RICHMOND -- Former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III launched himself back into the political limelight this past weekend with a glitzy fundraiser for a new group created to advance conservative, anti-tax policies.
More than 400 politicians, lobbyists and former members of Gilmore's administration packed a hotel ballroom Saturday night for the inaugural dinner of Americans for Freedom and Opportunity. Gilmore (R) is the founder and chairman of the nonprofit group, which has said it will engage in "policy discussions and persuasion."
"We are going to find ways to advance the cause of justice and goodness for the people of Virginia and the nation," Gilmore vowed in a speech to the group.
The invitation for the fundraiser makes plain the philosophy that will drive Gilmore's organization: "Too often," it says, "the liberal media, the special interests and some politicians of both parties combine to frustrate the will of the people."
Gilmore's former chief of staff, M. Boyd Marcus, said the organization will try to spark discussion in Virginia and across the nation about issues that the former governor especially cares about.
"We are looking at policy development, particularly focusing on reforms on taxes and spending," Marcus said. "One of the themes the governor is going to be talking about is that the middle class is getting squeezed pretty hard."
But Gilmore's advisers acknowledge with a smile the plan that his adversaries and critics have said they expect: that the group will serve as a highly visible platform from which Gilmore can again seek public office.
Since he left the governor's mansion in 2001, Gilmore has kept a low profile. He served on an anti-terrorism task force and offered his opinion on the tax increases passed last year in Virginia. But until now, he has only hinted at his desire to run, perhaps for the U.S. Senate, or for governor again.
"Certainly, as he's talking about issues and working with Americans for Freedom and Opportunity, it does raise his profile," Marcus said.
On Saturday night, Gilmore teased the almost exclusively Republican audience about his future, saying he overheard two people wondering "what Jim and Boyd are up to."
"I guess you want me to tell you," he said with a smile, pausing long enough to let people think an announcement might be coming. "Well, I'm not going to."
Gilmore's group is a nonprofit educational institute, which can accept donations without any public disclosure. Marcus said Saturday's event was expected to raise more than $300,000.
Although the group is officially nonpartisan, Gilmore used the banquet to take jabs at Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner and the $1.5 billion tax increase the governor got passed last year with the help of moderate Republicans in the General Assembly.
"We didn't need that tax increase, ladies and gentlemen," Gilmore bellowed to a standing ovation.
A former hard-nosed prosecutor, Gilmore won election as the state's attorney general in 1993, then became governor in 1997 by promising a clean, simple end to the state's annual tax on automobiles.
That promise became more complicated, and costly, to keep once he got in office. By the end of his term as governor -- which included a nasty stalemate with the legislature and a brief, rocky tenure as chairman of the Republican National Committee -- Gilmore's popularity had faded.
Gilmore's critics have said that he and his car-tax cut embody fiscally irresponsible gimmicks that plunged the state into deficits at the beginning of the decade.
Other Republicans could hinder Gilmore's political path, including former Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, who is running for governor, and some members of Congress, including Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.).
But Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) said he believes a political resurrection by 2009 is very plausible for Gilmore.
"It certainly is doable," said Mims, who considers himself a friend of Gilmore's. "There are those who like him intensely and those who dislike him intensely. He's a person of strong convictions."