Soon, Virginia will have nine former governors. That’s enough for a baseball team. It would probably be pretty crummy because all of the governors would insist on pitching or batting first. And they’d all want “1” on their jersey.
Governors never get over being governor. There’s “no higher honor,” the late Mills Godwin once intoned. He is the only twice popularly elected governor in Virginia history — first as a Democrat in 1965 and, eight years later, as a Republican.
What’s bewildering, however, is how few former governors, even those with transformative records, have a sustained impact on politics and policy. For some — Democrat Jerry Baliles, the transportation governor, comes to mind — this is deliberate. They return to private life, enjoying enhanced earning power, typically as rainmakers in law firms.
Others — in fact, most of them — choose to remain in the public arena, standing for another office, usually the U.S. Senate, or preaching from a perch in academe, a think-tank or an advocacy group. Events can quickly thin their ranks.
The here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of Virginia gubernatorial politics and its practitioners is largely a consequence of law. Ours is the only governor in the nation restricted to a non-renewable four-year term. To run again requires, as Godwin did, standing down at least four years.
From 1925 until 1965, the conservative Democratic machine that ruled the state generated a continuum of like-minded white guys who, as governors, tended to pick up where their predecessors left off. The names changed; not the policies. The system reflected the state, one in which the poll tax and other racially discriminatory practices kept the electorate small and easily manipulated.
With the emergence of competitive, two-party politics, starting with the election in 1969 of the state’s first Republican governor, Linwood Holton, chief executives looked on their terms as a chance to fashion the new, restless Virginia in their own image. Four years, however, isn’t necessarily sufficient to craft an enduring legacy. That means some governors are more memorable than others. Or more forgettable.
Last month, two former governors — George Allen, a Republican, and Doug Wilder, an on-again, off-again Democrat — were reduced to footnotes, largely by their own hand. Their decline and fall follow a remarkable ascent. Both defied long odds or the conventional wisdom, not only to win an office occupied by Jefferson, Henry, Monroe and Tyler, but to change Virginia.
Allen was defeated again for the Senate seat he narrowly lost in 2006. His insistence on a grudge match — Tim Kaine stood in for Jim Webb, the unlikely victor six years ago — trumped an intriguing idea: that Republicans might have run a U.S. House member. Bob Goodlatte, for example, would have offered a proven regional base and is enough of an unknown that, in elevating his profile statewide, would not have to answer for the oft-mentioned negatives that ended Allen’s career.
Allen was defeated by 224,000 votes, 25 times his losing margin to Webb. Now, the guy who rebuilt the Republican Party with his landslide victory for governor in 1993 and knocked another governor, Democrat Chuck Robb, from the Senate in 2000 wears an ignominious appellation: two-time loser.
That places him in a pantheon occupied by Republicans whom most in the party no longer mention or barely know: Marshall Coleman, defeated for governor in 1981 and 1989, and Wyatt Durrette, who lost for attorney general in 1981 and for governor four years later.
Durrette, however, has not been silent. He endorsed Kaine — now Mark Warner’s partner in the Senate — for governor in 2005. And GOP setbacks last month — the biggest being Barack Obama’s Virginia repeat — inspired an op-ed article by Durrette for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in which he argued the party will be rolled over unless it’s made over.
But what will citizen Allen do? Forcibly retired from an honorable profession he loved, Allen is not Allen without the bustle of a campaign or the friction of ideas. Redefining himself as a politician this year was difficult. Defining himself as an-out-work politician must be daunting.
Wilder, at 81, may have finally overplayed his hand. The nation’s first elected black governor, Wilder, more than most politicians, very publicly puts himself first. For years, his endorsement was determined not by loyalty to the Democratic Party, but by the candidate, regardless of party, who would oblige Wilder with public attention or a public appropriation for his pet projects, such his bankrupt slavery museum.
Wilder would implicitly endorse the Republican — to wit, Allen in 1993, Jim Gilmore in 1997 and Bob McDonnell in 2009 — by withholding support for the Democrat. In this year’s presidential election, Wilder refused to endorse Obama, though he did so four years ago.
Wilder’s pass on Obama may have confirmed his unreliability for jaded Democrats who expect nothing less. But for the new generation of voters, Wilder, even as a history-maker, is a faint, distant figure. And what once would have been a big political story instead was a little-noticed brief buried inside the newspaper.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Watch his video column Thursday on Times-Dispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter.com/ @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 8:33 a.m. Friday on WCVE (88.9 FM).