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Surprise tribute to most-tenured lawmaker, Putney

Wednesday - 1/18/2012, 5:32pm  ET

AP Political Writer

RICHMOND, Va. - The House of Delegates surprised Del. Lacey Putney -- the longest-serving member in its history -- with an unannounced appearance by his long-ago fraternity brother, former U.S. Sen. John Warner.

Putney, in his 51st year in the House, sat at his desk in the rear of the House for more than a minute unaware that Warner stood silently three feet behind him until the five-term former Virginia senator placed his left hand on Putney's shoulder.

"I had no idea this was going to happen," Putney said afterward. "I didn't know it until I saw John standing behind me. I didn't understand why I hadn't been told he'd be here today."

Warner, 84, was given the rare opportunity to address the House from the clerk's rostrum, recalling Putney, 83, as his Washington & Lee University classmate.

Other than governors, who address the joint legislature annually, and clergy, who deliver a daily invocation, the last dignitary to address the House from the dais was Queen Elizabeth in 2007.

Warner said House Speaker Bill Howell, the schemer-in-chief behind Wednesday's surprise tribute, insisted on strict secrecy in inviting him to address the House.

"I shall be ever grateful to the speaker, who ran this like a CIA operation. He said `Bring your wife, but don't tell her why she's coming to Richmond," Warner said after a lengthy standing ovation for himself and Putney.

Putney, a Bedford attorney, was elected to the House in 1961, the year John Kennedy became president. Initially a Democrat in Virginia's old Byrd organization, he left the party in 1968, the year Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" lured many disaffected white Southerners into the Republican Party. Putney has been an independent since then, and began caucusing with House Republicans in the 1990s.

He is the only current delegate who holds no party affiliation. He served briefly as an interim House speaker in 2002 after the resignation of former speaker S. Vance Wilkins and Howell's selection as his successor. Putney is chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee.

The courtly Warner, a Republican and former Navy secretary, was elected to the Senate in 1978 and was re-elected four times and served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee before announcing his retirement in 2008. His successor is Democrat Mark R. Warner. The men are friends but not related.

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