- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

RICHMOND Some of the most important Virginia legislative races in years won’t wait for autumn. They’re intraparty nomination fights that will be decided this spring.
   
   In the Senate, entrenched incumbents in both parties face nomination challenges consequences of redistricting two years ago and, particularly in the Republican Party, an ideological battle that pits conservative against liberal Senate leaders.
   
   Senate President Pro Tem John H. Chichester is vying for renomination against conservative activist Mike Rothfeld, while Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. is in a fierce contest with Paul Jost, a wealthy businessman, in June 10 Republican primaries.
   
   Two years ago, Mr. Chichester, Mr. Norment and other Republican liberals led the Senate in rebuffing demands by then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, that the state’s car-tax phaseout proceed on schedule despite a slowing economy.
   
   Now, the senators face anti-tax challengers.
   
   The same is true for Sen. Russell H. Potts, now in the political struggle of his life against restaurateur Mark Tate. Mr. Tate took aim at Mr. Potts after the senator supported a Winchester sales-tax referendum to provide money for the city’s schools.
   
   “Myself, I really believe that we are fighting for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” Mr. Potts said.
   
   The Democrats are having fights of their own. Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III faces a challenge for the seat he has held for 16 years from former Delegate A. Donald McEachin.
   
   When redistricting scrambles the electoral map every 10 years, challenges to incumbents are to be expected, political analysts say. That happened in 1971 and 1983 in districts redrawn by Democrats when they comfortably controlled the state House and Senate.
   
   In 2001, Republicans controlled the process for the first time, and they did what the Democrats had done created as many districts that favor their party as possible. Now, the conservative concentration in some districts has emboldened challengers from the GOP’s ascendant right wing.
   
   The fights can be as fierce as any between Democrats and Republicans.
   
   Attorneys representing Mr. Jost informed Mr. Norment last week that they intend to sue him for $10 million, claiming he slandered Mr. Jost. They sent a letter to Mr. Norment that said he defamed his challenger by saying in a published interview that Mr. Jost “bribed” another Republican not to run in the district.
   
   Mr. Norment called the threat absurd, saying, “I believe the word ‘bribe’ is appropriate.”
   
   Mr. Tate, the vice mayor of Middleburg, is in a contentious race with Mr. Potts, saying the independent-minded lawmaker has forsaken a promise not to support tax increases.
   
   “This certainly is a referendum on the conservative wing of the Republican Party, but it also is a referendum on the sea-change in the way Virginia treats taxpayers,” Mr. Tate said.
   
   Three conservatives rushed to challenge Mr. Potts in 2002 after he introduced legislation that would have allowed Winchester voters to decide whether to increase their sales taxes to improve public schools, including the city’s beloved Handley High School. Two dropped out, leaving Mr. Tate and Mr. Potts in a head-to-head nomination fight.
   
   Mr. Potts also supported legislation that would have authorized sales tax referendums in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads on improvements to gridlocked roads in those regions. Voters rejected both ballot measures resoundingly.
   
   “He believes we can solve all our problems by raising taxes, and voters won’t support that,” Mr. Tate said.
   
   Mr. Potts, however, said he is confident that he and other “moderate” Republicans will prevail.
   
   “Two years ago, we elected a Democratic governor and a Democratic lieutenant governor because the voters of Virginia are moderate, common-sense people who aren’t driven by this extremist anti-tax, anti-abortion mantra,” he said.
   
   “Someday, when someone writes a book about Virginia over the past 40 or 50 years, they’ll say that this was a pivotal time,” Mr. Potts said.
   
   Not all the marquee contests are challenges to incumbents, either.
   
   Verbena M. Askew, the first black woman to serve as a circuit judge in Virginia, is seeking election to the legislature that denied her a second term on the bench. She went through a bitter, seven-hour grilling by the House and Senate courts committees.
   
   The committees focused on whether Miss Askew misled them by not disclosing a sexual harassment complaint filed by a female former subordinate. The city of Hampton settled the complaint for $64,000.
   
   Black lawmakers decried the inquiry as racist, with one senator likening it to a lynch mob.
   
   Miss Askew faces Hampton Mayor Mamie Locke in the Democratic primary. They seek the seat Sen. W. Henry Maxwell’s retirement will leave open.


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