Why Virgil Goode switched parties.

It’s been long enough since Rep. Virgil Goode switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, by way of being an independent for a period of mere months, that people have started to forget why he made the switch. Just today a fellow Virginia blogger accused the Roanoke Times of getting the story wrong when, in fact, the Times got it just right. The error is understandable — it’s been a few years now, and the truth doesn’t paint Rep. Goode in a particularly flattering light.

Let’s look back at the newspapers of the day.

Here’s the July 22, 1999 Roll Call:

Republican insiders say conservative Democratic Rep. Virgil Goode (Va.) is the only additional Member who may potentially switch parties this year, but they insist several others, most notably Rep. Ralph Hall (D-Texas) and James Traficant (D-Ohio), would contemplate leaving the Democratic Party if the margin narrows following the next elections. All three deny any plans to switch, though Goode’s spokesman did not rule it out.

[...]

Goode, however, is attracting intense interest from Republican leaders now, with one top official predicting he’ll convert to the GOP before the next elections. A Goode spokesman did not rule out a change in party affiliation.

“The Congressman has always said he intends to run for re-election and that is it,” said Goode spokesman Linwood Duncan. “He said nothing else about staying, switching or anything else.”

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis (Va.) has forged a close relationship with his fellow Old Dominion legislator and frequently lobbies Goode to leave the Democrats.

“{[Davis] regularly assures Goode that there is a place in our party for a man of his integrity and character,” said Davis spokeswoman Jill Schroeder.

But Gephardt is keenly aware that Goode – who comes from a long line of Democrats but represents a conservative, rural district – has contemplated leaving, so he has worked overtime to please Goode and other conservative Democrats.

“I don’t think he is {switching},” said Gephardt. “I’m always concerned about every Democrat and keeping them moving in the right direction. I talk to Virgil almost every day.”

So, with the margins in the House so close, we can see that Goode was being courted by Republicans, who wanted very much to replace Rep. Forbes, who had just jumped ship, leaving a seat open on the House Appropriations Committee. The Republican leadership was terrified that their slim majority in the House could be lost in the 2000 elections, so their loss of Forbes required an immediate offset, and the surest way to do that was to find a far-right Democrat and woo him, which is precisely what they set about doing.

On August 5, The Hotline dropped a small bombshell:

Roll Call’s VandeHei reports, House GOP leaders “are prepared to give” Rep. Virgil Goode (D) a seat on the Approps Cmte and assistance with redistricting after 2000 “if he defects to the GOP, several sources confirmed.” With Speaker Denny Hastert’s “blessing,” Goode has been “made aware” of the offer “in multiple conversations with” NRCC Chair Tom Davis “and other intermediaries as late as this week. Goode, “who the sources said is unlikely to make a decision before’ 9/99, “has expressed interest in switching, especially if” Gov. Jim Gilmore (R-VA) “promises a favorable redraw of his district in 2000 and an open-armed reception” into the VA GOP..

Following up on this on the 24th, The Hotline wrote:

The “key variable” for Goode is the 11/99 legislative elections, where GOPers hope to take control of the VA House of Delegates, and of cong. redistricting after the 2000 census. If that occurs, Goode may switch parties “to gain favorable district lines.”

But why would Goode be so concerned about redistricting? He’s a natural for the Fifth District. The Roanoke Times explained in an aside in a September 6 article about the redistricting wars:

Democratic congressmen Virgil Goode of Rocky Mount and Rick Boucher of Abingdon could become districtmates, a factor at the center of speculation that Goode will switch parties.

Ah ha. A Goode vs. Boucher race would be a bad scene, particularly with a sophomore like Goode up against an old-timer like Boucher. At best, it would be bloody an expensive; at worst, Goode would be out of the politics business, the only business he’s ever known.

The story about a Goode switch had bubbled over to major-market media on August 7, when the Washington Post featured an article by Spencer Hsu:

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R), a fellow Virginian and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has spoken frequently to Goode, a maverick second-term lawmaker from Rocky Mount.

“It’s really no secret we are holding this Appropriations seat up for bid to some degree,” a GOP leadership spokesman said. “If Virgil Goode or any Democrat is interested in switching over and taking that seat, we would be happy to negotiate with them.”

