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.
"It's probably one of his biggest successes," said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who is also a presidential prospect and a future rival. "Some will applaud it. Some will criticize it. I didn't think a tax increase [was] necessary. But . . . working in a bipartisan way is very important, and he did that."The Early Struggle
Forty-one days into his governorship and Mark Warner was already impatient.
His first legislative session had produced little other than budget cuts. And on the hottest issue of the day -- whether to allow Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to hold sales tax referendums to raise money for transportation-- the governor was on the sidelines.
So on that Tuesday evening in February 2002, Warner told his senior aides that he was done watching the legislative process grind away. The next day, he said, he would announce his intention to lead a campaign for higher taxes in the two congested regions.
His advisers balked. They warned that his support could backfire in the legislature, and they reminded him that during his campaign, he had promised not to raise taxes.
"I'm not here to discuss it -- I'm here to tell you what I'm going to do," Warner said. His news conference the next day made front-page headlines and set Warner up for the biggest failure of his term.
His backing helped get the tax plans on the ballot, but voters rejected them.
"Even getting defeated is better than sitting on the sidelines," he said. But in speeches for months afterward, Warner joked "I still have the scars on my back" from the whipping he took.
His second year in office wasn't much better.
His promise to work across the aisle reflected a naivete that initially stymied him. He tried to cut deals with a firm handshake -- only to find them not honored by lawmakers, lobbyists or business executives.
In one instance during his second General Assembly session, more than 50 House delegates signed on to a bill seeking to allow future governors to serve more than one term. Warner backed the effort but found his prestige diminished when many of the co-sponsors voted against it.
A week later, he came out swinging in favor of a bill that would make wearing a seat belt mandatory. A perennial loser, it initially passed in the House, but a GOP delegate changed his mind, killing the effort and prompting a leading Democrat to wonder aloud on the House floor about Warner's savvy.
"The governor's staff is not serving him well when a seat belt bill becomes a primary piece of legislation," Del. Kenneth R. Melvin (Portsmouth), an opponent of the bill, had said.
Where Warner couldn't achieve big goals, he focused on smaller ones. He succeeded that year in passing almost all of his 37-point program to modernize state agencies, but the measures were viewed by many as humdrum and garnered little attention.
That fall, he gave a somber speech to Virginians -- the only time he went on live television during his term -- to describe the cuts he was implementing to deal with the budget crisis. "For those who are quick to criticize this situation solely for political gain, I have a simple challenge," he said. "If there is a better way, show us."
He got high marks from the public for his response to the shootings at the Appalachian School of Law, floods in the southwest community of Hurley and the Washington area sniper attacks.
Internal Democratic polls reassured Warner that his reputation beyond Richmond was good, with close to 70 percent saying they approved of the job he was doing.
But after two sessions and with the clock on his one term ticking, people already began questioning what -- if anything -- Warner's legacy would be.The Tax Fight
By the summer of 2003, Warner had endured 18 months of criticism and defeat at the hands of Republicans, who held a near-veto-proof majority in the House. The Richmond Times-Dispatch declared him "bloodied and hobbled." A Democratic senator suggested during a conference call that someone buy a two-by-four and nail it to his spine for some backbone.
Instead of retreating, though, Warner went on the offensive, proposing an audacious plan to confront the state's budget imbalance with a $1 billion tax increase.
To get elected, Warner had looked into the camera and said: "Let me set the record straight: I will not raise taxes." But he concluded that the scope of the state's budget mess -- the shortfall had ballooned to $6 billion -- justified breaking the pledge.
For months, he hosted town-hall meetings across the state, becoming Virginia's PowerPoint governor. He compiled binders listing moderate Republicans he thought he could sway, then wined and dined them. Once, he sent a private helicopter to pick up the Senate's leading Republican and whisk him to a dinner at a Williamsburg resort.
Perhaps fittingly, Warner, who made millions in the early days of the cellular telephone industry, was glued to his cell phone, calling key Republican lawmakers to plot strategy five and six times each day and often late into the night.
Those late-night sessions continue even now. Last month, on the day before his final budget speech, Warner invited his finance chief and two of his key allies in the tax fight -- Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland) and Sen. William C. Wampler Jr. (R-Bristol) -- to the governor's mansion, where the four drank Wild Irish Rose and Schlitz Malt Liquor and ate from a box of Slim Jims until late into the night.
In 2004, the one-on-one efforts paid off -- barely. After a long stalemate, the legislature narrowly approved a plan to raise $1.5 billion more in taxes over the next two years.
Down the road, despite the argument of conservative activists and lawmakers that the rapidly improving economy proved the increase unnecessary, most Virginians polled on it said it was still a wise idea.
