Warner's Triumphant Legacy No Easy Feat

Gov. Mark R. Warner, shown during the swearing-in of his Cabinet members, recast Virginia's Democratic Party into the party of fiscal discipline.
Gov. Mark R. Warner, shown during the swearing-in of his Cabinet members, recast Virginia's Democratic Party into the party of fiscal discipline. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 10, 2006

RICHMOND -- Mark Robert Warner, the businessman-turned-politician, faced an immense budget gap, a steep learning curve and a legislature happy to see him fail when he was inaugurated as Virginia's 69th governor in 2002.

Over the next four years, he slashed the state's budget, stumbled repeatedly, proposed two tax increases -- and wound up as one of the most popular governors in the commonwealth's history. In November, Virginians chose a successor who campaigned as the second coming of Mark Warner.

During the one term he is constitutionally allowed, Warner has become a commodity scarce among fellow Democrats: a successful leader in a conservative Southern state who could figure prominently in the 2008 presidential contest.

What made Virginians adore a governor who opponents say is nothing more than a tax-and-spend liberal? How did he turn two years of failures into a four-year success story?

"You get something done, and at the end of the day people don't care who got it done," Warner said in an interview last week. "Could someone bring the same perceived naivete to a national process and change the debate in Washington as well? I believe there are people of goodwill in both political parties left."

As Warner prepares to deliver his final State of the Commonwealth speech tomorrow before leaving office Saturday, his future in politics could well depend on selling his Virginia story to the nation.

He turned a $6 billion shortfall in the state budget into a billion-dollar surplus, a narrative he used to re-brand Virginia's Democratic Party as the party of fiscal discipline.

Mayors of rural towns applaud him for creating jobs. Teachers say their schools have more money. Governing Magazine cited his efforts in areas including procurement and technology consolidation as proof that Virginia is better managed than any other state.

More children have insurance. Graduation rates are higher. The state's sprawling and still underfunded Department of Transportation now finishes most projects on time and under budget.

Through it all, Warner faced a hostile legislature controlled by Republicans, whose march to power in the 1990s had swept Democrats from government leadership.

In his first two years, he often found his hand slapped by the GOP as he struggled to find an agenda beyond saving the budget. But in his third year, he confounded pundits by persuading the General Assembly to raise some taxes, lower others and generate more money for services.

"We've made it okay for legislators to work together again," Warner said. His relentless courting of GOP moderates on behalf of the tax increases earned him national praise as a man who could work across the partisan divide.

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