Remarkable news in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today:
Former Democratic Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. is considering running next year for the U.S. Senate seat held by Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen.
Beyer said yesterday that any plans would be contingent upon what Gov. Mark R. Warner decides to do. Warner, a Democrat, leaves office in January. He hasn't said whether he will challenge Allen, but most associates think he will not. One source said Warner has been encouraging Beyer to run.
Beyer said it is always hard to beat an incumbent, but Allen is not as popular as conventional wisdom says he is.
"The first thing you have to ask is, what has he done as a U.S. senator?" he said. "He's kept a much lower profile in the Senate than he did when he was governor."
Beyer, a Northern Virginia vehicle dealer, was lieutenant governor from 1990 to 1998. He lost a race for governor in 1997 to Republican Jim Gilmore. He was the victim of Gilmore's campaign pledge to eliminate the car tax. About 70 percent of the tax on a vehicle's first $20,000 assessed value has been eliminated, but the General Assembly halted the repeal because of rising costs to the state.
Back when Don Beyer ran for Governor against Jim Gilmore, I volunteered for his campaign...in that well-meaning but anemic way that I volunteered on most campaigns before my involvement in the Dean campaign -- I did some phone banking the last few days before Election Day. Now, I think "big whoop" when I think of those hours. But back then I thought I was being an exemplary good Democrat to volunteer a few hours out of my busy life to help Don get elected.
I was teaching public school at the time, and I remember thinking that Jim Gilmore's promise to eliminate the car tax during that campaign was the equivalent of a 6th grader running for student council president who'd promise to outlaw homework.
The smart, hardworking, honest kid would say to his fellow students, "I hate homework, too, but it does help us learn. And I know that I wouldn't have the power on the Student Council to eliminate it entirely, but as president I'll work with teachers to try to come up with a more fair system of balancing our workload."
But then the blowhard bully twerp candidate would say, "What a nerd! He likes homework! Give him a wedgie! Vote for me and you'll get no homework! And we'll have longer recess and replace water with orange soda in the fountains, too!" And the twerp would win, of course.
Voters hated the car tax as much as a typical 6th grader hates homework. So like all Virginia Democrats, I was devastated when Beyer lost to Gilmore, knowing that the main reason he lost was Gilmore's irresponsible tax giveaway promise.
Fast forward through Gilmore's fiscally irresponsible administration, then the even worse Bush administration, and I came to my next experience with Don Beyer.
After 2000, I vowed I'd never wake up on the day after Election Day again, after doing nothing but a couple of nights of phone banking, mourning a loss and wishing I had done more. So in early 2003, I found Howard Dean and was transformed, like many of my fellow Dean supporters in Virginia, into what I'd call a "radical volunteer".
Instead of just a few hours of last-minute phone banking, I launched into an amazing year of growing grassroots involvement - canvassing, flyering, tabling, organizing rallies, attending house parties, collecting signatures, donating money, envelope-stuffing, getting others to donate money, blogging, going to Meetups, emailing, road tripping, lit dropping, and...phone banking. Except this time it wasn't the night before the election, it was months and months before the election. And that's when I met Don Beyer.
Now, I had known for months that Don was in a leadership position in the Dean campaign (he served as Dean's national co-treasurer as well as our Virginia chair) but since I spent most of 2003 traveling for work a lot, much of my early involvement with the Dean campaign was not with Virginia campaign leaders, it was through grassroots online and offline activism - recruiting new supporters and raising money online, attending random events and Meetups around the country when I traveled, and flyering and collecting signatures when I was home in Virginia. I was an anonymous, random, low-level volunteer.
After the Dean campaign office opened in Falls Church in the fall, I signed up for a shift of phone banking every Monday night from 6-9. Dozens of volunteers were scurrying around the office, new volunteers struggled to personalize our calling scripts, bells were ringing all the time when we'd persuade someone to support Dean or reach an existing supporter - it was a heady time. A hopeful time.
And one night - I think it was my second shift of calling - I was sitting next to a vaguely familiar-looking fellow phone banker whose conversations I couldn't help overhearing. I was still struggling with what I thought was an awkward script, trying to adapt it for myself and still be genuinely conversational, and this guy next to me was just awesome - he was totally natural in talking about Dean's accomplishments in balancing Vermont's budget 11 years in a row, providing health care to all children, creating jobs, preserving open space, etc. His calls actually sounded interesting, like he was having great conversations with the person on the other end.
After a few calls of me actively eavesdropping on him while I was struggling through my own awkward calls, we both happened to hang up our phones at the same time.
"Hey, you're doing a great job on your calls," he said enthusiastically, and smiled. (I think I had rung the "Dean supporter" bell a couple of times by then.)
"Me? I've been eavesdropping on yours - I really like how you talk about Dean's record. You sound like you've met him - have you?"
"Oh yeah, I've been a huge supporter of Howard since I first met him. I'm Don, by the way," he said, reaching out to shake my hand.
Finally, the lightbulb went on and I realized why he looked familiar. "Don...Beyer?" He smiled and nodded and shook my hand while I struggled with my incredulity. "You're...sitting here...phone banking to regular voters in Patrick County, just like me?"
I mean, here was our former Liutenant Governor, a past candidate for Governor, Dean's national treasurer - the guy who raised millions of dollars, who was coordinating our statewide strategy, traveling all around the state and all around the country gathering high-level supporters for Dean, and he's sitting next to me talking about Dean's health care record to random elderly Democrats in Patrick County?
Turns out Don had a regular Monday night 6-9 phone banking shift, too. Sure, he spent the vast majority of his time traveling around the state, wooing high level endorsements, and bringing in big-dollar donors and fundraisers to the campaign. But he was genuinely interested in having a strong sense of the reality of our work on the ground in Virginia, and the best way to do that was to dig in and talk with regular Virginia voters just like I was doing. I was amazed at his humility, his willingness to get his hands dirty with the "grunt work" of campaigns - and I learned a lot from his example.
Over the next few months, my respect for Don Beyer grew exponentially. Don has a combination of idealism and pragmatism that is all too rare in a political leader. He's got every reason to be like most powerful, ultra-rich political bigwigs, but he's not - he's generous, thoughtful, accessible, and humble. He's also tough, he's smart as hell, he works his ass off, and he inspires great loyalty and even greater generosity.
I knew that Gilmore's election in '97 then was horrible for the Commonwealth, but after getting to know Don Beyer, I can say with certainty that it's tragedy for Virginia that Jim Gilmore became Governor instead of Don Beyer. But make no mistake. Don learned what he needed to learn from that experience.
There's no Virginia Democrat who I admire more than Don Beyer. I know, realistically, that Mark Warner has a better chance of winning in a matchup against George Allen, and personally I'd rather see Warner run for Senate in '06 than try to run for President in '08.
But if Warner doesn't run and Don Beyer does, there's no one I'd work harder to get elected than Don Beyer. Not even Howard Dean. And, believe me, that's sayin' something.