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Part 2

Power Players

Betsy Beamer

She was the hometown girl who had gone off to Roanoke to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. She didn't know anything about politics, but she liked Stafford and, on a whim, agreed to work for him.

"I figured I could do anything for a year," Betsy Beamer recalls, "and I've done it for the rest of my life."

At 24, Beamer was senior staff member. She felt like she was surrounded by a bunch of boys in conservative-issue blue blazers and rep ties. She would tease them, providing a mature counterbalance to their hijinks. When Stafford suffered a pre-debate bout of car sickness, she was the one who literally carried him onto the stage.

In the course of the campaign, Beamer discovered she had a knack for politics and a Midas touch for raising money. She later managed Gilmore's political debut when he ran for local prosecutor in Henrico County in 1987. She raised money for candidates in every statewide race since 1985, hitting the jackpot in 1997 with the George Allen campaign. As Allen's appointment gatekeeper, she was known for her fairness and kindness - no small feat in an administration intent on ferreting out agency heads and board appointees left over from previous Democratic administrations.

In the Stafford race, Beamer supervised a fund-raising staff that included a recent college graduate named Jim Beamer, whom she began dating six years — and several campaigns — later. (She signed the poster hanging in Jim Beamer's office: "You've been great, big guy.") They married in 1992, and she is now raising their daughter, Laura, and working part-time.

She credits Stafford with teaching her that politics can be fun. She got a kick out of the candidate, who was a country lawyer who would accept beans and potatoes as payment when people didn't have cash. Stafford was conservative to the core, but he never took himself too seriously.

On the day of his formal announcement, Stafford accidentally stepped into a ladies restroom in a crowded courthouse. The press conference was about to begin, but there was no candidate. Betsy Beamer finally located him, cowering in a stall and terrified that he was about to make his debut by stepping out of the ladies room.

Thinking fast, Beamer assembled a group of staffers around the door, as the candidate crawled out on his hands and knees.

"Jeff thought it was hysterical," she says.

[image-1]This signed poster hangs in Jim Beamer's office, a memento from the race that launched him permanently into the game of politics.Jim Beamer

In December 1983, Jim Beamer was sitting around his parents' house in Christiansburg, trying to figure out what to do with his life. He had graduated from Old Dominion University a few months earlier.

Beamer applied for a job with Stafford, but was told there was no money. That's when his father offered to "donate" his son to the campaign. "My father said, 'Here's a car. Go and do good.'"

Beamer's rudimentary knowledge of computers, which were beginning to be used in political campaigns, put him in charge of keeping lists of prospective donors.

Beamer's 6-foot-4-inch frame also earned him the task of manhandling giant helium cylinders for balloons. The idea was that by the time Stafford would arrive at a festival or county fair, the scene would be a sea of red balloons. To this day, Beamer can pontificate about the most efficient way to inflate a helium balloon.

Beamer stayed with politics, landing "paying" jobs with a string of successful legislative candidates, including House Republican Leader Vance Wilkins and Sen. William Wampler of Bristol. He helped push Gov. Allen's activist agenda through the General Assembly. A few years ago, he opened his own lobbying firm, representing clients ranging from the Society of Virginia Ophthalmologists to Dominion Resources.

When Election Day dawned in 1984, Beamer and Phillips were dispatched on an "undercover" mission to the coal fields, where rumors of ballot box tampering were legendary. They borrowed a black sedan, dressed in trench coats and drove from polling place to polling place. The idea was that Democrats might refrain from fraud if they knew they were being watched.

Phillips would stand at a distance, taking pictures with a camera with no film. (He stayed away because he had braces). Beamer would enter the polling place, puffing on a cigarette to lend him an air of maturity. If anyone asked where he was from, he would say, "I'm from up North," and walk away.

"They laughed at us," Beamer says. "We were just a couple of scrawny kids running around. The coal fields were going to do what they were going to do."

[image-2]Stafford family photo"None of us has worked longer or harder than we did on that campaign," says Scott Gregory (pictured with Stafford's daughter Elizabeth).Scott Gregory

Stafford took flak for entrusting his campaign to a 23-year-old kid. But Scott Gregory was a campaign veteran. He had coordinated 1982 congressional campaigns in several states for the National Conservative Political Action Committee. In 1983, he managed Stafford's successful House of Delegates reelection race.

Gregory ran the operation out of a storefront office in downtown Pearisburg. Telephone conversations became almost impossible each afternoon, when students arrived next door at Corky's Dance Studio. "The music would start playing, and the kids would start tap dancing," Gregory says. "You couldn't hear yourself think."

Gregory insisted that press releases arrive throughout the district simultaneously, no small feat in a day before fax machines were widely used, and overnight delivery had not reached Southwest Virginia. Gregory would dispatch four or five drivers, who would leave in the evening and drive all night, making stops at radio stations and newspapers.

"I can tell you no matter what we've done since, none of us has worked longer or harder than we did on that campaign," says Gregory, who is now a lobbyist who helped draft Gov. Gilmore's inaugural address.

On election night, Gregory knew the campaign was lost even though television stations were reporting the race was within a few hundred votes. He and Betsy Beamer had seen the results from two key coal field counties, and they knew all was lost. But they kept the results secret as the "victory" party raged around them.

"We were surrounded by people who literally had given their heart for the campaign, and we didn't want them to think we'd lost until we knew for sure," Gregory says.

Anthony Sgro

In 1980, Sgro was a Senate page who needed a ride home to Blacksburg one weekend. He bummed a ride from Stafford, not knowing it would be the first of many times the two would ride together.

Four years later, Sgro graduated from high school and signed on as Stafford's driver, a job that paid $50 a week. Because Stafford was too cheap to pay for hotels, he didn't spend the night close to the next day's meeting, and Sgro often had to wake up at 4 a.m. to get the candidate to a breakfast gathering in places like Pound or Gates City. There were no lavish meals, either. Stafford's idea of dinner was a can of Vienna sausages.

But Sgro was never bored. "Jeff knew everyone in the district and he seemed to be related to everyone," Sgro says. "He was one of the most sophisticated people about life, but never let anyone know it. He used the thought of him by others that he was a country boy to his advantage."

Sgro, who went on to work with Jim Beamer in Gov. Allen's policy office, is now communications director for Woodberry Forest, a prep school near Charlottesville.

Sgro believes that so many "Stafford kids" stuck with politics because that first campaign, even though they lost, was such a positive, fun experience.

"Everyone was in the (1984) race because they loved Jeff. The way it is now, people are in it for the ideas, for an appointment. We were in it for the guy."

In 1985, when a handful of Stafford aides got midlevel jobs in statewide campaigns of various Republicans, Sgro said they formed a support network for the whole group. As they grew older, the "Stafford kids" were in each other's weddings, spent beach weekends together and helped each other land jobs.

They all look back to the Stafford race like someone remembering their first love.

"All of us adored Jeff Stafford," Phillips says. "We all had a candidate we totally believed in and loved. I see young people today who go into their first campaign and many get discouraged. Either the candidate lets them down or they're caught in staff infighting. Our experience was so perfect in every way."

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