The Stodgy Mr. Chichester

Sunday, March 25, 2007

STATE SEN. John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland), the most powerful member of the Virginia Senate in the course of this decade, has more than his share of political enemies, especially within his own Republican Party. He can be exasperating even to friends. The trouble with Mr. Chichester, his vexed allies complain, is that he isn't sufficiently sensitive to political realities.

In fact, they understate the matter: Mr. Chichester doesn't give a fig for political realities. His main concern, far more prosaic, is the state's fiscal health and integrity. That, in a nutshell, helps explain why he commands such respect and stokes so many tempers and why his retirement from politics, which he announced this month, is such a blow to the commonwealth.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a position he has held since 2000, Mr. Chichester, 69, has exercised vast influence over budget and tax questions in what is commonly regarded as one of the best-managed states. In other states, lawmakers in equivalent positions are best-known as power brokers -- savvy political operators who bestow favors (and funding) on their friends and torment their foes. Mr. Chichester knew something about that, too, but for him the horse-trading is a means to an end, and the end is defined by the time-tested virtues of genuine fiscal conservatism: an aversion to debt; safeguards against inevitable economic dips; and an insistence that new spending requires new tax revenue and that to pretend otherwise is irresponsible. His steady fiscal sobriety is one big reason Virginia remains one of the few states with triple-A bond ratings.

Mr. Chichester's stodgy principles put him at odds with most of the General Assembly's Republican lawmakers and with Virginia's last Republican governor, James Gilmore, whose reckless tax-cutting left the state's finances in tatters. In 2004, Mr. Chichester fell out with his party's leadership when he and a minority of Republican lawmakers teamed with a Democratic governor, Mark R. Warner, to revamp the state's revenue and raise taxes. That, in the view of the GOP's anti-tax ideologues, was unforgivable heresy. Yet those same ideologues are only too happy this year to grab some of that tax money, intended for education, health and public safety, and divert it to transportation, a plan that Mr. Chichester has opposed; he would rather play it straight by raising statewide taxes to pay for road improvements.

Mr. Chichester's stance on transportation funding has led even his Republican allies in the Senate -- he had a handful of them -- to abandon him. They don't necessarily think that he's wrong, just that his approach is not politically realistic. For his part, Mr. Chichester, after 29 years in the General Assembly, is unimpressed. "I do not allow politics to enter into my thinking," he told the Virginian-Pilot. "Sometimes you have to, but I'm not very good at it."

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