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Democrats Prevail in First Session

C. Richard Cranwell grips Thomas W. Moss Jr.
Majority Leader C. Richard Cranwell grips Speaker Thomas W. Moss Jr.
By Robert A. Reeder/TWP
By Ellen Nakashima and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 15, 1998; Page A01

RICHMOND, Jan. 14 – Virginia's House dropped all pretense of political order in today's opening session, as Democrats reelected Speaker Thomas W. Moss Jr. while Republicans, who had hoped to seize control for the first time, jeered, chanted objections and repeatedly slammed their desktops in disgust.

The wild scene – which one GOP spokesman said made the state look like "the Banana Republic of Virginia" – followed a five-hour parliamentary standoff brought on by Republicans. They were trying to force Democrats to either share power or allow three new GOP delegates who were elected Tuesday to be seated ahead of schedule so they could take part in choosing a speaker.

The new delegates give Republicans 49 seats in the 100-member House, where there also is a GOP-leaning independent. But because Republicans lost a court effort to force state elections officials to speed up their vote-verification process, the new delegates won't officially be seated until Friday.

That didn't stop Republicans from trying to seat the new delegates today; they had a party activist who is a notary public "swear in" the newcomers. GOP efforts to grind House business to a halt, and Democratic attempts to cling to power, resulted in what many longtime observers said was the ugliest display of partisan wrangling they had ever seen in Virginia's legislature.

The vote to reelect Moss came after Democrats and Republicans had begun discussing a power-sharing agreement. During a recess, House Clerk Bruce Jamerson checked a videotape of the opening session and decided that he had mistakenly allowed a Republican delegate to make a motion, which permitted the GOP to take control of the House floor for a filibuster.

Jamerson is a House employee who normally advises the speaker on parliamentary questions. But without a speaker in place for much of the day, Jamerson presided over a chamber at war with itself, as lawmakers in both parties repeatedly hurled rules questions at him and shouted, "Objection!"

At one point, Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax) spoke to support his motion to seat the new members. "This is fundamental to the fairness of what we're doing," he thundered. "If we do not have the will in this body to represent the citizens of Virginia, if we do not have the strength of character to see what's right, there's something fundamentally wrong in a body that is one of the best bodies in the world."

The hours-long quagmire led House Majority Leader C. Richard Cranwell (D-Roanoke) to approach Minority Leader S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst) and begin talks about sharing power in the chamber.

Those discussions were still active when Jamerson reversed his early ruling and gave Democrats the floor. Democrats then rushed to the House chamber to reelect Moss, a Norfolk Democrat, by a 50 to 7 vote.

At first, Republicans directed their anger at Jamerson, whose reversal killed their plans to freeze action in the House. Several GOP lawmakers yelled, "Don't do this!" as Jamerson announced his decision, and then cried, "Puppet! Illegitimate power!"

With Democrats applauding and some Republicans chanting, "Shame! Shame! Shame!" Moss was sworn in as speaker by state Supreme Court Justice Harry L. Carrico. The catcalls continued when Moss tried to give a conciliatory acceptance speech.

"I've made overtures in every way I know how to accommodate what you want to achieve in this session," Moss began, before several Republicans demanded to know whether his speech was in order.

"All right, I tried to be nice about it, but I won't," Moss said as pitched his text aside.

Moss said the Republicans' actions showed a "total lack of respect for this House," where, he said, "dignity was prized above all."

"Under the rules, we could have had them removed from the chamber," Moss added. "But we were not going to give them that photo opportunity."

The day was remarkably calm in the Senate, where Republicans have a slight edge and both parties operate under a power-sharing pact. Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. (D), who will give way to Lt. Gov.-elect John H. Hager (R) Saturday, opened his last session, and the chamber spent a few minutes on procedural matters before adjourning. Many senators wandered over to the House to see the drama unfolding there.

Republicans have been gaining seats in Virginia's legislature for two decades but have never been so close to controlling the House. They have been aided in recent weeks by Gov.-elect James S. Gilmore III (R), who helped the GOP pick up a House seat by appointing Prince William Democrat David G. Brickley to a post in his administration.

Brickley's seat, which represents a conservative, increasingly Republican area, was one of three seats the GOP won in Tuesday's three special elections.

Republicans began the day determined to have Tuesday's winners – Michele B. McQuigg of Prince William, R. Lee Ware of suburban Richmond and Harry B. Blevins of Chesapeake – take part in House business today.

Republicans had hoped, with new delegates in place, to nominate Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford) for the speakership. They also hoped to create a deadlock in the House or take it over with a single defection among Democrats.

After Richmond notary public Lisa Foster unofficially swore them in, the new delegates sat in their new desks. But Jamerson, the clerk, refused to recognize them, following procedures that require election winners to be certified by the state Board of Elections.

With only 46 delegates in place, Republicans then began a day of stall and stall again.

Moss's election came after a five-hour standoff that included filibusters by GOP delegates reading from Thomas Jefferson's manual of parliamentary procedure, followed by a preliminary power-sharing discussion.

At day's end, Democrats were relieved to have the speakership, but they acknowledged that the days of their party ruling the House with an iron hand – and giving Republicans few committee seats and little say – were over.

What delegates went through today was "ugly, but probably the only way we can come to a consensus," said Del. Thomas M. Jackson Jr. (D-Carroll).

He and others who took part in negotiations said progress had been made in "general terms," such as sharing committee chairmanships and adding Republicans to expanded committees.

Several members said that power-sharing talks would continue, and they predicted that some sort of agreement could still happen, despite the anger of today's session.

Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the Northern Virginia delegation, said he was "disgusted and ashamed" at today's events. But he said compromise was possible. "Wait until tempers cool and everybody gets a couple drinks in them," he said.

Republicans late today proposed a rule change on the House floor to split all committees by the slimmest margin possible, typically 12 to 10 and 8 to 7, and ensure regional representation on panels. Democrats blocked a vote tonight but promised to debate it Thursday.

Staff writers Mike Allen and R.H. Melton contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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