So traumatizing were the colonists’ experiences with King George as a strong executive that the Declaration of Independence is filled with grievances against him, and the writers of the first state constitution in Virginia limited the governor’s term to one year with a maximum of three terms. It was not until 1830 that the governor was granted a four-year term but as it remains today with a limit of one term, although a governor can run for a second term after being out of office for four years. Historically, governors who run successfully for a second term after having been out of office for a term have had a less than positive impact on the state’s history.
William Smith first served as governor of Virginia beginning in 1846. During his second term that began in 1864 he was governor when Virginia seceded from the Union.
Mills E. Godwin is the only governor of Virginia elected by the voters to two terms under different political parties, serving as a Democrat from 1966 to 1970 and as a Republican from 1974 to 1978. Godwin was a member of the Byrd Machine and played a major legislative role in Virginia’s resistance to desegregation of the public schools. He became more moderate as governor in his first term when his major accomplishment was creation of the Virginia Community College System.
During Godwin’s first term as governor another politician burst on the scene. “Howling” Henry Howell with his theme of “Keep the Big Boys Honest” captured the attention of Virginia voters unlike any before him. Labor, Blacks, consumers, and opponents of what was left of the Byrd Machine provided him support to be elected to the House of Delegates, the Senate of Virginia and lieutenant governor. He was clearly headed to be elected Virginia’s first progressive governor in 1973.
The establishment, Byrd allies, and Main Street businessmen could not stand the thought of the colorful Henry Howell as governor with his pro-consumer, anti-machine, pro-labor, liberal agenda. The only person who appeared strong enough to beat Howell was the still popular retired Governor Mills Godwin who was convinced to switch parties because Howell already had the Democratic nomination. Godwin narrowly defeated Howell.
Nearly fifty years later the progressive successes in the General Assembly make it clear that Virginia is willing to shake off its ultraconservatism of the past and elect a governor reflecting a new Virginia.
Clouding the picture for the election, however, is a former governor seeking a second term as he is now eligible since he has been out of office for a term. If elected I believe he would be the third example of a two-term governor stepping in the way of historic progress in the Commonwealth. Former Governor Terry McAuliffe was a good governor, a persuasive talker, and a prolific fund-raiser, but it is time for the Commonwealth to move on. A McAuliffe win in the Democratic primary would stand in the way of one of two Black women who are vying with him in the primary from being Virginia’s first woman governor and its second Black governor.
One of those women, Senator Jennifer McClellan, has more experience than all the other candidates combined. Her progressive leadership has brought Virginia this far. We cannot let history repeat itself by having one man’s desire to regain a job he already had stand in the way of a truly gifted woman leader being governor of the Commonwealth.