Virginia Capitol Connections Winter 2023

A Conversation with Senator Chuck Robb By SUSAN PROKOP In 1993, Senator Charles S. Robb sat down for a brief interview with anArlington Democratic Party newsletter in preparation for an anticipated primary challenge in 1994. He shared his views of government operations from his perspective as Senator and as a former Governor, how he first got involved in politics and what being a Democrat meant to him. This article features excerpts from that interview and, in many respects, reflects challenges and issues facing the United States 30 years later.

In a 1986 conference on the presidency at Hofstra University, Robb spoke about his father-in-law, Lyndon Johnson and "the urgent quest for social justice" which fueled the Great Society. "What really stands out about the assault on poverty and social injustice in the 1960s was its audacity. The willingness to experiment, to risk new departures, to seize the initiative that was the spirit that pervaded the Great Society." Speaking to the political environment of the time, Robb dismissed those calling for the dismantling of social programs.While recognizing the need to address the deficit, he also cited the need to improve the quality of education "to help young people adapt to changing workforce needs. We need to place much more emphasis on early intervention to prevent as many poor children as possible from becoming ensnared in a cycle of chronic dependency.” He called for changes in the "financial incentives in the current welfare system [by] removing barriers to assistance for two-parent families and enabling welfare recipients who do find full or part-time work to retain a portion of their benefits.” To achieve all of these things, "we can't be paralyzed by the fear of failure. We'll make mistakes. We won't solve every problem and we won't solve any overnight. But we've got to try.” In 1987, Robb spoke to the Chautauqua Institution where he outlined his views on what the Democratic Party needed to do to recapture the White House. Foreshadowing the 1992 Presidential candidacy of Bill Clinton, Robb said the successful candidate would argue “that our economic difficulties stem not from the failure of people to save enough, or work hard enough, but from the consistent failure of government to provide a sound environment for sustained economic growth, stable prices, affordable credit, and good schools for all our children. Government's responsibility is to make sure that the rules of the game are fair for all Americans, not merely the rich or the lucky and to help break down the barriers to opportunity and private initiative…Our successful candidate would stress the more difficult and demanding obligations of citizenship that they have duties of service to their country and to their fellow citizens." Susan Prokop was Editor of the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s Roosevelt Society News from 1986 to 2006. She has spent a career in government and public policy - as a Congressional staffer, health policy analyst and the last 25 years in disability policy and advocacy for Paralyzed Veterans of America. Susan Prokop was Editor of the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s Roosevelt Society News from 1986 to 2006. She has spent a career in government and public policy—as a Congressional staffer, health policy analyst and the last 25 years in disability policy and advocacy for Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Comparing his position as Senator to his role as Governor of Virginia, Robb said, "As Governor, you get up in the morning and look at the state newspaper and about half of the items on the front page relate to things that you and your office did yesterday. And the other half have to do with things you better be on top of by the time the sun goes down today or you're in big trouble. You have a sense of immediacy, a sense of urgency, a sense of being able to do things and launch programs and put support behind initiatives and set the state's agenda." In the Senate, "the challenges are more sophisticated in many cases but there is not the same sense of satisfaction that you have as Governor — that during the course of a day you can change things." As a Senator "you are dealing with a lot of interesting and complex issues but you have much less sense of momentum on a day to day basis because the process of government is such that the wheels seem to turn at an almost glacial pace compared to what you can do as a state's chief executive officer." His involvement in politics began in high school where he served as sophomore class president. An unsuccessful race for college senior class president was "the best thing that ever happened to me" because it gave him "a great big dose of overdue humility.” He added, "You mature and learn from that kind of experience and you hopefully become considerably less self-centered and egotistical. I'm sure people think all politicians have a terminal disease along those lines but you can learn to relate in a much more human way to people and events if you've been chastened a bit by that kind of experience." Robb’s entre intoVirginia politics began in 1971 when he and wife Lynda Bird held an event at their home for the late Joseph L. Fisher’s Arlington County Board campaign. Then, in 1974, "the first time I ever stood at a polling place for several hours was for Joe Fisher's first run for Congress”, in which Fisher defeated a GOP incumbent. “My first active involvement outside the local level was in (Virginia Senator) Bill Spong's 1972 reelection campaign." Robb got interested in him after he read a law journal article detailing how Spong prepared for the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominees Clement Haynesworth and Harold Carswell. Spong's decisionmaking "was such a thoughtful, analytical approach and he seemed to epitomize all the values and approach to politics that I identify with." He described Spong as a "principled, thoughtful individual who managed to convey the seriousness of purpose and a sense of basic fairness in terms of how to approach the political process." On his political identification, Robb described himself "as a Scoop Jackson Democrat”, after the late Senator from Washington State. “I was always socially progressive — on things that relate to equal rights, human rights, civil rights — and yet very committed to what I would call a more traditional foreign and defense policy and I've always been regarded as fiscally conservative." Two speeches he gave in the mid-1980s illustrated his vision for the Democratic Party and the values in which he believes.


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