The Ghost of Harry F. Byrd

In a few weeks there will be yet another off-year Virginia election, making one wonder why the Old Dominion does it this way.
And if you think about it more than a few seconds, you’ll conclude that this has everything to do with Harry F. Byrd, the governor and U.S. senator whose one-party machine ran the state for 50 years.
There are a lot of eerie connections between Byrd and what some find popular today, such as tight-fisted state spending, toll roads, public private partnerships, a suspicion of education, anti-labor fervor and kind of duplicitous way of promoting feudalism if not dictatorship while all the while extolling the supposed values of freedom and integrity of Old Virginians George Washington, Tom Jefferson, James Madison, and so forth and so on.
Which is why, dear readers, we have off-year elections. One reason for them is that the Byrd Organization, dominated by Byrd who approved all candidates with a nod (sort of like Stalin), wanted very frequent elections do dull the electorate’s appetite for them.
The weird flip side of this is another Byrd-centered policy — that of not allowing governors to serve more than one term. The policy was a backlash against the Byrd machine. But it means that state governors never have enough time to accomplish much.
A few other Byrd leftovers:
  • Rapid anti-unionism. Back in Byrd’s day, there were few labor unions in Virginia, save for some urban areas the Southwestern coal fields. There were a few strikes, such as a five-month-long one by the United Textile Workers at Dan River Cotton Mills in 1930-1931 along with later ones by car ferry and Vepco workers. Byrd used these strikes to push an extreme anti–labor line that is echoed today by conservatives who scream about the chance of workers using a check-off method to vote for or against union membership that is cheaper and more efficient than holding old-style elections that management types can more easily target.
  • Byrd loved pay-go and was an early proponent of it. That, too, is echoed through the General Assembly today albeit it is a lot harder to maintain discipline for it.
  • One of Byrd’s earliest jobs was to manage a toll road between Winchester and Staunton and he took regular trips on it to check maintenance. Could this be a precursor of the public private partnerships that some find so attractive today? Ironically, Byrd fought against Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate highway system in the 1950s. Go that have been that federal money means federal control and oversight of contractors, so the Good Ole Boys might not get the gravy?
  • Race relations. Forget it. Byrd was an unabashed racist and enthusiastically backed segregation.
  • The ironies of his anti-federalism and his own political style. As Time wrote in a 1965 obituary, “While decrying federal ‘paternalism,’ Byrd ruled his own domain with a feudalistic hand. It was velvet gloved but his Virginia autocracy, known simply as the ‘Organization’,’ was one of the most powerful the U.S. had ever seen.”

True, Virginia has changed immensely from the Byrd Organization days as out-of-staters have poured into Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, completely changing the electorate.

But in places such as Richmond and some of the more rural areas, the old structure seems to endure. You still sense that kind of pseudo-polite, smug paternalism that those with Family Names or power or money know a lot more about things than you do, are inherently wiser, so you’d better not make any trouble.
One thing Virginia needs, however, is more, not fewer, troublemakers.
Peter Galuszka

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17 responses to “The Ghost of Harry F. Byrd”

  1. Larry G Avatar

    the are many paradoxes with Byrd.

    He was and is remembered for two things that are seemingly inconsistent.

    1. – pay as you go

    2. – the Va Secondary Road System

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Peter – excellent post. But I think you make a mistake by linking Byrdism to conservative government. We have left-center government in Fairfax County and, while some of the policies might differ from what HFB would find to be in the "public interest," the mechanisms to maintain control are quite the same.

    Since Audrey Moore defeated Jack Herrity and was then defeated by Tom Davis, we've had subordination of the average resident/small business owner to the interests of big developers and contractors. Tom Davis, Kate Hanley, Gerry Connolly and Sharon Bulova. I'm not claiming these are bad people, but they know who is the master.

    Special tax districts can be formed by signature of 51% of the land value or acreage — and the little gal/guy is drug along without option. Dulles Rail, the local share, paid by a special tax district, is capped at $400 M. The bulk of Dulles Rail costs are paid by DTR drivers.

    Fairfax County gets lower cash proffers than any of its neighbors. The Washington Post plays the very same role as the RTD, about which you properly complained.

    The goals might be different, but the means are the same. Byrdism is alive and well in Fairfax County.


