Richmond Lawyer to Decide Ousted UVA President Sullivan’s Fate Today


    by Paul Goldman

    Let me go out on a limb here: UVA Board of Visitors member George Martin, the newest managing partner at the Richmond office of legal giant McGuireWoods, will be the deciding vote at the special meeting of the BOV called today to consider reinstating ousted President Teresa Sullivan. Analyzing press reports and board member resumes, it would appear the pro-Sullivan forces should have at least 7 votes not counting George. It takes 8 for reinstatement.

    I first met George years ago when he was a rookie attorney in State Senator Doug Wilder’s law firm, the office located on Church Hill about a block from where Patrick Henry gave his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. One day, George saw me coming through the entrance door and wanted to know if I needed a lawyer. I said it depends.

    At the time, Dr. Sabato was threatening to sue me for defamation. Larry had been upset over something I had said in defending Wilder from all the press reports about Democratic Party officials and political “experts” privately opposing the Richmond Senator’s nomination for Lt. Governor on the grounds the nomination of an African American would cause the party’s statewide ticket to lose in a landslide. Wilder thought Sabato’s credibility was giving the “No African-American Can Win” argument credibility. Indeed, the title of Dwayne Yancey’s acclaimed book about the historic election  – “When Hell Froze Over” – is taken from Larry’s assessment of Wilder’s chances of winning.

    In retrospect, I was a tad harsh on Larry, in part because I had just taken the position as Wilder’s campaign manager when no other white person would do it (and if you know Virginia politics from those days, I wasn’t exactly a “white Virginian” in many politicos eyes, being Jewish and from New York. Those were days for sure.) The Senator was having trouble raising money and all the “Can’t Win” stuff didn’t help, nor the polls leaked from Democratic sources showing him a huge sure loser by 20+%.

    So I had to say something to both get Larry off his case and to gain Wilder’s confidence in my having what he thought he needed – someone with the “chops” to do what had to be done to break down the oldest political taboo in Southern politics. What I said was truthful and in no way defamatory. But it was a hard political hit, intentionally so given the stakes. In Dwayne’s book, I got hit with a lot worse personal attacks from anonymous sources. It goes with the territory if you want to make change.

    Before George and I could speak further, someone called out that the Senator wanted to see me in his office about the campaign. I remember George smiling, putting his hand on my shoulder, and heading toward the door of Roger Gregory, then Wilder’s partner and now the 4th Circuit federal jurist.

    George never struck me as particularly interested in campaign politics. Everyone said he was going to become a major lawyer in Richmond someday. He has for sure, with the new gig at McGuireWoods. He will do well.

    That he would be appointed by Governor McDonnell to the UVA Board is not surprising in the least, at least to me. George Martin is smart, savvy and sincerely has the best interests of UVA in mind. So, no matter how he votes later today, I know it will be a thoughtful decision.

    I have not talked to George about it; our last conversation had to do with how to break the cycle here in Richmond regarding the tragic statistics and circumstances relating to the health of the city’s public school students, especially those from families with modest incomes. The Richmond Public School system and myself had teamed up for a novel first-in-the-nation health and fitness initiative, using financial incentives to break the cycle of overwhelming numbers not getting the health exams needed — the statistics so shocking the President and First Lady, they have been asking a community like Richmond to take the lead.

    Well, Richmond is doing it, and George helped me raise the money to make it happen (it’s gotten national attention). We will need more money now, so George, expect my telephone call. But not until you vote today, of course.

    The point being: George is someone who will command respect in the room today when the BOV meets in private for one of the most anticipated education decisions in Virginia since the school busing case in Richmond. Knowing George, he is going to look past the personalities involved and get to where the rubber meets the road. My bet is this: George is going to be one of the leaders in a decision bring people together, not one drawing a line in the sand and “to the winners goes the spoils” type of thing.

    In my view, Ms. Sullivan hurt herself with George by indicating – if true – that she would only come back if Ms. Dragas was gone. To me, that is not a George Martin type of approach to management decisions.

    George’s father was a super guy – very community spirited – and his mother Ruby served in Governor Wilder’s cabinet. She was an African American female lawyer in Virginia, starting out during the days of segregation, a law school friend of Doug Wilder. The Martin’s were pillars of Richmond. George has a great legacy and great models.

    George knows UVA is at a crossroads right now. Will it survive whatever the BOV does this afternoon? Of course it will. UVA has been around for almost 200 years, through a Civil War, through slavery and segregation and Jim Crow and the Black Codes, through the Civil Rights Movement and Suffrage and the Women’s Movement. UVA has been both a leader in change and at the same time, the school that trained many of those who helped the state resist that very change.

    UVA has been both slow to get with the real world, and at the same time, fast pushing Virginia to get with the real world. This duality is not unique to Southern educational institutions but it is more pronounced and noticeable. Today, however, UVA has survived to become one of the great public universities in the nation.

    George knows the history and stands as a model of the change. In many respect, he is the right man at the right time to help make the first monumental education system at UVA in this century.

    As I have written, I don’t see Ms. Dragas as the “evil villain” nor Ms. Sullivan as the “victimized Mother Teresa.” I think that is too simplistic a story line.  But as Dr. Sabato has said – and correctly so – it now comes down, after all the discussions on the future of higher education in the new economy, to a definitive choice: walking the walk.

    When you weigh the situation in that light, the choice seems clear enough: reconciliation, not confrontation.

    As I have written, Ms. Dragas would be wise to be the leader for that direction, but she and her supporters are too invested in defending their position. Sabato is right: The best option for UVA at this point is to rehire Ms. Sullivan.

    As readers of this space know, I was not impressed with Sullivan deciding to take a lucrative “golden parachute” without telling this to the students and faculty on the front lines fighting to get her rehired: even though she had decided not to fight for the job herself! But maybe she was following a very shrewd strategy. It is all besides the point now as Dr. Sabato correctly pointed out.

    The BOV now has to make a virtue out of a necessity. Reinstating Ms. Sullivan is the only viable option at this point, provided it is clear she can follow former President John F. Kennedy’s advice: Forgive but don’t forget.

    If Ms. Sullivan is everything her supporters claim, then she will have no trouble doing what leaders have to do all the time: lead by example. If George believes Ms. Sullivan can do that, I would think she would get his vote.

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