Thomas Moss Jr., former speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and former Norfolk city treasurer, has died. He was 87.
Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim confirmed his death Thursday night.
Moss was elected to the House of Delegates as an outsider in 1965 and navigated the halls of power with political skill and wit for 36 years, including nine years as the House speaker.
“He was the giant,” Fraim said, calling him “a political genius.”
When Moss won the speaker’s post in 1991, he became the first Norfolkian in 202 years to hold the job. His election secured the political clout that Hampton Roads leaders had long sought in Richmond.
He was a skilled vote-counter, also known for injecting his sense of humor into public proceedings. “I’m chairman of this committee, and I’ll get the laughs in here,” he would scold people who tried the same.
During his tenure, Republicans made steady gains, eventually picking up enough House seats to take over the body, costing the Democrat the speaker’s job in 2000. Former Boss Mossserved his final term back on the House floor and then retired.
Moss went on to win election to the Norfolk city treasurer’s post in 2001 and held the office until his retirement in January 2014.
The city’s Tidewater Community College campus is named after him because of “how effective he was in making it happen,” Fraim said.
He faced life’s challenges with humor.
While being prepped for heart surgery in 1987, he told the surgeon, “If I die, I’m going to be awfully upset with you.”
As he came out of the anesthesia later, family members assured him he was fine. “The hell I am,” Moss responded.
Nurses asked him to wiggle his toes.
Replied Moss: “It ain’t the toes that’s the problem.”
Moss was born Oct. 3, 1928, in Norfolk. He attended city schools before getting an engineering degree from Virginia Tech and a law degree from the University of Richmond.
He was elected to the House of Delegates in 1965 after a bruising Democratic primary as a member of Norfolk First, a group of insurgent liberal Democrats challenging the aging Harry Byrd political machine that had dominated state politics for decades and which had resisted efforts to racially integrate schools.
Moss told voters that the area was being short-changed by Richmond, charging, for instance, that Old Dominion College got the least amount of aid per student compared with other state colleges.
“Get Norfolk out of the Byrd cage,” was the slogan of Norfolk First.
The freshman delegate’s reception in Richmond was cool. He spent a lonely rookie seasonin the House, The Ledger-Star reported. But the Byrd machine was already faltering, and the ostracism was short-lived.
Before long, Moss was known around Richmond for his sometimes irreverent sense of humor. Legislators accustomed to droning oratories tended to perk up when he took to the podium. His speeches might involve visual aids such as model cars.
Initially, the anti-establishment Moss championed issues such as the rights of mental patients, and he fought auto insurance rate hikes, Pilot reporter Margaret Edds wrote in a 1979 profile. But the outsider became an insider.
Times and people change,Edds wrote. As the 1960s became the 1970s, Moss’s anti-establishment bite softened. Subsequently, his legislative assignments improved.
In 1978, Moss defended himself in the House after a Washington Star article alleged he sponsored alcohol-related legislation that could aid clients of his law firm. His vigorous, teary-eyed defense got a two-minute standing ovation.
The next year, he was elected majority leader.
Such conflict-of-interest questions dogged him for years, however. He also faced criticism from feminists. He kissed a Common Cause lobbyist on the cheek in a crowded Richmond elevator in a widely publicized incident. She called it harassment; he defended it as a harmless joke.
In 1982, Moss won a narrow re-election contest, defeating a feminist. Afterward, he announced his support for the Equal Rights Amendment.
In 1991, he became speaker, fulfilling a long-held personal ambition.
He was personally responsible for steering hundreds of millions of dollars in state money to Norfolk and surrounding communities, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.
Originally printed in the Virginian Pilot on Nov 26, 2015