Vance Wilkins is the Republican leader for the Virginia House of Delegates. In 1989 his goal on was to make the Republicans the majority party. Now, that goal is about to be realized. He hopes it will happen this year but after losses in 1995 he isnt getting his hopes up.
By Steve Vaughan
The News & Advance
Vance Wilkins doesnt look the part of a political mastermind.
With his slicked down hair and pinched face and the spectacles sometimes perched on the tip of his nose, the Amherst County Republican, reminds one of a strict Calvinist parson or a particularly solemn professor.
Although Wilkins, the Republican Leader of the Virginia House of Delegates, doesnt fit the wheeler-dealer, sharp-suited image affected by some Republican peers and Democratic foes, its hard to argue with results.
Wilkins set a goal in 1989, a goal he kept to himself.
I decided, internally, that we should strive to be the majority party in the House of Delegates. Wed been stuck at 33, 34, 35, for about 12 years, he said. I was driving with Joe Sanzone, who was my campaign manager when I was first elected to the House. He may have been the first person that I told. And I told him I set this goal. And he thought for a minute and he said, Well, it not as crazy an idea as you had when you first thought you could get elected in Amherst County.
Crazy or not, its a goal Wilkins may achieve.
With 49 Republicans and 1 Independent who sits with the Republican Caucus, the GOP has reached parity. They already hold a majority in the Senate.
Wilkins was responsible for recruiting many Republicans now in the House after becoming Minority Leader in the early 90s.
Like many accomplishments in Wilkins career, that took persistence. He ran once and lost before being named to lead the GOP caucus.
He ran for the House of Delegates twice before winning a seat in 1977.
Who influenced you?
When Wilkins was elected,
Republicans held about 25 seats in the House, he said.
Now they are on the cusp of a majority.
Were about as close as you can come and not do it, he said. Weve picked up every seats in every election except 1995, and we picked up a seat in the Senate that year. If the trend holds, we should do it this year. But there are things beyond your control.
The experience of 1995 may be why Wilkins is cautious this year.
In 1995 the Republicans were widely expected to take control of both houses of the General Assembly behind popular Republican Gov. George Allen.
Instead the count in the House didnt change and the GOP picked up one seat in the Senate to create a 20-20 tie.
Gov. Allen got cross ways with the state employees and the Congress got cross ways with older people on Social Security, Wilkins said. And although we dont have anything to do with Social Security, the Democrats lied and scared people to polls by saying that youd lose Social Security if you elected a Republican House of Delegates. I spent the whole day at the polls, it was raining and I saw vans of old people pulling up and people going into the polls in walkers and with oxygen masks. In the rain. I know it had an effect.
How much credit does Wilkins deserve for Republican gains?
I didnt get anybody elected, he said. All those candidates went out and worked their tails off. I helped recruit some good candidates, some that are here and some that didnt make it, and I helped out with advice and with money. But I didnt win any of those elections, the candidates did.
Others give Wilkins far more of the credit.
Del. Preston Bryant, R-Lynchburg, a former legislative aide to Wilkins, said he was indispensable in Republican gains.
You have a man who basically sold his business 10 years ago and dedicated himself to this, he said.
Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, agreed.
Vance was the first person I told of my desire to run for the legislature. And he was very helpful in my election because he used to represent that area (the portion of Amherst County in Newmans former, Bryants current, House district).
Hes been very successful up here as a leader for Republicans and in recruiting candidates, Newman said.
Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham, used two words that kept coming up in other legislators assessments of Wilkins, dedication and hard work.
Vances hard work, dedication and intellect have been vital to the gains in the House.
And, Hawkins said, Republican gains in the Senate have been largely as a result of the Democrats efforts during the last redistricting to stem the GOP tide in the House.
Even some of Wilkins past and future political foes give him his due for the GOP gains.
Theres no doubt that Mr. Wilkins has worked very hard raising money and recruiting candidates, said House Democratic Caucus Director Gail Nardi.
Apparently that hasnt won him very many votes inside his own caucus and a new generation of leadership is taking control there.
Nardi was referring to a vote before the 1998 session when the Republican Caucus put Del. Lacey Putney, I-Bedford, not Wilkins, forward as candidate for speaker.
Republicans never had the opportunity to offer a candidate for speaker as Democrats used a temporary majority on the floor to push through the re-election of Del. Thomas Moss, D-Norfolk.
As a result, Wilkins best chance to be speaker may have passed him by when Republicans did less well than expected in 1995.
That new generation of leadership may be Del. Jack Rust, R-Fairfax, who is likely to challenge Wilkins for the speakership if Republicans take control.
Vance is due all the credit in the world for getting us to this point, Rust said.
Does he deserve to be the Speaker of the House for that?
Thats another question, Rust said.
Some in Richmond give Wilkins less credit.
The Republican gains in Virginia have more to do with the Byrd Democrats switching over to the Republican Party, said House Democratic Leader C. Richard Cranwell, D-Vinton, Wilkins opposite number.
Although Wilkins may never be Speaker, hes still working hard to forge a Republican majority.
On a typical day in his legislative office in Richmond, two potential Republicans challengers are waiting in his office as he returns from the legislative session.
Told that one of his bills has just passed in the Senate, Wilkins barely cracks a smile.
Thats good, he said.
Del. Paul Harris, R-Charlottesville, a House freshman whos stopped by Wilkins office says, He isnt excited enough.
I try to have the same face in victory or defeat, said Wilkins.