- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2001

RICHMOND — Republican Mark L. Earley said he will veto any effort to put a sales-tax increase to referendum in Virginia, drawing a clear line between him and Democrat Mark R. Warner last night in the race for governor.
The two men faced off in the first televised debate of the campaign, and both took the opportunity to draw distinctions between them in a campaign that until yesterday had often seemed to feature similar positions.
But the clearest line was on the tax proposal, which as envisioned would let Northern Virginia residents vote to pay a higher sales tax in order to raise money for transportation projects, schools or both. Mr. Warner included $900 million in revenue from such a plan in his transportation package, while Mr. Earley said he opposed that.
"You're not looking for a referendum to raise taxes unless you want to raise taxes," Mr. Earley said. "My door will always be open to legislators, but in these economic times, I'd veto that bill in a heartbeat."
Still, that's different than what he'd said in a debate two weeks ago, when he promised to keep his door open to the proposal's backers. In the past, he even sought clarification that supporting the referendum wouldn't violate an anti-tax-increase pledge he has signed.
Mr. Warner said that amounted to a flip-flop. "We've got a word for that in Virginia. It's called hypocrisy."
He said he doesn't know if he would support the eventual sales tax increase, but he said he thinks Northern Virginians should have the right to decide to tax themselves. He also refused to pledge not to raise taxes as governor, though he said he doesn't plan to raise taxes.
"Those pledges, I stand by [Republican U.S.] Sen. John Warner, who calls them political grandstanding," Mr. Warner said.
Mr. Earley, who came into the debate at Virginia Commonwealth University trying to turn the race into a referendum on taxes and trust, succeeded at least in making the tax issue the most prominent one in the debate.
At one point, the debate's moderator, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, after chastising Mr. Warner for not being responsive to a panelist's question, said, "I think on that issue, you have to agree that distinguishes you."
The two agreed on certain issues, like keeping the Dillon Rule, which curbs localities' powers to those that the state strictly allots them, though both called for restructuring the tax code to give localities more flexibility in raising revenue.
Both men also said they support the Standards of Learning and the assessment tests that students must pass to graduate, but both also said they would like to see some exams use essay questions to evaluate students. Currently, the exams are just multiple-choice questions.
They also agreed that they would sign a ban on partial-birth abortions if a law could be crafted that complied with the U.S. Constitution. But Mr. Earley went further, saying he would work to change Virginia's parental-notification law, which requires that a minor notify a parent before having an abortion, into a parental-consent law.
Mr. Earley also went further than Mr. Warner on gun rights. When asked if they thought the National Rifle Association is a force for good or bad, Mr. Warner said it represented sportsmen and hunters well. But Mr. Earley went further, saying it is admirable because it defends the Second Amendment, which he said is often overlooked by those who focus on First Amendment rights, for example.
"The Second Amendment is not about hunting. Hunting is different. The Second Amendment is about an individual's right to keep and bear arms," he said.
The two also got into an exchange over Mr. Earley's mother, with Mr. Warner pointing out that she recently denounced some of the early campaign mailings done on her son's behalf, and Mr. Earley retorting that she may not have liked them, but she liked the Democrat's plan to raise taxes even less.
The men next meet Sunday in Roanoke, in a debate that will be televised around the state.
Outside the building where last night's debate was held, Libertarian candidate William Redpath sat on a park bench and watched dozens of Warner and Earley supporters clustered on opposing street corners exchange taunts and chants.
Mr. Earley's son, Justin, a drummer in his high school marching band, and several of his band buddies lent the flavor of a pep rally to the standoff.
Mr. Redpath, lacking an invitation to sit in the invitation-only audience, said he would not crash the event. "I'm ready to go anytime, anywhere. It was OK with Mark Warner for me to be there tonight. The only reason I'm out here is Mark Earley wouldn't agree to it.".

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