Memorable first names, notwithstanding, Reno Harp and Oscar Mabry were two of the most influential — unelected — officials whom most Virginians never heard of.
Career state government guys at a time when most people in state government were guys, Harp was a lawyer who policed the judiciary and Mabry was an engineer who built highways. Harp, 89, died this past Wednesday. Mabry, 82, died June 6. Between the two, they worked for Virginia for nearly 80 years.
This is more than an ode to two veteran state employees who were occasional sources. Harp and Mabry were around long enough to learn from their mistakes. That helped others.
Harp and Mabry were what is rapidly becoming a rarity in Richmond: institutionalists. They worked for Democrats and Republicans, understood precedent and procedure, and were sufficiently flexible to effect and endure change.
By 2018, according to a report on the state workforce, time had whittled the Harp-Mabry cohort — the Silent Generation or Greatest Generation — to 1% of the government payroll. That look-see, by the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, warned that Virginia was losing more than senior employees.
The bureaucracy is facing a brain-drain, a loss of institutional knowledge about how things really work, despite rules and regulations, and how problems can be avoided, productivity can be increased and — sometimes — how taxpayer money can be saved.
The committee report showed that 1 in 4 state employees is eligible for retirement by 2023 and that many of them are — as Harp and Mabry were — white-collar professionals: 41% are general managers, 38% are financial managers, and 28% are engineers and architects.
These prospective departures threaten a relatively new feature of government: diversity. In Virginia, the public payroll — state and local — is nearly 58% female, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. One in five employees is Black; one in 10, Hispanic or Asian.
Harp and Mabry joined the state during a wrenching period, one in which Virginia angrily battled change.
The attorney general’s office would become the epicenter of the state’s defiance of court-ordered desegregation of public schools, battling in the courts into the late 1950s to keep white and Black students in separate classrooms.
The highway department, known these days as the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), remained road-centric into the 1960s even as suburbanization accelerated, feeding demands, especially in Northern Virginia, for public transit as an antidote to maddening traffic.
With his signature bow tie and brusque style that was more bark than bite, Harp was the No. 2 in the attorney general’s office, when, in 1977, he was told by its first Republican occupant, Marshall Coleman, he would be fired.
The political class, which Harp knew intimately, having worked it assiduously since landing at the state Capitol two decades earlier as a newly minted lawyer, was outraged.
The Democrats who controlled the legislature viewed the dismissal as a partisan affront. Even Republicans were alarmed, believing it sent the wrong signal to a state work force long defined by stability.
A side gig in the attorney general’s office as counsel to the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission quickly became full time. And for the next 20 years, until his retirement in 1997, Harp would investigate complaints about judges, quietly telling some to straighten up and others to get out.
The commission, to the annoyance of the public and the press, operated in legally protected secrecy. And Harp was known to bristle when reporters — because it was their job — pried into the commission’s proceedings, which — because it was his job — he cloaked in mystery.
Mabry joined VDOT when it wasn’t as much led as ruled by the legendary Douglas Fugate, who believed there was little that a lot of asphalt couldn’t fix. Fugate also transformed the department into a graduate program, of sorts, for Virginia Military Institute (VMI). As an alumnus, Fugate favored those with VMI degrees — Mabry, among them.
Mabry would become the agency’s chief planner, balancing its erratic cash flow with the constant demands of construction and maintenance. Mabry, with a quiet manner that could disarm agitated lawmakers, reprised that role during a punishing recession as Gov. Doug Wilder’s deputy transportation secretary.
As a planner, Mabry was paid to be prescient. His bosses didn’t always listen.
Mabry argued for widening Interstate 64 east of Richmond for years before the state had no choice. He warned that a Republican plan to shrink government would decimate elements of the road program, forcing the state to spend more by hiring back as consultants VDOT employees lured into leaving with sweetened retirement pay.
At that point, Mabry would be on the outside looking in, having joined a giant construction company.
Harp and Mabry were emblems of the dignity of state service, something that, if only in civics books, is supposed to transcend partisanship. Their pay packets were reliable, though they lagged the private sector. What they lost in folding money, they made up with state-supplied pensions and health insurance.
And they showed all those Virginians who had never heard of them that government can work.