Adventures in Warnerland

By Steven Sisson
The Valley Blue Dog Democrat

Why compare the past few years of the Warner administration to Lewis Carroll's classic tales - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass? It seems like an odd choice at first, but there are many bizarre characters, hidden agendas and twisted scenarios in the stories.

I just could not resist the temptation. The creative juices went into overdrive, and this self-styled political reformer started drafting his version of Adventures in Warnerland.

And who better to write that story than the anti-tax Democrat?


Down the Jim Gilmore Rabbit Hole of Debt

There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Mark Warner think it so very much out of the way to hear the Jim Gilmore Rabbit say to itself, "Oh dear! Oh dear! Look at the state debt!"

In another moment down went Mark Warner after it, never once considering how in the world he was to get out again.

In the late 1990s, Sen. John Chichester, R-Stafford, and other moderate Republicans were warning of the potential debt crises brought on by the car-tax refund. Gov. Gilmore had placed the state in fiscal crises by not properly estimating the cost of the car tax repeal. Gilmore singlehandedly wiped out a huge portion of the state's rainy-day fund, rewrote his own chaotic fiscal legacy and cleared a path for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Mark Warner had positioned himself for that bid at the governor's office after a surprising showing in a U.S. Senate race against John Warner in 1996. He received 47 percent of the vote in that race, but those votes came at a cost. More than $10 million from Mark's personal bank account.

In 2001, Mark Warner ran as a fiscally conservative candidate. He said he would not raise taxes numerous times during the campaign, and he firmly believed the taxpayer money was a sacred trust. Yes, he said sacred.

It's no wonder the voting public has a problem with Democratic candidates who used the T word during an election campaign. First, it falls into the same category as helping farmers, which is the single most overplayed political promise in the Commonwealth.

Second, it is such a typical political promise, like the famed war against poverty. It might take a lifetime to accomplish, but who's counting 49 years later.

Mr. Warner also promised a businessman's bottom-line approach to the state budget without increasing the tax burden on Virginians, this according to the Warner 2001 campaign Web site. In order to be elected, he spent more of his bank account, painted the opposition as a Gilmore's state budget protégée and skillfully recruited moderate Republican voters to his side.

Like Alice, Mr. Warner kept falling and falling deeper down the Rabbit hole.

Curious and Curiouser
Soon his eye fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table: He opened it, and found in it a very small cake, on which the words "EAT ME" were beautifully marked in currants. "Well, I'll eat it," said Mark Warner, "and if it makes taxes grow larger, I can spend more on education; and if it makes the car tax grow smaller, I can creep under the door; so either way I'll get into the U.S. Senate, and I don't care which happens!"
Democrats and Republicans should have asked Mr. Warner back in 2001: How can you run for governor and pledge not to raise taxes, but campaign to keep a billion-dollar promise that Jim Gilmore made in order to get the votes of two-car SUV families in the high local-property tax region of Northern Virginia, where a disproportionate amount of the additional car-tax-repeal money will go?

In the past two years, GOP opponents have said that Warner has been ineffective as a lawmaker and powerless in his leadership role as governor.

Let's examine the record: Warner's two-term elected governor proposal failed in Richmond. Then Warner's regional-transportation tax referendum failed miserably at the polls in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. His Department of Motor Vehicle office closings were a political mistake. But he did manage to reopen those offices to squelch any GOP politicking over the closings, especially in rural Virginia.

Admittedly, Warner has streamlined some portions of state government, and his public ratings have been favorable, but the media has overlooked the accomplishments and focused on the high-profile items, like ACC membership for Virginia Tech and Major League Baseball for Northern Virginia.

The third floor in Richmond must often resembled a frat house where public policy papers are randomly misplaced among Virginia newspaper sport sections. Images of the early, and youthful, Clinton White House come to mind considering the cavalier approach to managing the public's business at the State Capitol.

After two years in office, Warner only now admits he underestimated the state debt, and has reneging on his no-tax-increase campaign promise. The question is, why has it taken two years to discover a $6 billion budget blunder and come up with a billion-dollar tax increase as a solution?

Attracting baseball teams to the Commonwealth and increasing Virginia's ACC memberships apparently took priority over public policy and the state's debt crises in the first half of his term.

For even Alice in Wonderland discovered things look small when you become tall.

The Sen. John Chichester Cat
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Mark Warner remarked.

