I Miss The GOP That Welcomed Bob Calhoun

The late Senator Bob Calhoun, R-Alexandria, with the very much still alive and kicking former Governor Douglas Wilder, in the Senate Chamber. Wilder might have been lieutenant governor at the time. Calhoun family photo attached to the obituary linked below.

Former State Senator Bob Calhoun’s death on August 6 at age 83 is apparently only Alexandria local news so far, but he was such a colorful and useful member of the Senate that his passing needs more notice. The family is delaying any formal memorial services.

Calhoun was funny, one very smart lawyer and an experienced government mandarin from the federal realm.  His expertise included transportation. He had a strong political base in Alexandria as councilman and then vice mayor, and when former Senator Wiley Mitchell told us he was stepping down, he strongly pointed to Bob as the next candidate. In his usual fashion I think he called me at the GOP Caucus office and said, “Bob or else.” 

Bob was not cut from a very conservative mold on many issues, and that’s why his service is worth noting. All agree he would never get a Republican nomination today, too many preferring ideological purity in obvious losers. But no other Republican could have won that seat, even in the late 1980s. He fit that city’s culture, attitudes and temperament, yet on many issues was a reliable caucus vote. Not all. But he couldn’t always vote against his district. Today’s GOP would inspire a movie called “The Unforgiving.”

The Democrats were so overconfident in victory by former Del. Marian Van Landingham, a delightful and impressive lady I also miss, they ignored Bob’s campaign. All the Democratic energy was focused on who would next run for her “open” seat, which didn’t open after all. It was a wonderful example of what not to do, an example learned by some but not all. Any attacks on Bob as a radical Republican were laughed off by those who knew him well.

As noted, the Democrats didn’t underestimate Bob again, but it took them two tries to vote him out with Patsy Ticer, also a former mayor, in 1995. When we saw Mary Sue Terry’s 1993 gubernatorial vote in that district, the outcome was not in doubt (remember, 1991 was when the Democrats drew maps.)

In the photo background above is former Democratic State Senator Joe Gartlan, another seriously bright guy and a key member of that party’s leadership. He, too, would never get nominated today because he was 100% pro-life and noisy about it. The small tent constrains both parties. For that matter, how would Governor Douglas Wilder fare in today’s environment? We backed him more often than you’d believe.

Forgive the trip down nostalgia lane, but we have lost something in our quest for ideological purity not tempered by humor and compassion, and it is nice to remember better times and the bigger tent. It is not just my aging brain; it was better times. May they come again.


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18 responses to “I Miss The GOP That Welcomed Bob Calhoun

  1. I wonder how much the change to which SDH is pointing over the past decades has to do with the forced injection of national political styles into state and even local affairs. I wonder if Virginia has been more afflicted than elsewhere– maybe there is an Iowan SDH mourning an Iowan Sen. Calhoun right now…

    I’m sure there’s more to it, and I don’t mean to take anything away from the excellent qualities Sen. Calhoun demonstrated in his public service, but I wonder how much SDH is (implicitly) noticing the way a national cultural change appears here to us; politics built from the ground up changed to politics built from the national parties down. Smaller, poorer tents with fewer, louder people in them…

  2. I’m a Democrat and I, too, miss the big tent in both parties. Bob McDonnell cut an ad in 2009 in which he promised to invest in green energy! Seriously! Cannot imagine that in a GOP gubernatorial nominee today. Tim Kaine in 2005 said in an ad “in many ways, I’m a conservative”. Ditto that’d be impossible now.

    It does have to do with the nationalization of everything I think. Also social media.

    Though I think the GOP will have a better chance of at least wining the governor’s mansion here in the future than the Democrats do in red states. Maryland and Massachusetts are known to elect GOP govs. Wyoming or Idaho electing Dems? Not so much.

    • Vance Wilkins built that House majority. He and I talked about candidates all the time when I was staff. Ideology was lower on his list when evaluating them, below community service and connections and other candidate skills. It was all about who fit the district, who would put in the work, and WIN.

      Social media and ideological broadcast media share equal blame. The talking heads and radio geniuses care about ratings and revenue, not winning. Both sides.

      • I think broadcast media (talk radio, FOX News) shares more blame on the GOP side, while social media does on mine–along with podcasting.

        It drives politician’s behavior, too, not just voters. Why is Joe Biden the Democratic nominee? Because just about everyone else was chasing Twitter’s tail all over the place, with all these let’s be kind and call them exotic positions. You had candidates up there in the debates endorsing cash reparations for slavery, allowing prisoners to vote, completely abolishing border controls, and the like. Many of the candidates even thought it was a real bright idea to denounce *Barack Obama*. None of these things are popular among the real-life Democratic Primary electorate, but where are they popular? Twitter and podccasts.

        Meanwhile Biden was speaking to Black church congregations in the South and sticking to tired-and-true meat and potatoes Democratic Party stuff like pledging to protect Social Security and Medicare, talking up the value of labor unions, advocating more spending on infrastructure, and the like. Not real groundbreaking stuff that’d light up a social media account, but tried and true issues that Democratic Primary voters care a great deal about.

  3. I remember Vince Callahan the same way. A Republican who introduced legislation in 2007 to increase the minimum wage he also was awarded the Equality Public Service Award by Equality Virginia, a gay rights organization.

    Now we have Kathleen Murphy who is busy thinking up ways to spend the per diems she is getting while working from home.

    • Callahan regularly was endorsed by the AFL and VEA. What a heretic! But they were also more willing to build bridges those days. Now they also must stay in the tiny tent or else….

  4. I remember Calhoun as a big, loud, funny personality. Also smart. Thanks for your remembrance of him. I am surprised that the notice of his death did not make the RTD. I am also surprised that it did not make the Post.

    I was never impressed with Ticer.

