For more than two centuries, the Virginia General Assembly has honored the most powerful lawmakers in the legislature by hanging a portrait of the speaker of the House in the body's chamber after he has left his post.
On Saturday, the honor goes to S. Vance Wilkins, who resigned the speakership two years ago during a sexual harassment scandal. But a small flap has developed over whether his portrait should be hung in the chamber and whether he has a right to demand that the ceremony be held in private.
Some Democrats, who watched as Wilkins orchestrated the Republican takeover of the House during the 1990s, have said that because of the circumstances of his departure, he should not be honored in the same vein as other recent speakers, such as A.L. Philpott or Thomas W. Moss Jr.
This year, Virginia Democrats named Wilkins in a civil suit over an incident two years ago in which a Republican official eavesdropped on two Democratic conference calls.
Democrats also are miffed about another portrait the Republicans plan to hang: that of Del. Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford), a former Democrat who served as the interim speaker for seven months -- but not during a legislative session -- after Wilkins resigned and before Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) took over in January 2003.
"It's a slap in the face to the institution," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, which has been out of power for nearly five years. "Not only do they want to put Wilkins's picture up . . . but also someone who only served as speaker for a New York minute." Wilkins's and Putney's portraits would replace those of Philpott and Moss.
Republican leaders said the criticism was frivolous.
"It is completely appropriate," said H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), the House majority leader who sponsored the legislation to have the portraits commissioned. "He was a great speaker . . . and I certainly had no problems sponsoring the bill regardless of the circumstances that led to his resignation."
The chief aide for Howell also said that the ceremony should continue without controversy.
"It's a tradition for House speakers to have their portraits hung in the chamber, and we certainly should continue that tradition," said G. Paul Nardo, Howell's aide. "To say this is a disgrace is absurd."
Wilkins told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he wanted the Saturday morning ceremony in the House chamber to be closed to the media and public and reserved for family, friends and the artist who painted the portrait.
But the State Capitol is a public building, and state officials said they will not stop the public or media from witnessing the event.
Wilkins did not return a phone message left on his office voice mail.
House Clerk Bruce F. Jamerson said that any member of the public will be allowed in the balcony of the chamber, and reporters will be allowed onto the floor, as they usually are when the House is in session.
Wilkins, who served in the House for 25 years, became the state's first Republican speaker in the 20th century after he helped engineer the GOP's first legislative majority in 1999. He resigned after two years as speaker, when he acknowledged that he had paid a woman $100,000 to settle out of court her sexual harassment complaint against him.