- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 30, 2001

RICHMOND James S. Gilmore III, a meat-cutter's son, entered the governor's office four years ago exalting blue-collar conservatism. He leaves the same way, content that he kept faith with working folk even at great political cost.
"You ask how I would write my legacy? I think I would point to objective successes, that we have kept our principles and we've kept our word, and we have done it for regular people," Mr. Gilmore said.
On a sunny, late December afternoon as workers clanged away on the grandstands for the Jan. 12 inauguration of his successor, Democrat Mark Warner, the governor said he had no regrets and would do it all over, taking the good along with the bad.
The good spans three years in which Mr. Gilmore led Virginia's Republican Party to its greatest glory, presided over unprecedented prosperity, tightened the state's pupil testing and school accountability standards, and pushed his signature issue, the car tax cut, into law.
The bad is a fourth year marred by a paralyzing legislative fight over the pace of car tax relief, a $1 billion budget crisis, a recession deepened by a terrorist attack, the election of a Democratic successor and the loss of his job as Republican national chairman.
Leaving is sad, he said, because being governor is his dream job.
"I like living in the mansion. I like being governor. I like being the head of the government, and I really like the people that I work with, so of course there's a sadness on leaving the governorship," he said. "But there will be opportunities."
Mr. Gilmore will forever be linked with his bold 1997 campaign promise to wipe out the property tax localities assess on non-business cars and pickup trucks. He won convincingly in a Republican sweep of the top three statewide offices, and within five months of his victory, the Legislature had written the four-year tax phaseout into law.
He saw it then, and sees it still, as a solemn pact he made with working people. He considered it his duty to his middle-class upbringing to see the rollback completed.
"Why be in public life if you're not going to do something to help people who never left you? Why run for office if you're not going to keep your word you're not going to actually help regular folks out there?"
That's why, despite warnings of a slowing economy and revenues short of their goals, he threatened in January to veto any budget amendment that did not advance the phaseout from 55 percent to 70 percent this year.
The House of Delegates, with all 100 seats up for election last fall, sided with Mr. Gilmore. The Senate balked, predicting fiscal calamity unless the cut was slowed. The impasse ended in an unprecedented failure to amend the state's two-year budget at mid-cycle, and with no changes in the budget, the tax cut advanced to 70 percent as scheduled.
Mr. Gilmore called the 70 percent mark "the tipping point."
"I thought at that point if you could get up to 70 percent you probably could once and for all deliver on the elimination of this car tax," he said.
Mr. Gilmore was forced to cut $421 million in state spending, about half of it in a freeze of pending college construction projects. But even that was worth it to keep the car tax cut alive, he said.
"In fact, it wasn't that hard, frankly, within the finances of the commonwealth," Mr. Gilmore said of the cuts. "I wasn't going to use some excuse to break my word to the people of Virginia."
Because of the budget collapse, however, Mr. Gilmore failed in his goal of using the car tax as a tool for broadening the Republican Party's appeal to the average working person, said Tom Morris, a political analyst and president of Emory and Henry College, a small, private school in Emory, Va.

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