Another leadership source said no Democrat was more engaged in discussions than Goode. But given the talks’ sensitive nature, several GOP officials declined to comment publicly.

The next dust-up occurred in mid-August, as reported by The Hotline:

The “persistent” GOP courtship of Rep. Virgil Goode (D) last week “hit a rough patch” when the NRCC “‘accidentally’ released a statement attacking the conservative lawmaker for a floor vote.” While Goode “appeared to be relatively unfazed by the development,” the incident “touched off a swirl of spin and recrimination at both party Congressional committees, where Goode is handled like an ancient Chinese vase.”

In the same article, The Hotline pointed out the sort of pressure that Goode was under by Republicans in the Virginia Senate:

GOP strategists believe the 11/99 VA legis. elections “will be critical to their attempts to draw Goode across the aisle.” If the GOP can seize control of the state Sen., strategists believe Goode “would be under tremendous pressure to switch parties in order to protect his district during” redistricting.

After months of such stories, nobody was surprised when, in January of 2000, Goode announced that he’d become an independent. The AP reported:

Rep. Virgil Goode, who served two terms in Congress as a Democrat, announced Monday that he will seek re-election as an independent.

“I’ve always voted independently of any party position and I plan to continue doing that,” Goode said in an interview outside his local congressional office. “My stance has always been to vote on the issues and to vote in the best interest of my district.”

[...]

“This is just the latest good news in our quest to add to our majority in the House,” said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, who said Goode is welcome in the Republican caucus. “Any hope the Democrats had of winning back the House just ended.”

Virginia Democrats tried to put a positive spin on Goode’s move.

“Virgil Goode’s statement is a blow to Republicans who were confidently predicting that he would be joining the Republican Congressional Conference and caucusing with them,” said Del. Kenneth Plum, D-Fairfax and chairman of the state Democratic party. “The fact remains that he continues to serve on the committees assigned to him by the Democratic Conference.”

With Goode’s defection, Republicans will hold a 222-211 majority in the House, with two independents, Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Goode.

House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt said he regrets Goode’s decision, but that the party will continue to extend Goode his Democratic committee assignments.

Of course, Goode calling himself as independent was as much puffery as saying that he’d “always voted independently of any party position.” A March 26 Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial pointed out that Goode would only “identify” as an independent, but that he was “for organizational purposes” a Republican. And Goode’s voting record had been, since day 1, that of a Republican — the idea that his votes are in any way different than those cast by most other House Republicans is nothing more than political theater.

Goode won reelection as an “independent” in 2000, and unsurprisingly endorsed in Mark Earley in August of 2001 in Earley’s unsuccessful bid for governor. On February 2, 2002, Goode announced that he would accept the Republican nomination for his seat, a result of district chair Tucker Watkins’ efforts, thus completing his brief, planned transition.

The redistricting had gone just fine, of course — not only did Goode not get faced off against Boucher, but his district was made friendlier than ever, with the conservative Albemarle County and very-conservative Greene County added up here around Charlottesville. And Goode got his seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, an assignment so fortunate that, had he first been elected as a Republican, he would be lucky to get a decade from now.

The best efforts of the Democratic Party were insufficient to keep Goode, not because of ideological reasons but because, as all of the coverage at the time makes clear, the Republican Party was in a position to give him power that Democrats had no ability to grant him. So he left his “daddy’s party,” as he describes it, in exchange for a friendly redistricting and a powerful committee assignment.

It’s well worth noting that none of this was new to the man. Goode pulled the exact same stunt in the Virginia Senate in 1995, when it wasn’t clear who would end up in charge of the Senate, Republicans or Democrats. The election had left the two tied, and a defection from one side or the other would have a powerful impact. Goode, willing as ever to trade loyalty for power, made clear that he could be bought. On December 9, The Virginian Pilot wrote:

The Democrats’ tenuous grip on control of the state Senate slipped by another finger Friday when Democratic Sen. Virgil H. Goode of Rocky Mount told colleagues they cannot count on his support.

Goode privately told a few senior senators that he will not commit to supporting the party when the Senate convenes Jan. 10 to fill leadership positions, according to two Democrats who asked not to be identified.

The 40-member Senate split evenly between Democrats and Republicans in last month’s elections. If Goode defects, Republicans get a first-ever majority. If he stands with his party, Democrats retain power by virtue of Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr.’s tie-breaking vote.