  3. Anonymous Avatar

    You statists are all the same. You want to control us and you are mad that you can't put your foot squarely on our necks. You can't do it because we put God and Family as the ultimate authority, not the state. That gets under your skin, doesn't it? You think solutions come from the state house or the white house or the Capitol… solutions come from the houses of we the people. The government was created to protect my rights from creeps like you. In the past, you statists have manipulated "we the people" into thinking that only good things can come from the government. Look what you have to show for it. An absolute nightmare where individual thought is shunned for collectivism; where everyone waits around for the next guy to do something; where debt piles on top of debt until we are all 6 feet under.

    Let me be clear for all you statists, big government useful idiots, leave us alone. We do not want you to interfere in our lives any longer. This November will bring a revolution to Virginia. Next November 2010 it will be the entire United States. We are not going to stop marching for liberty until the size of the federal government is small enough to fit inside the Constitution.

    Statist beware.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Where does such hate and vitriol come from?

    You got one thing right.

    "The government was created to protect my rights from creeps like you."

    And also to do some things individuals cannot do.

    Now all we have to do is find the right balance.

    I hope your post is supposed to be amusing sarcasm, and I just missed it.


  5. Anonymous Avatar

    "Special tax districts can be formed by signature of 51% of the land value or acreage — and the little gal/guy is drug along without option. "

    Can I form my own tax district? I've got 100% of the land value, How about I set it to zero, since that is the approximate amount of services I get.

    Interesting that this can be done with 51%, at that rate I could drag several of my neighbors in – without their consent.

    There must be some other limitations, but at first glance as you have stated it, this could be a good example of mob rule, or a foot in the door for fundamental change.

    On the one hand the little guy gets dragged along without option (like farmers in Fauquier), but unlike Fauquier land owners, this could be the best thing that ever happens to him.

    I've said it before, we make complicated zoning laws, supposedly to control the big developers, and the end result is that they are the only ones left big enough to play the game.

  6. If you want a real taste of HFB's ghost, I suggest you read the editorial page of his beloved Winchester Star on a regular basis.

    It's classic in your face, my way or the highway "conservatism".

  7. Larry G Avatar

    I was expecting a triple-load from our friend Groveton…

    Ray – Special Tax Districts are govt-created districts with supplemental taxes to pay for public infrastructure.

    CDAs are developer-created districts that are similar.

    In both cases – the money is collected to pay for infrastructure (as far as I know).

    they are laid out in the Va Code:

    you can keyword(s) search the Va Code here:

  8. Larry G Avatar

    So HFB – paved a gazillion miles of secondary road in Va.

    " Indeed, over 2,000 miles would be added to the system during Byrd's governorship, 1,787 of these miles in 1928. Road building was one way to keep the voters happy and prove the efficacy of pay-as-you-go."

    now this is intriguing.

    several folks here have claimed that NoVa is the one who paved RoVa but in 1928 the population of Fairfax county was about 25,000 folks and I don't know what the net wealth was back then but more than likely quite a bit less than now.

    So.. where did HFB get the money to pave Virginia if he did not borrow it?

    " When it became clear that the funding for road improvements was not sufficient to "get Virginia out of the mud," especially in the Depression. Byrd arranged for the state to assume responsibility for maintaining county roads in the "Byrd Road Law" (or Secondary Roads Act ) of 1932."

    oops,,, looks like the folks who said that the cities financed RoVa roads were correct:

    " In addition,
    the Byrd Road Law created a highway trust fund that would serve as a
    fund raising and fund allocation mechanism within the Commonwealth.

    Although the Byrd Road Law represented a huge gain to Virginia's counties in terms of savings on highway expenditures, urban leaders and officials were skeptical. To cities of the Commonwealth, the 1932 Secondary Roads Act was merely an expression of the favoritism shown to Virginia's rural regions by the Byrd organization. Although the General Assembly would assume responsibility for construction and maintenance of county roads, city officials were responsible for building and maintaining streets. One example of the disparity in aid received between counties and cities is that in 1948-49, the Byrd- controlled General Assembly appropriated over $14 million in road
    funds to the counties but only $1.2 million to cities. Even more infuriating to city residents was the fact that they were paying state gasoline taxes to support county roads in addition to their own local taxes. This urban/rural schism would only deepen over time. Eventually, it undermined the strength of the Byrd political machine."

  9. Groveton Avatar

    Byrd was an out and out racist. History is full of disgraceful and disgusting racists who made some progress on public infrastructure. Hitler built the autobahns, Mussolini made the trains run on time.

