- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2000

RICHMOND Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III has already forged a legacy that will have far-reaching effects, and the resurgence of the state’s Republican Party has propelled him into a prominent national role.

With a little more than a year to go in his term, the governor has signed the largest tax cut in state history, boosted education spending, and promoted Virginia as a high-tech mecca. Most importantly, he gave Republicans a historic breakthrough in the legislature, delivering to them a one-time Democratic stronghold.

Mr. Gilmore has also seen his share of political frays: He has irked the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for commemorating Confederate History Month, upset the education establishment and some parents who dislike the state’s Standards of Learning, and incensed members of his own party for the way he conducts legislative business.

He’s never forgotten his working-class roots, which are the base of his political philosophy: “I think sometimes that people who are very well-to-do, that become members of special-interest groups, fail to understand the concerns of working men and women every day. That’s why tax cuts are so important,” he said in an interview with The Washington Times to discuss his governorship.

Mr. Gilmore, who last week was tapped to be chairman of the Republican National Committee, entered the national spotlight with his efforts as a spokesman for President-elect George W. Bush during the campaign.

There was even speculation that he would be offered a post in Mr. Bush’s Cabinet rumors he quelled by saying he had a duty to Virginians to see out his term.

His most attractive ability for national Republicans is his party-building skills never on better display than when he led Republicans to their first-ever control of the state’s General Assembly.

And three years ago, the Republican convinced lawmakers from both parties to enact his plan to eliminate the despised yearly tax on the first $20,000 of a car or truck’s value. Now, with a weakening economy and a hole to close in this year’s budget, some lawmakers had been saying the tax cut should be the first to go.

But Mr. Gilmore has made it clear his election was a mandate on the issue.

“It’s very tough because the public is not organized like special-interest groups are… . And as a public official, I just feel a real sacred trust to that,” Mr. Gilmore said.

Legislators from both parties say the governor will probably get his tax cut and secure his legacy.

Said Mark Rozell, a professor at Catholic University who frequently comments on Virginia politics: “He campaigned on a particular issue, and it was controversial, but popular within the electorate. He got it through. He has stuck with his promise.”

In his first big step as governor-elect, Mr. Gilmore appointed two Democratic lawmakers from conservative districts to his administration. Their seats were then filled by Republicans, giving the party equal seats in the House and a one-seat advantage in the Senate.

Then, in the 1999 elections, he and his political team pushed for a three-seat cushion in the House of Delegates, to offset the votes of some lawmakers who often broke ranks with the party.

They raised $4 million, recruited candidates they thought could win, and helped those candidates run tough races.

They got the three seats they needed, giving them, in effect, a 53-47 majority.

This year, Democrats lost their last remaining statewide officeholder in outgoing Sen. Charles S. Robb, lost two congressional seats, and went 0-for-4 in special elections earlier this month.

Democrats in the state discount the governor’s efforts, arguing he has just hitched himself to the front of a rolling train, and claimed to be its engine.

“He inherited a momentum that is spreading throughout the South, of the [ascension] of the Republican Party. He has capitalized on it. But to give him major credit for it, I think, would be an overstatement,” said Delegate Kenneth R. Plum of Reston, the outgoing Democratic state party chairman.

But Republicans give the governor a big share of the credit, particularly in winning control of the assembly an accomplishment whose importance Mr. Gilmore says still isn’t understood.

“This was a very undemocratic little ‘d’ state when this whole business began to reverse itself some years ago. But because of redistricting, there was always a ceiling over which the Republicans could not go,” he said. “And everybody knew it. And the old regime continued on with all the threats, because everybody knew that there could never, ever be a Republican majority… . That’s changed now, and it has changed dramatically as a result of the deliberate conscious decisions we have made here, that I have made, to make this change.”

Mr. Gilmore has had a high national profile, serving as chairman of an anti-terrorism commission and a commission on Internet taxation. He’s avoided the pitfall of being seen as an absentee governor, as Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was when he ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992.

Only recently have Democrats like incoming state party General Chairman Emily Couric begun to criticize the governor for spending too much time outside the state.

But the charge hasn’t stuck yet, and Republicans point to all the governor’s accomplishments in his defense.

Mr. Plum predicts history will also view Mr. Gilmore as the governor who failed to solve the state’s transportation needs when faced with the issue in 1999.

The governor refused to heed calls for new taxes, and instead dedicated existing money to pay for roads and rails. He came up with $2.5 billion over six years short of predicted needs, but more than was going to be spent.

He played the political game well, however, appearing on a call-in show every month on WTOP radio, where with great fanfare he would announce some new initiative or ramp opening.

It’s worked, with Republican polls showing the public still trusts the governor more than anyone else to handle transportation.

“It’s a brilliant strategy that’s a strategy of tokenism. Feed them crumbs to keep them away from the door,” Mr. Plum said.

The governor has suffered some publicity gaffes, too.

In 1998, he intervened to try to prevent Michele Finn from removing her brain-damaged husband, Hugh, from his feeding tube. A court rejected his intervention and fined him for it, though the state Supreme Court later overturned the fine. Mr. Gilmore also tried to prohibit the state from reimbursing Mrs. Finn for some of her legal costs, even against the wishes of some Republican lawmakers.

“I think the Michele Finn case was the one controversy that really stuck to him negatively in a big way. Even many people in his own party just thought he went too far,” Mr. Rozell said. “Whether it just showed bad political instincts on his part, or whether it reflected a genuinely felt conviction for which he was willing to take on any criticism, I’m not sure.”

Mr. Gilmore also may have erred when he endorsed the challenger to incumbent Republican Delegate Anne G. “Panny” Rhodes from Richmond in the 1999 primaries. Mrs. Rhodes won handily and is still a thorn in his side in the assembly.

The governor’s supporters say her victory isn’t the point Mr. Gilmore sent a clear message to other Republicans that he is not afraid to enforce order by involving himself at the smallest level of politics. And his skills as a master fund-raiser make that a very real threat.

Democrats say that’s just another example of his partisan, heavy-handed approach.

“He’s not a work-together man,” Mr. Plum says. “The Panny Rhodes incident is but a symptom of a desire to be in total control not only in his position as governor, but within his party. And that, I don’t believe, is a realistic approach.”

Two years ago, the legislature combined to overturn several of the governor’s vetoes in a show of displeasure for his tactics. And even loyal allies like Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax Republican, criticized the governor for not running some particulars of his budget plans by Republican leaders this year.

One challenge he’ll face this year will come in April, when he must decide whether he’ll reissue the proclamation in honor of Confederate History Month he issued his first three years.

“The proclamation was there; I inherited it,” Mr. Gilmore said, pointing out that he also changed the language to recognize the history and nature of slavery in the Confederacy. He greatly upset heritage groups at the time for doing so.

But that furor died, and for the next two years nobody protested much until this March.

The state chapter of the NAACP alternately threatened and then denied it was threatening a boycott but continues to demand that the proclamation not be reissued.

“The challenge for me is, if I have a goal to try to draw people together,” he said.

Mr. Gilmore says he is acting with the mandate of the state’s residents: “We played the hand in the best interests of the public we represent, I think, and we have done so with uniform success. Our goals we wish to achieve, we are achieving.”

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