Imagine if Virginia’s history at the turn of the millennium went like this:
Having been elected in 1997 on a pledge to eliminate the car tax, Gilmore’s plan fell under a shadow no larger than a man’s hand – in this case, the hand of House of Delegates Speaker Thomas Moss. Moss used his power to stack House Committees with fellow Democrats, who refused to let the car tax reach the floor without a tax increase of some kind to pay for it. Faced with an recalcitrant House and a Senate weakly controlled by moderate Republicans, Gilmore tried again in 1999, only to find voters blamed him for the resulting inaction, and the GOP actually lost seats in the mid-term elections.
The following year, Gilmore agreed to the Democrats’ plan, enraging the base of his own party and writing his own political ruin. Today, the tax increases Gilmore had to accept have even outlasted the car-tax reduction, which were repealed by his successor – Democrat Mark Warner.
Of course, none of the above happened, but it could have. The Democrats could have threatened not only the car-tax cut, but all of the accomplishments Gilmore touts today. That they did not – that they could not - is the result of one man – Bob Marshall – and the actions he took on January 14, 1998.
That day, the House of Delegates began it’s new session – minus three members who had been elected the night before in special elections. All three were Republicans; and had they been in the chamber, the Republicans (plus Lacey Putney) would have had 50 seats – parity with the Democrats. The Democrats were not happy about this (one of the temporarily vacant seats had been held by a Democrat who resigned to take a post in the incoming Gilmore Administration), so in order to hold onto power, they threw caution to the wind and held the election for Speaker before the special election winners could be certified and seated. The result was as expected; Moss won with 50 votes. Most (including all the Democrats) expected things to die down after a while, especially since outgoing Governor Allen was supposed to give his final State of the State Address that night.
However, Delegate Marshall refused to let it go. He repeatedly demanded the floor, shouting “Objection” over and over again. Much to the surprise of everyone else, the entire Republican caucus joined in, pounding their desks and shouting “Objection” at the top of their lungs.
What had been the Democrats’ attempt at political trickery became an overnight national sensation. Governor Allen even interrupted his own valedictory speech with a scolding rebuke to the House Democrats for what they had done. More importantly, having been thus energized, the GOP caucus basically shut down the House of Delegates (51 members are required for a quorum), refusing to let any major items be discussed until the Dems agreed to a power-sharing arrangement reflecting the even split in the House. With all of Virginia watching them, not a single Republican budged (not even the veteran liberal gadfly Penny Rhodes).
The Democrats had no choice but to come to terms, which they did. All committees had balanced partisan representation (half and half) and a co-chairman from each party (or, if the co-chairs couldn’t get along, one party had the chair for one year, the other for the next). The Democratic domination of the House of Delegates came to an ignominious end (although Moss could still block some bills by fiat). Democratic Floor Leader Dick Cranwell (remember him?) likened it to a funeral.
The rest, as they say, was history. Gilmore, faced with chastened Democrats and energized Republicans (who also had a one-seat majority in the Senate), was able to get the car-tax reduction and several more accomplishments passed. He and his fellow Republicans thus had a positive record on which to run in 1999, and thus the Republicans finally won majorities in both chambers.
Lest anyone forget, Gilmore and the GOP needed that record. Outside of Virginia, 1999 was not a Republican year. In fact, the elections of ’99 were so bad that the good news in the Old Dominion was noticed from as far away as the editorial offices of the New York Post.
What are the lessons from this trip down memory lane? I can think of two. First of all, every legislative accomplishment Gilmore achieved in the first two years of his term – and arguably in the final two as well – he owes to Bob Marshall. Voters should remember that the next time Gilmore reads off his laundry list of accomplishments as Governor.
Secondly - and more importantly in my view – it shows why we need someone with legislative experience in the U.S. Senate. The federal upper house is a labyrinth of rules, procedures, and other parliamentary maneuvers that can overwhelm the novice (neither Gilmore nor Mark Warner have served one day in a legislative body) while being valuable weapons for the skilled politician. Unlike Gilmore and Warner, Bob Marshall has been a legislator for over sixteen years.
Legislative experience can bring many things. It can help a member stop bad legislation, steer through good legislation, and yes, on occasion, it can change history and dramatically improve the political climate for an incoming chief executive – much like what Bob Marshall did for Jim Gilmore on that January day ten years ago.
Cross-posted to Bloggers 4 Bob Marshall