Warner a Hands-On Dealmaker, Though Critics Question the Need

Mark R. Warner, left, campaigning with Sen. Barack Obama in August, is a heavy favorite in his Senate race against ex-governor James S. Gilmore III.
Mark R. Warner, left, campaigning with Sen. Barack Obama in August, is a heavy favorite in his Senate race against ex-governor James S. Gilmore III. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008

RICHMOND -- When Democrat Mark R. Warner was sworn in as Virginia governor in 2002, he pledged to give legislators and voters "plain old straight talk" about the challenges facing the state.

Legislators, lobbyists, business leaders and his staff all agree: He sure did like to talk.

Warner's efforts to chat up nearly anyone who would listen, either casually or to strike a deal, earned him a reputation as a hands-on governor with friends on both side of the aisle.

"Most of the time with a governor, you meet in a conference room and when the governor comes in, everyone rises and it's real formal," said former state senator Martin E. Williams, a Republican from Hampton Roads. "But when you had an appointment with Mark, you go back to his office, he rolls up his sleeves and loosens his collar, and you try to work something out."

Warner is best known for cutting state government and then pushing through a tax increase that, along with an economic recovery, turned an estimated multibillion-dollar shortfall into a billon-dollar surplus. The House of Delegates and Senate were controlled by Republicans, so he needed bipartisanship to get the tax increase passed.

"Time and time again, folks were not being R's and D's, and we worked together," Warner said in an interview. "I felt there were lots of moments where everybody was rowing in the same direction, and people felt good about that."

Even though he left office in 2006 with record high approval ratings, Warner has his share of critics, who argue that at times he appeared more interested in making the deal than in the actual policy. In addition, some Republicans say the budget surplus proved that the tax increase was unnecessary. But Warner and his allies say it was needed for the state to retain its AAA bond rating and bring consistency to the budgeting process.

Warner won accolades for his efforts, which he used to position himself on the national stage, including a brief trial balloon for a presidential bid and the keynote speaking slot at this year's Democratic National Convention. Now he is a heavy favorite in his campaign for the U.S. Senate against Republican James S. Gilmore III, also a former governor. The seat is being vacated by John W. Warner (R), who is retiring.

Another criticism of Mark Warner's first years in office is that it took him a while to get comfortable. Some Republicans and Democrats said Warner appeared at times to be apprehensive about his role as a Democratic governor in what was then a Republican-leaning state. As a result, they say, he was too cautious and left office with few lasting policy changes.

"He's a nice guy, but I can't think of anything he did that was of any great note except raise taxes," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem).

Warner acknowledges that he faced a steep learning curve when he took office.

During his first legislative session, the economic downturn left him little choice but to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget. Warner also was besieged by a series of natural and man-made disasters, including floods in southwestern Virginia, an outbreak of avian flu that devastated the state's poultry industry and the Washington area sniper attacks.

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