By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Virginia Democrats might have finally realized they can come out of the shadows, even as the minority party.
In one of the highest-profile intraparty disagreements in years, Democrats in the General Assembly broke with Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) last week on the issue of abuser fees in the recently approved transportation funding plan.
The disagreements -- a sure sign the party is once again big enough to fight among itself -- signals a new aggressive posture by a House Democratic leadership led by Brian J. Moran (Alexandria) and Ward L. Armstrong (Henry).
Beaten down by weeks of negative press over the issue, Kaine agreed to appear alongside the Democrats' longtime nemesis, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), to defend the transportation plan.
Despite years of battling over taxes, Kaine and Howell like each other. During the debate over transportation this spring, the two often talked by phone as they sought a way to put the years-long debate over transportation funding behind them.
Because of the criticism over abuser fees, including more than 100,000 signatures on an online petition calling for their repeal, Howell and Kaine decided they needed to stand together to defend the transportation plan.
The transportation plan is a cornerstone of Kaine's and Howell's legacies. If critics were allowed to undermine the abuser fees, which account for 7 percent of the $1 billion annual road-building plan, Kaine and Howell both worry it would be only a matter of time before other pieces of the deal unraveled.
Kaine's decision to stand with Howell shocked many Democratic legislators and activists. The popular Raising Kaine blog, which was created to help Kaine get elected in 2005, was briefly called "Razing Kaine" because so many Democrats were posting comments critical of the governor.
It's less than four months until the Nov. 6 election, when all 140 seats in the House of Delegates and Senate are up for election. Since Kaine signed the transportation plan -- which few Democrats liked, despite their votes in support of it -- Democrats have been looking for an election issue they could use against the Republican majority this fall.
Abuser fees appeared to be that issue because voters can easily understand it: Republican legislators wouldn't raise taxes to pay for roads so they decided to charge steep fees on bad drivers, who, by the way, could include many voters' children.
But Kaine's appearance with Howell undercut the Democrats' effort. Or did it?
Moran and Armstrong, as well as Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), vowed they would continue to speak out against the abuser fees, despite Kaine's public pronouncement that he supports them. Moran told Democratic candidates to keep using the fees as an issue.
In Northern Virginia, many Democratic candidates are taking Moran's advice. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen, who is challenging state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax), posted an entry on his blog Friday taking aim at Kaine and Howell.
"With all due respect to our esteemed leaders, the opposition to this law has been a truly grass-roots movement," Peterson wrote. "Common sense is making a comeback in state politics. Don't stand in the way."
Peterson also cut a Web ad that mocks the fees.
"Thank you Jeannemarie Devolites Davis for passing your transportation bill," the ad says. "Failure to use your turn signal? $1,000. Improper tread on tires? $900 . . . And a $3,000 speeding ticket. . . . New leadership in the state Senate? Priceless."
The ad ends with photographs of Peterson, including one with former governor Mark R. Warner (D). But none with Kaine. Coincidence?
Peterson's ad stretches the truth. State officials say the traffic fines Peterson mentions would be levied only against someone who causes a serious crash.
Democrat Janet S. Oleszek is also using the abuser fees in her campaign against Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax), as is Democrat Jay Donahue in a matchup against Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax).
Some Republicans are clearly nervous. Two weeks ago, Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) wrote an op-ed in the Potomac News strongly defending the abuser fees.
"The abuser law will punish abusive drivers who are out there killing innocent people as a result of their complete disregard for safety on our highways," Lingamfelter wrote.
On Monday, Lingamfelter joined the growing list of legislators calling for the fees to be repealed. "As I have gone door to door visiting with constituents, I have concluded the abuser fee bill is beyond repair," Lingamfelter said in a statement.
Kaine has left many Democratic candidates in a tough spot because they need him. In campaign finance reports filed last month, Kaine's political action committee, Moving Virginia Forward, reported that it had $1.3 million. Kaine has pledged to use the bulk of that money to help elect Democrats to the General Assembly.
Democratic candidates had also been hoping that Kaine's popularity could rub off on them. When Kaine shows up in a district this fall, his interest in defending the transportation plan probably will clash with Democratic candidates' interest in bashing the abuser fees.
It could make for interesting political theater. As Kaine often says, politics is easy. Governing is hard, especially when a Democratic governor must choose between what he thinks is best and what might be best for his party.