This month I’d like to use the space normally devoted to my monthly Richmond Report to share my memories of my early days in Richmond working for former Delegate Jim Scott, who died last week of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Like many recent college grads, I was anxious to find a job that would allow me to live as an independent adult when I graduated in the spring of 1992. A journalism minor at NYU, I had applied to literally hundreds of newspapers looking for a paid gig. The best offers I got all were all unpaid internships lasting at least six months. It was beginning to look bleak.
Then I got word from home that the new Delegate who just returned from his first session in Richmond was looking for a Legislative Assistant. The ideal candidate would be a decent writer and a hard worker, but also willing to work for next to nothing.
To me, “next to nothing” sounded way better than nothing and would allow me to apply my writing skills. So, I interviewed and accepted my first “real” job working for James M. “Jim” Scott. At the time, practically everyone knew his nickname “Landslide Jim,” based on his one vote margin of victory in the 1991 election.
Coming from journalism school, I was a little apprehensive about going to work for a politician. I expected a self-important, smooth talking, boorish type with either an oversized ego or an incredibly fragile one. All I knew from politicians were the caricatures I’d seen on television.
What I found in Jim Scott, however, was a man of amazing character.
Jim, I learned, was in politics for all the right reasons. First off, he didn’t need to be. He’d retired from the Board of Supervisors and was making a nice living doing government affairs work for the local hospital system. Although Democrats controlled the Virginia General Assembly, party labels didn’t always mean the same thing then that they do now. Few of his Democratic colleagues were as liberal – what we’d now call progressive – as Jim Scott. He could provide a different voice, one that reflected the values of his Northern Virginia district.
In Richmond, Jim didn’t seek the spotlight, but rather sought opportunities to bring his experience and background in local government, healthcare, and education to bear. Because Jim had expertise in fair housing and housing affordability, he ended up carrying bills on manufactured housing – mobile homes. We didn’t have a lot of mobile home owners in Fairfax and McLean – the neighborhoods that made up the 53rd at the time – but Jim was happy to carry bills that would improve consumer protections for owners of manufactured homes and work with the industry to create a legal and regulatory framework that made sense for their business model.
What I learned watching that process unfold was that Jim’s greatest asset was his ability to learn and understand new information, apply it to what he already knew from his experience working on housing issues in Fairfax, and navigate the process so that everyone came out feeling like a winner. While not all his bills passed, he worked hard on all the issues he fought for, earning a reputation as someone that everyone wanted to work with.
While Jim never sought to be front and center, he prioritized responding to reporters and the news media in a timely manner and as often as possible. One lesson I’ve never forgotten is to always find a way to say yes to the press. You can’t dodge them on a tough question on Monday, then pitch them a story on Tuesday. Jim said it very simply, “If I start saying no, they’ll stop asking.”
Although I only worked for him for a few years before he introduced me to my next great mentor, Kate Hanley, I was careful to stay in touch with Jim and followed his career closely for the next 20 years. I was proud to see him work on issues such as brain injury awareness, ballot access, gun violence and domestic violence prevention, and so much more.
It was a privilege to work for him in the early days and an honor to succeed him in representing the 53rd District. Jim’s compassion made him a champion of the people, a true progressive before his time. His sense of humor made him accessible. He embodied the type of public servant I strive to be. I believe that we all serve a purpose and that good people can do great things. Jim Scott was a great man who did great things for our community. He will be missed, but his legacy lives on.
Delegate Simon represents the 53rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. He may be emailed at DelMSimon@house.virginia.gov