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Tribute to landmark legislator

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Nine governors honor Putney

By John Barnhart

    A landmark in Richmond’s downtown served as the scene for a tribute to a landmark in Virginia history.

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    The Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy hosted a tribute to Delegate Lacey Putney at The Richmond CenterStage. CenterStage, built as a movie place in the 1920s,  first  opened  its  doors  in   1928  as Loew’s Theatre. Putney was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1961 and has served ever since, having never lost an election. For the record, he did not know Thomas Jefferson personally, although Governor Gerald Baliles, in video remarks, suggested that Putney knew all the early Virginia governors — such as Patrick Henry.
    Putney, however, has earned a place in Virginia history as the longest serving elected member in the history of the General Assembly. This elected body first met in Jamestown on July 30, 1619, and Putney has personally been a part of that history for more than 13 percent of the 396 years that have elapsed since then.
    Governor Bob McDonnell also had a clarifying point. He noted that Putney is a military veteran, but his service was in the Air Force, during the Korean War, not during the Civil War.
    The tribute brought out all living Virginia governors. Putney shared the stage with Governors Bob McDonnell, George Allen, Jim Gilmore, Douglas Wilder and Linwood Holton, Virginia’s first Republican governor since reconstruction. Governors Baliles, Chuck Robb, along with Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, also former governors, sent video greetings.
    “We have a list of governors I’ve never seen in one place,” commented Delegate Kirk Cox, the House Majority Leader, who served as master of ceremonies.
    Cox first set foot on the House of Delegates floor in 1990 and recalled his early encounters with Putney.
    “He can put you at ease,” he said.
    Cox mentioned Putney’s tremendous legislative memory. He said Putney will usually give the history behind legislation being discussed when he stands up to speak, and Putney’s input is influential. Cox said Putney many times made the difference in whether a bill passed or failed.
    He also noted Putney’s sense of humor and repeated one of Putney’s jokes.
    “He gets a better laugh when he tells it,” Cox noted afterward.
    Others noted Putney’s sense of humor. Baliles noted that he and Putney did not always see eye-to-eye and recalled a time when Putney was in his office discussing an issue that they disagreed on.
    “Governor,” Putney said to Baliles during that discussion, “if I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.”
    Wilder called Putney a transcending figure in Virginia government and said the two always had a cordial relationship, beginning the morning after he was elected when Putney called him.
    “I’ve been fortunate to have known him, worked with him and called him my friend,” Wilder said.
    Allen said he was 9 years old when Putney was first elected. Allen first entered the House of Delegates in 1982.
    “Lacey was already an old-timer when I got there,” he said.
    Allen said he would often go to Putney’s office for advice.
    “I just looked up to Lacey Putney as a man of principle,” Allen said.
    Allen said Putney was a crucial ally when it came to getting his economic development initiatives passed after Allen was elected governor.
    Gilmore pointed out that Putney started out as a Democrat before becoming an independent. He finally began to caucus with the Republicans in 1998 to bring parity between the parties in the House that year.
    McDonnell called Putney “A really great and distinguished Virginian.”
    “By the way, you never passed any of my budget amendments,” he said to Putney.
    He then went on to credit Putney with helping Virginia maintain its AAA bond rating with all rating agencies, both through his work as chairman of the House appropriations committee and by accompanying McDonnell on his annual trip to New York to talk with these agencies.
    McDonnell also spoke of Putney’s influence in the House.
    “When Lacey Putney speaks, people listen,” McDonnell said.
    McDonnell termed Putney’s retirement an “incredible loss for the people he serves.”
    When Putney’s time to speak came, he recalled a time when Winston Churchill was being given an award that he didn’t think he deserved. After noting the he didn’t deserve it, Churchill concluded by saying, “If you have no misgivings, neither will I.”
    “If all they [the governors] said about me were true, I’d feel important,” he said.
    Putney gave credit to the House Appropriations Committee staff.
    “None of my accomplishments would have happened without our staff,” he said.
    Putney mentioned some lighter moments of his years in the House. He recalled Delegate Ray Garland, who Putney said was noted for a large vocabulary.
    “One night Ray Garland was wound up,” Putney said. “He used every 16-inch word in the dictionary.”
    This got a response from another delegate who, after Garland finished, stood up and said, “The delegate from Roanoke is obviously intoxicated by his verbosity.”