- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Last week's resignation of Virginia House Speaker Vance Wilkins, which followed a series of reports that he had sexually harassed several women (including one he reportedly paid $100,000 for her silence), was a tragic end to the political career of the most powerful man in Virginia politics. Unlike governors, who are limited to serving one four-year term at a time, legislators can keep their seats and continue to amass political power as long as voters are willing to re-elect them. And Mr. Wilkins was one of the most tenacious and successful politicians that Old Dominion voters have ever seen.

He served in the House for 24 years, during which time he built the Republican contingent from an inconsequential minority, holding just 25 of 100 seats, into a commanding majority with 65 seats. Two years ago, when Mr. Wilkins became the first Republican speaker in more than a century, his party held a relatively slim lead (52-47 with one independent who caucuses with the Republicans) in the House of Delegates. It is no exaggeration to say that this would not have happened if it weren't for Mr. Wilkins' endless travels around the state to recruit candidates and raise money on their behalf.

In November, thanks to a redistricting plan crafted by Mr. Wilkins, Republicans picked up 12 seats. Most of the new members are, like the overwhelming majority of the 65-member House Republican Caucus, solid conservatives who share a deep skepticism about Gov. Mark Warner's efforts to expand the size of state government.

Even though Virginia Republicans are politically indebted to Mr. Wilkins, many of them moved quickly last week to call for his ouster in the wake of the mounting scandal. Attorney General Jerry Kilgore took a leadership role in making it clear that Mr. Wilkins must leave. Still, some Democrats are seeking to exploit the situation, with party Chairman Lawrence H. Framme III asserting that Republicans who promote a "'blame the victim' mentality in a case of sexual assault and battery remain in their posts."

But Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia warned that Democrats could have a difficult time exploiting the Wilkins situation because the Republicans moved to handle it so quickly. "How can the Democrats make an issue of Wilkins, when they stuck with [President] Clinton and Chuck Robb [who was dogged by allegations that he attended parties where cocaine was used when he was governor]?" Mr. Sabato told The Richmond Times-Dispatch. "The Democrats never forced their people out." The Republicans should get credit for doing the honorable thing.

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