- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Conservative Republican Ken Cuccinelli's decisive 10-percentage-point victory in last week's special election in Virginia's 37th senatorial district is a political black eye for Gov. Mark Warner's efforts to increase taxes. Cathy Belter, the liberal Democrat he defeated, is a member of the Fairfax County School Board with close to 30 years of experience in local education and politics. Mrs. Belter raised more money than Mr. Cuccinelli ($159,494 to $135,993), and she received generous support from the Fairfax Education Association (FEA), Rep. Jim Moran, state Sen. Richard Saslaw and the governor's One Virginia PAC. Politically powerful developers like John "Til" Hazel, who favor Mr. Warner's referendum to increase sales taxes to pay for transportation projects, also supported her campaign. The governor traveled to Northern Virginia to speak at a fund-raiser for Mrs. Belter.
Mrs. Belter embraced Mr. Warner's sales-tax increase plan, saying it would help end the traffic gridlock plaguing local motorists. By contrast, Mr. Cuccinelli, a 34-year-old lawyer who had never before sought political office, made principled opposition to the governor's tax plan (which Northern Virginians will have the opportunity to vote on Nov. 5) and tax increases in general the centerpiece of his campaign.
Time and time again, Mr. Cuccinelli drove home the point that higher taxes are not the way to solve the region's transportation problems. Making better use of existing resources, he noted, would free up money for needed road projects. On the stump, Mr. Cuccinelli emphasized that "the $7 billion growth of the Virginia budget from from Fiscal Year 1997 to 2001 has provided more than enough revenue to meet Virginia's needs. Unfortunately, that money has been squandered … instead of being used to build the transportation infrastructure that we need."
To hear the governor tell it, Mrs. Belter's defeat was perfectly predictable and had little or nothing to do with his ballot initiative. Mrs. Belter "ran a strong campaign in what was a Republican district," said Mr. Warner. "I don't think [her defeat] reflects on the referendum at all. What you are seeing is a district that performed as expected."
Mr. Warner was apparently referring to the fact that the district has been represented for roughly a decade by Sen. Warren Barry, a Republican. But Mr. Barry, a liberal-leaning Republican who supported the governor's tax-increase proposal, appears to have lost touch with the fiscally conservative majority of voters in the 37th District, who view the governor's proposal with skepticism. Last year, Mr. Barry endorsed the gubernatorial candidacy of Mr. Warner, a Democrat, over Republican nominee Mark Earley. Mr. Barry, who retired from the Senate after the governor appointed him to the state Alcoholic Beverage Control board, endorsed Mrs. Belter. In announcing his support for the Democrat, Mr. Barry denounced Republican primary voters for choosing Mr. Cuccinelli, terming him "someone whose thinking is so ancient he would be an embarrassment to Northern Virginia."
Like Mr. Barry, the education association also attempted to caricature Mr. Cuccinelli as "reckless and irresponsible" for refusing to support tax increases. "Mr. Cuccinelli still believes that we should fund transportation by squeezing monies from Virginia's children," declared FEA President Richard J. Baumgartner. On election night, however, voters responded to the scare campaign by giving Mr. Cuccinelli 55 percent of the vote.
John Milliken, the former state transportation chief and chairman of the coalition of business and political leaders fighting for passage of the tax increase, dismisses Mr. Cuccinelli's victory as an exercise in the "mechanics of turnout" rather than a measure of support for the referendum, and suggests that things will be dramatically different on election day. That's the "optimistic" view of some referendum supporters. But Mr. Cuccinelli's victory signals that the prospect of new tax increases can galvanize voters to go to the polls to register their opposition. And that can't possibly be good news for folks like Mr. Warner and Mr. Milliken.


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