Some of his adversaries said he was nothing but a tool of moderate Republicans in the Senate. Others said he used guile and trickery to mislead his Republican friends into a fool's partnership. And his opponents now question whether his legacy -- bereft of a sweeping new program -- amounted to much more than the big tax increase.
"When Republicans stand for Republican values, as we did during the first two years of Warner's administration, a liberal governor is not going to get very far," said Del. Ben L. Cline (R-Amherst). "When Republicans start embracing more liberal tax-and-spend philosophies, you enable governors" like Warner.
But Warner's victory suggested that Virginians are not simply anti-tax, but that they also favor a less-partisan approach to government that emphasizes good management and good service.
In the halls of the state Capitol, it's known as "The Virginia Way."Letting Go
Early in 2005, the private polls looked ominous.
Not for Warner, whose popularity was soaring after his victory in the tax fight. But for Democrat Timothy M. Kaine, the lieutenant governor, who was trailing Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) in the contest for governor.
Warner had to make a decision: Back Kaine heartily and risk political damage if he lost, or play down his support for Kaine early.
He chose the former, for the second time betting against conventional wisdom in Richmond.
On the campaign trail, he was more obsessive than Kaine. At parades, he shook more hands and frequently egged Kaine on. In the motorcades, he whipped out his cell phone to demand more information from staffers, while the more mellow -- and less worried -- Kaine grabbed some shut-eye.
"That trait of mine often drove Mark nuts," Kaine said. "He would give me trouble, saying, 'We get in the car going from one meeting to the next and you immediately just fall asleep.' And I'd say, 'Yeah, I fall asleep. You sit in front and tell the guy when to put on his turn signal. Now, which is the better leadership trait?' "
Pundits agree that it was, in part, Warner's efforts and his 75 percent approval rating that lifted Kaine to victory Nov. 8. If Kaine had lost, Warner's aides had all the talking points ready to argue that a Kaine loss enhanced the uniqueness of Warner's 2001 victory. But the Kaine win gave Warner the chance to sell his "winner" status nationwide without an asterisk.
His support for Kaine and the party erased early gripes by Democrats that he was too bipartisan. By the end, he raised more than $8 million for his party's candidates.
In a recent speech to Democrats in South Carolina, Warner noted, wistfully, that "in 38 days, I become a former governor."
He added, to laughs, that "Virginia is the only state in the nation where the official title . . . is not 'the Honorable.' It's 'His Excellency, the Governor of Virginia.' "
Then he alluded to his inability to let go just yet. "There are days, I can tell you," he said, "when being called 'His Excellency' is the high point of the day."The Next Campaign
The meeting in spring 2005 took place at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner.
Warner's top advisers were all there, waiting for the boss to arrive. Nicholas D. Perrins, Warner's alter ego, passed out three-ring binders to the participants, one of whom noticed that one tab said "National Politics." A few eyebrows went up.
"Yeah," Perrins said. "I'll have to take these back when the meeting is over."
Back then, Warner was dodging questions about whether he would challenge Allen for the Senate in 2006 or whether he might run for president. His answer: "I'm focused on doing the best job in Virginia."
Since then, the pretence of ignoring the future has been dropped. Warner has given speeches in Washington and been the guest of honor at power breakfasts. He served as chairman of the National Governors Association, leading efforts to make changes in Medicaid and high school education.
"We lit a fuse which got 40-plus states doing stuff that we started in Virginia," Warner said. "High school reform was on nobody's agenda three years ago."
Warner has also gained national attention by agreeing to submit old criminal cases to new DNA testing. Last week, he announced that testing is underway in the case of a man executed in 1992. And in December, he ordered large-scale testing after preliminary examination exonerated two convicts.
Although he still insists that he has made no decision about running for president, Warner is doing everything he can to be ready for that announcement when the time is right.
He declared in August that he will not challenge Allen for his Senate seat. In February, Warner will head to New Hampshire to headline the Democratic Party's annual 100 Club dinner. It will be his second political trip to the Granite State.
"He's proven winnability and coattails," said former senator John Breaux of Louisiana, a Democrat and Warner supporter. "He's made Virginia work in a bipartisan way."
But Warner is starting at 1 percent in the national polls, with far less money than most contenders, and with a political résumé that is admittedly thin -- one term in office, no foreign-policy experience, few positions on national issues.
Like many of the other hopefuls, he is also way behind Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in fundraising. She could have $30 million to start a presidential bid.
"He's an Internet stock right now," said Chuck Todd, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, a political newsletter. "A lot of potential, but we're not sure whether there's a good business model there or not."