Leighty, Bill. Capitol Secrets: Leadership Wisdom from a Lifetime of Public Service. Holon Publishing, 2023.
A review by Dick Hall-Sizemore
The public sees the result of policy development. What the public does not see is the sometimes- messy process that produced that policy nor, more broadly, what goes on behind the scenes to make government work.
In his recently released memoir, Bill Leighty has drawn back the curtain a bit to reveal some of the inner workings behind some of the activities of Virginia state government during a recent 30-year period.
Bill Leighty is not a name widely known by the general public. However, he was, and, to some extent still is, known by legislators, lobbyists, reporters, Cabinet members, agency heads, and other denizens of Capitol Square.
Through the course of his career, Leighty cut a wide swath through state government. After a stint in the Marine Corps following high school, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mary Washington and an MBA from Virginia Commonwealth University and landed a job in 1978 with the Virginia Department of Taxation. The agency assigned him to a new unit established to prepare revenue forecasts. That unit also prepared fiscal impact statements on tax bills for the legislature.
He got his big break when he caught the eye of state Sen. Ed Willey of Richmond, the legendary, crusty chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Willey hired Leighty as a staff member of the Finance Committee. Leighty credits Willey’s influence on his life as “only exceeded by that of my father.” Willey was his “greatest mentor.”
The most important direction and advice Willey gave Leighty was to “build a professional and social network so wide and strong that you will always know who knows the answer to the questions I may be asked.” Leighty is friendly, likeable, outgoing, and has a wry sense of humor. With that personality, combined with a position on the staff of the Finance Committee, he was perfectly poised to carry out Willey’s directive and he did it well.
After some years of seasoning at Senate Finance, Leighty was ready to move on. He was appointed Deputy Secretary of Public Safety and Transportation in the Baliles administration. Leighty also includes Baliles among his most important mentors. It seems that Baliles had a penchant for using Leighty on assignments outside the transportation arena.
As the Baliles administration was nearing its end, Leighty was able to do what a lot of sub-cabinet officials are able to do when an administration is winding down; he found a “home” in one of the agencies he had overseen. He was appointed Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles. (He reports that incoming Governor Wilder subsequently offered him the position of deputy chief of staff, but he turned it down because of the time commitment.)
With the election of George Allen, a Republican who came into office bellowing about enjoying “knocking their [Democrats’] teeth down their whining throats,” Leighty accomplished the unexpected. He survived. Although he had volunteered for Democrat Charles Robb’s campaigns for lieutenant governor and governor; staffed the Senate Finance Committee, replete with Democrats; and served in the administrations of two Democratic governors, Baliles and Wilder, Leighty got positions in the Allen administration.
Allen was known for his great fondness for cowboy boots. Shortly after his election, a story went around Capitol Square that Leighty had bought a pair of cowboy boots and was proudly showing them off to anyone who would pay attention. Whether it was due to the cowboy boots (assuming the story was true) or to his network connections (as he claims), Leighty was named deputy director of Allen’s much-hyped Commission on Government Reform (called the “Strike Force”). Later, he landed the position of executive director of the Virginia Retirement System. He remained in that position during the Gilmore administration.
Leighty capped off his state service by serving as chief of staff in both the Warner and Kaine administrations.
The Code of Virginia authorizes the Governor to appoint a chief of staff, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly. That is it. There is no description of the duties of the position. The Code does not stipulate that any staff members report to the chief of staff. Here is how Leighty describes the role of chief of staff: “run the enterprise of state government in such an efficient manner that it did not allow operations to impede upon a governor’s ability to pursue his policies or set his own priorities.” In effect, the chief of staff is the unofficial deputy governor with whatever authority and responsibility the governor conveys.
Being chief of staff for two governors is a noteworthy achievement. No one can claim that distinction since Carter Lowance, the “Little Governor,” was chief of staff for five governors during the Byrd Machine years. However, Leighty was also fired by one of the governors he served. About halfway through his term, Governor Kaine asked Leighty for his resignation. Kaine was generous enough to agree to Leighty’s request to stay on as director of some “special projects” for a few months so as to allow him to complete his anniversary of state service. Leighty was also able to announce his own “resignation.”
