Del. Ken Plum: The Passing of an Era

Del. Ken Plum/File photo

This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

Last week, I made a journey to Norfolk to say a final goodbye to a former colleague in the House of Delegates, Thomas W. Moss, Jr., who passed away. He was more than just a member, however; he was Speaker of the House from 1991 to 2000. His service in the House from 1966 to 2002 spanned a passing of an era in Virginia’s history, and he was an important transition figure.

Speaker Moss was first elected to the House of Delegates as an anti-establishment Democrat. His campaign slogan, “Get Norfolk Out of the Byrd Cage,” reflected the fact that while a Democratic-controlled political machine dominated the state since Reconstruction it was not good for urban areas like Norfolk.

That machine was headed from the 1930s by Governor and then Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., a tight-fisted conservative who called himself a Democrat but could more appropriately be labeled a Dixiecrat as many white Southerners were known. Byrd vehemently opposed racial desegregation of Virginia’s schools, and his opposition to government spending kept Virginia a backward state for decades.

Mr. Moss was a national Democrat and succeeded in getting himself elected to the House of Delegates where he was in the minority among the more conservative members. Changes in Virginia’s political alignment came about because of the work of leaders like Moss working within the system and federal laws and court decisions influencing the system from the outside.

Getting rid of the poll tax and other restrictive voting laws that kept mostly African Americans from voting, passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and court decisions on redistricting brought about a shift of power where Delegate Moss as a more progressive member became Speaker and the more conservative Democrats switched parties and became Republicans. Eventually this realignment of political allegiance and federally-enforced fairer representation among the regions of the state led to Speaker Moss losing his leadership role in 2000.

He retired from the House after the next term when the new Republican majority drew him into a legislative district with another Democrat. He was elected Treasurer of the City of Norfolk, where he served until January 2014.

Virginia became more progressive during Mr. Moss’s tenure — in the areas of public school spending, investments in higher education, improved mental health and social service programs, and roads. In areas of civil rights, it languished. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for women was opposed by Mr. Moss until he was challenged by a woman who came close to defeating him in a primary. Virginia still has not passed the ERA.

Talk with anyone who knew him and you are likely to get a funny story about him. His sense of humor was always evident no matter how serious the moment. Sometimes his wisecracks challenged the boundaries of social acceptance. During tense times in the legislature his levity helped move the business along.

Not only did Mr. Moss get Norfolk and Virginia out of the Byrd cage, he helped move the state into a modern era where public education and strong institutions of higher education were valued and transportation and infrastructure were recognized as critical investments. Speaker Moss provided leadership during the passing of an era for which he will be remembered.

Whether his legacy will be built upon or neglected is in part in the hands of those who mourned him last week.

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