Rookie Gov Gets Political Lesson

By: - March 8, 2002 12:00 am

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner is finding that politics in the capital of the old Confederacy isn’t at all like the caffeine-charged, high-tech business world he’s used to.

One of the nation’s two rookie governors, the hyperkinetic Democrat got a painful lesson in bubba politics last month, losing his first bout with the Republican-controlled General Assembly in Richmond.

As CEO of several Internet start-up companies, what Warner wanted Warner got. Now that he’s governor, two politically muscular, rural Republican lawmakers have a message for him: He ain’t no CEO no more.

Before the General Assembly session began in January, Warner sought advice from a wide range of GOP lawmakers, added a few well-known Republicans to his staff and took pains to avoid the strident approach of his predecessor, Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore. But Warner’s political honeymoon lasted just a few weeks.

Trouble started after the governor publicly backed a statewide referendum to raise sales taxes, something he had not campaigned on. That irked GOP leaders. A few days later, Warner said he would travel the state this fall to gin up support for a “yes” vote on the initiative. That overjoyed the Republicans, who immediately accused Warner of breaking a promise to not raise taxes–a charge he did not deny.

Virginia’s .8 billion budget deficit changed his mind, Warner said. Without new money to build or refurbish public schools, he said thousands of young students will languish in trailers.

“That I believe will be the result if we don’t act,” Warner said. “We should not be afraid of giving the people of Virginia a chance to be heard.”

Warner’s act mystified Capitol Square.

“I can’t understand why he’d want to dial in on this this late in the game when the bill’s practically DOA already,” said Del. S. Chris Jones, a Republican from Hampton Roads. Jones and nearly everyone else in the assembly knew House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins planned to kill the legislation a few days later. He did.

“We have a process,” Wilkins said. “We don’t put bad bills on the floor.”

Stung, Warner told reporters: “There are still many chapters to be written on this.” But those chapters will likely be written later this year, if at all.

House and Senate negotiators considered the statewide referendum along with several other regional proposals over the weekend (3/9-10), but Warner’s centerpiece, as expected, hit the cutting room floor late Saturday when the Republican leadership abruptly adjourned the lower house without a vote on the measure. Warner can revive the issue during the assembly’s one-day reconvened session April 17, or he can call lawmakers back into session later in the year.

Republicans said Warner made a rookie mistake by backing the doomed legislation; some said hardline Democrats cajoled the moderate governor into premature action. Warner said he may not know the assembly’s intricacies yet–he’s been in office less than 60 days–but no one pressured him. Aides say Warner’s corporate background helps explain his decision.

Warner earned his fortune brokering deals in the early days of the cell-phone industry, and later by betting wisely on high-tech start-up firms. He chafes at the assembly’s glacial pace.

So he’ll sidestep it. Warner still plans to take his case for a statewide education referendum to the people. He has already begun traveling around the state to tell business and education leaders how bad the budget mess will feel, once it sinks in this summer.

“I think the debate is moving forward,” Warner said. “My challenge is to continue to convince the legislature that the needs in education are unmet.”

Lotsa luck, Republican House leaders say. Wilkins and House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith–both of whom represent rural districts–say the bill Warner backs widens the money gap between rich, suburban schools and poor, rural schools.

“We don’t have a formula we can agree on,” Griffith said. “Finding one is not an easy process.”

Griffith said it may be too late for Warner to get his referendum this fall. And getting it on the ballot next year will be tough, because all 140 members of the General Assembly face re-election in 2003.

Whenever it reaches the ballot, Warner needs the statewide ballot issue to pass. Its failure would damage his ability to lead the Republican-controlled legislature–as well as any future political hopes the governor may hold. So aides say Warner’s timetable does not hinge on the assembly’s calendar. He can wait.

“He views this as a conversation with the people of Virginia and individual legislators,” spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said. “When the time is right for a deal to be struck on an education referendum, he’ll be there to strike one.”

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says Warner is playing a dangerous game–if he wins, it’s a coup. If he loses, he’s crippled.

“He could wind up smelling like a rose. Or he could end up smelling like garbage,” Sabato says.

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