RICHMOND — As governor, Republican George Allen reformed welfare, abolished parole and imposed tough standards on schools. He also helped a guy get his driver’s license.
History may overlook the last of these feats, but Joseph C. Farrell says it’s worth noting.
In the late 1990s, Farrell was CEO of the Pittston Co., a coal, transportation and security conglomerate that Allen had lured to Richmond from Connecticut. The newly relocated executive went to get a Virginia driver’s license but was turned away.
“You had to have either a tax bill or a utility bill [to prove residency], which I didn’t have because I just moved down,” Farrell said. “So the next week, I was at a function with the governor, and I told him about it. And he said, ‘We’ll fix that.’ And we jumped in his car. He drove me to the DMV. He told the people he’d vouch for me, and to give me a driver’s license, which they did.”
To Farrell, the brash young governor who cut through all but the last scrap of DMV red tape — “They did make me take the eye exam,” the now-retired executive noted — was the height of can-do leadership.
Operating with less gubernatorial swagger and under vastly different economic circumstances, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine had some accomplishments but was unable to deliver on most of his campaign promises. But both men, rivals seeking to succeed retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D), still managed to leave office widely popular.
Allen, the Redskins coach’s son with an outsize personality, conspired with a go-go economy to pull off a host of big-ticket reforms. Kaine, the understated former Catholic missionary, led Virginia amid the worst economy since the Great Depression. Severe fiscal constraints forced Kaine to focus on that crisis — upsetting some with unpopular budget cuts but protecting the state’s sterling bond rating and top priorities like education and the environment.
And so, a typical Tim Kaine story goes more like the one former Republican state senator Brandon Bell tells about approaching the Democrat with a bill to ban workplace smoking. Leaving Kaine’s office after a seemingly productive meeting, Bell recognized a man waiting to see the governor. It was the CEO of Philip Morris, a major tobacco company.
“It could have been easy to think in the back of my head, ‘Oh, I’ve been had. He’s just playing me,’ ” Bell said.
The kicker to Bell’s story is that Kaine eventually pulled off a compromise measure banning smoking in restaurants — a significant achievement, given tobacco’s powerful role in the commonwealth’s history and economy.
“George Allen probably accomplished more in his four years than any governor I served under, and the reason for that is, he probably had more money than any governor I ever served under,” said former Republican senator John Chichester, who chaired the Senate Finance Committee. “Tim Kaine didn’t have two nickels to rub together.”
In a phone interview, Allen recalled his tenure as a contentious but productive stretch whose reforms have “stood the test of time.”
“No one’s going back to the lenient, dishonest days of early parole,” Allen said. “Or saying that we’re not going to have [school performance] measurements . . . or rewarding idle behavior with lifetime dependency on welfare. A lot of these ideas and reforms are still bearing fruit for Virginians.”
Kaine, meanwhile, looked back on his own term as a collaborative effort to preserve Virginia’s stellar standings — it was ranked best-managed state, best state for business, best state for raising a child — in trying times.
“The accolades we won, any governor would feel good about,” Kaine said. “But to do it with both houses Republican, and to do it in the toughest recession in 75 years. . . . We kept Virginia leading the way [while] having to make painful decisions, not shredding the safety net.”
Allen got most of his agenda through a General Assembly that was completely under Democratic sway when he took office in 1994. (It turned a bit friendlier two years later, when the GOP won a share of power in a newly tied Senate.) Allen’s Senate campaign today offers that as proof of his bipartisan spirit. Frank B. Atkinson, Allen’s legislative coordinator, credits their previously “unthinkable” strategy: inviting Democrats to co-sponsor Allen’s bills.
“Let them share in the credit,” Atkinson said.
Allen also made good use of the bully pulpit — and, critics contend, outright bullying. Amid the pomp and good cheer of Inauguration Day, he proclaimed Democrats “monarchical elitists.” (His more famous remark, about knocking Democrats’ “soft teeth down their whiny throats,” came later that year.)
