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Van Landingham: Powerful Legislator, Quiet Artist

As she covers her 24th year in the state Assembly from her Alexandria home, Marian Van Landingham reflects on her art.

In 1974, a young artist named Marian Van Landingham convinced the Alexandria City Council to take part in an experiment. It was an ambitious idea, one that would transform a decommissioned torpedo factory on the city's waterfront into a new home for local artists. The plan met with some resistance, but years later the Torpedo Factory would prove instrumental in revitalizing a once cold and industrial neighborhood into a thriving community.

"Some of the merchants in the neighborhood thought we were just going to be some kind of hippy commune," Van Landingham, 67, said. "We had to prove it would be successful for the city to let us stay there."

The birth of the Torpedo Factory, now a landmark for contemporary artists nationwide, was a tough one. The building was old and in desperate need of repairs. Funding also became a difficult task, with Van Landingham spearheading the effort to recruit new artists who would rent space in the massive studio complex.

"We barely had any heat, and there wasn't air conditioning," she said. "There wasn't much in the area at the time either, aside from a sandwich shop and a little furniture store."

But Van Landingham was persistent. As more and more artists rented space, she tacked their checks on a giant bulletin board for all, especially those in the City Council, to see. Volunteers labored for hours to repaint the interior, patch holes the walls, and clean up the remains of the building's military past. After almost a year, the project was off the ground.

"THE TORPEDO FACTORY sort of humanizes the arts scene," Van Landingham said. "If you go into a museum or any other place, you encounter what you might call high art, it's like a church. In the Torpedo Factory, you can talk to the artists. It's approachable. It's a place where you can connect with art."

Van Landingham would go on to represent Alexandria as a delegate in the Virginia General Assembly, but even after years of election campaigns and legislative adventures, art is still an essential aspect of her life. It is her escape.

“I think of myself as a quiet artist,” she said, pointing out the series of paintings that adorns the walls of her home on Cameron Street, in Alexandria. “My work is very quiet, in sharp contrast with my political life.”

It is these works, she said, that embody much of her artistic personality. Van Landingham has rarely had a chance to vacation since she began her career in state politics in 1981. Yet when she has, Van Landingham has traveled Europe, indulging in her love for photography and exploration. Painted from the snapshots she took of garden pathways and stony monastery walkways, she said, the series is about drawing the viewer into a serene moment.

”I knew her work before I knew her,” said Anne Patterson, current president of the Torpedo Factory's Artists Association. “She used to do this glazed enamel work that I'd see hanging in the Torpedo Factory studio. I remember wanting to buy one for my husband, but by the time I'd come back, they'd be sold.”

Lobbying the city for support of the Torpedo Factory was Van Landingham's introduction to Alexandria's local government, but it was hardly her first experience in politics. Born in Albany, Ga., on Sept. 10, 1937, she studied political science at Emory University, where she gained her master's degree. She later served as a speech writer for Rep. Phil Landrum, D-Ga. In 1979, Van Landingham ran for a seat on the Alexandria City Council and lost, finishing just ahead of Jim Moran, who would later become mayor and go on to serve as a congressman. Moran remembers the dark-haired artist and civic activist who came to be closely involved in Alexandria's affairs.

"SHE NEVER SCREAMED, never lost her temper, but she was very deliberate, very determined,” Moran said. “You knew that when she spoke, she had something to say that was worth listening to."

The decision to run, she said, was influenced by the time she'd spent observing the Council's meetings.

“I had watched the Council rather closely and saw that they seemed to have been operating in a coordinated way,” she said. “I thought to myself that we needed to have a slate of people who could organize and work together."

Van Landingham would run for delegate two years later and win, but her victory was somewhat soured after laws passed in Richmond redrew the 45th District, which she served. Through a seemingly absurd loophole, Van Landingham had to run for her seat three times in the space of three years. Three times, she won.

