Sen. Harry Byrd Jr., a former Virginia politician known for leaving the Democratic Party to seek election as an Independent, died Monday morning at his home in Winchester, Va. He was 98.
A graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia, Byrd served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy during WWII. He also worked as a newspaperman before Virginia Gov. Albertis Harrison appointed him to fill the Senate seat his father, Harry Flood Byrd, left vacant. When the time came for re-election, Byrd chose to run as an Independent and won more votes than Democrats and Republicans combined.
“It’s a hard way to run, but if you can win that way it’s the best way to win,” Byrd later said. “You don’t have to follow a party line.”
He chose to become an Independent after Democrats demanded party members sign an oath of support for all Democratic candidates. Byrd said he could not sign the oath in good conscience, especially since he did not like the party’s increasing liberalism.
During his time in the Senate, Byrd’s ideology was further right than any Democrat as well as many Republicans, according to data on Govtrack.us. He proposed several bills to limit federal power, including a bill in 1981 that would have amended the Constitution to require a balanced federal budget. He also said President Ronald Reagan’s military spending was “giving the Pentagon the impression it has a blank check.”
George H. W. Bush said of him in 1982: “When he has seen a wayward spending proposal or a needless extension of federal power take flight, he has brought it down as if he were at a pheasant shoot.”
But Byrd also fought hard against desegregation, arguing that closing segregated schools would lead to racial violence: “When you have to make a very dramatic change, sometimes, most times, that needs to be done maybe over a period of time and not abruptly.”
When the 1964 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education labeled segregated schools as unconstitutional, Byrd called it an “unwarranted usurpation of power.”
In addition to his role as Senator, Byrd served as editor and publisher of The Winchester Star, a publication now run by his son, Tom Byrd. According to the paper, Byrd also worked for a time as vice president of the Associated Press. Byrd leaves behind three children, nine grandchildren, and 12 great grandchildren.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.