For a reporter who had covered Tom Bliley since he arrived in Congress in 1981, the news that he had died Friday at age 91 evoked one clear image: that of a genuine gentleman from Virginia, right down to his signature bow tie, silver hair, and ever-present pipe.
Thomas Jerome Bliley, Jr. looked the part of someone who was mayor of Richmond from 1970-77 and then represented the Richmond area in the U.S. House from 1980-2000. He seemed to be Miles Brock, the archetypal conservative Democrat-turned-Republican in The Shad Treatment, Garrett Epps' epic novel about Virginia politics, come to life.
The scion of a family that ran a Richmond funeral parlor for generations, Bliley graduated from the Roman Catholic Benedictine High School at age 16 and earned a degree from Georgetown University.
Following a three-year stint in the U.S. Navy, the young Bliley returned home to Richmond and became active in the community. With help from the many friends he made professionally and in tennis matches at the Country Club of Virginia, he was elected to the city council in 1968, quickly becoming vice mayor and mayor.
"He gained elective office at a time when owners of local funeral homes were among the most common professions in local politics — joined closely by realtors and lawyers — because of their name recognition and the highly regulated nature of the business," professor emeritus John Ambrose of J. Sargent Reynolds Community College in Virginia told Newsmax. "He became the last mayor of Richmond before the court decision that transformed Richmond's city council from city-wide at-large elections to ward-based seats."
Like most of his contemporaries, Bliley had been a conservative Democrat in the 1950s and '60s. But with the election of a Republican governor in 1969 and a GOP U.S. senator in 1972, he could sense which the way the political winds were blowing. Shortly after leaving the mayors post, Bliley switched to the Republican Party. In an event repeated numerous times in states throughout the South, Conservative Democratic Rep. David Satterfield announced his retirement and Republican Bliley easily won his seat.
The Virginian was a loyal soldier in the Reagan Revolution and supported the 40th president's tax and budget acts. When Republicans won control of Congress in the historic election of 1994, Bliley became chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and thus oversaw hearings on studies linking cigarettes to addiction.
"I'll be damned if [cigarette companies] are to be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness," he declared at one hearing, as he puffed vigorously on his pipe.
But in 1997, after Bliley subpoenaed tobacco companies for documents thought to be exempt from attorney-client confidentiality, it was discovered that some companies had targeted young people for marketing cigarettes and others had discussed the benefits of featuring doctors in ads promoting cigarettes.
Such revelations, Bliley told cigarette company executives at a hearing, "have shaken my confidence that your companies care about the truth." Eventually, 46 states and the four major tobacco companies reached a multibillion dollar settlement and ended all cigarette advertising and appeal to young people.
Bliley was also a key player in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Food and Drug Modernization Act of 1997, the Private Securities Reform Act, and the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999.
In and out of Congress, Bliley was a politician who could see the future and devoted considerable time to mentoring young conservatives who could lead in the next generation. With his blessings and all-out support, Eric Cantor became the first Jewish congressman from the Old Dominion by succeeding Bliley in 2000. Another Bliley friend, Jim Gilmore, became the commonwealth's attorney in Henrico County and went on to be state attorney general and governor.
"Tom Bliley was a close friend and mentor to me," Gilmore said. "He served his city as mayor, and his country as congressman. Our political careers intertwined, as I helped him as he ran and served in Congress, and he helped me become governor. Virginia and America are better places because of Tom Bliley."
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