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State political force George Rawlings dies
Former Del. George Rawlings Jr., leading liberal in Virginia politics in the 1960s and '70s, dies at age 87

 George Rawlings Jr. started his law practice in 1947.
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Date published: 4/23/2009


George Chancellor Rawlings Jr., a Fredericksburg attorney who became a liberal force in Virginia politics, died yesterday at Mary Washington Hospital. He was 87.

"That's sad news. I've lost a good friend," said Spotsylvania County Supervisor Emmitt Marshall. "I first met him when he ran unsuccessfully for Spotsylvania commonwealth's attorney in 1951. He helped a lot of people."

Born in Fredericksburg and raised in Ashland, Rawlings began his law practice in Fredericksburg in 1947.

The ambitious young lawyer eventually became president of the local and state Jaycees, the Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair Inc. and the Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department. He also served as chairman of the Spotsylvania Planning Commission and the local chapters of the Red Cross and the American Heart Association.

A liberal Democrat, Rawlings was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1963 and served until 1969. "All you had to be in those days in Virginia was tolerant and you were considered liberal," he said in a 2005 interview.

The high-water mark of Rawlings' political career came in July 1966 when newly enfranchised black voters helped him defeat Rep. Howard W. Smith in a Democratic primary. The Free Lance-Star called Rawlings' victory "the upset of the century."

Smith, a staunch ally of conservative Democratic Sen. Harry F. Byrd, was chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. Rawlings' 645-vote victory was the first election that Smith, then 82, had lost in 60 years of public service.

Rawlings lost in the general election to Republican William L. Scott.

In 1970, Rawlings lost a race for a U.S. Senate seat to Harry F. Byrd Jr., who ran as an independent. In 1972, Rawlings and his irrepressible liberal friend, Henry E. Howell Jr. of Norfolk, engineered a liberal takeover of the state Democratic Party that caused even more conservative Democrats to become Republicans.

Rawlings served on the Democratic National Committee until 1980 and was chairman of the Eighth District Democratic Committee until 1993.

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