    But the guy whose seat Calhoun assumed–Wiley Mitchell? One of the best legislators I ever worked with and another of those Republicans from that era whom the party would shun today. He was probably the only legislator who insisted on reading every bill.

    • You’d see Senate roll calls of 39-1, with Wiley the one, and I always went to ask him why….Or 38-2, and it would be Wiley Mitchell and “Buzz” Emick.

      Sam Glasscock read every bill. So did A.L. Philpott.

      • Wiley’s answer was probably “Because I read the bill and it had this and this and this wrong about it.”

        Ah, Buzz Emick–another irascible, lovable maverick that the Democrats could not control.

  5. I’m sorry to hear about Bob’s passing. I worked on a couple of campaigns in Alexandria for council and later for senate. He was a bright guy but humble enough to listen to others and loved to tell a story. He was perfect for Alexandria where politics was not blood sport at least at that time.

  6. BTW, kind of random, but was he of any relation to one John Calhoun?

    I’m thinking unlikely since he was a Republican, but you never know.

    • This piece and the comment string found their way to Mrs. Calhoun, who kindly reached out to me. And she added (I didn’t ask) that her husband was indeed a descendant of the famed Senator J. C. Calhoun’s brother, William, d. 1840.

  7. This is a cut and paste job from Bearing Drift, a statement issued by Senator Emmett Hanger, another frequent target of those who seek to destroy anybody they view as insufficiently pious. He’s being lied about on gun issues. It is an excellent example of where the Republicans of today are, rather than where they used to be when we won on a regular basis, The following from Hanger:

    “Thank you for the inquiry. The voicemails and mailings are completely false and misleading. The groups responsible for this misleading information are more interested in making money for themselves than protecting your constitutional rights. I continue to be a strong supporter of responsible gun ownership. Responsible exercise of any constitutional right is the best way to protect it.

    “I am not a ‘maybe;’ I am a definite ‘no’ on anything that looks like HB 961 or proposes to take guns away from law abiding citizens. A group called ‘Constitutional Conservatives’ (Chris Anders) out of Loudoun County and the National Association for Gun Rights are responsible for the bad information. These groups have been hammering me and, unfortunately, attacking the four Democrats in the Senate that helped defeat HB 961 in the regular session.

    “I have been in contact with the four Democrats (Senators Edwards, Deeds, Peterson, and Lewis). They have not changed their positions, but we all are pretty annoyed by Mr. Anders’ tactics in particular which have caused our phones to be flooded with nasty, hateful calls based on his misinformation.

    “We should be thanking these four Democrats for standing up for their support of the 2nd Amendment. They took a lot of heat from the Democrat Caucus. The National Association for Gun Rights also is sending out similar misinformation (they are doing the orange cards to copycat the NRA); and if I determine other gun groups are doing the same I will call them out as well for their misleading tactics. I do support background checks and I strongly support our current system which requires a permit to carry concealed.

    “I have never supported federal gun registration. There is an increasing lack of civility in our political discourse. Citizens have a right to know the facts, but those who provide false and misleading information do not deserve the support of your hard-earned dollars nor do they deserve the credibility to influence our decisions.”

    In keeping with BDB’s observations I emphasize the following:

    “The groups responsible for this misleading information are more interested in making money for themselves than protecting your constitutional rights.” And I would add, or in winning elections.

  8. The problem with the nostalgia for the past when there was more biparitsan ship is it really is nostalgia. Where is the will on the part of the modern Democrat Party, the party of slavery, the Confederacy, the KKK, segregation and more to get over hating Trump and labelling conservatives racists, demanding shutdowns for the CCP virus when big riot protests are perfectly fine. Intellectual honesty is gone, identity politics matters first.

  9. Pingback: The Trash Tax Returns; Energy Price Hikes Ignored | Bacon's Rebellion

  10. Hi everyone. This is Bob Calhoun’s youngest son Gordon. First, thank you for the kind words Mr. Hanner!

    Second, I often ask Dad why he was a Republican in the most politically liberal city in Virginia. The biggest reason he stated was that, at the time in the 1970s-80s, the Republican Party was honest about who they were and, in Alexandria, there is still a measure of truth about that. Alexandria is one of the most liberal cities in Virginia, but it also one of the richest. For many Democrats in Alexandria to say “we are for the poor and the downtrodden” is just the kind of dishonest nonsense Dad got tired of.

    At the same time, he always reminded me that people who disagreed with you were never the enemy, just the opposition. Dad was raised by both a FDR Democrat (his father) and a hardcore anti-New Deal Republican (his mother). So he got an education from both sides from an early age.

    He attended meetings of gay rights organizations in Alexandria long before it was a mainstream political force. In the Senate, he stood up to fellow Northern Virginia legislators who didn’t like mobile homes. “Oh, I’m sorry, not everyone can afford a $600,000 home in this state,” he commented. There were many in Old Town Alexandria opposed to Metro’s Yellow Line because of a stupid fear that D.C. kids would overrun the city. Dad called out those people for what they were: racists. He was a Yale-trained lawyer taught by Robert Bork who endorsed the Northern Virginia Law School, a then non-accredited law school that operated out of a strip mall, against his fellow career lawyers’ attempts to keep the strip mall lawyers from taking the bar.

    He loved public service and believed everyone should get involved.

  11. Race baiting is now a bigger bludgeon than racism when I was a kid decades. It seems Marxist in origin and is used to silence anyone the left disagrees with. It doesn’t matter that Trump has many blacks as friends and serving, if he disagrees with the left and BLM/ etc he’s a racist. The term now is a political term.

  12. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    I bet Mr. Calhoun and Mr. Putnam could spin up some great stories of political combat from yesteryear. Sounds like a man I would have enjoyed meeting. Where have all the Virginians gone?

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