News & Features » Miscellany

The Republican ascendancy in Virginia politics may well have had its genesis in a 1984 defeat.

Power Players


Jim Beamer's office is filled with mementos from his days as a political operative. There's a grip-and-grin of Beamer with President Bush. There's an action shot of Beamer playing hoops with his old boss George Allen.

But a place of honor is reserved for a framed campaign poster from Beamer's first race, a 1984 congressional bid by Jeff Stafford in far Southwest Virginia.

Scrawled across the poster are handwritten messages from fellow Stafford aides, like a page from a high school yearbook. A typical entry reads, "Big Jim … an aspiring swill merchant/scum tactician."

The poster is a keepsake because of what became of the kids who penned those sophomoric messages.

Youthful energy fuels every good political campaign, and the 1999 General Assembly contests will be no exception. But after Election Day, most young volunteers and aides will return to school or search for more stable employment. A few will stick with politics, and fewer still will make a name for themselves.

Rare is the campaign that spawns more than one political activist. In 1972, Caldwell Butler of Roanoke won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives with the help of a young driver named Jeff Gregson (now a lobbyist) and a press secretary named Richard Cullen (a former state attorney general).

The Jeff Stafford campaign, 15 years ago this fall, stands alone in modern Virginia politics for its progeny. Stafford lost the race and six years later died from pancreatic cancer. But four youngsters who made their political debuts in his campaign - along with a fifth aide who managed the race - grew up to rank among the state's most influential Republican strategists.

The Stafford alumni, who are beginning to turn 40, may not be household names in Richmond. Nonetheless, they have played central roles in the Republican ascendancy in state government during the last decade of the 20th century. One Stafford aide managed Gov. Jim Gilmore's first campaign for Henrico County commonwealth's attorney and later served as Gov. Allen's appointment czar. Another Stafford aide rose to run a GOP consulting partnership that coined the "No Car Tax" slogan, sealing Gilmore's win in the 1997 gubernatorial campaign. A third Stafford aide helped Allen shepherd the abolition of parole and limiting welfare benefits through the Democrat-controlled General Assembly. A fourth became a skilled campaign tactician who engineered the come-from-nowhere victory of Lt. Gov. John Hager in 1997.

The kids who got their start in the Stafford campaign represent a solid core of homegrown strategists who are credited with helping Republicans make solid gains throughout the 1990s.

"What the Republican Party has done so well in Virginia has been to develop an extraordinarily competent group of people who work in campaigns and have a good ear for Virginia," says Robert Holsworth, a Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist.

By contrast, analysts say one central flaw in the last two Democratic gubernatorial campaigns has been the candidates' decision to hire national consultants who have misread the nuances of Virginia politics.

"Part of the Republicans' success," Holsworth says, "is their ability to develop Virginia-based strategists."

Fifteen years ago, Stafford didn't set out to recruit the Best and Brightest. What he had in mind was the Young and Cheapest.

Stafford, an affable country lawyer and state legislator from Giles County, was as frugal as they came. Stafford was so cheap that he once talked a country store clerk out of charging him 2 cents for a packet of crackers to go along with his dinner - a can of Vienna sausages.

Frugality was a good trait for a Republican running for Congress in the "Fighting Ninth" congressional district, a Democratic stronghold where the United Mine Workers runs the coal counties in far Southwestern Virginia. Stafford, who had served in the General Assembly for a decade, figured that 1984 would be his best shot at national office. Democrat Rick Boucher was just finishing his first term, making him vulnerable to a challenge. Also, it was "Morning in America," with conservative hero Ronald Reagan standing tall for reelection.

Stafford could not afford the wages of seasoned campaign pros from Richmond or Washington. So, he recruited a staff of young conservatives eager to work long hours for meager wages or, in some cases, no wages at all.

