“With all due respect to anyone who has ever served in public office—Republican, Democrat or otherwise—Bob is the smartest, most-well read, curious (in a good way), broadly knowledgeable politician I have ever known,” noted former State Delegate and City Councilman David Speck.
Robert “Bob” Calhoun encourages all Alexandrians to become involved in their neighborhoods. A Democrat turned Republican he was drawn to community at a young age. Born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1937 his grandmother was active in Illinois politics. “She was what was called a Southern Democrat, seriously concerned with Social Security and the Wagner Act,” Calhoun said shyly. “In the 1970s it was Virginia Republican Governor Linwood Holton who held my interest. I liked him as an affirmative person.”
Holton was a “Mountain and Valley” Republican opposed to the Byrd machine and massive resistance. The first Republican Governor elected since Reconstruction, Holton, in his 1970 inaugural address, declared “the era of defiance is behind us. Let our goal be an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed.” Ability is a trait often attributed to Calhoun.
“With all due respect to anyone who has ever served in public office—Republican, Democrat or otherwise—Bob is the smartest, most-well read, curious (in a good way), broadly knowledgeable politician I have ever known,” former State Delegate and City Councilman David Speck noted. Speck first worked with Calhoun as a member of the Alexandria Republican Party and then joined the Democratic Party in 1995.
“Unfortunately in the 1970s Virginia Republicans were scarce, split into two camps: Goldwater or Rockefeller,” Calhoun explained. “The divisions didn’t disappear until Reagan’s election in 1980. Since then the Republican Party has become increasingly more conservative.”
“I first ran for political office in 1973, for the Virginia House of Delegates,” Calhoun laughed. “I lost, a sacrificial lamb running against House Majority Leader Jim Thomson. Thomson was a Byrd Democrat, a Byrd relative.”
Calhoun was elected to the Alexandria City Council in 1976. He won a single Republican seat. However Bob and the Alexandria GOP wanted more.
“Incumbent Republican Robert L. Calhoun, an attorney, apparently captured the spot of vice mayor,” The Washington Post reported in 1979. “This was an historic election as Alexandria Republicans finished one, two and three among the six winners. ‘People were looking for a consensus form of government [and] we, the Republicans, are all middle-of-the-road people,’ Calhoun said.” By 1982, the city of Alexandria had the most elected Republicans of any city in Virginia.
“People most likely associate me with transportation matters, but then we were mostly involved with landlord-tenant, metro and busing issues,” Calhoun mused. It was not fun running as a Republican. I had a pie thrown at me and a dog sicced on me.”
Attorney Calhoun graduated from Yale Law School in 1963. “I met Bob at Yale Law School in 1961-62 and we frequently had lunch together,” former Old Town Civic Association President Robert Dempsey recalled. “He was a great luncheon companion; loquacious, humorous and unhesitant to make declaratory judgment about any topic of our table-talk. Of course a conversation with Bob consisted, in the main, of punctuating his rapid-fire monologues with admiring interjection.”
Calhoun came to Washington as a rules and practices lawyer with the now-defunct Interstate Commerce Commission. He entered private practice in 1971 and today is Of Counsel with the Alexandria law firm of Redmon, Peyton & Braswell.
“John Volpe is one of my great heroes in government,” Calhoun smiled. Volpe, a Bay-stater, served as Secretary of Transportation from 1969 until1973. Amtrak was created on his watch and the railroad industry fascinated Calhoun.
In 1982 Calhoun ran “The Race of the Century.” The Washington Post reported: “Neither incumbent Alexandria Mayor Charles Beatley nor his opponent, Vice Mayor Robert Calhoun—the first Republican to run for mayor in more than 100 years—expects voters to have any trouble separating the princes from the peas…the biggest issue in this year’s campaign has been whether to impose a trash collection fee [yet] the race has been described by both sides as unusually partisan and hard fought.” Calhoun conceded the race but not before “Democrats conceded Calhoun is popular, fast-talking and often witty.”
Calhoun is also described as irascible. “Irascible?” responded former Alexandria Mayor and State Senator Patsy Ticer. “Bob is not at all difficult to get along with. He is very polite, very thoughtful, never nasty and very respectful.” Ticer, a Democrat, defeated incumbent Virginia Senator Calhoun in 1996. Calhoun served in the State Senate from 1988 until 1996.
Supporters claim Calhoun’s co-sponsorship of Virginia’s 1995 Public-Private Partnership Act is hallmark. Metro’s Dulles silver line was the first to use the Act for funding purposes. Others list his service on the WMATA Board, his preliminary study of the city-owned DASH bus system, and the overhaul of child custody statutes as his greatest achievements. Calhoun thinks the King and Braddock Street stations are “architectural atrocities.”
“As OTCA President I appeared rather frequently before City Council,” Dempsey said. “Sometimes Bob voted in favor of Old Town’s position, sometimes not, but always he articulated his position with clarity and persuasiveness.”
“Bob advocates persuasively,” former Republican City Councilman Carlyle Ring agreed. “He focuses on what is doable, mastered the art of legislative drafting and drafts with clarity and precision.”
What is Calhoun’s life lesson? “Always take a hard look. You need a sense of where you are in life. Get involved, set a goal and stay active. Don’t lose interest, especially in your community or state. I’m Irish and the Irish have an upbeat attitude. We also have a darker side. Politics has changed in the last several years. You can get away with a lot if consistent.”
“I voted for the first time in 1961,” Calhoun concluded. “Then everything seemed so bright and so new. Now I worry what the world will hold for our grandchildren. The country survived a Civil War and a Great Depression but the future concerns me. I’m an issues person, not an ideologue.”
Credit: Sarah Becker