So, everybody wants to make Goode happy.

[...]

Senators said both parties are considering luring Goode with a leadership position on the all-powerful Senate Finance Committee, which oversees state spending and taxing.

[...]

The Democrats said Goode has made clear that he covets an appointment to the Senate’s conference committee on the state budget. This powerful four-person panel meets with conferees from the House of Delegates each year to negotiate the final details on state spending.

[...]

A Republican Party source said the GOP is discussing offering Goode the powerful chairmanship of the finance committee if he will support the party or excuse himself from his seat Jan. 10 when the Senate meets to organize.

The proposal is being strenuously opposed by Sen. John H. Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, who is in line to become finance chairman should the GOP seize power.

Goode set off a bidding war between the two sides, which the Democrats ultimately won. That was likely the only reason that he initially ran for the House of Representatives as a Democrat. In the process, though, he delivered a serious blow to Virginia Democrats, who quickly learned that Goode had no party allegiance; he was simply available to the highest bidder.

This is no story of a man without a party, a representative as solid as a rock in an ever-changing political world. Virgil Goode is a turncoat, plain and simple — he’s available to the highest bidder. Clearly, he made a smart decision, but that doesn’t make him any less of a turncoat. When the we Democrats take over again, as we inevitably will, I wonder — will he switch back?

12 thoughts on “Why Virgil Goode switched parties.”

  1. Like you said, he has always been ideologically conservative. There was no reason for him not to switch. He was just smart about switching and made sure that he got some benefits from a switch that was a natural anyway.

  2. I’m so glad Virgil is your Congressman Waldo. I might have to deal with Tim Kaine for the next four years. But you Waldo, lest you decide to leave Charlottesville, will have Virgil till they plant him in that Franklin County soil! Was it a cruel trick that was played on Charlottesville? yes. Does it make me laugh? yes.

    Good article though. I had forgotten about much of what you dug up. Our congressional district chairman enjoys the perception that he deserves the credit for bringing Virgil into the party (which I think is bunk) The approps. seat was a big deal to him, I can have no doubt Waldo, but Virgil’s leaving the Democratic party was more than smooth deals in smoke filled rooms. It was the combination of events that formed the perfect storm. Boucher? maybe to sure. Democratic party becoming more and more liberal in VA? definately a reason. approps seat? sure, ok. lots of reasons out there Waldo. None of them demonic. taking an appops seat for the betterment of his district is good politics.

  3. Hey Waldo, what’s the opposite of a “man crush?” Whatever it is, I think you’ve got one on Virgil “MZM” Goode. (Just kidding!!) :)

    Seriously, you are doing GREAT work on this; keep it up. And, if they ever start a Pulitzer Prize for investigative blogging, I hereby nominate you for your series on Goode. (Not kidding!!)

  4. Actually, it’s well worth saying that I don’t dislike Virgil Goode at all. In my experience, he’s an affable, well-intentioned guy. If he has done anything illegal or improper, I would be genuinely surprised, because it would be out of character for him. He’s not a particularly effective legislator, and he clearly seeks power above all else, but that doesn’t make him bad, but just average. My interest in him is that he represents me. If I didn’t live in the 5th, I can’t see that I’d have much to say about him.

  5. This is an excellent analysis of Virgil Goode’s party switch and clearly shows him to be a man whose only true motivation is what is best for Virgil Goode. In 1985 Goode delivered the nominating speech for Doug Wilder at the Democratic convention. With his down home accent and old style oratory he whipped the convention into a frenzy as he railed against all things Republican, including a few rather sharp attacks on Miles Goodwin. I am not sure if a copy of that speech exist but it would be interesting to contrast Goode’s convictions then with his convictions now. The comparison would show his core beliefs to be as strong as the prevailing winds.

  6. Waldo – this is a good rundown of the media coverage around Virgil’s switch. I actually was his first Hill intern in his 1996 term, so I saw some of the initial things that were going down. Basically, Virgil was recruited from Day 1 and his relationship with Gephardt & Co was tenuous at best. You have to remember that the mid-90′s takeover of Congress by the Gingrich Revolution caused quite a few conservative Dems to flip, including Sen. Shelby and Rep. Billy Tauzin. It was akin to what happened with some congressional Dems following Reagan’s 1980 victory (Phil Gramm flipped to the GOP). Most flippers got benefits out of it, something that is totally expected in politics – I’d do the same thing.

