Politics 2003Week of October 13

DICK OBENSHAIN’S LEGACY “Among those strongly urging him to take on the chairmanship challenge was Dortch Warriner, the 4th District GOP chief and one of Obenshain’s closest friends. “I told him I thought it would give us a chance in Eastern Virginia to develop a party—that without it we would be an insular party in the mountains and valleys with an enclave in Northern Virginia and that would be all.” Those were Warriner’s reminiscences of Richard Obenshain, the friend and fellow conservative he finally convinced to run for the party helm in the Old Dominion in 1972, recorded in The Dynamic Dominion, Frank Atkinson’s epic account of the rise of the modern Republican Party in Virginia. Meshing sound conservative ideology with a mastery of retail politics, Richmond lawyer Obenshain oversaw the realignment that transformed his state from being a solidly Democratic bastion of the Old South to one of the most reliably Republican of the 50 states today. Indeed, Virginia Republicans now hold both U.S. Senate seats, eight of the state’s 11 U.S. House districts, and a majority of both houses of the state legislature. In addition, the party continues to make gains in the all-important supervisor and county board positions that administer government in Virginia’s 62 counties. The sole “black mark” on the GOP ledger today is that of the three statewide constitutional offices, the governor and lieutenant governor are Democrats and only the attorney general is a Republican. Tragically, Obenshain was killed in a plane crash in 1978 only weeks after his greatest political triumph—nomination by fellow Republicans for the U.S. Senate. Today, the state GOP headquarters in Richmond is named the Obenshain Center and the late party leader’s daughter, 34-year-old Kate Obenshain Griffin, was recently elected state party chairman. Lawyer-son Mark Obenshain is considered a cinch to win an open state senate seat this fall. But, with Old Dominion voters deciding seats in the senate and House of Delegates and hundreds of county offices this year, Dick Obenshain’s legacy of developing promising young conservatives at the grass-roots level is clear. . . . TAKING ON TODDY The name of Northern Virginia’s Democratic State Sen. Toddy Puller is frequently followed in print by the characterization “daughter-in-law of late U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Lewis (Chesty) Puller.” To those who know Sen. Puller, however, the familial tie might seem jarring. Chesty Puller was, as the title of one biography of the two-fisted legend put it, “the man who was too tough for the Marines.” “And Toddy is too liberal for Virginia—in fact, one of the most liberal legislators in Richmond!,” says her Republican opponent, longtime conservative activist and Fairfax (Va.) School Board member Chris Braunlich. Looking at the incumbent’s 11 years in the General Assembly, Braunlich noted that Puller supported the local initiative to raise the sales tax by a half-cent for infrastructure repairs and, on abortion, opposed both parental notification and parental consent legislation. And she also fought a ban on state funding of partial-birth abortions. The GOP nominee hammers hard at Puller’s strange votes in April—first voting in favor of repeal of Virginia’s death tax and then voting to uphold Democratic Gov. Mark Warner‘s veto of the repeal. In contrast, Braunlich is strongly pro-life and in favor of death tax repeal, and opposed the sales tax increase favored by Puller and Warner. Conservative commentator Alan Keyes’ self-description that “conservatism is what I do” could easily be applied to the New York-born Braunlich, an active organizer and leader on the right since he volunteered for the historic winning U.S. Senate campaign of Conservative Party member James Buckley in 1970. Active in the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, the young Braunlich helped engineer the conservative takeover of the Young Republicans in New York and later worked closely with the national CRs under then-Chairman Karl Rove. But Braunlich is best-known and admired on the right as campaign manager and top aide to Rep. (1980-82) John LeBoutillier (R.-N.Y.)