Even when the news hit July 18 that former Virginia state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. had died at age 82 after a sudden illness, those who knew and worked with him over his 28-year long political career couldn’t help but focus on his life.
For those of us he represented for almost three decades, Joe was a touchstone. Joe Gartlan knew the law, knew the Virginia Code and knew the rules of the Virginia Senate — and he didn’t hesitate to defend them, advance them and use them in the face of foolish, cynical or partisan arguments offered up by ignorant, small-minded, especially short-term political schemers.
“If I have anything to say about it, and I will …,” Joe Gartlan would insist, as he considered, long before many of his colleagues and most business leaders, the rules and laws a thoroughly modern Virginia would need to compete and to succeed in a rapidly changing world. His base in southeastern Fairfax County dictated the agenda as part of a Northern Virginia region that was exploding in population, educational achievement, opportunity and prosperity. In response Joe Gartlan championed equal rights, ethical government, environmental stewardship, consumer protection, honest competition, even collective bargaining for public employees.
He rose to chair three senate committees — Rehabilitation and Social Services, Privileges and Elections and Courts of Justice. When he decided not to stand for reelection as the Senator from Virginia’s 36th District in 1999, Joe Gartlan knew his fingerprints were all over the Code of Virginia. And the more open, responsive, investment- minded Virginia government Joe helped build ensured that the future of the Commonwealth would be brighter and more just.
But Joe Gartlan was more than a liberal voice, a fierce booster of Northern Virginia, a hard and effective chairman of the Virginia Senate’s Courts of Justice Committee. He was a personable, prickly, passionate man totally balanced by the twin forces of humor and temper. Members of the Virginia House of Delegates learned to prepare themselves for both as their bills moved into the Gartlan sphere of influence on the Senate side.
To explain how he had such success and longevity as a committee chairman, Joe liked to suggest that the story of angels bestowing special gifts through a kiss on a certain part of a newborn applied. “A kiss on the throat meant the child would grow up to be a great singer and a kiss on the head ensured a very smart child,” Gartlan would say. “And since a successful committee chairman often times succeeds by just sitting there longer and more often than others on the committee, you know where I must have been kissed!”
After redistricting produced a significantly different 36th District for his reelection campaign in 1991, a conservative political consultant gave Joe his toughest race since his inaugural election in 1971. The Republican challenger, a fundraising specialist, papered him in a deluge of direct mail as a liberal, an environmentalist and an incumbent who never met a tax increase he didn’t like. Polls conducted by old pro Floridian Bill Hamilton showed the message was resonating with voters, about 25 percent of whom had just been moved into the 36th District and, therefore, had never had the chance to vote for Gartlan before. A quarter of registered voters didn’t know Joe from Adam.
Gartlan was furious that his opponent’s direct mail attacks were having such an effect. “But Joe,” his consultants responded, “you are a liberal, you are an environmentalist and if you’ve ever voted against a tax bill, we can’t find the record.”
“I know that and you know that,” Gartlan answered sharply and without an apology, “but how do they know that?” The laughter that followed was loud and long.
Joe Gartlan was proud of his kind of liberalism, which for the record did not mean that government had to be big. Government needed just to be responsive to the needs of Virginians. But in the deepest sense, Joe believed, government could be a positive force in the daily lives of Virginians. Since Virginia was changing rapidly, government needed to change, too. His love of family and his Roman Catholic faith demanded nothing less.
Joe’s sense of humor invited others to josh and joust with him. Having just finished a tough read on the history of the Jesuits, for example, this constituent once suggested that his challenges in the often difficult Wilder-Allen-Gilmore years might actually have been a good thing for his growth as a legislative leader. “No storm is so insidious as a perfect calm, no enemy so dangerous as the absence of enemies,” I quoted St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), as having said in 1534.
“How do you know that quote?” Joe Gartlan demanded, “You are not a Catholic.”
An enlightening discussion ensued of what it meant to grow up as the son of a Methodist minister in a thoroughly Catholic New Orleans, as did an explanation of why both types of children could thrive at Catholic University baseball camp and a complete, not necessarily complimentary deconstruction of the insidiousness of the Wilder-Allen-Gilmore “wind.” One did not need bill numbers to enjoy this conversation.
More recently, Joe Gartlan had had both hips replaced. When this constituent asked him, while both of us were working out at the regional recreation center we had in common, how his hips were doing, he answered, “They’re not mine, someone else made them.”
And when he asked about the lack of progress on transportation funding or budget compromises, Joe would shake his head that the process had become dysfunctional and infinitely more complex.
“I was in the room for years as a Finance Committee budget conferee,” Joe Gartlan offered, “and even I couldn’t keep track of how all the deals and compromises are made.” He lamented in conversations spaced between Cybex machines that in the years since his retirement, the process had crumbled so completely that a large number of General Assembly members seemed content to accept gridlock and seemingly had neither respect for government nor any comprehension of compromise.
Joe Gartlan will remain a model of the citizen-successful professional-community leader-legislator who can make Virginia’s future ever brighter and ever more just. And make no mistake. Today there is a road rising to meet Joe Gartlan, the wind is at his back, the sun is warm on his face and there is an angel bragging about a kiss 82 years ago.
Thank you, Joe.