Saturday, May 09, 2009

George Rawlings, 1921-2009

One of my political heroes, George Rawlings, died this past week. You probably never heard of him--his highest public office was serving in the Virginia House of Delegates in the mid-1960's--but for a few brief months in 1966 he turned Virginia politics upside down. In that year he defeated long time Representative Howard Smith for the Democratic nomination, ending the career of one of the state's most entrenched conservative politicians who had used his position as chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee to block civil rights and other progressive legislation. and

Rawlings' victory was a harbinger of change in the Old Dominion. That same primary saw challenger William Spong defeat Senator A. Willis Robertson, another entrenched conservative icon, while another challenger almost took out Senator Harry F. Byrd Jr., appointed in the previous year to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of his father, Harry Sr who had dominated Virginia politics during the previous four decades.

At the time of his unprecedented upset, I can't say that I knew much about Rawlings. Back then, I was still a Young Republican; Democratic politics wasn't something I cared much about. Being a Virginia Republican in those days meant being a perpetual outcast and, more importantly for my personal evolution, progressive and liberal. It meant opposing a seemingly all-powerful political organization.

All of this is ironic since I became a Republican as a white teenager in the south outraged at the liberal Democratic welfare state and civil rights legislation. A generous interpretation of those years would be to say that I was experimenting with ideas. A less generous description would be that I was an ignorant asshole. These days I would say that those years were part of an evolution, although I still wince when I recall them.

Rawlings did not win the general election; he was crushed by a Republican who benefited from conservative shock and outrage at the loss of their icon. But the change that that was taking place in Virginia was very real and led me to the progressive ideals that have been hard-wired into my psyche ever since.

I can't say that I really appreciated Rawlings' achievement at the time. I certainly do now.

Godspeed, George.



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