Van Landingham has since become one of the Assembly's most experienced delegates, serving on the state's Appropriations Committee and becoming a passionate advocate for the basic human needs of Virginians, like education and public health. She was one of the state's first elected officials to push for increased funding of programs to teach English as a Second Language to the commonwealth's public-school students. In 1995, she also paved the way for a statewide education act that reduced class sizes. But her work on the state's Health and Human Services Committee, she said, proved some of the most challenging of her political career.

"Public health was always the hardest arena to manage,” she said. “We got a small slice of the pie when it comes to funding, and there were so many different needs to address; mental health, care for the elderly."

HER COMPASSION for those in need, according to those who know her, is one of Van Landingham's greatest strengths as a legislator.

"In every bit of legislation, you could always see her deep concern for people, for education and for children," said Susan Kellom, chairwoman of the Alexandria Democratic Committee. "She's great at balancing needs, finding the even ground among different priorities. I haven't seen her change her philosophy or her approach since she began working in Richmond. She's always been the same caring, willing-to-help person that she was when she first became a delegate."

Now the most senior female member of the General Assembly, Van Landingham was the first woman to chair the Privileges and Elections Committee, and she also chaired the Transportation and Public Education Subcommittees of Appropriations. Over the 23 years she has served, Van Landingham has fought to gain state funding for services aimed at helping the handicapped and the homeless and fought to fund child care for poor families.

"She legislates with her heart and soul,” said Harlene Clayton, Van Landingham's legislative aide, who has worked with her for more than 18 years. “Her legacy, really, is that she has always been passionate about people, about human-needs issues."

Yet although Van Landingham's approach to politics has never changed, one thing that has is Richmond. In 1981, Democrats made up the majority of the House, but as Virginia rapidly became a stronghold for conservatives, a new generation of Republican leaders, neo-conservatives, has caused the atmosphere in the Capitol to change. Bullying and intimidation, she said, have become commonplace among Republican lawmakers.

"It seems even the traditional Republicans are being overwhelmed by this new breed, the very large majority of whom are elected in districts that are safe, districts designed for them,” she said. “Those who don't fall in with the party line may end up being pulled off committees, for example.”

VAN LANDINGHAM, who has witnessed the divergent political styles of several governors, said this shift has brought lawmakers to Richmond who are more concerned with their ideological standpoints than with good government.

"It's the Tom Delay school of politics," she said. “They want to cut spending, cut taxes, without any real understanding of the needs of a large state.”

Social services, she said, are suffering as a result.

"Ignorance can be a wonderful thing,” she said. “If you've never had anyone in the state's mental health system, for example, you might think our mental health facilities are doing just fine."

On Christmas Eve, 2004, Van Landingham announced she was not running for re-election. Now battling colon cancer, she has remained at her home for the current 45-day session, undergoing radiation treatments once every two weeks. She watches the floor of the assembly through a closed-circuit television mounted on a desk inside her home, a house she bought in the 1970s and has stayed in ever since.

During the current session, she has also put forth legislation to regulate the coal-burning Mirant power plant, which she called one of the nation's top sources of air pollution. She also has a bill aimed at protecting archaeological sites from desecration.

"SHE STRIKES ME as a person who has the maturity and the seriousness of purpose to cope with her mortality in a more gracious way than I would ever hope to," Moran said, recalling a recent lunch with Van Landingham. "She was always modest about her accomplishments, but her accomplishments were anything but modest."

"When you think of Marian, one thing that also comes to mind is her succession of dachshunds,” said Kellom. “She takes such great pride in them."

Van Landingham's current canine companions, Fife and Golden Skipper, never leave her side when she is at home. Instead, they follow her every step like eager children.

Several Democrats have declared their candidacy for her seat, including Arlington School Board chairwoman Libby Garvey; Elsie Mosqueda, legislative aide to Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria); David Englin, 30, a former Air Force officer; and Richard Hobson, 73, who was a delegate from 1976-80. Van Landingham has declined to endorse anyone.