- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

STAFFORD, Va. — Getting to the state Senate and staying there for 25 years has never tested John Chichester the way this year’s Republican primary challenge from conservative activist Mike Rothfeld has.

It’s not that Mr. Chichester hasn’t fought tough political battles before. He lost a 1985 race for lieutenant governor to Democrat L. Douglas Wilder.

And it’s not just that Mr. Chichester, the president pro tem of the Senate and chairman of its powerful Finance Committee, is among three centrist Republican leaders in the Senate being targeted by the restive right wing of the party.

What wears most on Mr. Chichester, 66, is that he has to balance a bruising intraparty battle for his political life with a more serious concern in his personal life.

Mr. Chichester spends much of each day with his wife, Karen, as she convalesces from strokes. He sees to it that she makes her rehabilitation and therapy appointments, helps out by cooking and doing the laundry at home, and has her with him at campaign appearances.

The experience has put politics into perspective for the Senate’s chief budget writer.

“Obviously, I have had to put some things on hold,” he said as tears welled in his eyes and his lilting drawl softened to barely more than a whisper. “I can’t leave her at night. I have to take her with me, and it’s a struggle for her. I have to prepare for someone to be with her during the day.”

But she’s also what keeps him pushing toward a June 10 primary that will determine whether the Republican majority in the Senate turns sharply to the right as the House Republican majority did two years ago. Karen Chichester won’t let her husband quit.

“She’s foursquare behind it,” he said.

The primary, Mr. Chichester said, will determine whether there remains a place in Virginia’s increasingly Republican legislature for moderates and pragmatists such as he and fellow Sens. Thomas K. Norment of James City and Russell H. Potts Jr. of Winchester. All three face aggressive conservative challengers.

“We’re facing a new era of mean-spiritedness,” Mr. Chichester said.

Mr. Rothfeld, 43, has been active in conservative causes since the late 1970s when he became convinced that international communism was a threat to America. He worked for the National Right to Work Committee before coming to work for the Republican Party of Virginia in 1991.

He started his own political consulting business in 1992, and has had a role in hard-hitting conservative campaigns since then, including Mike Farris’ unsuccessful 1993 lieutenant governor’s race and the 1994 U.S. Senate bid of Iran-Contra figure Oliver North.

Mr. Rothfeld finished third in a five-way Republican primary in 2000 for a seat in Congress from Virginia’s 1st District. Late in that campaign, he produced a brochure attacking fellow Republican Paul Jost as being lenient on gay rights. It depicted two men kissing and the caption: “Jost’s Vision for Virginia.”

Mr. Jost — running as a conservative in a bitter primary battle against Mr. Norment — is now helping Mr. Rothfeld fight Mr. Chichester. Mr. Jost, a wealthy property manager, contributed about $25,000 through his company to a political action committee that produced fliers attacking Mr. Chichester’s tax-legislation record, the Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg reported last week.

Mr. Rothfeld has made taxes the focus of his campaign, portraying Mr. Chichester as an apostle of higher taxes.

His thinks Virginia’s taxes are too high, despite cuts over the past five years to the state’s car tax, a scheduled reduction in the sales tax on food and revenues $6 billion short of their budgeted targets since 2001. The average tax burden in Virginia is routinely rated among the lowest one-fourth in the nation.

Mr. Rothfeld and other conservatives blame Mr. Chichester the most for opposing former Republican Gov. James Gilmore’s efforts to finish his car-tax phaseout in 2001.

as the economy ebbed. Democrat Mark Warner was elected governor that year amid the Republican discord.

“Had the economy continued to perk along at 12 [percent] or 14 percent growth, we would have phased that car tax out and never looked back,” Mr. Chichester said.

Buoyed by record economic growth in the late 1990s, state spending grew by nearly 48 percent from fiscal 1997 through last June — most of it during Mr. Gilmore’s term.

Education spending grew by $1 billion to account for 56,000 new public school students and 4,000 new teachers, accounting for the largest share of that increase. The second largest outlay was $809 million a year in state rebates to localities for their lost car-tax revenue.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and a surge in crime rates boosted public safety costs 17 percent as health and nursing home care costs for the poor and mentally ill surged by 8 percent.

“So what I’d ask Mike Rothfeld is to look at that and tell me what you’d cut. I bet he won’t tell you,” Mr. Chichester said.

He would have won the wager.

“I’m not going to get into a game of gotcha on spending cuts,” Mr. Rothfeld said.

Mr. Chichester is campaigning in person and attending as many political events as his wife’s condition allows, aware that Mr. Rothfeld poses a serious challenge and that winning the primary in the solidly Republican district amounts to winning a Senate seat.

“Our job is to convince every single voter that June 10 is Nov. 4, and that the race for the Senate is on that date and not in the fall this year,” Mr. Chichester said.

University of Virginia political science professor Larry J. Sabato said Mr. Chichester’s concern is well-placed.

“These are primaries with very low turnouts dominated by the most conservative activists, and these are precisely the people who are inclined to vote for the right-wing insurgents,” he said.

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