washingtonpost.com
Our Choices in Virginia

Sunday, October 23, 2005

THIS YEAR'S gubernatorial race in Virginia has lacked a compelling theme or personality. Much of the contest has been driven by wedge issues and other distractions divorced from most voters' central concerns. Both major candidates have avoided straight talk about the cost of improving the state's road network and other priorities. But all that should not obscure this basic conclusion: Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democratic candidate, would make a much better governor than former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, the Republican.

Possessed of an agile, incisive mind and slightly allergic to the allure of sound-bite politics, Mr. Kaine is the kind of politician who is impressive in small groups but can fail to inspire on the campaign trail. A former city councilman and mayor of Richmond, he is a policy wonk in the best sense of the term -- probing, analytical and at ease with the broad implications of competing choices as well as the details of how government works. He commands respect on both sides of the partisan divide in Richmond, an increasingly rare trait among elected officials.

At the same time, as a somewhat left-of-center candidate in a right-of-center state, he has tried to do some genuinely hard things. He acknowledges his long-standing qualms about the death penalty, while pledging to carry out the law on capital punishment if elected. He embraces Gov. Mark L. Warner's sizable tax increase of 2004 (or "tax reform," as he prefers to call it). And he insists that as a devout Catholic who spent a formative year in his youth as a missionary in Central America, he will not concede the "values" issue to the Republicans.

The contrast with his opponent is stark. Mr. Kilgore, though personable and politically astute, too often gives the impression of a man treading on a paper-thin pane of scripted positions, constantly at risk of plunging through and into the void should an unexpected question arise. He has been publicly embarrassed on several such occasions. Even some Republicans were left shaking their heads at Mr. Kilgore's stumbling showing and superficial cant at the debate with Mr. Kaine in Northern Virginia last month. Some local officials who have tried to engage Mr. Kilgore on particular policy issues have found him pleasant but unimpressive.

Mr. Kilgore has taken the path of least resistance in this campaign, adopting doctrinaire GOP positions, brandishing the word "liberal" as a weapon directed at Mr. Kaine and opportunistically trying to exploit hot-button issues that come his way -- illegal immigration and the death penalty, in particular. His record as the state's secretary of public safety in the 1990s and, more recently, as attorney general, is solid if unremarkable. But he has given Virginians no reason to believe a Kilgore governorship would be anything beyond pedestrian. In the event of an economic downturn, he could leave Virginia as bereft of public funding, and flirting with fiscal disaster, as did the state's last Republican governor, James S. Gilmore III.

Mr. Kaine's candidacy has been disappointing in some respects as well. Like Mr. Kilgore but to a lesser degree, he has taken refuge in the facts of Virginia's buoyant economic growth and overflowing coffers to finesse any talk of tough budget or tax choices. Both candidates have proposed a glittering array of programs and initiatives: Mr. Kaine wants to offer universal free preschool for 4-year-olds; Mr. Kilgore favors huge new pay increases and incentives for teachers. Neither bothers to explain how the state might afford them in the long run. Like Mr. Kilgore, Mr. Kaine has a position, but no real plan, to address what the state forecasts will be a $108 billion shortfall in transportation funding over the next 20 years.

Still, the contrast between them is plain. Mr. Kilgore positions himself as an unyielding opponent of new taxes. He proved it last year by opposing Mr. Warner's tax package, which bailed out the state's fragile finances and buttressed public schools -- and was backed by more responsible members of his own party. In his campaign for governor, Mr. Kilgore said he would allow traffic-clogged areas like Northern Virginia to tax themselves if voters approved, but he also suggested he would not even support that new tax. Mr. Kaine is clearly more flexible. And while he denies any intention of raising taxes again -- as plausible candidates for public office apparently feel they must -- he grasps that voters who insist on improvements to education and transportation will probably be willing to invest in them when the chips are down.

In the end, the race may have been dispiriting, but the choice is easy. Mr. Kaine has the potential to be a remarkable governor -- a responsible, forward-thinking, unifying, principled politician with brains, guts and know-how.

We have skirted any mention until now of the third man on the ballot for governor, Republican state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. of Winchester, who is running as an independent. Mr. Potts is a curious case -- a plain-spoken, engaging figure whose take-your-medicine straight talk predictably failed to excite much voter interest. Alone among the gubernatorial candidates, he has an actual transportation plan, one that would yield $2 billion in new annual revenue from taxes and tolls for road and rail improvements. Lacking campaign funds and public exposure, however, he has little chance to exceed a single-digit showing on Election Day. His candidacy may have been bracingly honest, but a vote for him is a backhanded way of helping, or hurting, the two main candidates. He is a spoiler, and while we admire his straight talk, Mr. Kaine would make a far better governor.

Voters will also face races for lieutenant governor and attorney general, the jobs Mr. Kaine and Mr. Kilgore won four years ago. For lieutenant governor, the choice is between polar opposites -- Democrat Leslie L. Byrne of Fairfax, a former state delegate, state senator, congresswoman and White House official, and Republican state Sen. Bill Bolling of Hanover County. Ms. Byrne is as close to a traditional liberal as Virginia has to offer; Mr. Bolling is an orthodox conservative; both are smart, tough and articulate. We are swayed less by their ideological leanings than their stands on fiscal matters. There Ms. Byrne has the edge, having backed the Warner tax package last year.

For attorney general, a refreshingly civil campaign has been waged between Republican state Del. Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia Beach and Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of Bath County. Mr. McDonnell is an able, articulate legislator, but we worry he would bring a dogmatically conservative social agenda to the job. He has been among the General Assembly's staunchest opponents of abortion rights and a supporter of state intervention in end-of-life decisions, as in the Terri Schiavo case.

Mr. Deeds, a rural lawmaker, is no liberal; he won the National Rifle Association's endorsement. We think he would be the more pragmatic choice, and a better attorney general.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company