Jim Gilmore is presiding over an unprecedented era of Republican ascendancy in Virginia, but he still has the resentments and rough edges of someone whose application to the elite was never accepted. By Garrett Epps
Sunday, August 15, 1999
Page One of Four
It was November 4, 1997, and the Richmond Marriott was an explosion of red-white-and-blue Republican joy. The Virginia GOP left for dead only five years before had won its second general election in a row. For the first time in the 20th century, the party had won all three statewide offices. And it had increased its representation in the General Assembly to within a whisker of the once-impregnable Democratic majority.
Epicenter of the celebration was Jim Gilmore, the tenacious former attorney general who had turned an underdog's run for governor into a rout. In an 18th-floor victory suite above the celebrating masses, the governor-elect called over Chris LaCivita, the executive director of the state Republican Party, and shared what was in his heart this happy night.
"You have no idea," Gilmore said, "how disappointed I am that we did not take the General Assembly."
Few of the small circle who know Jim Gilmore well would have been surprised at his response. Like Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby another outsider who fought his way to the top Gilmore focuses on a future that recedes before him in moments of triumph and of defeat. But while Gatsby dreamed of the light at the end of Daisy's dock, Gilmore yearns for something more historic the final triumph of the Virginia Republican Party and the final defeat of the Democrats and the system that they represent, a system that kept him and those like him on the outside for so many years.
Others today might look at the Virginia GOP and see a modern, dynamic party with the will and means to fight its rival for any office anywhere. But to Gilmore, he and his party are more like a tattered band of dissidents fighting the monolithic power of an entrenched totalitarian regime. Recalling the Byrd era of one-party dominance, he says, "The same system is in place but the people are different." As for himself and his party, "We should not be here. It's a miracle we are here."
Though the GOP didn't win a majority on election night, Gilmore has skillfully brought it to parity in both houses. After the election, he lured Democratic lawmakers from Republican-leaning districts into his administration then unleashed the party machine to win the special elections that followed. He pushed through the legislature his signature proposal-a phased-in repeal of Virginia's personal property tax on automobiles and then made sure that the first refund checks went out with a vivid reminder that the repeal was his idea. He has also pushed through a 20 percent reduction in in-state tuition at Virginia's public colleges and universities.
And he has begun to widen the state Republican Party's base. His Cabinet has two black members, and he named the executive director of the Virginia NAACP as head of the state's minority business office. He has given his defense of the tobacco industry a working-class tinge, reaching out to the Virginia AFL-CIO to frame the state's support for tobacco as an issue of jobs. He has brought the party to the verge of winning a majority in this fall's legislative elections, and is becoming a national figure.
It is an outsize list of accomplishments, and if all goes as planned, it will bring Gilmore out of the shadow of his popular predecessor, George Allen, now running for the U.S. Senate.
Still, even Gilmore's close circle of advisers recognize and resent that they labor in that shadow. When he was elected, Gilmore was a small and somewhat indistinct figure to most Virginians, particularly those outside the Richmond area. To some extent he remains so today. But since his inauguration, Gilmore has begun to loosen up. Asked recently what he had learned in 18 months in office, Gilmore answered, "I think I have learned that you can do this you can effectuate policy and drive it in the right direction."
Over lunch, the governor's conversation is relaxed and cosmopolitan, ranging from the genesis of NATO to a comparison of nature imagery in "The Odyssey" and "Beowulf." A reporter comes away from an interview convinced that Gilmore is the kind of thoughtful and genuinely creative conservative his party desperately needs in the post-Gingrich era.
Claude Allen, a close Gilmore associate, recalls riding down in the elevator from the governor's office in the Capitol on inauguration day with Gilmore's parents. "I guess he's not our little Jimmy anymore," one said sadly to the other.
But a part of Gilmore remains Little Jim stubbornly life-size, and indeed sometimes even smaller than life. While to those close to him, he is generous, thoughtful and kind, he can be harsh and vindictive to friends and foes alike outside his inner circle. One Capitol joke retailed on both sides of the aisle poses the riddle, "Why does Jim Gilmore get up early in the morning?" The answer: "So he can go smile in the mirror and get that over with for the day."
When he took office, Gilmore told Virginians that he was "a common man with a truly uncommon chance to serve." He has consistently stressed his humble origins, as the son of a meat cutter and a secretary. He proudly and repeatedly acknowledges that he owes everything he is to public schools and colleges; he grew up in a union household.
The story is not an unusual one in American politics, where humble origins stretch from Springfield, Ill., to Hope, Ark. But in Virginia, as the state's foremost populist, the late Henry Howell, used to say, "everybody wants to wear velvet underwear." Family, blood and breeding, even at the verge of the 21st century, are serious matters in the Old Dominion. Virginia politics, in particular, have always been dynastic. Candidates were known not by who they were but by who sired them.
In the departed days of the Byrd organization, the equivalent of divine anointment was supplied by "the nod," the solemn signal from Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. that a chosen candidate was acceptable to him. In the years since the organization crumbled, Virginia, like a middle-European kingdom between the wars, has scoured the earth for pretenders with a drop of royal blood. Chuck Robb was a prince consort of the Lyndon Johnson family. John Warner was once married to Hollywood's Queen of Egypt. Oliver North proudly claimed the bar sinister of the House of Reagan. Even George Allen came from a football dynasty.
But Jim Gilmore resists the urge to don the purple. He remains identified with the working and lower middle classes that gave him birth. He drinks Miller Genuine Draft; he's been known to catch a Hootie and the Blowfish concert; his favorite restaurant is Pizza Hut. On a Saturday afternoon, he still hangs out at Price Club. He is Governor Six-Pack, Homo suburbanus, and, in the hallowed halls of Virginia's historic Capitol, an outsider.
If bloodlines are the issue, then Jim Gilmore is a son of the 'burbs Henrico County writ large and proud of it.