—easily the most controversial and outspoken House Republican in the “Class of ’80” that came in with Ronald Reagan. Braunlich went on to work for the National Association of Manufacturers and later served as president of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. He is presently vice president of the conservative Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy and, as a school board member, is known as a feisty champion of higher standards and a stronger curriculum. One would have to look hard to find a stronger contrast between opponents for the senate than Braunlich and Puller. (Friends of Chris Braunlich, P.O. Box 15328, Alexandria, Va. 22309; 703-922-6768; STIRRUP THE RIGHT IN PRINCE WILLIAM! John T. Stirrup has long been a well-known insider among conservatives in the Nation’s Capital. The Seton Hall graduate and Young Americans for Freedom alumnus served in the Reagan Administration under two of the Cabinet members most despised by liberals—Secretary of Labor Ray Donovan and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Sam Pierce, who oversaw the slashing of his department’s budget by two-thirds in eight years. Stirrup went on to serve as top aide to one of the most principled conservatives among House Republicans in the celebrated “Class of ’94,” Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who lived up to his three-term pledge and retired in 2000, and is now public affairs director for Foley and Lardner law firm. When the Washington cocktail circuit gets around to listing “power couples,” Stirrup and wife Heidi, herself a high-powered lobbyist and onetime assistant to House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R.-Tex.), make up the rare couple who are true conservatives. But the Stirrup home is in bucolic Prince William County and it is there that John Stirrup is also making his stand for conservatism. Disgusted that his county supervisor, liberal Republican Edgar Wilbourn, had voted for higher taxes and approved more housing projects (“and raising our homeowners assessments by 35% over two years”), the 46-year-old Stirrup decided to challenge him for renomination. Possibly sensing rejection by his own party, two-termer Wibourn suddenly scotched renomination plans and is running for re-election as an independent. So conservative stalwart Stirrup is the GOP nominee against Wilbourn and liberal Democrat Gary Friedman. In the second-largest county in the Old Dominion, the Stirrup bid for one of seven county board seats has taken on the trappings of a national campaign. Sen. George Allen (R.-Va.), Rep. Tom Davis (R.-Va.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R.-Va.) have come to Prince William County to stump for Stirrup and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform—who gets involved mainly in contests for federal office—has weighed in for the GOP hopeful, a signer of Norquist’s well-known no-tax pledge. (Stirrup for Supervisor, P.O. Box 280, Haymarket, Va. 20168; 703-753-5206.) STATON: THE NEXT GENERATION Conservatives in and out of West Virginia have a warm spot in their hearts for Mick Staton. A banker and amateur Republican volunteer, Staton set pundits and pols on their ears in 1980 when he became his state’s first Republican in Congress in 12 years. In contrast to other GOP lawmakers who represent heavily Democratic districts and trim their conservative sails, Staton was a proud infantryman in the Reagan Revolution, voting and defending the conservative line (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 100%). In the Democratic year of 1982, he was swept out of Congress (by present Gov. Robert Wise) as Sen. Robert Byrd led West Virginia Democrats to a big win across-the-board. Given the “I’d rather be right” stance that Staton took, many conservatives were delighted to learn that Mick Staton is on the ballot again this fall—Mick Staton, Jr., that is, who is seeking one of nine seats on the Loudon County (Va.) Board of Supervisors. A graduate of West Virginia University and public affairs consultant, the 33-year-old Staton is a past president of the Loudon County Young Republicans and a co-founder of the Loudon Taxpayers Coalition. Anti-tax fervor is what fuels young Staton’s candidacy against incumbent Supervisor Bill Bogard, who is seeking re-election as an independent. Noting that Loudon is the fastest-growing county in Virginia, Staton points out that, “Something is wrong when there has been a 69% increase in property taxes and county spending is up 90% in four years.” Last year, he was a local leader in the movement to stop a sales tax increase to fund infrastructure improvement, and 63% of the voters in the district he is now contesting voted to kill it. “Framed in my office, I still have the letter President Reagan wrote my dad thanking him for his vote for the tax cut in 1981,” Staton says. “Cutting taxes is part of my heritage.” (Friends of Mick Staton, 13 Simeon Lane, Sterling, Va. 20164; 703-444-6807;