Gov. John N. Dalton, the feisty Republican partisan whose party went down to a crushing defeat in November's election, leaves Virginia's highest office in two weeks tired and somewhat disenchanted with public life and telling friends he will never run again.
While Dalton refused to rule out another run for the governorship in an interview last week, he made clear that he was fed up with what he considers distorted coverage by the press, sniping from other politicians and the low pay of public office.
"I'm just looking forward to getting back on the private side," said Dalton, who says he has enjoyed his four years as governor but is ready for "a change of pace" and the six-figure income he will earn as a senior partner in a Main Street Richmond law firm.
Public life, which once was so good to the 50-year-old John Dalton, turned sour in 1981--a year that began with the suicide of his top aide, Larry E. Murphy, and ended with disaster at the polls for his friend and protege, J. Marshall Coleman, and the entire GOP ticket.
There were other troubles as well. The governor engaged in a running political feud with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly climaxing last month when Dalton vetoed the third version of a House of Delegates redistricting plan and Democrats retaliated by blocking his last 160 appointments to state boards and commissions.
Violations of Virginia's conflict of interest law led to the resignation of three state highway commissioners, all of them Dalton appointees, and the governor says continuing newspaper coverage of the controversy has held his appointees up to public ridicule and made it harder to convince successful businessmen to take government posts.
The result is that Dalton, whom many Republicans look to as their best hope for recapturing the governor's mansion four years from now, is privately telling those who inquire that they should search elsewhere for a savior. He said the same thing in November when some of the state's most influential power brokers pleaded with him to run for the Senate this year.
"John's just kind of had it with public life and when he says to me that he's not going to run again, my strong inclination is to believe him," said U.S. Rep. Stanford E. Parris of Fairfax, a longtime Dalton confidant.
Another Republican said the governor "put it like this: 'If you think I'm ever going to put my a-- back in that public buzzsaw again, you're crazy.' "
Some of this year's setbacks have produced surprising admissions from a man not given to self doubt or second thoughts. In last week's interview, which took place in the governor's cramped private office on the third floor of the State Capitol, an introspective Dalton conceded he was still "very disturbed" by the suicide of Murphy, for six years his political right arm. He also accepted a large share of the blame for the year-long redistricting struggle, saying he made a mistake months ago in not forcing the House of Delegates to follow federal guidelines and draw up single-member districts.
"I should have vetoed the first bill they sent me (last April) and I'm sorry I didn't," said Dalton. "If I would have insisted on single-member districts state-wide the first time around, we wouldn't have had to go through the trauma we've gone through."
One defeat for which Dalton accepts no responsibility is the GOP's November disaster. As Dalton sees it, Coleman, the state attorney general, lost to Democrat Charles S. Robb because he failed to hold the votes of conservative former Democrats who had been a key element in the GOP's decade-long string of electoral triumphs.
The governor says he did his best to hold that group but that the refusal of delegates to the state Republican convention to bow to his wishes and bestow the nomination for lieutenant governor on Newport News Sen. Herbert Bateman, himself a conservative former Democrat, was a crucial blow.
"A lot of people just walked away after the convention and said, 'Well, we'll just go back home to the Democratic Party,' " said Dalton.
Some believe the governor has missed the election's real lesson and must share the blame for the loss. While some of Coleman's closest supporters credit Dalton with raising a large share of the money for the campaign, they also contend he boxed Coleman in a right-wing corner early on by forcing the attorney general to back Dalton in opposing union dues checkoffs for public employes and in vetoing a state holiday for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Both moves were highly unpopular with teacher groups and blacks--two constituencies with whom Coleman had close ties before the 1981 campaign began.
"The Republicans went too far to the right and abandoned moderates and blacks, and you can't do that and win," said Fairfax Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Northern Virginia's senior Republican legislator. "Dalton tried to transfer the coalition he had had and it didn't work."
The governor refuses to see the loss as a repudiation of his own administration. Citing polls showing his popularity has remained fairly consistent over the last four years, he says, "I feel pretty good about that."
He doesn't feel anywhere near as good about two longtime headaches--Democratic lawmakers and the press. The legislature's refusal to confirm his last batch of appointees, leaving their fate to Robb, is strictly "partisan politics," he says. "This is the first time that's been done and it's a little disturbing as far as the future of Virginia is concerned."
The legislators themselves find those sentiments ironic coming from a man who by all accounts was as partisan a governor as any in modern state history. "Maybe he's getting a little dose of his own medicine," said Fairfax Sen. Adelard L. Brault, the region's senior Democrat.
For the press, Dalton still bears deep resentment of news stories he maintains were distorted. He says reporters dwelt on petty matters--his liberal use of the state limousine or the $2,500 tent he purchased with state funds for his daughter's wedding--rather than the crucial decisions he made on billions in state appropriations. He says he has little advice for his successor on how to deal with reporters. "I think the press will do to you what they want to do to you," he said.
A conservative's conservative, Dalton still believes his administration will win a special place in Virginia history for holding down the growth of state government. And while other governors dread the impact of the Reagan federal budget cuts on their states, Dalton appears to welcome the belt-tightening Virginia will undergo. He is a staunch Reagan supporter.
"There's just not going to be any way that government can do everything for everybody," said Dalton. Recasting President Kennedy's famous challenge, he added "ask not what your government can do for you, ask what you can do for your government."
But Dalton, a millionaire, plans no more sacrifices. Friends say his new job will pay at least $200,000 a year. The governor demurs, but concedes "my income will be substantially more, several times what it is as governor," which pays $60,000 a year.
Some believe Dalton, who has spent most of his adult life running for office, will quickly grow tired of the sidelines and the sudden obscurity political retirement may bring. But the governor himself appears to welcome the prospect. "I'm looking forward to practicing law," he said. "I think I'm going to be very happy."