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Is the governor stubborn or simply steadfast?



A veteran of a thousand political wars, Gov. Jim Gilmore hardly blinks when opponents call him single-minded, dictatorial and even hallucinatory.

When he was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee in January, Gilmore knew the criticism would grow. But what the governor may never have guessed is that his most vociferous critics would be fellow Republicans in his hometown.

Gilmore's determination this winter to continue cutting the car tax in a teetering state economy has ignited an all-out war in the General Assembly and caused many once-friendly GOP lawmakers to question their leader's tough style.

But what foes describe as confrontational and uncompromising, friends see as a steadfast loyalty to words, commitments and people who have helped his career.

"The very core of Jim Gilmore is that he has a deep sense of honor and of right and wrong, and it's an admirable thing," says M. Boyd Marcus, Gilmore's chief of staff.

Gilmore's self-described "common man" ethos is rooted in his upbringing as the only son of a Richmond meat cutter. Gilmore's voice sneers in acknowledgment of a me-against-the-world mentality when he describes class barriers he overcame in grinding his way to the governorship.

Like Marcus, most of Gilmore's advisers are friends made decades ago at the University of Virginia, when campus conservatives were a rare and insular bunch.

Add in his background as a hard-nosed prosecutor, and Gilmore's black-and-white stand on the car tax seems within character.

"I made a sacred commitment to the people to end the car tax when I ran for governor," Gilmore says. "Not to deliver the tax cut would be a breach of faith.

"There's another reason, too. This tax cut really matters financially to working-class people. I know that keenly. I hear that from them all the time."

Gilmore's unyielding ways have ignited controversies during his three years as the state's chief executive. He waged an unsuccessful court fight to prevent a woman from removing feeding tubes from her comatose husband. He has demanded deep loyalty from citizens he has appointed to state boards and commissions, and has not hesitated to remove those who falter.

And violating a traditional taboo for governors, he has taken sides in Republican primary elections, either to punish lawmakers who have voted against his programs or to reward friends.

"Some politicians just want to be loved," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "Jim Gilmore just doesn't care. That's what makes him so formidable."

Gilmore's demand to keep cutting the car tax this winter has pushed state government to the brink of crisis. The Republican-controlled Senate bucked the governor, arguing that Virginia cannot afford Gilmore's car-tax reduction. The stalemate forced the General Assembly to an unprecedented adjournment last month without approving a state budget.

The bottom line: Gilmore insists on a 70 percent car-tax reduction this year. The Senate refuses to go beyond 55 percent.

Gilmore is preparing $318 million in spending cuts to balance the $48 billion state budget during the next 18 months, while making good on his pledge to phase out the car tax. A chorus of college presidents and fine-arts patrons are predicting layoffs and program cuts. Gilmore's response, during almost daily news conferences last week, has been to the blame the Senate.

"This is not a role I wanted," he says. "The duty falls on me, as governor, to cut the budget. But the responsibility rests with the Senate."

Senate leaders, in return, have accused Gilmore of breaking a campaign commitment not to press the car-tax cut if the economy softens. They note that Gilmore artificially inflated state revenues to reach tax-cut triggers by including money from a multistate settlement with tobacco companies.

" 'Obstinate' is the word," says Sen. John H. Chichester, R-Stafford, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, in describing Gilmore. "Oh, I've dealt with obstinate people before, but never in a realm that involved so many lives."

So intense is the fight that many senators are pooling some of their campaign funds to launch a public relations effort against Gilmore's tax cut. Sen. Thomas K. Norment, D-James City County, has questioned whether "hallucinogenic mushrooms" are being snuck into the governor's food. An enraged Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, demanded a state police investigation last month after accusing Gilmore operatives of listening in on his phone conversations with constituents. No wrongdoing was found.

And the seldom-smiling Gilmore has barely spoken to Senate leaders since the General Assembly adjourned Feb. 24.

Gilmore is reconsidering his original plan to call the General Assembly back into session this month for another round on the budget. With the Senate showing no signs of movement, administration sources say the governor may be content to balance the budget himself, mostly by cutting college construction projects to clear money for the car-tax cut.

Because the governor cannot appropriate money, raises for teachers and state employees next year would be threatened.

Even some of Gilmore's most trusted allies in the House are troubled by the communication breakdown.

"Each person picks their own style of negotiations," says Del. Robert F. McDonnell, R-Virginia Beach, who supports Gilmore's 70 percent cut. "I always find that reasoned negotiations work better than nuclear warfare. That just makes people get their backs up."

Democrats, generally content to watch from the sidelines while their rivals feud, say Gilmore has failed to lead.

"He looks at leadership as a dictatorship," says state Sen. Emily Couric of Charlottesville, co-chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. "Most people look at leadership as the ability to work with people of divergent points of view to reach compromise."

Couric says the impasse could become a major issue in the fall when Virginia will elect a new governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, as well as all 100 members of the House of Delegates. Senators will not face voters until 2003.

It has been two years since once-dormant Republicans seized unprecedented control of both General Assembly chambers and the governorship. At issue, says Couric, is whether they can run the state maturely.

The question stings Gilmore who, as RNC chairman, has taken the leading role in electing Republicans nationwide.

"This is a bipartisan failure in the Senate," Gilmore says. "If the Democrats had been willing to back me on the car tax, we wouldn't be in this situation."

Longtime Gilmore advisers say it would be wrong to conclude that the governor has backed himself into a corner. They describe him as a cautious, methodical thinker who rarely picks a fight he can't win. His rapid 14-year ascension from a little-known Republican operative to the Executive Mansion attests to that.

In the short term, they say, Gilmore wins. Because the General Assembly failed to agree on a state spending plan, the budget—and therefore the car-tax cut—will be decided by the governor.

Gilmore may be bruised in Richmond, but with voters his legacy looks secure. Recent polls are showing roughly 2-1 support for the governor's car-tax stance, according to sources from both political parties.

It is all but certain that the state's next governor will follow Gilmore's lead. Attorney General Mark L. Earley and Lt. Gov. John H. Hager, GOP contenders, support phasing out the car tax. So does businessman Mark R. Warner, the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

"There's absolutely no question the governor has won agreement on phasing out the car tax in its entirety," says Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "The only question is how quickly it can be

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