They have been described as “the original ‘power couple’ for the greater Washington area,” and it would be hard to find many in local political circles disagreeing with that assessment.
And on Sept. 26, the Arlington County Democratic Committee enshrined Tom and Mary Margaret Whipple into its pantheon of Distinguished Democrats.
“They have meant to so much to the community, to the Washington region, to the commonwealth and to the country,” said John Milliken, who served with Mary Margaret Whipple on the County Board before both went on to service at the state level. Milliken presided over the affair, which drew more than 100 of Arlington’s past and present political elite under sunny early-autumn skies.
The celebration was a chance to ruminate on “the contributions they have made over their entire lifetimes,” said U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-8th).
“They are good as individuals, and they are even better together,” added U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who like Beyer and former U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb (on hand with his wife, Lynda) had served in the state’s No. 2 position during his climb up the political ladder.
(“It’s so great to be here with so many lieutenant governors,” Beyer chuckled.)
Of the couple, who have been married since 1960 and Arlington residents since 1965, it is Mary Margaret Whipple who had held the more public persona, having served successively on the School Board, County Board and in the state Senate, where she chaired both the Rules Committee and the Democratic caucus.
“Mary Margaret set an example” in the legislature, said longtime Del. Ken Plum (D-Reston). “She knew how to bring people together, how to put forward the best arguments.”
Whipple’s predecessor (Edward Holland) and successor (Barbara Favola) in the state Senate were on hand for the event. Favola praised Whipple’s “vision, her leadership and her class” in navigating the intricacies of what was (and in some ways retains aspects of) an old-boys’ club.
Tom Whipple, who spent 35 years as a CIA analyst, has been a key Democratic behind-the-scenes activist at the regional and state level. His analytical mind served the Democrats well through the years.
“Tom is one of those people who knows more about anything than anyone I’ve ever encountered,” Milliken said, while Kaine described him as “a brainstormer” for Virginia Democrats.
Tom Whipple for years was the publisher of what became known as the “Whipple Clips,” a daily compendium of Virginia political news from publications across the commonwealth. He later turned over operation of the effort to the Virginia Public Access Project, which continues to produce it.
The Whipples were instrumental in helping Democrats ascend to dominance in Arlington politics; as late as the early 1980s, Republicans were at parity with the party at the local level (Ronald Reagan won the Arlington vote in 1980, the last Republican to do so).
It was Mary Margaret Whipple’s election to the County Board over incumbent Steven Detweiler in 1982 (after she had lost a similar bid in 1979) that ushered in the beginnings of a progressive-Democratic monopoly that continues today.
Peg Hogan, herself a past recipient of the Distinguished Democrat award, recalled the years working with Tom Whipple and others – some since having gone on to the great polling place in the sky – at Democratic headquarters as they attempted to export Arlington’s Democratic success throughout Northern Virginia.
“The camaraderie we had I don’t think is replaceable, because times were different,” she said.
Arlington Democratic chair Jill Caiazzo, two generations younger than the honorees, said it was those of the Whipples’ era who set the stage for Arlington of today.
“It’s a wonderful day to celebrate a wonderful couple,” said Caiazzo, who is married to Democratic activist and Electoral Board chair Matt Weinstein. “I hope that this is my husband and me a few years down the road.”
What did the honorees think of the event?
“You’re all family,” Mary Margaret Whipple told the crowd. “We support each other. We’ve been through good times and bad.”
“This is a day we’ll always remember,” said Tom Whipple, chuckling that some of the stories told during the event had a vague ring of truth about them.
Mary Margaret Hierth and Tom Whipple met in 1958 as college students in Texas and married in June 1960. They have two daughters and a bevy of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The Distinguished Democrat award is effectively a lifetime-achievement accolade presented by the party while also raising funds in heart of election season. Previous recipients have included Hogan, Charley Conrad, Herschel Kanter, Joan McDermott, Charlene Bickford, Richard and Jean Barton and, last year in a “virtual” presentation owing to COVID, Sharon Davis.
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Find photos from the event below. Click on an individual photo to bring up the slide show; click on the “i” at bottom left of each photo for captions.