- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Virginia Democrats are not likely to gain from Republicans' recent problems, particularly House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr.'s resignation amid accusations of sexual harassment, GOP leaders said yesterday.

"We are still the party of family values. We did not change our values. Our standard-bearers did," said Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Manassas Republican.

"Every institution has individuals that fail that's human nature. What the public needs to look at is the institution's response. Our damage control was quick," said Delegate Jay O'Brien, Prince William Republican.

Mr. Wilkins, 65, became the state's first House speaker to resign when he stepped down Thursday after acknowledging he paid Jennifer Thompson $100,000 to settle out-of-court accusations that he had sexually harassed her.

In April, Edmund A. Matricardi III resigned as executive director of the Virginia Republican Party after being accused of illegally listening in on telephone conversations among high-level Democrats, including Gov. Mark R. Warner, as they discussed Virginia's legislative-redistricting problems. A federal investigation is pending.

Republicans and political analysts warn that Democrats will risk votes if they use the personal troubles of Mr. Matricardi and Mr. Wilkins against the GOP as a whole.

"It would be kind of dicey for the Democrats to capitalize on Wilkins stepping down," said Bill Wood, director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. "[But] Democrats usually enjoy a gender gap, and it will be interesting to see if gets bigger because of this."

Republican lawmakers contend that their quick actions particularly compared with what they called Democratic inaction under similar circumstances shield them from criticism.

"I would turn to any Democrat and say that you as an institution shielded President Clinton for two years," Mr. O'Brien said, referring to the former president's affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. "Democrats, rather than seeking to expose [what Mr. Clinton did], attacked those who brought it forward."

Even Lawrence H. Framme, executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party, said Democrats would not paint Republicans with a broad brush. "I don't think all Republican candidates can be held responsible for the actions of Vance Wilkins," he said.

This does not mean Republicans do not have a difficult road ahead.

"We are going to have to restore our credibility," said Delegate Thomas D. Rust, Prince William Republican. "The public is going to be asking us probing questions, and rightfully so."

Aaron Leibowitz was appointed Monday as Mr. Matricardi's replacement. A veteran of Virginia politics, he said leaders will have to refocus the attention of activists to restore the party's credibility.

"We need to get back to basics, such as why people volunteer their time for a party in the first place, and what was the agenda people had in the works before all these things happened," he said.

Delegate John A. "Jack" Rollison III, a top lieutenant of Mr. Wilkins, said he is confident the party will rebound.

"I am optimistic that we can provide a positive message to the citizens of Virginia," said Mr. Rollison, Woodbridge Republican.

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