Alan Diamonstein could give politicians a good name. He is a mover and shaker, for sure. A power broker par excellence. But the beneficiaries of his political savvy are ordinary people: children in public schools, moderate-income families who dream of owning a home, students at Virginia colleges, parents caring for retarded children. And they aren't just in his home district or even on the Peninsula. They're people across Virginia who, because of Diamonstein's work in the General Assembly, have access to programs and facilities that improve their lives and their communities.
Diamonstein has been named the Daily Press Citizen of the Year for 2001. The timing of this honor is most appropriate: This January, for the first time in 34 years, the Peninsula will send a delegation to Richmond that does not include Diamonstein. This is an apt time to examine how this high-visibility man models in his personal and public lives the qualities -- like caring for those who need society's help and compassion -- that are the hallmark of good citizenship. And to appreciate how his efforts have benefited his community and will do so for years to come. And to consider what may be his most significant legacy, his work to strengthen the educational system that molds the citizens of the future.
Ask Alan Diamonstein what he is proudest of and his answer is deceptively simple, "I was able to make a difference." Pressed to elaborate, he claims a modest achievement: He raised awareness of issues -- education, housing, mental health, the arts. He did that and more. He was also the architect of programs and policies that changed the way Virginia addresses these issues. And he masterminded budget compromises that delivered the dollars to bring those programs to life.
The common thread that runs through Diamonstein's legislative record is a conviction about what good government should do: It should provide the services citizens need to lead lives that are healthy, useful and gratifying. Among those services are Diamonstein's signature issues: quality education, affordable housing, responsive mental health services and vibrant cultural institutions.
Education: "He really mattered."
Education was Diamonstein's passion. As member and, ultimately, chairman of the House Education and Appropriations committees, he was in a position to tackle his priority from two directions: policy and funding.
A graduate of the University of Virginia, he counts the commonwealth's colleges and universities among the state's greatest assets but worries that years of underfunding have threatened their quality. Virginia must, he argues, invest in new facilities and maintenance of old ones, in technology and in salaries that attract topnotch faculty. Diamonstein's efforts to gain approval of a referendum for bond financing of higher education projects became a regular event in Richmond. And, he cautions, Virginia must not let tuition costs keep qualified students off its campuses.
William and Mary President Tim Sullivan calls Diamonstein "one of the most thoughtful and effective advocates for higher education" in the last three decades. Says Sullivan, "He really mattered."
Diamonstein was such an advocate for Christopher Newport University that he earned the nickname "Mr. CNU." His goal was simple -- "to make sure CNU gets its fair share" -- and he won millions for dorms, academic buildings and the Center for the Arts.
Moving up in the world takes more than money, and Diamonstein was CNU's champion in battles to obtain the graduate programs and name that go with university status.
Diamonstein dreamed of a scholarship program that would give needy students an incentive to work hard and stay out of trouble. The result, the Virginia Guaranteed Assistance Program, hasn't been as well funded as he hoped but has opened college doors to students who otherwise might not be able to attend.
K-12 education was also a Diamonstein priority. He fought for things he thinks are essential to quality education: small classes, safe schools, up-to-date buildings, technology, preschool programs and higher teacher salaries.
Newport News students who get in trouble get another chance at Enterprise Academy, a school tailored to their needs, thanks to Diamonstein's support of alternative education.
Housing: "Clearly the state leader."
Nowhere is Diamonstein's statewide reach more apparent than in housing. When he arrived at the General Assembly, he says, housing "wasn't even on their radar screen." He helped change that and emerged, says Bob Washington of the Virginia Housing Development Authority, "clearly the state leader on housing issues." Along the way, he earned respect from every quarter of the industry, from advocates for low-income housing to builders and developers. For 25 years, he chaired the Virginia Housing Study Commission, which initiated changes in government's role in housing, and played a role in major housing legislation.
Here, again, access was the key. Concerned about moderate-income families' struggle to afford homes, he sponsored legislation that created the Virginia Housing Development Authority.
Last year, the VHDA helped 5,500 families buy their first homes and made it possible for 7,000 units of rental housing to be built or renovated.
Typically, he made sure the legislation included support for special housing for people with disabilities.
Mental health: "You could count on him."
For three decades, Diamonstein watched out for a group that doesn't have much visibility or clout but is close to his heart: people with mental retardation.
Diamonstein listened to their families and knew what they needed: school programs for children, employment when they became adults, group homes in their own communities. Howard Cullum of the Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board sums up one of the secrets of Diamonstein's effectiveness: He understood what was needed. "Everyone knew that Alan knew; you didn't have to explain it to him."
Not only did he understand, he delivered, says Cullum. "When it came time to divide up the (budget) pie, he made sure mental health and mental retardation got as big a slice as they could. You could count on him."
His contributions go beyond money. He was an advocate for ensuring that citizens get the mental health services they need, whether it's quality in-patient care at Eastern State Hospital or community-based care in a small group home.
A rich cultural life: Delivering for the Peninsula
When Diamonstein emerged from budget conferences, he often brought home millions of dollars for local cultural institutions. Among the beneficiaries: The Mariners' Museum, Virginia Living Museum, Virginia Air & Space Center, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and Peninsula Fine Arts Center -- and the hundreds of thousands of people who enjoy their programs each year.
Support for Newport News Shipbuilding
The striking Virginia Advanced Shipbuilding and Carrier Integration Center that dominates the downtown landscape owes much to Diamonstein's leadership in securing millions of dollars for construction and operation. The center will create a downtown "brain trust" and bring Newport News to the forefront in the development of the future's naval workhorses.
Diamonstein may not be in Richmond this January, but his work, says Achievable Dream founder Walter Segaloff, put in place the footings for quality education, community mental health services, affordable housing and a rich cultural life.
And, says Segaloff, Diamonstein's expertise will still be in demand. "There's nobody who knows the system better than Alan. He still has many friends on both side of the aisle; that's part of his genius. His experience and wise counsel will be available to our delegates and to local groups working to make things better for the community."
Don't expect Alan Diamonstein to slip quietly away. His plans: "to spend a lot of time with my family, to practice law, and to continue to help others whenever they think my experience will be helpful to them. I won't participate in the legislative process formally, but I have no intention of not making my feelings known. I have a lot of experience, and I want to use it."