"Oh, you can't help that," said the Chichester Cat: "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."

"How do you know I'm mad?" said Mark Warner.

"You must be," said the Chichester Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."

This year, the voting public witnessed the highest-ranking GOP member of the Virginia Senate, John Chichester, getting into a verbal exchange with his primary opponent, an anti-tax candidate, Mike Rothfeld, that was just plain bizarre.

Chichester said of his opponent: "This guy is a goofball."

Rothfeld claimed Chichester had abandoned GOP core values. Conservative organizations, such as the Gun Owners of America, Eagle Forum and Virginia Club for Growth, supported Rothfeld and campaigned against the GOP incumbent. In the end, Chichester won handily, but the election cost for the candidates was high in dollars and stature.

During the campaign, Chichester denied that he supported a tax increase, but after disposing of his competition, he fully embraced the idea of tax increases and scolded conservative Republican candidates running against taxes.

Chichester has been advocating new revenue streams to fund transportation, higher education and public schools since the election. He has a simplistic, political solution to the budget crises - that calls for a tax increase. He recently announced support of a tax plan that raised state revenue and had express kind words about Warner's tax plan.

The political lines have become very muddy water in Virginia. Where the only thing that really matters is the next election cycle. Just like the Chichester Cat's smile, political party affiliation and loyalty are slowly disappearing, but questions remain about his own future political motives.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Chichester Cat.

"I don't much care where," said Mark Warner.

"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Chichester Cat.

" ... So long as I get SOMEWHERE," Mark Warner added as an explanation.

"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Chichester Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

A Caucus-Race and a Long Campaign Trail
However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Sabato suddenly called out, "The race is over!" and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, "But who has won?"

This question the Sabato could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Sabato said, "EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes."

"But who is to give the prizes?" quite a chorus of voices asked.

"Why, HE, of course," said the Sabato, pointing to Mark Warner with one finger; and the political parties at once crowded round him, calling out in a confused way, "Prizes! Prizes!"

Political pundit Larry Sabato called the 2003 General Assembly race the least competitive in 30 years. He was right in some respects. None of the incumbents lost on either side of the aisle - but don't ignore an obvious flaw in voter tendencies.

People tend not to vote when there is no difference between the parties and the issues.

The election results were favorable to Democrats, but only a slight gain with three seats in the House of Delegates. The Democrats lost one Senate seat. The Senate is split 24 Republicans and 16 Democrats. The House has 61 Republicans, 37 Democrats and 2 independents. That's not much of a change from the previous year. The GOP is the majority party in Richmond.

Sabato said most incumbents would be considered safe bets to win. The combination of Republican redistricting, the unchallenged races and no outstanding issues brought on one of the lowest voter turnouts in the history of the Commonwealth.

Who is to give the prizes? Mark Warner, of course.

The governor's handpicked Democratic candidates and his tax-friendly Republican friends both won. Warner is a popular politician among moderate Republicans who had been allies with him since the 2001 transportation-tax referendum.

In the early stages of the Warner administration, certain promises had been made about funding transportation projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, but a reluctant Republican majority would not advocate a tax increase for the needed state revenue. GOP members in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads had made the same promises to the public: to stop the traffic gridlock and fund transportation projects in those areas.

Then Warner reached out to moderate GOP members and brokered a deal.

The first tax coalition formed with the assistance of moderate GOP leadership and the Warner administration. Both backed a ballot referendum to increase taxes concerning transportation projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads planning districts.

The opponents formed an anti-tax coalition, but intelligently balanced the effort with smart growth advocates and environmental organizations that are usually Democratic leaning in membership base. This balance provided an opportunity for success as the coalition soundly defeated the transportation tax referendum by a 3-to-1 margin.

Warner had again relied on big dollars, like with his two previous election bids, to fund a campaign to encourage a positive voter reaction, but this time with a voter referendum. All that money, all the promises and no results - that spelled a lack of leadership on his part and a failed campaign promise to improve transportation.

The Virginia Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform, who supported the opposition against his Northern Virginia transportation referendum, are the same groups that advocate the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

Both represent the core opposition of conservative organizations to future tax increases in the Commonwealth and include a majority of hard-line conservative Republican legislators in the General Assembly. The referendum set the stage for the next tax battle.

But who will win the next prize?

See Also:

Adventures in Warnerland - Part I 
Adventures in Warnerland - Part II 
Adventures in Warnerland - Part III