Sunday, February 20, 2005

Wyatt Durrette on Federalism

A name from the Virginia GOP past surfaced today in the letters-to-the-editor column of the Sunday Richmond Times-Dispatch. Wyatt B. Durrette, Jr., who ran for state attorney general in 1981 and governor in 1985, chose the Times-Dispatch as the forum to express his concerns about the Republican party's abandonment of federalism as a defining principle.

Some background may be in order, for those who are unfamiliar with Virginia politics or who are new to the Old Dominion's political scene. (After all, Durrette made his mark two decades ago.)

According to The Almanac of Virginia Politics (Fourth Edition, 1983), after Gerald Baliles won a narrow victory for the Democratic nomination for attorney general,

An even closer contest evolved between Baliles and his Republican opponent, Wyatt Durrette, a former Fairfax County delegate to the House. Durrette, extremely popular and active within his party, had the strong backing of many influential conservatives, including former Governor Mills Godwin. Although many observers predicted Baliles would be the only member of the Democratic statewide ticket to lose in the 1981 elections, he squeaked by Durrette with 50.9 percent of the vote.

Four years later, Baliles and Durrette faced off against each other, this time at the top of the ticket. As described in The Almanac of Virginia Politics (Sixth Edition, 1987):
Gerald L. Baliles won with 55 percent of the vote, a more than 140,000-vote plurality [sic: this should read "majority"] over his opponent. Baliles carried all congressional districts in a victory larger than the success [Charles] Robb had forged in 1981.

In an article reprinted in Virginia Government and Politics (Fourth Revised Edition, 1998), the University of Virginia's Larry J. Sabato had this to say about the 1985 elections, the year of the Baliles-Durrette rematch and when the Democrats swept the statewide ticket:
The 1985 Virginia statewide election will certainly be one of the long-remembered few. Not only did voters elect the first black (L. Douglas Wilder) and the first woman (Mary Sue Terry) to statewide office, but they also signaled the political moderation of their state and the emergence of Virginia as a leader in the New South.

Gerald Baliles won the governorship over his opponent Wyatt Durrette with 55.2 percent of the vote. That was an even larger proportion than Charles Robb's 53.5 percent in 1981 (though slightly less than Republican John Dalton's 1977 victory margin of 55.9 percent). Douglas Wilder beat Republican John Chichester to win the lieutenant governorship. He secured 51.8 percent of the vote. Mary Sue Terry attracted the broadest electoral coalition of all in her successful bid for the attorney general's seat over Republican candidate William "Buster" O'Brien. Her 61.4 percent statewide vote enabled her to add all but six counties and four cities to her column.

In the most general terms, the Democrats won in 1985 for the most fundamental reason: they ran more experienced and better-tested candidates who conducted better campaigns.

I did not live in Virginia in 1981 or 1985. (Although I lived just across the Potomac in Washington, D.C., I did not pay much attention to Virginia politics until 1988, when I moved to Arlington County and registered to vote in my new state.) So I cannot speak from personal knowledge about the kind of campaigns that Wyatt Durrette ran, or about his stances on the issues. I do know that I had not heard his name in a long time, and then only in reference books (such as those cited above). To see him write a letter to the Times-Dispatch on an issue such as federalism, therefore, came as something of a surprise.

Here is the gist of what Durrette wrote to the Times-Dispatch, in a letter apparently sparked by the passage of the tort reform bill by Congress, which was signed by President Bush just a couple of days ago:

In bygone days most Republicans championed the principles of federalism, which valued the integrity of state governments and limitations on national prerogatives. They felt strongly that the separation of power and responsibility between state and national governments fostered diversity and best served to protect the rights of our citizens.

No more. Today most Republicans (and Democrats for that matter) adhere to a doctrine of expediency, championing national legislation when it suits their political interest and policy goals. Federalism receives lip service and no more.

* * *

But it is sad to watch the principle of federalism, which used to be a bedrock of the Republican Party, now crumble before the onslaught of political expediency yet again. There are lots of reasons to oppose this legislation, which at its core offers yet another obstacle for the average American without collective political clout and concentrated wealth to protect his interests.

There is no justification for the national government yet again to legislate in areas where the states have always had the responsibility to govern.

The federal nature of our republic is indeed under assault from Washington. Too many crimes are being federalized, including murder and assault, crimes that are already forbidden and punished by state law. The authority of state and local governments to run their own schools is threatened by the No Child Left Behind Act. And, as seen in my (surprisingly) popular posting about Barbara Boxer and Hillary Clinton's ideas for "reforming" the federal electoral system, even the capacity of states to run their own elections is being brought into question on Capitol Hill. (The Cato Institute's Gene Healy has written about some of these phenomena in his book, Go Directly to Jail : the Criminalization of Almost Everything.)

I hope that elder statesmen like Wyatt Durrette continue to question this trend, and to use their influence to stop it.

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