    The major thing that most of his detractors forget is that – aside from his reputation for integrity – Virgils really, really smart and is a great tactician. Behind that aw-shucks accent lies a Phi Beta Kappa graduate and astute politician. On most issues, he was out of sync with the DNC, but still in sync with some elements of DPVA. Ironically, he supported affirmative action for the most part, both as a personal thing (he saw firsthand segregation from his father’s experience in the Byrd Machine) and his district (the 5th is heavily black). His decision to leave the party in 2000 and go independent caused quite a tiff in the 5th CD committee and several staffers quit. His move full bore into the GOP was protracted (it took 4-5 years), and it was not a quick-change act. He actually considered the effect of his move on the future (and his ability to financially support) of his friends on the Democratic side of the GA, like Roscoe Reynolds.

    As for being a turncoat, Virgil was a major supporter of the YD’s and his other Dem colleagues in and around the Commonwealth when he was party member. Still, he caught hell for years for being out of step on issues like tobacco, gun rights and abortion, especially from the Northern Virginians and the Charlottesville crowd. As such, when the time came, he went with where he felt most comfortable – the GOP.

    – Conaway

  7. Thank you for doing the archaeology on this–the VA State Senate experience was quite interesting. But I think you miss a couple of points.

    Virgil doesn’t seek power, per se. If he did, he wouldn’t escape DC every second he has the chance. He wouldn’t waste/spend many hours a day personally reading constituent mail. Virgil does seek re-election, as does any politician with a survival instinct. A sweet committee assignment or the like is a great way to solidify/reward your base, and thus get re-elected. Criticizing him for that really sounds like sour grapes.

    A major issue that you did touch on was the prospect of running against Boucher, which must have horrified him. He also must have been concerned that he might not have survived a primary challenge in early 2000. Had Emily Couric lived and run, she would’ve fared quite well with a Cville Dem base still furious over Virgil’s impeachment vote. At any rate, the prospect of such a challenge was probably not worth it to him.

    You are wrong to say that the 2001 redistricting left his seat “friendlier than ever”. The main thrust of that redistricting was to make the 4th safe for Randy Forbes, partially at Virgil’s expense (he absorbed half of Brunswick). And that you describe Albemarle County as “conservative” makes me wonder what you’d call Halifax County. I suppose it’s a relative term; Albemarle is the second- or third- *least* conservative jurisdiction in the 5th.

  8. And that you describe Albemarle County as “conservative” makes me wonder what you’d call Halifax County. I suppose it’s a relative term; Albemarle is the second- or third- *least* conservative jurisdiction in the 5th.

    In 2001, Albemarle went for Bush by five points. But what I had in mind when I wrote that was less in terms of electoral results and more in terms of who has the money. Albemarle County is home to some of the wealthiest Republicans in the Fifth District. Expanding the Fifth to include northern Albemarle did wonders for Rep. Goode’s bank account. Including Greene County — no money, but lots o’ Republicans — didn’t hurt, either.

  9. Think of it this way: The population of Virginia, trending from 1990 to 2000, was more concentrated in the north, and to a lesser degree the east, of the Commonwealth. An obvious place for a district to expand would be to its north, and to a lesser degree its east. Hence, Goode gets Albemarle, Greene, and half of Brunswick. Heck, Boucher got Covington and Collinsville. (And c’mon, what is the population of Greene County? 6,000? Don’t make it out to be some electoral prize.)

    You’re making Virgil out to be the benefactor of a very complicated political dynamic that involves many ambitious people. That’s…how do you say…conspiratorial? Absurd?

    Your sleuthing and tenacity are quite good, and that’s why I read your blog. I want your assumptions to be more true-to-life.

  10. You’re making Virgil out to be the benefactor of a very complicated political dynamic that involves many ambitious people. That’s…how do you say…conspiratorial? Absurd?

    I’m not making him out to be “the benefactor of a very complicated political dynamic” — the many media outlets that I quoted were doing so, based on what they were told by leaders of the Republican Party. If you disagree with them, go for it, but this isn’t something that I’ve just invented here. :)

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