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July 2002
Virginia GOP: The Rise and Fall of Vance Wilkins
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"The fall of S. Vance Wilkins from his General Assembly throne seems to have eclipsed the rise of Mark Warner and the state's budget problems as the political story of the year.

Wilkins was, in some quarters, an unlikely person to rise to the top of the Virginia political cream - and just as unlikely to fall to a sex scandal.

The Rise

Wilkins was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1977 in a surprise victory over popular Democratic incumbent Don "Rooster" Pendleton. The difference in personalities between the two, and Wilkins' victory, reflected the change to come in the collective "personality" of the General Assembly. Pendleton was the ultimate nice-guy, next-door-neighborly pol, known and well-liked by his constituents and House colleagues. Wilkins was a political unknown (though he'd lost in previous runs for public office), mean-spirited and with a go-for-the-jugular political style.

General Assembly veterans remember Wilkins in the early years of his career as the "not-very-popular" man with a penchant for intimidation. He was "bent on power and very dedicated to his party and his cause," one said.

Wilkins' rise in the ranks and the rise in GOP power (and number of office-holders) coincided with - and some would say precipitated - the loss of collegiality in the halls of the State Capitol. Said one former House member, "When I look back at the delegates I served with in the 70's, they were nearly all nice, friendly, easy-to-work-with people, regardless of which side of the aisle they were on." By the 80's and 90's, that capitol coziness was gone, often replaced by Wilkins' street-fighting style and demeanor.

So how did Mr. Nasty get so powerful? Well, money helped a lot. He had it, and he knew how to raise it. In addition to owning a large construction firm, Wilkins owned large amounts of real estate. [There's an Albemarle County connection here: Wilkins reportedly owned a large number of houses in the Schuyler area of Albemarle and Nelson. Occupied by some of the County's poorer citizens, the dwellings were, shall we say, "modest."] His ability to raise money enabled him to accumulate the political power that he did, and he was an extremely successful candidate recruiter who made sure his charges reflected his viewpoint and his disdain for all things Democratic. He was not winning friends, but he was winning candidates-cum-legislators who were extremely indebted to him - and whom he could control.

The Fall

The fall of Wilkins has been the political press story of the last two months and needs no repeating here. But several issues along the way bear discussion.

The Preamble. For 20-plus years, Wilkins kept his eyes on the prize while his party slowly but surely knocked off the Democratic old guard and became the majority party. In 2000 Wilkins' lust for power and GOP glory reached its pinnacle with his election as Speaker of the House. And upon Mark Warner's election as a Democratic governor with a solidly Republican General Assembly, many pundits declared Wilkins the most powerful man in the state. But he wielded that power in a bare-knuckles manner - not only against Democrats but against members of his own party. (Democratic observers might see some parallels here with Gov. Douglas Wilder's style of reign in the early 90's.) Most notably, he controlled all House committee assignments, and when GOP members failed to do as he commanded, they often found themselves unceremoniously dumped from their committee of choice. "He got mean and dirty toward his own people," a veteran legislator noted. They were beholden to him for getting in office, he was their mentor, but he was certainly no friend.

The Story. Woodward and Bernstein created the gleam in the eye of the fourth estate - most reporters dreamed that one day they could break the story that would change the world, or the country, or the state. The Washington Post's R.H. Melton struck gold on June 7 when he ran a detailed account of Wilkins' hush-money $100,000 payment to a young Amherst woman who had accused him of sexual harassment. Interestingly, Melton apparently didn't get the story from Wilkins' political enemies nor from the woman in question (who still refuses to talk). He got the story from the guys who bought Wilkins' construction company eleven years ago - whose company offices still housed Wilkins' legislative office.

Amazingly, it took only six days for Wilkins to be forced from the speakership and a month more for him to announce his impending resignation from the House of Delegates. The harder they come, the harder they fall.

The Democrats. For the most part, the Democrats wisely stood on the sidelines while the story unfolded. Other than making some statements about the "blame the victim" mentality exhibited by some of Wilkins' defenders (few in number) and some calls for a new House ethics code, the General Assembly's Democrats were content to watch the GOP and Wilkins wallow in their own mess. Which raises an interesting issue. It appears that some Republican and Democratic lawmakers knew about the story as long ago as last October. So, one must ask, why didn't the Democrats let the cat out of the bag back then when it might have influenced the outcome of the dismal-for-Dems 2001 Assembly elections? Was it that such a report coming from Democrats would look like an unseemly low blow that could backfire with voters? Or was it something else? This writer doesn't have an answer.

The Republicans. After Melton's story broke, it only took a couple of days for the state's Republicans to start calling for Wilkins to step down. His chance to save himself in his meeting with the GOP caucus on June 10 was obviously not Wilkins' finest hour, and the die was cast. Why did the Republicans jump so quickly to dump their first ever House speaker, the "most powerful man in Virginia"?

There are at least three theories on this. First, the "moral-high-road" theory: Republicans felt what he did was wrong-wrong-wrong, and if Bill Clinton should be kicked out of office for sexual intimidation, so should Wilkins. As U.S. Rep. JoAnn Davis claimed, "Republicans are the party of family values and integrity. We've got to be consistent." Next, the "save-the-party" theory: Sticking by Wilkins would further widen the gender gap in state politics and drive more women voters to push the Democratic button. And hemming and hawing about it would make them look like they were shying away from the issue, an issue that was obviously not going away. In addition, the party was still reeling from the investigations of Republican electronic eavesdropping on Democrats' phone calls, and Wilkins' office was implicated in this activity. The GOP needed to stop the embarrassment by nipping it in the bud. Said Del. Bob Marshall, House leader of the far right, "The Republicans went after Bill Clinton….You cannot have a double standard here. You can, but you won't be the majority party if you do." And finally, the "kick-him-while-he's down" theory: Yes, they were beholden to him, yes, he got them elected to office - but he was a son of a bitch who had bullied them into licking his boots or being crushed underneath them. A Vance-less House would be a breath of fresh air where they would have the independence to be their own men and women.

Probably all three of these theories have some validity. And considering the dizzying speed with which the events unfolded and the Speaker was forced out, some in the GOP caucus probably aren't sure what motives guided them to hasten the fall of Vance. But one thing is certain - Wilkins would have done well to heed Lowell George's admonition: "The same people you misuse on the way up, you might meet up on the way down."" (Jim Heilman, July 2002).

Related Articles:

Wilkins Loses Confidence of GOP Delegates

Va. House Speaker Losing Supporters

A Powerful Politician Caught Between Two Worlds


Comments? Questions? Write me at george@loper.org.