In truth, the fault for the parting of the ways was more Kaine’s than Leighty’s. Warner and Kaine had very different personalities and management styles. As Leighty explains it, Warner favored the hierarchical style, in which everyone reports through the chief of staff. Warner gave Leighty great leeway in selecting agency heads and other administration officials below the Cabinet level. Leighty also ran the Office of the Governor, requiring all members of the office to assembly at 7:30 each morning to go over the schedule for the upcoming day. He even gave assignments to Cabinet members, such as requiring them every quarter to tell him the 10 greatest negative risks in their portfolios.
Kaine, on the other hand, used the “hub and spoke” approach, with many individuals reporting to him, rather than through the chief of staff. Kaine also gave Leighty less leeway in decisions. With the governor’s policy staff, the communications staff, and others in that office technically not reporting to the chief of staff and Kaine encouraging them to come to him directly, the staff ignored Leighty’s called staff meetings; they just did not show up. There was sufficient tension and dysfunction that Kaine decided he needed a different chief of staff. It would have been better all around if Kaine had chosen someone from the beginning for chief of staff who was more attuned to his management style.
To be clear, Leighty does not level any criticism against Kaine for this turn of events. In fact, he has nothing but good things to say about Kaine and Kaine was a co-author, along with Warner, of the book’s foreward.
Much of the book is devoted to personalities, anecdotes, and descriptions of legislative maneuvering and the operations of the governor’s office. For example, there is the story of Sen. Willey deliberately inserting, over Leighty’s objection, a major error in a tax bill he was sponsoring. Willey knew that his House counterpart, the chairman of the House Finance Committee, would not let a bill of his go through without making a change in it. Therefore, he gave him something to change.
There is the story of Warner and Leighty giving Tom Hanks a tour of the Capitol Building at 1:00 a.m. one night. (Hanks was in Richmond as part of his scouting a location for his HBO series on John Adams.) As Leighty was pointing out the significance of particular paintings and statutes, the following dialog took place:
Warner: “Damn it, Leighty, we don’t have time for the three-hour tour, give him the 30-second tour!” [Leighty has said that, under Warner, his name seemed to be “Dammit Leighty!”]
Hanks: “No, Governor. I love history and I am absorbing every word he says.”
Warner: “I wouldn’t if I were you, Tom, he makes most of this s**t up.”
There is a chapter on disasters and crises, including the shooting at Virginia Tech, and how the state responded.
There is a chapter on the visit by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007. She came to Richmond and addressed the General Assembly as part of the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Virginia Colony at Jamestown. Leighty worked closely with British officials on the arrangements for the visit. In recognition of his efforts, he was one of several who were granted a five-minute private audience with the Queen. Leighty was so nervous about the meeting that, upon approaching the Queen, rather than bowing, he curtsied! The Queen broke out in good-natured laughter.
There is one incident described below, which, though lengthy, illustrates several key factors in Leighty’s success in state government: first, his ability to make deals; second, his ingenuity; third, his use of his network; and fourth, his sense of humor. It also is a good illustration of how things often get done in state government.
During Leighty’s tenure as deputy secretary of public safety and transportation, Governor Balilies gave him the side assignment of assisting the newly created Virginia Film Office. His role was to facilitate requests from production companies.
One such request came during the filming of the movie Navy SEALS. The opening scene was to be that of a Navy SEAL team parachuting onto a burning oil tanker being held hostage by terrorists. The production company requested a permit to conduct a controlled burn of an oil tanker in the Chesapeake Bay. Following is Leighty’s description of his quest to fulfill that request.
I went down the hall to my fellow deputy secretary [of natural resources] John Daniel and asked him, ‘What would it take to get a permit to burn an oil tanker in the Chesapeake Bay?’ After he finished screaming at me, I replied, ‘John, I didn’t ask you to give me a permit. I only asked what it would take to get a permit.’
