Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) called tonight for an end to the "confusion" about the way Virginia honors the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by proposing a holiday for the slain civil rights leader that would be separate from the current commemorative day for King and Confederate icons Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
In his annual State of the Commonwealth address to members of the new Republican majority of the General Assembly and their Democratic colleagues, Gilmore preached an unequivocal message of inclusion, not only on the King holiday, but also on issues such as the "digital divide" separating wealthy and less affluent Internet users.
Calling Lee, Jackson and King three great American heroes--whom the state will honor again on Monday, the federal King holiday--Gilmore concurred with many African Americans in Virginia in saying, "The combination of these individuals on a single day creates confusion among our citizens.
"The time has come to enhance these holidays and give them each their due recognition," Gilmore said.
Gilmore made his proposal for a renamed holiday after consulting former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D), the nation's first elected black governor and a friend who was an early proponent of a separate King holiday during his years in the state Senate here.
Wilder, who turns 69 on Monday, hailed Gilmore's announcement as a recognition that "Virginia is diverse. We should be able to celebrate different heroes of different eras at different times."
"This shows the governor's sensitivity," said Wilder, who fought eight years for a special King day until the assembly passed the three-way holiday in 1984.
Black lawmakers greeted Gilmore's news cautiously. "It's a significant step, but I will not judge the governor by a symbolic gesture alone," said state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond).
Gilmore offered no details about legislation he envisaged to separate the holidays. He did not specify, for example, whether Virginia's King Day would remain on the third Monday in January. Virginia used to celebrate a Lee-Jackson Day on Jan. 19, Lee's birthday.
Gilmore's call for an individual King holiday was greeted by spirited applause, but there was none for his later request for a tighter abortion statute in Virginia, one that would require a 24-hour waiting period and informed consent by a woman before the procedure is performed. Gilmore used his address last year to urge passage of similar legislation.
Opening another politically charged front, Gilmore urged lawmakers to dismantle some vestiges of Virginia's old Democratic political machine by allowing voters to register by political party and placing party identification next to candidates' names on election ballots.
On a sparkling day that began with a momentous changing of the guard at the historic Capitol and ended with Gilmore's speech, Republicans sounded time-honored Virginia themes of restraint and decorum even as they excitedly prepared to get down to business in the 60-day assembly session.
Lawmakers had an early taste of one potentially divisive issue, tuition tax credits to help private school students, busloads of whom traveled to Capitol Square to hear speakers exhort legislators to grant the tax breaks.
"Education isn't a one-size-fits-all solution," said Pat Grigsby, of Loudoun County, who schools her children, Kathleen, 5, and Daniel, 3, at home. "Even just a small credit from the state can help."
Amid a buoyant, expectant air, legislators offered good wishes for S. Vance Wilkins Jr., a lanky contractor from rural Amherst County who, after toiling for 22 years in the Republican minority, became the 53rd speaker of the House of Delegates.
At 12:18 p.m., with Gilmore, members of Congress and former Republican governors looking on, Wilkins, 63, strode the few steps up to the speaker's rostrum, where Richard H. Poff, a senior justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, administered the short oath of office, pledging Wilkins to "faithfully and impartially" discharge his duties.
With that, Wilkins spoke to all who had supported him through the long days of political organizing. "Thank you, sweetheart," he called up to his wife, Leona, in the balcony. He told the assembly that government's mission was to function "so the poor and the weak can obtain the same results as the rich and powerful, as long as their cause is just."
Small but telling symbols of change abounded today.
Sitting gamely in Coffin Corner, a quadrant on the House floor customarily reserved for the young Turks of the Democrats, was Del. Thomas W. Moss Jr., 71, of Norfolk, Wilkins's Democratic predecessor as speaker.
At midday, Moss ventured downstairs to Chicken's, the Capitol's venerable deli, for a bite to eat and teased the counter staff about what was tasty today.
"You're not speaker anymore," one employee teased back. "I'm not giving you any preferential treatment."
Back on the floor, Del. Alan A. Diamonstein (Newport News), a nationally known Democratic fund-raiser and strategist, had relinquished his prime aisle seat in the back row to Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), who has risen to the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee.
In nominating Wilkins, Callahan, a moderate voice in GOP ranks, delighted his comrades-in-arms by called attention to his own newly prominent seat. "This is what is known in military terms as . . . a beachhead!" Callahan said.
Democrats tried to remain philosophical.
"I don't feel much different today than every other time I've been sworn in," said C. Richard Cranwell, the Roanoke area Democrat who may be the sharpest thorn in Wilkins's side. "We disagree a lot of times," Cranwell said. "But that doesn't mean we can't be civil."
Staff writers Justin Blum and Craig Timberg contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Gov. James S. Gilmore III is applauded during his State of the Commonwealth Address. He said Confederates Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson should have a holiday separate from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s.
CAPTION: Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst) became the 53rd speaker of the House after 22 years in the minority.