Allen had won in a landslide on a promise to abolish parole. With some Democrats bent on resisting that mandate, Allen fanned public support with hearings around the state.
“We had rape victims who came and testified [about] how they had been raped by a previously convicted rapist and they were out on parole,” said Jerry Kilgore, Allen’s secretary of public safety.
Some Democrats warned that ending parole would require an enormous prison expansion that would cut into education and other needs. Indeed, hundreds of millions were poured into prisons, but the inmate population never soared as projected.
“We have a lower crime rate now, and we’ve got one [prison] sitting empty in Grayson County,” said Kilgore, who later served as state attorney general.
Skeptics say crime fell in response to national trends, not because criminals were deterred by tougher sentences.
Allen had some substantial setbacks as his term went on, failing to win a $2.1 billion tax cut and falling short of capturing the House and Senate for the GOP after that. By toning down his rhetoric and adopting more conciliatory tactics, Atkinson said, Allen still managed to prod legislators into adopting plans for rigorous school testing, economic development, and parental notification for minors seeking abortions.
“I think that he did retract his talons a bit,” said Ward Armstrong, a former Democratic delegate from Southside. “But on a scale of one to 10, he went from a 12 to an 11.”
Kaine came into office in 2006 with a less confrontational style but plans of his own, most notably to fix the state’s crumbling highways, bridges and roads.
Over the next four years, Kaine was able to boost funding for pre-kindergarten programs and teachers’ salaries, cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, preserving vast tracts of open space and implementing “smart growth” land-use policies.
Kaine was universally praised for a sensitive and commanding response to the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. He returned from a trade mission to Japan and quickly gathered highly regarded experts to lead an inquiry. After the panel reached its conclusions, Kaine was able to get sweeping mental-health reforms passed in the General Assembly.
But Kaine’s transportation plan and many of the initiatives he’d run on were in tatters, victims of the economic meltdown, a poisoned political climate or both.
Like Allen, Kaine took office with the General Assembly in the hands of political foes. Also like Allen, Kaine saw his party gain power midway into his term, with Democrats winning a slim majority in the Senate.
GOP legislators were especially balky under Kaine because they’d felt burned by his predecessor, now-Sen. Mark Warner (D), who’d talked them into a tax hike, said George Mason University professor Mark J. Rozell.
Republicans said Kaine was simply a bad salesman. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) recalled a flop of a special session that Kaine had called for transportation.
“They plopped some ideas on our desks, and we rejected them and went home,” he said. “It was a sort of, ‘Here it is.’ No salesmanship involved.”
Armstrong blamed recalcitrant Republicans.
“I can’t tell you how many meetings we had [with GOP leaders],” Armstrong said. “Tim would start off laying out the case, ‘Guys, we’ve got to do something to fix transportation. . . . What do you want to do?’ There were these profound periods of just total silence.”
Republicans also criticized Kaine for premising his last budget on a tax hike — it failed to win a single vote — and for moonlighting in his final year as Democratic National Committee chairman. Kaine was out of state on DNC business half of the days in June 2009, The Washington Post reported at the time.
Kaine’s biggest challenge was the economic crisis that hit the nation in late 2008, and perhaps his greatest success was keeping the state running despite it. Unable to raise taxes and required by law to balance the budget, he was forced to make unpopular cuts that led to such things as shuttered highway rest stops and higher public university tuition.
Yet he managed to leave office with a 60 percent approval rating. (Allen’s was 68 percent as he departed.)
“The hardest thing he had to do was make those cuts and still keep government rolling,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).
The recession nevertheless handed Kaine the opportunity to run for Senate now as a fiscal hawk, playing up the $5 billion he cut from the budget while preserving pre-K funding and setting aside nearly 400,000 acres of open space.
“I think he protected education and the things that were top priorities,” said H. Benson Dendy III, a Richmond lobbyist. “You don’t always win, but I think he’s to be commended for making such a strong effort.”