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A talk with the incoming Governor's Chief of staff. 

Right-Hand Man

A month ago, Gov.-elect Mark Warner named Bill Leighty his new chief of staff. Warner's transition team is now working out of the Virginia Retirement System's building on 9th Street, where the whirlwind of transition has created some chaos. Leighty, the VRS director, had to knock on a few doors to even find a spare office for a brief conversation. But he willingly sat down with Style to talk about the challenges of setting up the new administration: hiring staff, dealing with emergencies and finding the governor a chair.

Style: How do you two know each other?

Leighty: I met Mark for the first time when he was serving as transition chief for Doug Wilder. We talked at that time about a number of different things. I had already lined up to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles, so I did not take part in the Wilder administration. We've kept in touch over the years. We've been talking ever since.

When he asked you to become his chief of staff, did you have any reservations?

None.

Can you say anything more about what your duties will be?

They'll be the typical duties of a chief of staff: Coordinator. Scheduler. Implementer. Get it done for him. My job is to get it done. I'll be his sounding board, his listener, his ventor — whatever he needs. That's what I'm there to do.

Have you already set up where you're going to be in the Capitol? Right down the hall from him?

The chief of staff traditionally sits outside the door of the governor's office. I can do you a little diagram so you can see. … Every day he comes to work he goes right through my office. That's why he says "Turn the lights on" and "Turn 'em off."

What do you see as the primary challenges you and Warner will tackle together in the first few months of his administration?

Well, clearly the first 100 days will be dominated by the budget process and the legislature. There's no avoiding that — that's going to happen. But I think the real challenge is to help people understand that that's not the only issue that's on the table. There are other issues that are important, that were discussed in the campaign, that also have to be addressed and overlaid on top of the realism of the budget.

Could you give me a few examples?

Well, that would be — I don't have my list with me — but clearly creating independence for the Department for Rights for the Disabled is on the list. There are a number of initiatives in his overall campaign plan that we are addressing. … A very critical issue right now is the teacher shortage, what we're going to be doing to attract bright, talented people into the teaching corps. Our teachers are retiring at a fairly significant rate, and more importantly, they're retiring after two or three years. Virginia's teacher retention has got to be a top priority on his list.

How do you juggle keeping so many really disparate objectives in your mind at one time?

It's sort of like Professor Dumbledore's Mind Sieve. Have you read Harry Potter yet? What you have to do is you have to sit and take all of the swirling things and you have to pick them out and set them down and put them in a nice little stack. And then once you create all your nice little stacks, then you say "OK — now which stack is he most likely going to ask me about first?" and you turn to it. And you set aside the other thoughts until you can complete that.

I have been very fortunate and very blessed to have been given the opportunities in the past to handle tasks just like this. When I served as Governor Baliles' deputy secretary of transportation and public safety, I remember one day, I think it was a Good Friday. … there was a flood in Richmond. And I looked over and all five lines coming into our office were blinking. And on one call was [then City Manager] Bob Bobb requesting federal assistance. On one line was the State Police requesting authority to shut down the interstate ... On one line was the Department of Transportation saying, "My God, they want to close the interstate. We don't want to do that." There was emergency services on another line saying that Bob Bobb is going to be calling you requesting federal assistance. And on the fifth line was the National Guard saying Bob Bobb wants you to call us up.

So the secretary walked in and said, "Which one will you handle first? Which call do you want to take first? Because all of them are blinking." So it's not — I've done this before. I've been in this environment before. I'm prepared for it. I'm prepared for the variety of issues, because I've been in state government now for 23 years. … I've seen agencies that run well, and what they do with their money. I've seen agencies that have run incredibly bad, and how they've wasted money. So I know what the signals are; I know how to read the reports so you can see if there's good management there or not in very quick overview manner. … It's something I'm looking forward to. It's also the kind of experience, I think, that brought us together, that he was looking for.

Do you and Mark Warner have a chance to hang out outside of the office?

I think … "hang out." Um. Not yet. Well, I guess we have. I mean, we've had dinner together over the years, where we just kind of got together and talked. He very much likes his personal relationships, and enjoys his time with individuals. So I assume that we'll be doing more of that over the years — although that's not the role I see. I see, quite frankly, being in the role where I'm back at the office working so he can go hang out.

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