Virginia: Second District|
Rep. Owen Pickett (D)
Last Updated September 14, 2000
The United States Navy Atlantic fleet berthed in its home port of Norfolk is one of the great awe-inspiring sights in America, or anywhere. The aggregation of destructive power in the line of towering gray ships is probably greater than in any other single port in history--over 100 ships are based here, with some 100,000 sailors and Marines, some $2 billion in annual spending. Norfolk has been a Navy port since 1801, and has long been recognized as one of the best natural harbors on the East Coast, one that never freezes, has a channel 50 feet deep and is within 750 miles of three-quarters of U.S. manufacturing capacity.
Norfolk, once a small city, is now the center of a metropolitan area on both sides of Hampton Roads with over 1.5 million people. Nearly one-third of the total workforce here is employed by the military, but with its skilled labor force and lack of unions the Hampton Roads area has also attracted a lot of private employment; the port has taken a great deal of business away from the labor-torn piers of Baltimore. To the Hampton Roads area, this growth over the last 45 years has brought a wider cross-section of people than usually found in the South. There is no heavy accent here: the brothy Tidewater accent is heard more often farther up the rivers toward Richmond. And Norfolk preserves its antique past more carefully now, developing cultural institutions and commercial amenities appropriate to a major metro area. Older parts of Norfolk have the look and feel of a working-class town, with shipyard workers and many blacks (39% in the city of Norfolk), but most of it is white middle-class suburbia, plus Virginia Beach's string of oceanfront motels.
The 2d Congressional District is made up of most of Norfolk and Virginia Beach, with boundaries that put most of Norfolk's heavily black neighborhoods in the black-majority 3d District. The politics here has changed as the area has become more heavily suburban, and the Democrats more associated with defense policy critics. In 1968, the 2d voted for Hubert Humphrey, as Norfolk cast 65,000 votes and Virginia Beach 37,000. In 1996, it voted 48%-45% for Bob Dole, as its portion of Norfolk cast 40,000 votes and Virginia Beach 123,000. In the light-turnout 1998 election, with slightly revised boundaries, Norfolk cast 13,000 votes and Virginia Beach 59,000.
The congressman from the 2d District is Owen Pickett, a Democrat first elected in 1986. With old Virginia roots, he became an accountant and lawyer, was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1971, at 41, where he was known as a fiscal conservative and for his hard work restructuring the state retirement system. He was state Democratic chairman in 1981, when Charles Robb won the governorship, beginning a string of Democratic victories. In 1982, he was Robb's choice for the Senate but withdrew after Douglas Wilder, then state senator and later governor, threatened to run as an independent. But by the time he ran for Congress in 1986, the quiet and methodical Pickett had Wilder's support and that of Jesse Jackson's Norfolk coordinator. Pickett carried Norfolk heavily, and won 49%-42%.
In the House, Pickett showed his political acumen by getting a new seat created for him on the Armed Services Committee and getting a seat on the old Merchant Marine Committee as well--two crucial spots for any Norfolk congressman. His voting record is a bit to the left of the House as a whole. He is a member of the Blue Dogs, who have proposed their own budget with no tax cuts until the budget is balanced and faster spending cuts than either Democratic or Republican versions.
Pickett is ranking Democrat on the Military Research and Development Subcommittee and a strong backer of missile defense. Much of Pickett's work has been in supporting Hampton Roads military bases and defense contractors, and revitalizing the shipbuilding industry and merchant marine. That work has mostly been successful. Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock across the bay has been building three Nimitz-class aircraft carriers in the 1990s, at a cost over $10 billion, and has kept Electric Boat Company in Connecticut from getting a monopoly on building nuclear submarines. With subsidies for operating costs and new contract terms, U.S.-flag shipping firms have thrived and Newport News is building commercial ships too. The Norfolk Navy Shipyard has survived four rounds of base-closings and calls for privatization. His reponse to proposals for another round of base closings in May 1997 was, ''Not just no, hell no!'' By October 1998 he said one final round might be all right, if it came in 2001, when Bill Clinton is no longer president. Pickett opposed General Dynamics's bid to buy Newport News Shipbuilding in February 1999 (it already owns Electric Boat), sponsored a bill to move the battleship Wisconsin next to the Nauticus maritime center in downtown Norfolk, opposed proposals to make Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach a public park. He helped get the Navy to move the Military Sealift Command from Bayonne, New Jersey, to Virginia Beach; when the Navy moved from Florida 10 F/A-18 Hornet Squads to Virginia Beach and two to Beaufort, South Carolina, he loudly protested that all should have gone to Virginia. In August 1998 he objected to the awarding of a military health care contract for 418,000 military personnel and dependents in Hampton Roads to Anthem Alliance, which seems to have been woefully unprepared to process claims; a month later the Pentagon reopened negotiations and requested new bids.
Pickett was one of 31 Democrats to vote for the Republican impeachment inquiry in October 1998; he waited till the last minute to announce his vote against impeachment and submitted his remarks in writing. To a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter he sounded a note of weariness. ''There's a certain feeling that once you're in it, you want to conclude some of the things that you've worked on or that you got in to do,'' he said of his service, adding, ''If I knew what I know now … I would have devoted my energies to some other, perhaps community type of activity, and not have become so involved in political matters.'' In 1992 and 1994 Pickett beat a vocal conservative with 56% and 59% of the vote; he won 65% in 1996, running 21% ahead of Clinton, and had no opposition in 1998.
Safe. In six re-election contests, Pickett has never dropped below 56% and the fact that he was unopposed in 1998 is a good sign that he will not have a serious challenge in 2000. But, this Republican leaning district will be trouble for Democrats to hold onto once this seat does open up.
Update: September 14, 2000
In a surprising blow to the Democratic Party, seven-term incumbent Owen Pickett in December 1999 said he would not seek re-election. Pickett, who often avoids public and media attention, did not give a specific reason for his retirement, but in recent years he has voiced frustration with the growing partisan rancor in Congress. ''When Washington, D.C., begins to look better in your rear view mirror than it does in your windshield, you know it is time to consider making a change,'' he said during his retirement announcement.
Pickett is best known for his advocacy of a strong military, particularly the Navy, which reflects the fact that Virginia's 2nd District has perhaps one of the nation's largest concentration of military families. The district has also become more Republican since Pickett first won election in 1986, and by retiring he avoids what was expected to be a costly and difficult race against Republican state Senator Edward Schrock, who is now favored to win the seat provided he is his party's nominee. The Democrats are now scrambling to find a candidate. Early possibilities include Hayes Furniture Vice President David Brand and Norfolk attorney Andrew Sacks.
- Pop. 1990: 562,789
- 0.6% rural;
7.8% age 65+;
- 76.2% White,
58.5% married couple families;
31.9% married couple fams. w. children;
55.3% college educ.;
median household income: $32,576;
per capita income: $14,492;
median gross rent: $450;
median house value: $93,100.
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