In a development that came as a surprise to almost everyone, pioneering Virginia State Senator Mary Margaret Whipple announced that she would not seek reelection to a fifth four-year term in November. Whipple, who has represented the 31st District since 1996 that includes the City of Falls Church, made the announcement on the floor of the Senate in its final session of the year last Friday.
As the chair of the majority Senate Democratic Caucus, Whipple became the first woman to hold a leadership position in the Virginia State Senate in history.
In an interview with the News-Press Wednesday, Whipple confirmed that she did not finally make up her mind to retire until about two weeks ago, and that very few people knew in advance about her decision. Among those for whom the announcement came as a total surprise was State Del. Jim Scott, who represents the 53rd District that also includes the City of Falls Church.
She said she has no further plans to be involved in politics, but to spend her time with husband Tom in travel, hanging out at their lodge in Canada and being with their two daughters and five grandchildren. She does not intend at this time to endorse a successor, she said.
Already this week, speculation has become rampant about potential candidates to seek the Democratic nomination to replace Whipple. In addition to Falls Church, her district predominantly includes Arlington County.
As of press time, no one has confirmed an intention to run, although early opinion among some influential Democrats lean toward the election of another woman to the post, and the leading candidate in that regard may be Arlington County Board member Barbara Favola. Other names being bandied about include State Delegates Bob Brink and Patrick Hope, and Favola’s colleagues on the Arlington County Board including Jay Fisette, Walter Tejada, Chris Zimmerman, and Falls Church School Board member Patrick Riccards’ name has popped up more than once.
With the once-a-decade redistricting of all U.S. congressional and state legislative districts, taking into account new U.S. Census numbers released last month, still pending a special legislative session for adoption next month, the exact boundaries of Whipple’s district will not be known before the summer. But it is not expected that any redesigning will hurt Democratic chances of readily controlling the district, since the current plan is to allow the Democratic-controlled Senate to redraw Senate district lines, and the Republican-controlled House of Delegates to redraw the House district lines.
As all decisions made in Virginia about redistricting must be subject to a review by the U.S. Department of Justice (a provision singling out Virginia and a few other state that was included in the Voting Rights Act of 1964 to guard against racial discrimination in drawing district lines), the redistricting process won’t be complete before mid-summer.
That means a primary to secure nominees for both the Democrats and Republicans will not happen before August.
In another major retirement in the Virginia State Senate, veteran lawmaker Patsy Ticer of Alexandria will vacate her seat this year, and although the formal announcement was made only recently, it was known to be coming by political insiders for some time. State Del. Adam Ebbin is among those who’ve been laying groundwork for a run at that seat for months, although he is expected to face some stiff primary opposition.
In her statement made last Friday, Whipple said, “This has been a year of milestones: last spring I had my 70th birthday; in the summer my husband Tom and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary; and this year marks my 35th year of public service, from the time I was appointed to the Arlington School Board in 1976. Today I’m adding another milestone: I’m announcing today that I will not run for re-election to the Senate this November. I came to this decision after a great deal of thoughtful consideration. I won’t pretend that it is an easy one, but I am confident that it is the right one though, of course, the hardest part will be leaving such dear friends.”
According to the Democratic Legislative Caucus, in a statement issued last week, “First elected to the Senate in 1995, Whipple is known for her work on environmental issues, including as a key patron of the Virginia Non-tidal Wetlands Protection Act and establishing the Natural Resources Commitment Fund. She also founded the Virginia Commission on Energy and the Environment. Whipple was named Legislator of the Year three times by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. In 2009, she chaired the environment committee of the National Conference of State Legislators and currently serves on the Citizen Advisory Committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”
Whipple added in her statement, “‘I leave you with unfinished work and many challenges. Pay attention to resource depletion and all its implications; continue to provide educational opportunity and access for the children of Virginia; care for the least among us, as I know you will.” She challenged her colleagues “to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.”
Whipple’s Senate colleagues bid her a tearful farewell on the Senate floor and agreed that her departure will leave a void in the Senate.
Whipple is known for her advocacy of housing, transportation and health care issues. As a long time member of the Virginia Housing Commission, she has supported affordable housing in the Commonwealth. Whipple has been named Legislator of the Year by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy for her work on housing issues and human services.
Asked by the News-Press Wednesday what she will miss least after 16 years in the state legislature, she laughed and had a very prompt reply. “All those trips up and down I-95 to Richmond,” she exclaimed. Talking on her cell phone, she was on I-95 returning from Richmond during the interview, with husband Tom at the wheel. She said it was an “honor” to represent the 31st District, adding, “I do believe it is the best district in the whole state.”
A graduate of George Washington University, Whipple is the longest-serving member of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and has been president of the Virginia Transit Association. As an advocate for health and human service issues, Whipple’s legislation includes revisions to advance medical directives, increases in the livable homes tax credit, licensing of home health agencies and a major revision in Virginia’s parking laws for disabled persons.
Prior to her election to the Virginia Senate, Whipple already had an extensive record of public service. She was appointed to the Arlington County School Board in 1976 and served twice as chair of the Arlington County Board after being elected to the board in 1982. For 10 years, she also served on the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
The senator and her husband of 50 years, Thomas S. Whipple, who writes a weekly column on Peak Oil for the Falls Church News-Press, have two daughters and five grandchildren.