Virginia State Delegate James Martin Scott, his lanky stature and deep voice creating a Lincoln-esque visage, is a man whose looks and even-tempered demeanor cried out for one of only two possible vocations: man of the cloth or elected man of the people.
When the Virginia State Legislature formally convenes next week, it will do so without Jim Scott. For 11 successive two-year terms, since first winning his seat in Northern Virginia’s 53rd District that since 2001 has included the City of Falls Church, Scott has been a steady fixture in the Richmond legislature. He announced he’d not seek a 12th term last spring, and has now been replaced by his chosen successor, former aide Marcus Simon.
For 22 years, Scott tirelessly carried and supported progressive legislation, even as his Democratic Party became an increasingly permanent minority in the House from 1996 on. It earned him very high marks from organizations like Equality Virginia, the Virginia Education Association, the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, the League of Conservation Voters, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the AFL-CIO and, on the other hand, very low marks from an array of conservative and pro-gun groups.
Scott’s staunch liberalism runs very deep, born of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, when he was at the University of North Carolina and a protege of the likes of its storied president Frank Porter Graham and firebrand progressive activist and future congressman Allard K. Lowenstein.
It colored his particular passion for issues such as affordable housing, women’s rights issues and anti-poverty programs that animated his 14 years, from 1972 to 1986, as a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and subsequently in the state legislature from 1992 to this week.
Born in 1938 in Galax, Virginia, the son of a traveling salesman, Scott moved with his family to Winchester at a young age, and graduated from John Handley High School there, a public high school built and maintained on an endowment from Judge John Handley, who was devoted to childhood education, including through the funding of, in those segregated days, black schools.
Of that school’s Class of 1956, Scott was persuaded by a high school friend planning to attend the University of North Carolina (UNC) on an athletic scholarship. Surviving members of that Class of ‘56 enjoy reunions every year, and Scott never misses one, he said in an interview with the News-Press at the downtown Falls Church Panera Bread last month.
At UNC, the pro-civil liberties legacy of its former president Frank Porter Graham, its president from 1930 to 1949, was still fresh. Graham had been appointed to fill an unexpired term as a U.S. Senator in 1949, and when he ran for a full term the next year, he was upended in the Democratic primary by a candidate who enjoyed the fervent support of the future Senator Jesse Helms.
But in his one year as a senator, Graham recruited young reform-minded aides, and that included fresh UNC graduate Lowenstein. During the 1950s, Lowenstein’s activism in the state succeeded the expired term of his boss, including as an instructor at North Carolina State.
While at UNC from 1956 until his graduation in 1960, Jim Scott fell under Lowenstein’s magnetic influence. “He was the smartest man I’d ever met,” Scott told the News-Press. Scott got involved in campus politics and became a member of the student governing council.
He followed graduation by enrolling at George Mason University for a masters degrees in education, which he completed in 1963 after a year in Panama studying under the Smith-Mundt program. He then returned to Winchester to teach high school English in the fall of 1963.
Scott lamented his decision, on the grounds that he’d been freshly hired, not to come to Washington, D.C. to attend the historic March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, and he was in his classroom when word came of the assassination of President Kennedy that November.
But in Winchester, he quickly got involved with community anti-poverty programs, and went to work for the Sargent Shriver’s “War on Poverty,” set up under President Johnson in 1964.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” he said, “to see how completely segregated everything was. It was hard to deal with.”
When that program ended, Scott moved to North Arlington to focus on issues of disadvantaged women and to push for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1971, the opportunity to run for the Providence District seat on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors presented itself, and Scott upset the incumbent, the beginning of a 14-year career in that office.
In 1972, he met his future wife, Nancy Cromwell, at a presidential campaign rally for the “unbossed and unbought” Rep. Shirley Chisholm, and they subsequently married and had two children, Casey and Mary Alice.
After a haitus from public service in the mid-1980s, taking a job with the Inova hospital system, Scott was persuaded to seek an open state delegate seat in 1991, and he won by a single vote, earning him the nickname, “Landslide Scott.”
It was pointed out that, ironically, his was the second-closest race that year, as another had ended in the dead tie.
As Scott now leaves office, his focus is on his five-years’ effort to create a school of conflict, analysis and resolution in the psychology department of George Mason University. Through his work on the House Budget Appropriation Committee, a funding set-aside program was established for such a degree-granting program, which is now beginning to come together.
As unassuming and quietly competent as Jim Scott has been, it’s been easy to overlook his legacy as a civil rights pioneer, something that the next chapter in his life may afford him and all of us the opportunity to recall and appreciate.