- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

RICHMOND — Virginia Republicans yesterday chose a housewife and longtime party activist as their new chairman in hopes of ending an eavesdropping scandal that forced the former chairman and party director to resign and plead guilty to crimes.

Kate Obenshain Griffin, 34, of Winchester, was elected on a unanimous voice vote after her rival for the seat, state GOP Treasurer Rick Neel, saw he had too little support on the party’s governing 85-member Central Committee and withdrew.

“There is no question we as a party have done much to be proud of over the past decade, but there is also no question that individuals veered off course here in this building,” Mrs. Griffin told the committee, convened in a special meeting in the state Republican headquarters building.

“Mistakes were made and people within the party suffered, but we will not become paralyzed by these challenges,” Mrs. Griffin said.

Virginia’s dominant Republican Party has been distracted since reports rocked the party more than 17 months ago that its executive director, Edmund A. Matricardi III, secretly monitored and recorded confidential Democratic Party conference calls in March 2002.

Using a phone number and access codes provided by a disaffected former Democratic staffer, Matricardi listened as Democratic legislators, party staff, their attorneys and, for a while, Gov. Mark Warner discussed a court challenge to the 2001 GOP-led redistricting.

Matricardi resigned his state party post in April 2002 and pleaded guilty a year later to a single felony in U.S. District Court. He was sentenced in July to three years’ probation.

Last month, Matricardi’s boss, Chairman Gary R. Thomson, resigned and pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor charge of failing to stop Matricardi from distributing written transcripts of the intercepted Democratic phone call.

Mrs. Griffin, a mother of four young children who has never held a state party office, became the early favorite after Sen. George Allen and Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore asked her to run for chairman. Party leaders quickly coalesced behind her.

She is the first woman to head the state party in Virginia, taking over less than two months before the Nov. 4 election for all 140 seats in the Republican-dominated General Assembly.

Mr. Kilgore, the front-runner for his party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2005, said Mrs. Griffin’s election cleanses the party headquarters of the eavesdropping scandal.

“It’s been very distracting,” Mr. Kilgore said. “Today is a new day for the Republican Party of Virginia. We have a new chair, we have a new vision, and we’re going to go forth and win elections.”

Mr. Neel shocked the committee when, after what appeared to be a 10-minute stump speech to the committee, he announced that he was dropping out of the race.

“Our party has had enough excitement for one day. Allow me, then, to exercise perhaps the most difficult form of leadership: I will not have my name placed in nomination for chairman,” Mr. Neel said.

Mr. Neel and Mrs. Griffin shared a pivotal moment in the history of the state party. Both lost their fathers in the same 1978 airplane crash.

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