The Washington Post
Mr. Saslaw says goodbye
The state senator helped build Virginia, and now he’s retiring.
WHEN RICHARD L. SASLAW was elected to Virginia’s General Assembly nearly a half-century ago, downstate Democrats were in command and Mr. Saslaw, hailing from Fairfax County, was regarded with deep suspicion. “If you came from” Northern Virginia, he told us, “they all assumed you were a communist.”
Mr. Saslaw ended up overcoming that suspicion, leading the state Senate’s Democrats for 27 years, including 11 years as majority leader, as Virginia and its Democratic Party changed dramatically. His floor speech announcing that he will retire at the end of his current term, in January, stunned the statehouse in Richmond. There, he is both power broker and matchless one-man repository of institutional memory.
In the legislature, Mr. Saslaw, 83, became a fixture — beloved, admired, thronged by quote-hungry journalists, occasionally feared — largely on the strength of his kinetic, high-octane personality. A blunt, drawling, wisecracking, whip-smart former college track star, he is the longestserving member in the state Senate’s 247-year history.
In a body consisting of citizen-lawmakers, his chatty, unceremonious affability owes something to the day job he held for many years as owner of a handful of gas stations in the Washington area. That’s where he spent his time during the nine or 10 months of the year when the legislature was not in session — wearing shirts emblazoned with Sunoco, Exxon, BP and Amoco patches. Few were impressed that he also happened to be the man to see to pass laws in the statehouse, and he put on no airs in dealing with employees and customers.
As for his political savvy, that seems congenital. Mr. Saslaw, known universally as Dick, believes in the antiquated legislative art of the possible. His genuine bipartisan friendships — notably, in recent decades, with the Senate Republican leader, Thomas K. Norment Jr., who is also retiring — were the basis for innumerable deals and compromises. More than any of Virginia’s governors — who are barred by the state constitution from seeking reelection while in office — Mr. Saslaw and Mr. Norment, among others, are to be credited for the state’s reputation and rating as a top place to do business. And if both men have been seen, with some justification, as too cozy with utility giant Dominion Energy, a state-regulated monopoly and top dispenser of campaign cash, both point out, with some justification, that Virginians pay reasonable rates for generally reliable power.
Mr. Saslaw may seem a bundle of contradictions: A self-described “muscle-car guy” who loves his holidays in Paris and the French Riviera. An intensely partisan Democrat who has maintained enduring partnerships across the aisle. A tough-on-crime moderate who, after defending capital punishment for years, backed legislation in 2021 to end it in Virginia, the first Southern state to do so.
The through line in his career in the General Assembly, where he served four years in the House before being elected to the Senate in 1979, was the seriousness, stamina and pragmatism he brought to legislating. Mr. Saslaw’s
fingerprints are on too many bills to count: raising the state’s minimum wage after decades stuck at $7.25 an hour; beefing up the transportation network by enabling local governments to borrow money to build roads, and guarding state highway funding from inflation’s corrosive effects; protecting women facing mastectomies from doctors who don’t see fit to gain their consent; increasing the minimum drinking age to 21.
In the Senate, the astonishment when he announced his retirement was real; so were the tears shed by some colleagues. Many said they simply could not imagine the Senate without Mr. Saslaw’s over-the-top, often hilarious, frequently repeated and occasionally profane stories. Nor could they imagine the place without his trademark lack of artifice and sometimes raw candor. “If he intends to stab you,” former state senator William C. Mims (R-loudoun), now a senior justice on Virginia’s Supreme Court, told The Post in 1999, “he’ll come at you from the front, not the back.”
Announcing his retirement, Mr. Saslaw was equally honest about himself. “Everybody’s got a use-by or sell-by date stamp somewhere,” he said. “And for me it’s next Jan. 10 at noon.” That’s when a new crop of senators and delegates, to be elected in November, will be sworn in — without Mr. Saslaw among them for the first time since 1976.