    While Byrd never made it into the big league of racist violence he was pretty disgraceful during his terms as governor. His championing of massive resistance was perhaps the rotting crown that capped the empty head of Virginia's fleabag of the century.

    I don't give a damn what else the little racist did while he was an elected official. The one thing for which he should be rememberd and reviled is his deep, personal hatred for Virginians of African descent.

    Harry F. Byrd is a stain on the history of Virginia.

  10. Larry G Avatar

    I don't really disagree with Groveton. He's got it right and the bad part there are still folks around like him.

    I was not crediting him with anything – just observing that the concept of pay-as-you-go and the extensive secondary road system in Va started with him

    and in a strange kind of way – are still defining – and unresolved issues to this day in Virginia.

    Every General Assembly session that we have centers around the pay-as-you-go concept and every GA session we have – fails to agree on how the state should approach Transportation and just kicks the can down the road.

    All of this goes back to this racist "gentleman" and you gotta wonder why if he is considered such a disreputable individuals why the state still hews to his other philosophies.

  11. The Bulletproof Monk Avatar
    The Bulletproof Monk

    Byrd was anti-union??
    Whatayaknow?? The guy had some redeeming qualities after all!!
    Tom,Dick and Harry are still all over the place if you look for them.

  12. Larry G Avatar

    he was also anti-black a … and anti-city and eminently corrupt.

    " In 1954, the political organization of U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., controlled Virginia politics. Senator Byrd promoted the "Southern Manifesto" opposing integrated schools, which was signed in 1956 by more than one hundred southern officeholders. On February 25, 1956, he called for what became known as Massive Resistance. This was a group of laws, passed in 1958, intended to prevent integration of the schools. Pupil Placement Boards were created with the power to assign specific students to particular schools. Tuition grants were to be provided to students who opposed integrated schools. The linchpin of Massive Resistance was a law that cut off state funds and closed any public school that agreed to integrate"

    someone all of us Virginian's can be proud of… right?

  13. The Bulletproof Monk Avatar
    The Bulletproof Monk

    and addressing the "racist" in Byrd, are you prepared to level the exact same charge at the West Va. scourge == Yet another Byrd with the stain of having served as a grand dragon in the KKK???

    Ot would you rather ignore him, since he's a proud democrat and that slays your point?

  14. Larry G Avatar

    no points for either.

    I have zero forgiveness for racism no matter the individual or his/her alleged politics.

    and I lived through the time when many, many white people while not publically avowed racists – did nothing to stop the racists either and went to the same churches and picnics on Sunday that the avowed racists attended.

  15. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    Bullet Proof Monk,
    Robert Byrd long ago disassociated himself from and apologied for his KKK years which were in the 1940s. Since then, he has worked very closely with African-Americans in his home state. He may be the king of pork, but he has done a lot of good for West Virginians.

    Peter Galuszka

  16. Larry G Avatar

    I just don't know about Robert Byrd.

    Has he really changed? I could be convinced with enough evidence but at this point – he's pretty much done anyhow.

    He's certainly way, way better than Mr. Helms was….or even George Wallace.

    My personal experience is that most racists that I have known – that its so deeply embedded that the best they can do is try to suppress it – you know like perverts who claim they have changed. there is a visceral part of them that they can't seem to easily change.

    but my policy is to NOT let folks who still hew to and are sympathetic to racist values to use examples like Robert Byrd as an example of a double-standard.

    If an avowed racist demonstrates by word AND DEED over the rest of his/her life, I would take a trust but verify attitude.

    In other words, I want to see them actually involved in black issues, members of black organizations, and sponsoring legislation to sock it to racists.

    Anyone familiar with Bill Clinton can see just how much he has worked against racism but when pushed hard – he still shows deep-seated Southern-culture tinges that betray some of his most deep-seated values that he apparently grew up with.

    In his case, I give him the credit. He's done a lot.

    and George Bush is a good example from a Hispanic perspective. To his credit, he would not be drawn into what walks and talks like racism under the guise of "illegals" as we still have a lot of folks who classify anyone with than skin color as a probable "illegal".

    so – see.. I give George Bush credit for at least two things – refusing to be a racist and NCLB.

  17. CDA's? Let's see you run a real piece on the Broad Street CDA. The originators of that fiasco should be tarred and feathered. But that would include present and past members of Richmond City Council, who allowed Richmond Renaissance to strong arm them, and I don't want to sound racist.

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