[image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasJeff Stafford's "kids", as they think of themselves, are still bound together and to Stafford's wife, Barbara, by a campaign lost 15 years ago. Front row, seated (from left): Betsy Beamer and Ray Allen; back row, standing (from left) Anthony Sgro, Jim Beamer, Barbara Stafford and Scott Gregory.Tim Phillips

In 1984, Tim Phillips was a 19-year-old country boy from South Carolina burning with enthusiasm for the Reagan Revolution. But that summer, Phillips found himself stuck in a construction job in Washington, tearing out apartment walls with a crowbar.

When he heard that Stafford needed a youth coordinator, Phillips donned his best (and only) suit and lit out for the hills of Southwest Virginia. He didn't flinch at the pay of $100 a week. Good thing he got the job: The engine in his 1974 Camaro blew shortly after he reached Pearisburg.

In a borrowed Subaru with 200,000 miles on the odometer, Phillips ventured into the hills to organize high school and college campuses. He helped win mock elections that garnered headlines for Stafford and turned out youngsters at rallies. He recalled the other guys in the campaign were eager to help, especially if it meant a chance to meet girls.

"The school they wanted to go to was Hollins, and it wasn't even in the district,"

Phillips said, referring to the women's school outside Roanoke.Phillips shared a rent-free one-bedroom apartment above the hardware store with two other campaign workers. For four months he slept on a sofa.

Phillips' days of crashing on the couch are long behind him. He is now a partner in a national political consulting firm headed by Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition director. Two years ago, Phillips steered Hager - a political newcomer who was considered the weak link in the GOP ticket - to victory. This fall, Phillips lends his tactical skills to several targeted GOP General Assembly races, including the Northern Neck seat of retiring Democratic Del. Tayloe Murphy and the Roanoke Senate seat held by freshman Democrat John Edwards.

Phillips recalls the 1984 Stafford race like a war-scarred veteran recalling his first whiff of gunpowder. He would set up tables at Virginia Tech and at Radford University, doing battle with liberals pushing for a nuclear freeze and a pullout of American troops in Central America.

"It was a wonderful time because people were choosing up sides," Phillips says.

"It was a great year to be a kid and working

for a Republican."

[image-2]Photo by Stephen SalpukasRay Allen, one of the masterminds of Gov. Jim Gilmore's "No Car Tax" slogan, started out with Stafford and now runs the state's largest Republican consulting firm.Ray Allen

Ray Allen was a Baptist preacher's kid from Blacksburg with an earring and an attitude. But there was no question that the 19-year-old Allen would join Stafford's campaign.

Allen was 16 when he first heard Stafford speak at candidate's forum. Allen can't recall what Stafford said that night, but he vividly remembers Stafford coming off the stage, patting his coat jacket in search of nicotine. The skinny kid offered his pack. "He looked at me and said, 'You're too young to smoke.' But he took my cigarette."

The two struck up a conversation, and the teen-ager was amazed that Stafford cared enough to spend a few minutes chatting. "He always seemed to give a damn," Allen says.

On the congressional campaign, Allen ended up as volunteer coordinator, responsible for lining up 30-40 people a day — most of them ladies from the surrounding community — to stuff envelopes and work the phones. In an era before the widespread use of personal computers, Allen's chief responsibility was to keep volunteers banging away at the campaign's five IBM Selectric typewriters.

Allen drove himself so hard that some of his volunteers took pity on him, bringing him heaping home-cooked meals, earning him jealousy from co-workers who subsisted on pizza and burgers.

Now gray and wider around the middle, Allen runs the state's largest Republican consulting business out of a tobacco-smoke-stained office near the Willow Lawn shopping center.

Two years ago, Allen and then-partner, Boyd Marcus, came up with the now-famous three-word slogan - "No Car Tax" - that is credited with landing Gilmore in the governor's office. When Gilmore tapped Marcus as his chief of staff, Allen took over the firm, whose clients include U.S. Rep. Tom Bliley and Gilmore's political action committees.

"Before he died, Jeff told me that for him, the best thing that came out of his congressional campaign was that all his 'kids' stayed involved," Allen says.

Jump to Part 1, 2Continue to Part 2