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Mr. Gilmore's Candidacy
A former governor cites his ruinous term as his principal qualification.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

FOR THOSE many thousands of Virginia residents who are new to the state or are newly of voting age, it must have seemed a strange spectacle that former Republican governor James S. Gilmore III -- who also served a stint as his party's national chairman -- scarcely managed to eke out a victory the other day against a relatively obscure Northern Virginia state delegate to become the GOP's nominee for the U.S. Senate. It may seem odder still to watch prominent fellow Republicans either endorse Mr. Gilmore's Democratic opponent in the Senate race, former governor Mark R. Warner, or go mute when asked whom they support.

A review of Mr. Gilmore's calamitous record as governor provides a ready explanation. For, in a state that has enjoyed a generally proud record of astute administration and judicious leadership in recent decades, Mr. Gilmore's term in office stands apart as an unhappy episode of partisanship, mismanagement and rigid adherence to ideology. His muddle-headed policies and acerbic style of governance sapped Virginia's fiscal strength, undercut its tradition of good government and embroiled Richmond in the sort of toxic political strife that struck voters as an unwanted import from Washington. Amazingly, Mr. Gilmore is touting his gubernatorial record as a recommendation for the Senate job; in fact, his record should be a millstone. Little wonder so many of his Republican brethren blanch at his Senate candidacy, which he secured in a party convention by a margin of less than one percentage point.

At the heart of the Gilmore legacy was his insistence on ramming through a tax cut whose dimensions dwarfed his cavalier initial estimates, and his simultaneous approval of heavy increases in state spending, a strategy -- if it can be called that -- suggesting that Mr. Gilmore assumed that the boom times in Virginia would never end. He pursued his signature tax cut, a phased repeal of the levy on personal vehicles, even after it became crystal clear that the repeal would drain hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget and cripple state finances. He insisted on his course despite being warned -- by fellow Republicans, among others -- that it would eventually force deep reductions in spending on core state priorities including transportation and education. And he shrugged off specific, repeated and well grounded forecasts that Virginia was heading for an economic slowdown brought on by the bursting of the technology and stock market bubble -- a slump Mr. Gilmore simply denied.

In Mr. Gilmore, Virginia had its very own Herbert Hoover. "State government is in sound financial shape," he declared sunnily in August 2001, even as state lawmakers from both parties predicted a $500 million revenue shortfall in the commonwealth's $25 billion budget -- about 10 times Mr. Gilmore's own projections and, as it turned out, itself an underestimation of the state's actual woes. Mr. Gilmore's allies sometimes argue that no one could have foreseen the economic effects of the Sept. 11 attacks, which occurred four months before he left office. True enough, but also irrelevant: The problem had swollen to major proportions well before the attacks, and Mr. Gilmore ignored it.

He did so in part by budgetary gimmickry and sleight of hand of the sort seldom seen in Virginia, with its stodgy custom of fiscal prudence. When it became plain that the state's revenue growth had hit a wall, a condition that Mr. Gilmore himself had said would preclude a further rollback of the car tax, he proposed a novel solution: conjuring revenue by borrowing against a one-time legal settlement with tobacco companies. That scheme, which encapsulated Mr. Gilmore's poor judgment and fondness for budgetary trickery, elicited groans from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike.

Today, Mr. Gilmore innocently states that on leaving office in 2002 he bequeathed a balanced budget and $1 billion in reserves. But the balanced budget was a fiction that papered over a yawning deficit with shenanigans such as requiring retailers to prepay their sales tax and employers to prepay their withholding tax. And the reserves, for which Mr. Gilmore bears no responsibility -- they were statutorily required -- did nothing to forestall the state's fiscal crisis. It fell to Mr. Warner, who succeeded Mr. Gilmore as governor, to fix what quickly mushroomed to a nearly $4 billion problem.

Aside from the car tax, Mr. Gilmore followed through on policies devised by his Republican predecessor, Gov. George Allen, but pursued few major initiatives of his own. On his watch, Northern Virginia's traffic problems mounted, and the state's Transportation Department became known for a miserable record of highway projects beset by cost overruns and delays -- a record that improved vastly after he left office. Spending on his watch soared -- on new teachers, police and jails -- as Mr. Gilmore's Panglossian budget lieutenants acted as if money would grow on trees, and forever.

Mr. Gilmore's term was marked not only by bad management but also by a stiff-necked, belligerent political style that left him with few allies. In Richmond, he shunned Democrats, disdained doubting Republicans and listened mainly to a closed cabal of hard-line aides. By refusing to compromise on his car tax foolishness, he presided over a tradition-breaking budgetary impasse in 2001 that paralyzed state government for weeks and poisoned his relations with the legislature. Farther afield, he developed a toxic relationship with his opposite number in Maryland, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, which complicated efforts to pursue projects of mutual benefit. When the two states finally reached an accord on rebuilding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, it was largely in spite of Mr. Gilmore's role, not because of it.

We rehash this painful history not with relish at the challenge it implies for the candidacy of a politician we have criticized in the past but with regret that it has become relevant again to Virginia's present. We will review Mr. Warner's record as governor at a later date. For now, Virginians would be justified in asking: Is this the best nominee Republicans could offer?

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