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Part Two

The Man Who would be Congressman


But Cantor's biggest opportunity came along in March when Bliley announced his retirement from the seat he has held since 1980. The former Richmond city councilman and mayor built a reputation in Congress as a courtly Virginia gentleman, accessible to common constituents and high-powered leaders of industry alike. He has been dubbed the "congressman from Philip Morris," the best friend big tobacco ever had, and was the top recipient of campaign contributions from tobacco companies in Congress. In 1995, after the Republicans won the majority of the House of Representatives, Bliley was named chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee and almost immediately announced that the committee would drop any pursuit of tobacco regulation. Bliley led passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated competition among Internet, cable TV and telephone companies. Bliley had and still maintains widespread respect and support from party leadership and Republican voters.

Bliley says he endorsed Cantor over Martin ("two fine young men") because of Cantor's proven ability to build support during his eight years in the House of Delegates. "I have the highest respect for Sen. Martin," Bliley says, "but when a freshman comes to Congress it's a pretty lonely place. You accomplish things by being able to build coalitions."

No doubt the 6-foot-3-inch congressman casts an enormous shadow. Not the imposing physical figure Bliley is, Cantor still seems to have absorbed many of Bliley's traits. He is exceedingly polite, gentlemanly, but not at all introverted. He is comic-strip handsome, with black shiny hair that never seems to move, perfectly straight white teeth and a smile that looks the same in every photograph. When he talks he speaks in a slow, almost lazy drawl that is contrasted by the precision of his hands, which slice the air in front of him into perfectly measured blocks.

He says with a laugh that some people simply assume he'll just walk into the Commerce Committee or take over Bliley's plum Capitol Hill office. But measuring up to Tom Bliley is not on the agenda for Cantor, nor will it be expected of him from the party or anyone else. Once Eric Cantor gets to Congress he has one job in his freshman term, says political analyst Sabato: hold onto the seat.

Cantor must solidify his hold on the seat through a redrawing of the congressional district lines, which is slated to happen during the next General Assembly session in January 2001. "That's all anyone can ask," Sabato says. "He's got to worry about keeping his seat." Sabato says that eans inside deals that will have to be struck. And the man who just might hold some cards is the man Cantor defeated — Steve Martin. He'll still be in the General Assembly, much closer to the redistricting action than Cantor, who will want some of the Chesterfield County precincts that went decidedly for Martin to be cut out of the 7th. If Martin is eyeing another run against Cantor in 2002, he'll fight for those precincts to remain part of the district. But Cantor may be able to strike a deal that will satisfy Martin and shore up the district for more decisive wins in the future. "There is nothing as vicious and unpredictable as redistricting," says Sabato. "It involves the fates of the people redrawing the lines."

For Cantor, his narrow-margin victory means the importance of redistricting doubles. "When you only win by a smidgen, you prove you are vulnerable," Sabato says.

Though not sounding as savagely political, Cantor does agree. He says rather vaguely that he and Martin spoke on election night and that Martin did pledge his support of Cantor, but he does not elaborate on any redistricting deals that may take place. But he clearly realizes that Job One is protecting the turf, and he says the most important factor in doing that is remaining close to constituents. "We must stay in touch with the people. As far as making a name for yourself in Washington, that comes next."

How Cantor plans to make a name for himself starts with the idea that was his major campaign issue: a proposed $1,000 per child education tax credit. A proponent of school choice, Cantor is also a realist who understands that school choice and the voucher system haven't had any success in the Virginia legislature so far. His education tax credit is another of his incremental goals, something within his grasp to achieve. He believes shaving $1,000 off a family's taxable income each year for each child gives parents the opportunity to enhance their children's educational experience, whether it is to buy a computer or software or pay for tutors.

During the primary campaign, it was his "No Car Tax" issue, the singular issue that catapulted Gov. James Gilmore to the Governor's Mansion. Though not as pithy, Cantor's tax credit issue was the gong he banged at every opportunity.

