Gizzi on Politics: Oct. 15-19

Filling in for Jo Ann Davis

After the stunning news of the December 6 death of Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R.-Va.), following a long bout with breast cancer, no one really wanted to talk much about what happens next in the now-vacant 1st District (Tidewater-Newport News). However, following the funeral of the four-term congresswoman and the announced December special election set by Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, maneuvering for the nominations has begun.

Both Republicans and Democrats in the district have to decide the nomination process they will use, either a primary or a districtwide convention. The last time the district was open, after Republican Rep. (1982-2000) Herb Bateman stepped down in 2000, local Republican leaders opted for a primary and then-state legislator Davis topped four opponents with 35% of the vote.

The runner-up in that primary with 30% of the vote was Paul Jost, who had made a fortune in refrigeration equipment and real estate. Although Jost spent more than $1 million out of his own wallet on the race, local observers felt that his failure to emphasize cultural issues hurt him. In contrast, Davis (who spent about one-tenth as much as Jost) campaigned hard on ending the marriage tax penalty, promoting local control of education, and her strong pro-life and pro-2nd Amendment stands.

Jost has not said whether he will run, but his name keeps cropping up in early speculation. The candidate who placed third (22%) in the 2000 primary, political consultant Michael Rothfeld, later made a losing bid for the state senate with Jost’s strong support. Rothfeld is not thought likely to run and will almost surely back Jost if the local entrepreneur makes another race.

Several Republican state legislators are mentioned for the open 1st District, among them conservative state Delegate Scott Lingamfelter of Prince William County, a strong conservative, and state Sen. Tommy Norment of Williamsburg, who is considered more moderate. One rumor that started late last week is that farmer Chuck Davis, Jo Ann’s husband, could run for the seat. However, Chuck Davis has never been active politically and thought unlikely to launch a career now. (Only once in history has the husband of a U.S. representative tried to succeed his wife. When Maryland Democratic Rep. Gladys Noon Spellman suffered a stroke in 1980 and her seat was declared vacant, husband Ira Spellman sought the Democratic nomination but lost the primary to Steny Hoyer, now the House majority leader).

The 1st District has been securely in Republican hands since 1976. However, a special election presents a good opportunity for the opposition party, particularly at a time when the Bush Administration is scoring poorly in public-opinion polls. Local and national Democrats are expected to try especially hard to come up with a stronger-than-usual candidate, with the name of Albert Pollard—now the Democratic nominee for an open state senate district—mentioned increasingly for the upcoming U.S. House race.

Harry S. Dent: A Man of Consequence

Harry Dent, the longtime top aide to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R.-S.C.), was the man who helped guide South Carolina into the Republican column after Thurmond switched from Democrat to Republican in 1964 and the White House aide to Richard Nixon who crafted the “Southern Strategy” that eventually made the Democratic “Solid South” a Republican bastion.

When he died September 28 at age 77, ending seven years of battling Alzheimer’s Disease, I remembered Harry Dent as a fine gentleman—totally unpretentious and less concerned with what he had done than what he felt needed to be done, such as his work starting churches in Eastern Europe or heading up the Billy Graham Crusade in South Carolina. Dent, in fact, closed his law practice for good in 1981 to study for the ministry at Columbia International University. As former Rep. (1980-82) and U.S. Court of Claims Judge John Napier (R.-S.C.) recalled, “Harry was a talented political strategist, but what he really wanted to be remembered for was his love of family and his strong Christian faith.”

In introducing me to Dent, my friend Henry Chandler (whom Dent had hired out of high school for Thurmond’s staff in 1957) said he was unlike anyone I had met before: Dent had lost two brothers in World War II, married the one woman he had ever dated, once they graduated from high school, worked his way through Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., served as an infantry officer in Korea, and, after a stint as a newspaperman, became the top aide to Thurmond at age 26.

When Thurmond decided to back Barry Goldwater (R.) for President and become a Republican in 1964, Dent joined him and, after returning home to practice law, became chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. In 1966, in a state where the GOP had barely nominated anyone for anything before, 26 Republican state legislators were elected, Thurmond won a landslide re-election as a Republican, and Dent’s friend, state Sen. Marshall Parker, came within 7,000 votes of winning a special election for the state’s other Senate seat against Democratic former Gov. Ernest Hollings.

“Nothing should happen in the South without checking with Dent” was the word President Nixon passed in 1969, when he named the South Carolinian to his White House staff. Before Ron Kaufman under George H.W. Bush and Karl Rove under George W. Bush, Harry Dent was the first assistant to the President to deal almost exclusively with politics.
In the late 1960s, political thinkers such as M. Stanton Evans in The Future of Conservatism and Kevin Phillips in The Emerging Republican Majority foresaw how the South could be wooed to the Republican column. But it was Dent who was charged with making it happen. He played a key role in the nomination of fellow South Carolinian Clement F. Haynsworth to the Supreme Court in 1969, the Haynsworth defeat in the Senate angering and energizing embryonic Republican Party in the South. Dent also mobilized administration conservatives behind a more localized approach to public-school desegregation and less forced busing, options eventually thwarted by the Supreme Court. After the largest school integration ever in the South in September, 1970, Dent wrote that it was accomplished “without bayonet, bullet or incident.”

A colleague of mine said he never thought of Harry Dent as a movement conservative in that the South Carolinian seemed more associated with process rather than issues. Perhaps. Dent did anger more than a few Human Events readers when he helped lure Mississippi’s Clarke Reed into the camp of Gerald Ford in 1976, a defining moment in Ford’s narrow defeat of Ronald Reagan. Dent’s last political mission was running friend George H.W. Bush’s prmary campaign in South Carolina in 1980, even as mentor Thurmond was behind John Connally and Rep. and Gov.-to-be Carroll Campbell stumped for eventual winner Reagan.

All three are gone now, but it is fascinating to recall Dent, Thurmond and Campbell—the three stars of South Carolina Republicanism—split all over the presidential map in 1980. Only 20 years before, all three were Democrats, there was no primary to fight over and no players to cultivate among Republicans.

Harry Dent was indeed a player who changed all of that—and, in the process, changed the political dynamics of the South for a generation.

A Fresh Pace?

With the retirement announcement of Sen. John Warner (R.-Va.) and subsequent polls showing former Democratic Gov. (2001-05) Mark Warner leading both potential Republican candidates—Rep. Tom Davis and former Gov. (1997-2001) Jim Gilmore—by double digits, there has been growing talk among Old Dominion Republicans about whether they need to find another nominee.

One name that has surfaced is that of Gen. Peter Pace, who stepped down two weeks ago as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Although the 61-year-old Pace’s politics are unknown, it is widely thought that the much-decorated Marine and U.S. Naval Academy graduate has Republican leanings. Pace is also a resident of McLean in Northern Virginia. Amid widespread online discussion of a Pace candidacy, I posed the question of whether Pace might run to Col. Ellen Haddock, who is handling Pace’s transition to private life. “In response to your question,” Col. Haddock e-mailed me, “Gen. Pace has not considered running for political office.”