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Va. Business Leaders Putting Their Money Where the Middle Is

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page C07

RICHMOND, Aug. 7 -- Some of Virginia's wealthiest business executives are preparing to launch a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign aimed at reelecting centrist members of the House of Delegates in both parties next year and ousting incumbents they consider extreme.

Executives familiar with the effort said they plan to announce the formation of a political action committee in the next few months and are seeking to raise $1 million to $2 million by next summer's primaries. That would make the PAC one of the largest political money machines in the state.

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Gov. Mark R. Warner plans a similar fundraising campaign for Democrats in the legislature, he said last week. And the state Senate's top Republicans, who are known around the capital as the Gang of Five, have created their own PAC to raise money for fiscally moderate Republican candidates across the state.

"There are just too many folks out there who are driven by ideological interests and sound-bite politics," said James Ukrop, chief executive of a Richmond-based chain of supermarkets. "I'm supportive of all efforts that try to get fiscal responsibility and good financial stewardship for our state."

The immediate goal of the three campaigns is to protect incumbent lawmakers whose votes in favor of tax increases this year make them political targets. During the 2004 General Assembly session, moderate Republicans joined Democrats to approve a $1.5 billion tax increase over the objections of conservatives.

But the ambitions of the parallel fundraising efforts go beyond the 2005 election season, according to several participants. In private meetings, strategy sessions and one-on-one conversations, the organizers have discussed their desire to underwrite a moderate political voice in a state whose legislature is increasingly dominated by young and passionately anti-tax Republicans.

That message of moderation, with enough money, would be carried to Virginia's voters by the same coalition of nurses, teachers, police officers, county officials and state workers that helped Warner win passage of his tax program, the participants said. The grass-roots work could be performed by the Foundation for Virginia, a nonprofit, pro-education group that could retool its mission for the new campaign, sources said.

"They are trying to create a succeeding generation of Virginians who are interested in investing in Virginia," said Fairfax attorney and developer John T. "Til" Hazel, who said he has pledged his financial support to the new group. "I hope they succeed. The mission they are on is important."

Virginia's extended debate over taxes during the 2004 General Assembly session exposed a deep rift between some top members of the Republican Party and many of the state's leading executives. The state's largest business groups and many individual company officials backed Warner's push for higher taxes as a way of investing in the state's struggling schools, colleges, roads and health care systems.

Now, many of those same business leaders say they are ready to pay back lawmakers who supported their philosophy and punish those who did not.

"It's no longer rocket science to see who the good guys are and who the bad guys are," said Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University and a supporter of the fundraising effort. "The business community now sees who voted against them and then came to a cocktail party and said, 'I'm your friend.' You can't have it both ways."

National and state anti-tax organizations have pledged to use their own fundraising muscle to oust lawmakers who voted in favor of tax increases this year, especially the 17 to 20 Republicans in the House of Delegates who broke with their leadership to back the tax plan throughout the session.

But there is no comparable fundraising effort underway by Republican lawmakers who opposed the tax increases. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said his political action committee will be used to find challengers to Democrats and to help incumbent Republicans regardless of whether they supported the tax increases.

"I got a call from a guy who wanted to run against one of the 17, and he asked would I support him," Howell said. "I said, no indeed."

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