- The Washington Times - Monday, October 28, 2002

RICHMOND With the capture of two suspects in sniper attacks that killed 10 persons over 22 days three of them in Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, was smiling and upbeat. He playfully bear-hugged an aide. He joked around with his staff.
The arrests broke the grip of fear on residents of Virginia, Maryland and the District where an assassin with a powerful rifle had struck.
They also allow a tax referendum campaign on which Mr. Warner has wagered much politically to proceed full-bore.
More than a year has passed since Mr. Warner, then campaigning for governor, said residents of Northern Virginia "should have a say" on whether to raise local sales tax rates to alleviate unrelenting highway gridlock in the suburbs of the nation's capital.
Mr. Warner, who lived in Alexandria and contended daily with traffic jams, deflected claims by his Republican opponent, Mark Earley, that he was pushing a $1 billion tax increase and won the election.
This year, when the bill authorizing the referendum was imperiled in the legislature, Mr. Warner brokered a deal that kept it alive.
Now, the proposal to increase sales taxes by a half-cent, to 5 cents on the dollar, is on the Nov. 5 ballot in nine Northern Virginia localities, and the governor stands to gain from its passage or suffer the most from its defeat.
"Mark Warner, more than anyone else, has pushed it as a major goal of his administration, and it will be no small setback to him if he is to lose," said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at Catholic University.
"He's staked his leadership, his reputation and some of his agenda on succeeding in this venture, and it's been risky from the start because trying to convince the public to pass a tax increase is dubious," Mr. Rozell said.
Mr. Warner, predictably, takes a different view. In an interview last week, he said that talk of the referendum as a verdict on his stewardship 10 months into his single, nonrenewable term as governor is overblown.
"I readily acknowledge that I took a leadership role in this because I think it is the right thing to do. But the untold story of this is that in my 20 years of being around political life, I've never seen this level of unanimity of elected officials at every level of government and both parties," he said.
Northern Virginia is not the only region asking voters to decide whether to tax themselves more to pay for better roads.
In Hampton Roads, the ballot in 12 localities asks voters whether they want to raise their sales tax rate by a full penny on the dollar. There, the impetus for the referendum sprang from local supporters and is of far less political consequence to the governor.
Nor is Mr. Warner the only big-name elected leader publicly supporting the referendums.
The state's senior U.S. senator, Republican John W. Warner, along with Republican Reps. Frank Wolf and Tom Davis and Democratic Rep. James Moran, back the issue as a way to alleviate bumper-to-bumper congestion that steals hours each week from the lives of D.C.-area commuters.
"These are members of Congress, and their issue is the federal budget, not state and local governments," Mr. Rozell said. "This affects the governor directly.
The others are just lending their big names but they don't suffer politically."
Victory is also important for Delegate John A. "Jack" Rollison, a Republican centrist from Prince William who sponsored the Northern Virginia referendum legislation.
In Hampton Roads, supporters range from shipping companies and home-building interests to Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of the "700 Club."
Mr. Warner insists he's in the best of company. He points to support from the governing bodies of all the local governments in Northern Virginia, from dozens of PTAs and school organizations, civic groups and business and corporate leaders.
"My sense is that there has never been this kind of coalition that has been put together for this referendum. Virtually every elected official at every level is supporting this," he said.
Opposing the measure is an improbable coalition of anti-tax conservatives, anti-sprawl "smart growth" advocates and environmental activists such as the Piedmont Environmental Council.
Each represents a committed constituency that has shown the ability to put people into polling places on Election Day.
And in the end, turnout decides the election, Mr. Rozell said.
With no compelling, competitive race on the statewide ballot, turnout was likely to be poor anyway, he said.
Toss in fear of a ghostlike sniper who forced Northern Virginians to avoid restaurants, walk in erratic, zigzag patterns outdoors and hunker down in their cars as they gassed up and this fall's off-year election shaped up as one in which only die-hards would vote.
Then came the arrests of John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo before dawn on Thursday at an Interstate 70 rest stop in Frederick County, Md.
Mr. Rozell said that not only makes going to polling places feel safer, it gives referendum boosters one last chance to state its case and energize its backers outside the din of nonstop sniper coverage.
"There was no long-term damage done to the referendum because the electorate was not paying terribly close attention to this debate anyway. Now there's more talk about the issue all of a sudden and it converges," Mr. Rozell said.

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