor, James S. Gilmore III, and helping pave the way for the election of Democrat Mark R. Warner, who has relied heavily on Saslaw for advice and party-building assistance.
"He's a master of the parliamentary system," said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington. "He can think of ways to get a bill through or block bills, which other people can't always do."