Budget Woes Vex VA Gov-Elect

By: - November 28, 2001 12:00 am

Mark Warner campaigned for governor across Virginia this fall counseling caution. When asked if he’d complete the final phase of the state’s popular tax cut on cars and trucks next year, he gave his stock answer:

“I’ve got to look at the books first.”

Now Warner is the governor-elect, and he’s had a few weeks to pore over those books.

He doesn’t like what he sees.

Warner, Virginia’s first Democratic governor since L. Douglas Wilder won in 1989, will face the same obstacle that dogged Wilder a decade ago: recession.

Budget analysts say Virginia could face a revenue shortfall of more than $1 billion, which not only stalls the car-tax cut but also halts state pay raises and may force the commonwealth to dip into its rainy day fund to make ends meet.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow for a man who has sought public office as long and as hard as Mark Warner.

Everything the 46-year-old did during the campaign followed a battle plan devised and revised repeatedly as Warner stewed over his 1996 loss to U.S. Sen. John Warner.

Mark Warner is the richest man ever to run for statewide office in Virginia, with a personal wealth of more than $200 million.

Despite that, Republicans failed to tag him as “the rich guy” buying his way into office — a tactic skillfully used in 1996, when Warner spent $10 million of his own cash on the campaign. This time around, he broke the record for fund-raising and spent “only” about $3 million of his own money.

Warner portrayed himself in 1996 as a businessman running on many of the Democrats’ traditional issues: abortion rights, gun control, the environment. This time he ran as a businessman running for fiscal responsibility and against “politics as usual.”

But Warner is really a lifelong political junkie who entered business largely to earn enough money to run for office — without falling into debt.

Born in Indiana and raised in Illinois and Connecticut, Warner has been involved in politics since his school days, when he got himself elected class president at three different schools.

He applied only to colleges in Washington so he could be near Capitol Hill, graduated as valedictorian from George Washington University and then earned his law degree from Harvard.

Warner decided he wasn’t suited to practice law — smart enough, yes, but he says his mercurial mind grapples best with The Big Idea, not with the fine detail necessary to winning legal battles.

So after Harvard, Warner volunteered in several Democratic campaigns and took a grunt job as a party fund-raiser in Washington. He was good at that, and soon met Atlanta Hawks basketball star Tom McMillen while buck-raking in Georgia.

The future congressman told Warner about the then-embryonic cell phone industry. It was 1980, and very few people thought the chunky mobile phones of the time would catch on.

But by 1982, Warner was hooked. He had found a Big Idea: compact mobile phones, carried as commonly as wallets, would mean a phone number would no longer be connected to a place — but to a person. Who wouldn’t want to talk on a phone that could go anywhere?

Warner entered the business by pulling some political strings in Connecticut. His talent for stroking the deal made him rich.

Former business partner James Murray, author of “Wireless Nation,” a book about the industry, wrote Warner could “balance his monumental ego with a homespun charm.”

It was a skill that would help him as a political candidate.

Warner ultimately landed in Alexandria, a tony Washington suburb, and stayed semi-active in national Democratic politics. By 1989, Warner was worth upwards of $10 million, was switching his business interests toward investing in high-tech start-up companies — and was ready to return to politics.

Warner’s strongest skill — bringing feuding groups together to cut the deal — catapulted him unexpectedly into Wilder’s campaign for governor. The two had met only the previous spring, but by August, Warner was in control of the campaign and had kick-started what had been a foundering effort.

Two years later, Warner’s involvement in the once-a-decade redrawing of Virginia’s political boundaries caused a stir. He halfheartedly tried to get a congressional seat drawn for him that would have stretched from his 103-acre estate on the rural Northern Neck up the Potomac and all the way to inside the Beltway.

Warner’s fellow Democrats nixed that idea, so he set his eyes on an Alexandria-based House seat. But the city’s mayor, Jim Moran, beat him to the punch and sealed the nomination first.

Warner became chief of the state Democratic Party soon afterward, in 1993.

This is where he first earned statewide notice, as an oft-quoted lobber of rhetorical hand grenades at then-U.S. Rep. George Allen, who was running for governor at the time.

Allen won easily, and Warner continued to jab from the sidelines until 1995. Warner then quit his post as party chief to challenge Virginias most popular politician, U.S. Sen. John Warner, a move many pundits called “the fool’s errand.”

That campaign chiseled Warner’s style as a candidate, a style he changed in only a few — but significant — ways this time around.

Warner’s primary image was and is as a tech-savvy bringer of a new way to run government. He says the politics of the 21st century will not be about Democrats and Republicans, but about those who understand the new high-tech economy and those who don’t.

“Who is best equipped to take Virginia into the 21st century? The change that’s coming isn’ t conservative or liberal. It’s just change.” Warner used the same line in 1996 and in an appearance before a group of rural business owners this spring.

Warner also habitually brands his opponents as mudslingers. “While the Republicans continue to sling buckets of mud hoping some will stick,” he said in 1996, “my campaign focuses on issues that affect Virginians — reducing economic disparity, expanding educational opportunities, protecting a womans right to choose and passing on a cleaner environment to our children.”

This year, Warner used a similar line, but dropped a lot of the Democratic interest-group red meat and tacked rightward. He even courted the National Rifle Association and created a “Sportsmen for Warner” arm within his campaign.

Warner also highlighted the importance of vocational education, of raising teachers’ salaries, and of building new roads for traffic-clogged areas of the commonwealth. And he promises to promote economic development in neglected areas of Virginia, such as rural Southside and Tidewater, and to “clean up the budget mess in Richmond.”

All, of course, without raising taxes.

But since Virginia’s governors can only serve four years, Warner’s slice of the 21st century will be slim. Budget issues will dominate at least the first two years of his term, shelving all but the least expensive of the many promises Warner made along the campaign trail.

That’s a fate shared by the man he helped get elected — his old boss, Doug Wilder.

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