News & Features » Miscellany

Why it's no fun being the lame duck.

The Fall Guy

In his last year in office Gov. Jim Gilmore has made more news than ever. And, many would say, more enemies.

Given his year's list of tepid successes and resented failures, it's easy to see why.

Four years ago Gilmore convinced many he'd found the perfect silver-bullet political issue and he came up with a campaign to cement it: "No car tax!"

But the plan that he called simple — and claimed would benefit 6 million Virginians — turns out to be anything but. So much so that, for the first time in its history, the General Assembly can't agree on a budget. Still, the governor presses on, certain he'll get the majority vote from the House of Delegates to phase out the car tax in five years, as promised. He gets the approval. But the Senate refuses the proposed 70-percent rollback, insisting on 50 percent instead. Eventually the Senate agrees to 55 percent. Gilmore pushes for more. To this day, the squabble continues.

Meanwhile, exactly one year ago, Gilmore is tapped as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Party loyalists cheer, optimistic that Gilmore's ascent can work wonders for Virginia Republicans. What's more, there's still plenty of faith in Gilmore's political acumen. This ends abruptly.

Gilmore responds to the budget impasse in the General Assembly by doing something he promised he wouldn't: He cuts programs. State Sen. John Chichester, head of the Senate Finance Committee, says the Senate was asked to cut $122 million from certain state programs, use $119 million in Literary Fund revenue as general operating funds and make $67 million in across-the-board cuts to state agencies to move the car-tax rollback to 70 percent.

The result: A visible rift shears the state's Republican Party between those who support Gilmore and those who think his obstinacy has no limits — and must end. If anything, it seems, Gilmore's simple plan reads more like the definitive book on how not to handle tax relief.

Then there is Sept. 11. Gilmore responds to the terrorist attacks as any governor should. "I assure Virginians that I am taking all steps to ensure their safety during this crisis," he explains publicly that day. And he takes germane actions — he mobilizes the National Guard and musters whatever resources he can. No one criticizes this.

But, inevitably, thoughts align again with politics. There is an election underway. Republican Mark Earley has stepped down as attorney general to run for governor. And he needs Gilmore's help. Gilmore controls the RNC. Earley needs its resources in order to compete with his opponent, who finances the most costly gubernatorial campaign in Virginia's history. Combined campaign spending ends up setting a record, too. Gilmore is stingy with the committee's coffers. Increasingly, Gilmore's record emerges as an overarching issue in the campaign. When Earley loses, many blame Gilmore.

Add to this the fact that raises for teachers and state employees are frozen because of the budget impasse.

These workers and the legislators who represent them are more than upset; they're incensed. Word reaches the White House, and this can't be good. Rumors already have surfaced that Gilmore and the White House often clash.

Nevertheless, when asked about the surety of his RNC post, Gilmore claims all's well and he's keeping the job. Then, earlier this month, he resigns, claiming he wants to spend more time with family. Insiders say he's scouting for a lucrative job with one of Richmond's principal law firms.

Most recently, Gilmore, in one of his last moves as governor, proffers something of a salve to one group of Virginians. Despite forecasts that state revenue will plummet more than $2 billion short of needs, Gilmore says he will include a 2 percent pay raise for teachers and state employees in his newly proposed two-year budget.

Is it possible this or any gesture could restore Gilmore's standing?

It doesn't appear likely. Still, Gilmore — as governor — stands out.

Prior to the election, Style asked the gubernatorial candidates a simple but pointed question: What will Gov. Jim Gilmore's legacy become?

Republican Mark Earley replied: "appointing the first secretary of technology and really nurturing the technology community in Virginia and holding it up as a model for the rest of the nation and the rest of the world."

Democrat Mark Warner, now the governor-elect, said simply: "the fight for car-tax relief." — Brandon Walters

Add a comment