John related that he needed help finding a sponsor for mandatory vehicle emission inspection legislation for Northern Virginia localities that was being required by the federal government. But he said that no Northern Virginia legislator would carry it because of the impact on their constituents, and legislators outside of Northern Virginia didn’t feel they should meddle in another region’s issue. John said if I could get someone to carry the bill, he would find a way to get the appropriate permits issued.
So, I went to see Delegate Leslie Byrne of Fairfax (later a state senator and Virginia congresswoman) and asked her, ‘What would it take to get you to introduce the federally required mandatory vehicle emission program legislation?’ After she finished screaming at me, I said, ‘Leslie, I didn’t ask you to actually introduce the legislation, I only asked what it would take to get you to introduce the legislation.’
Leslie related that there was a terrible problem with pedestrian accidents in her district on Route 7. She said if I could secure a pedestrian overpass, she would carry the bill.
I went to see Ray Pethtel, Virginia’s commissioner of transportation, and asked him, ‘What would it take to get a pedestrian overpass build on Route 7?’ After he finished screaming at me, I said, ‘Ray, I didn’t ask you to build the overpass, I just asked what it would take for you to consider building it.’
Ray was distraught. It turned out that Virginia was on the verge of losing $125 million of federal transportation construction funds annually if we did not pass legislation creating a vehicle emissions inspection program in northern jurisdictions of the state. If I could just find a way to get legislation introduced, he would see what he could do. Bingo! My persistence paid off. We had a deal!… And to my friends in Northern Virginia, that is why you have annual emission inspection to this day.
The story has an ironic ending. By the time Leighty got back to the production company with the news that they could get a permit to burn an oil tanker in the Chesapeake Bay, the company had changed the script and was going to use an obsolete oil platform in the Persian Gulf.
Beyond the illuminating anecdotes and detail, there are two aspects of the book that are annoying and detract from the overall narrative. The first is Leighty’s constant patting himself on the back and occasionally taking more credit than the deserves. It could be argued that is one of the functions or features of a memoir, but, in most cases, actions and accomplishments speak for themselves. Although there are numerous examples, two should suffice to illustrate the point.
In 2005, Virginia was named by Governing magazine as the best managed state in the nation. After summarizing all the factors that the magazine took into account in its assessment, Leighty concludes, “Governor Warner’s confidence in naming me as chief of staff had paid off.”
The second example deals with the emotional task of carrying out an execution. After explaining, “My duties during an execution were purely ministerial,” Leighty in the very next paragraph claims, “Once the execution is ordered by the court and a date and time set, then my role was to make sure the execution was handled efficiently.” To the contrary, that was not his role. Making sure that an execution goes smoothly is the responsibility of the director of the Department of Corrections and the warden of Greensville Correctional Center, where executions are carried out. The role of the chief of staff is to make sure that the telephone lines in the Governor’s office are clear and there is communication between the Governor’s office and the Department of Corrections.
Even in the hierarchical system employed by Warner, not all decisions went through Leighty. For example, no budget recommendation went to the governor from the Department of Planning and Budget until it had been vetted and approved by John Bennett, the Secretary of Finance. Furthermore, in budget briefings with Warner, Bennett oversaw those briefings and Leighty was not always present.
In fairness, Leighty does have a chapter in which he talks about his gaffes and mistakes along the way.
The second annoying aspect of the book is Leighty’s constant references to, and reminders of, his service in the Marine Corps, which was a major turning point in his life. Although there is not such a reference on every page, it sometimes seems that way. Anyone who has gone through Marine basic training at Parris Island is justified in feeling good about himself. However, at some point, a reader could well shout, “Enough already! I get it!”
Notwithstanding those annoyances, the book is a good read. For those readers who were around during most of those years, but (like this reader) not privy to the inside details, there is the opportunity to reminisce and say to oneself, “Ah, so that is what that was all about!” For others, it provides an inside look at governing and policymaking in Virginia.