- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

James S. Gilmore III has not been on the ballot for more than five years, but the former Virginia governor is still shaping the debate within the Republican Party and will play a key role in next month’s primaries.

At least three Senate Republican leaders, including John H. Chichester, of Fredericksburg, who disagreed with Mr. Gilmore’s stand on fully repealing the car tax, now face challenges from some of the former governor’s most avid supporters.

“[Mr. Chichester] voted to stop the repeal of the car tax,” said political consultant Mike Rothfeld, who is challenging the Senate Finance Committee chairman.

“This is a fundamental battle between those of us in the party who believe we must stand for smaller government, lower taxes and protection of the unborn, and those of us who want big government run only slightly better than the Democrats did,” Mr. Rothfeld said.

Mr. Chichester, who also serves as Senate president pro tempore, defended his actions. “The stance we took was within the law, and it kept with the governor’s promise to have triggers,” he said. “If we hadn’t [halted full implementation] we would be pretty close to, if not already, downgraded from our AAA bond rating.”

State Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., of Winchester, is facing a similar challenge from Mark Tate, a small-business owner who argues that the senator’s vote to stop the car-tax repeal showed how much he is out of touch with his district.

“He made it very obvious he was not a friend of the taxpayer,” Mr. Tate said. “It is not so much about Gilmore, but about taxes in general. He has voted to raise taxes 43 times.”

Mr. Potts disagreed. “I supported car-tax elimination, but I did not support changing horses midstream,” he said. “When Gilmore changed his mind because he wanted a political legacy, he left us with no choice. We rejected it because it was not fiscallyresponsible. Thank God the Senate of Virginia rejected it, because after [the economic effect] of 9/11, I would hateto see what shape we would be in now, if we hadn’t.”

The car-tax cut is Mr. Gilmore’s political legacy. In the 1997 gubernatorial race, Mr. Gilmore was trailing Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr., a Democrat, by 10 points in the polls until he announced the “No Car Tax” platform. Mr. Gilmore sailed to victory that November.

All 100 members of the House were up for election that year, so they saw how powerful the car-tax issue was among the voters. But the senators were not up for election. Most of the senators voted for the tax repeal in 1998 but were never big supporters of it.

In 2001, Mr. Gilmore wanted the car tax to be cut by 70 percent — up from 47.5 percent the year before. But, Senate leaders said there wasn’t enough money in the budget that both chambers could agree on. Before leaving office, Mr. Gilmore was forced to make cuts in state programs, but moved the car tax forward.

Since then, the car-tax repeal has been stalled at 70 percent because of the state’s financial condition. It is not clear when the tax will be eliminated.

Meanwhile in Williamsburg, the race between state Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. and real estate manager Paul Jost has been mired in so much name-calling that Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch has stepped in.

Mr. Stosch, of Glen Allen, has said the Republican caucus will not welcome Mr. Jost if he defeats Mr. Norment in the primary because Mr. Jost recently compared one of Mr. Norment’s colleagues with a Nazi. Mr. Jost has since apologized.

When asked how effective he would be as senator if his caucus refused to seat him, Mr. Jost responded: “[Sen. Stosch] is powerful now, but I am not sure he will be the political leader in the next session.”

All three incumbents — Mr. Chichester, Mr. Potts and Mr. Norment — said they are frustrated with their challengers’ negative campaigning.

Mr. Norment, who has served 12 years in the General Assembly, said his defeat or that of his colleagues could spell disaster for Virginians and Republicans in the future.

“This has the potential to be catastrophic,” he said. “The three of us are fiscally and socially conservative individuals who understand the budget process … and have had to make the hard choices.”

Mr. Potts defended his votes on tax increases, which included allowing voters in Winchester to decide on two sales-tax referendums. Both referendums failed. “It is the extremist wing of the party that is calling a tax referendum a tax increase,” he said. “A tax referendum is when you trust the people. There is a world of difference.”

But their opponents contend that debate within the party is healthy. “Russ Potts’ definition of negative campaigning is a campaign on the issues, and it’s up to the voters to decide if my stance is that of an extremist,” Mr. Tate said.

Gary Thomson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said his organization does not take sides in primaries. But the party is concerned with some of the races and will try to repair the damage after the primaries so that the party doesn’t suffer a repeat of 2001, when it lost the governorship and lieutenant governorship.

“I am not concerned with the question of whether we will be able to come back together, the real question is how quickly,” Mr. Thomson said. “It took us a little longer than we would have wanted to pull these forces together [after the 2001 gubernatorial primary] and that was ultimately time that we gave to now-Gov. Mark Warner.”

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