- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2001

RICHMOND S. Vance Wilkins Jr. surprised members of both parties in his first year as speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates last session with his shrewd maneuvering to push his agenda and his evenhandedness.
Whether he can carry that through this year is still anybody's guess.
"I would hope we can have a good session and do things that are good for the commonwealth, but this is an election year and a redistricting year two of the most highly charged events you can have. So that may be all, I don't know. But I think most of the guys will try to get things done," he said.
A tall, spare man with a low, rasping voice, Mr. Wilkins hails from Amherst County, just southeast of Lexington. He cut a very different picture on the speaker's dais than his predecessor, Delegate Thomas W. Moss Jr., Norfolk Democrat.
This is a man who quotes Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" when talking about political organizing, and who sold his family construction business so he could devote more time to recruiting candidates.
Mr. Wilkins says he may not out-think his opponents, but he out-works them. For instance, instead of power lunches, he eats spaghetti from a can at his desk so he can read his e-mail.
Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican, remembered going through his first campaign with Mr. Wilkins looking over his shoulder and recalled Mr. Wilkins' standard pep talk: "Now Albo, you have a responsibility to the entire Republican Party to win your election. It's not just about you."
Mr. Wilkins' dogged recruitment effort over the last decade was a big part of Republicans' takeover of the House for the first time in November 1999.
To reward his efforts, fellow Republican delegates tapped Mr. Wilkins to be speaker. He immediately began studying floor procedure, holding mock sessions with other delegates to hone his skills to address legislative eventualities.
He translated that determination into success in the legislative process.
He had his legal adviser go through the filed bills last year and make a list of 50 that were just philosophically anathema to him.
"Only two got out of the House. The Senate killed one, and the governor, I think, vetoed the other." Mr. Wilkins said. "We got them all eventually. That's pretty good."
The issues that drive him are personal liberty and education he becomes very animated when talking about getting students to read at grade-level, and he is a strong supporter of the Standards of Learning (SOL) assessment tests.
Democrats predicted Mr. Wilkins would show himself to be heavily partisan and unable to understand, let alone address, the needs of urban and suburban districts.
But Mr. Wilkins surprised them.
On several occasions, he ruled against Republican delegates' requests, even where there was an arguably defensible position he could have taken to side with them.
"I do have to say that he ran the proceedings of the House very efficiently kept order, which is a very difficult part of the job, given you've got 100 personalities," said Delegate Robert H. Brink, Arlington Democrat.
Still, that wasn't always a plus.
The session finished a day earlier than scheduled for the first time in anyone's memory, but that left delegates with only a few hours to peruse the final versions of the budget and the transportation package the House and Senate conference committee put together.
"My sense is his overriding purpose was to close out the session early to show that the new regime could make the trains run on time," Mr. Brink said.
The speaker's most powerful tool may be members' committee assignments.
Last year he gave his predecessor, Mr. Moss, a plum spot on the House Appropriations Committee, but that meant another Democrat had to come off the committee. So Mr. Wilkins ousted Delegate Alan A. Diamonstein, Newport News Democrat, who was one of the perennial dealers on the committee.
But he left Mr. Diamonstein as co-chairman of the House General Laws committee. And though he kicked Minority Leader C. Richard Cranwell off the Courts of Justice Committee, he left Mr. Cranwell as co-chairman of the Finance Committee.
In his moves, Mr. Wilkins changed the philosophical bent of committees more to his liking.
The best example was the Militia and Police Committee, which handles gun-control bills. From the 1999 members he removed seven delegates, mostly from suburban and urban districts, who had supported gun restrictions. He replaced them with rural delegates who supported gun rights.
"I do have to say that he made full use of the powers of the speaker in appointing members to committees the most obvious example is Militia and Police," said Mr. Brink, one of those who was pulled off the committee.
But Mr. Wilkins defended the assignments.
"I would say certainly that it's stacked geographically, proportionally, different than it was. And if those people that represent different areas of the state happen to have a different philosophy, that's what we're supposed to do on these committees represent all areas of the state," he said.
As speaker, Mr. Wilkins also controls which committee gets which bill. He used that to make sure a bill about guns on school property was killed in the militia committee, and this year he assigned a bill to issue a Million Mom March license plate to the committee, rather than to the transportation committee.
"We've tried to put people on committees that will enable us to further the philosophy of government that we would like to bring, if we can," he said.


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