- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Virginia state Sen. John H. Chichester, the longtime Republican lawmaker who often broke from his party’s conservative anti-tax platform and sided with Democrats to push for tax increases, said yesterday that he will not seek re-election after logging 29 years in the General Assembly.

“It is time for the baton to be passed to another,” the Stafford County Republican said. “My wife, Karen, and I have decided that we will not seek re-election for another term. She has been my partner in this endeavor for many years, but there are other things that we would like to do together.”

Mr. Chichester, 69, leaves his seat at a pivotal time in Virginia politics, as Democrats make a concerted effort to reclaim a Senate majority for the first time in 12 years and Republicans try to retain control of the House and Senate. All 140 seats in the legislature are up for a vote this fall.

Considered a centrist by some and “a serial tax increaser” by others, Mr. Chichester’s retirement prompted somber remarks from some Democrats and excitement from some Republicans.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, called Mr. Chichester an “effective and conscientious lawmaker who has guided and guarded Virginia’s budget priorities in a manner that always placed the needs of the commonwealth first.”

“John Chichester’s leadership and knowledge will be missed, and his dedication to the commonwealth is a testimony to the power of public service that is larger than any single legislative district or political ideology,” Mr. Kaine said.

Former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who worked closely with Mr. Chichester during his four years as the state’s top executive, said he was “saddened to learn of his retirement.” In 2004, Mr. Chichester was one of the Republicans who sided with Mr. Warner to push through the largest tax increase in state history.

“He always put Virginia first in his actions as a senator and his approach to governance always looked out for Virginia’s long-term interests and not quick sound-bite solutions,” Mr. Warner said.

House Speaker William J. Howell, a fellow Stafford County Republican, watched his and Mr. Chichester’s interests diverge in 2001 during the car-tax fight and in the following year with Mr. Howell’s ascent to the post of speaker.

“John has been a friend for the past 30 years. I remember working on his very first campaign for the Senate and he helped me in my first campaign for the House,” Mr. Howell said in a telephone interview.

Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, offered a different view to Mr. Chichester’s departure: “Senator Chichester is obviously looking forward to being a former senator and a lot of people are sharing that sentiment with him.”

Mr. Chichester’s retirement leaves open another leadership vacancy on the legislature’s prominent budget writing committees. Last week, Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax County Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced he would not seek re-election this fall.

Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., Winchester Republican and a centrist who also often found himself the target of conservatives, announced last month that he would not seek re-election.

Since the announcements, Democrats are working hard to become the majority party in the Senate for the first time since 1995, while conservative Republicans hope to replace the outgoing senior lawmakers with their allies.

“This is a major turning point for Virginia,” Mr. Potts said. “It changes the dynamic — particularly of the Republican Party. … If the Republicans retain control of the Senate it will be a much more conservative Senate because I imagine both of us will be replaced by Republicans who will be archconservatives.”

Mr. Chichester began his legislative career in 1978. For 16 years — eight of them as chairman — Mr. Chichester served on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, overseeing the chamber’s financial decisions.

Mr. Chichester’s exit would place Sen. William C. Wampler Jr., Bristol Republican, next in line to head the finance panel should the Republicans retain control of the Senate.

In 1985, Mr. Chichester fell short in his lone run for statewide office, losing in the lieutenant governor race against L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat who in 1989 became the nation’s first elected black governor.

In 2000, Republicans took over the Senate and elected Mr. Chichester president pro tempore.

Since then, he has developed into the state’s leading tax maverick as he pushed a limited debt and “pay as you go” fiscal philosophy that often put him at odds with fellow Republicans.

In 2001, then Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, wanted the state’s car tax to be cut by 70 percent — up from 47.5 percent the year before. But, Mr. Chichester and his Senate allies said there wasn’t enough money in the budget to cover the cost of a car tax phaseout. Before leaving office, Mr. Gilmore made cuts in state programs and moved the car tax forward.

After a historic 115-day fight over the state budget in 2004, Mr. Chichester helped Mr. Warner persuade the majority of the General Assembly to pass a $1.38 billion tax increase that ultimately led Virginia to be named the best-managed state in the nation by “Governing” magazine.

The magazine also named Mr. Chichester and Mr. Warner public officials of the year for “outstanding achievement in state and local government,” while anti-tax advocates attacked Mr. Chichester.

Last year, Mr. Chichester pushed for more than $1 billion in new taxes for transportation, only to be stifled by anti-tax House Republicans. He earned the label “Republican in Name Only” by the anti-tax wing of the Republican Party, which criticized him for breaking his 2003 campaign pledge of keeping taxes low.

This year, Republicans in both chambers met privately — excluding Mr. Chichester — and negotiated a transportation package. Mr. Chichester vehemently opposed the plan’s diversion to transportation of existing general state revenues normally reserved for health care, schools and public safety.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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