The political consultants who helped Gilmore craft his No Car Tax pledge also work for Cantor. Ray Allen, who heads Allen Consulting, also does political consulting for Tom Bliley and George Allen. After Bliley and Gilmore both endorsed Cantor in the primary, Martin lashed out at a press conference calling Allen's organization the "Fitzhugh Mafia." Allen's company is run out of a building at 4914 Fitzhugh Ave. near the Shops at Willow Lawn.

[image-1](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)"When the congressman from Richmond ceases to support tobacco, he or she will probably cease to be the congressman from Richmond," Tom Bliley told Style Weekly in January 1997. "I would agree with that quote," says Cantor, who is very likely stepping into Bliley's place this fall. "I have stood with Philip Morris and the tobacco companies to protect as many jobs as we can."

Martin contends that he was told by someone close to Gilmore that Gilmore would stay out of the race, but broke his word and endorsed Cantor. "These political endorsements from members of this machine have nothing to do with ideology or any other factor other than political loyalty and who is contracting with whose consultant," Martin said at the June press conference.

Martin is not the first to level accusations that the Bliley-Gilmore wing of the Republican party, with the aid of the well-oiled Ray Allen consulting machine, wields too much power and influence. Critics say the organization handpicks candidates such as Cantor, whose fates are sealed not behind the voting booth curtain but behind closed doors in Ray Allen's offices.

A week after the primary, Martin still sounds as if he is talking with a stone in his throat. He refuses to elaborate but speaks volumes when he says that the issue is "internal in the Republican Party and we've got to deal with it. It's cancerous and I'd prefer not to discuss it publicly."

He offers no predictions, only hopes, for how Cantor might fare as a congressman: "It's my hope he'll go up there and show some real leadership and work for things without regard to what's popular. ... I want to see Eric show some independence of that sort of thing, and he can do it if he wants to."

But Cantor insists no one is pulling his strings but him. "The buck stops with me in my campaign just like I feel it stops with any candidate." The idea that some small, tightknit political organization could have provided Cantor with the kind of broad-based support he had in the primary is absurd to him. "How can the majority of Republicans in the General Assembly, the majority of constitutionally and locally elected officials ... how can all that be a machine? I find that a little far-fetched," he says.

The most remarkable thing about Eric Cantor's otherwise nondescript offices on Parham Road in the West End is the peacock that has taken up residence in the parking lot. It struts by, poking its head very nearly up to the glass of Cantor's bare-bones, first-floor office. Red-and-white "Cantor for Congress" signs lean upside down against the window, facing in at Cantor. It is here, with no political consultants whispering in his ear, with no family encouragement or weighty endorsements, that for a split second, Eric Cantor lets the dream slip in. What if he does win? What if he makes it to Capitol Hill?

"That's an awesome and humbling prospect," he says, pauses, and adds quite genuinely: "I don't know what the full impact of being in Tom Bliley's seat means."

Not yet.

Eric Cantor Bio
Born: Richmond, VA, June 6, 1963
Education: Collegiate School, 1981; George Washington University, (B.A. 1985); College of William and Mary (J.D. law school); Columbia University, (M.S., 1989)
Occupation: Partner, Cantor & Cantor law firm
Elected Office: Delegate, Virginia House of Delegates, since 1992
Committee Assignments: Courts of Justice; General Laws; Corporations Insurance and Banking; Science and Technology
Memberships: Temple Beth-El; Knesset Beth Israel; Western Henrico Rotary; Masonic Lodge No. 53 AF&AM; Henrico Education Foundation; Jewish Community Center of Richmond board of directors; chairman, Virginia-Israel Foundation; Virginia Committee on Youth; Elk Hill Farm board of trustees; Virginia Holocaust Museum board of trustees; Leadership and Development Council, Greater Richmond Chapter of the American Red Cross
Personal: Lives in the Wyndham subdivision in Henrico County with wife, Diana, and children, Evan, 9, Jenna, 7, and Michael, 5.

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