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The Gilmores leave a Republican Party booth at the Albemarle County Fair in August 1997.
(File Photo/Khue Bui – The Washington Post)
The Outsider
Page Four of Four

Take the case of Hugh Finn. The 44-year-old broadcaster, injured in a car accident in March 1995, had been in a coma for 31/2 years when his wife, Michele, decided with his doctor to end feeding and hydration and let him die naturally. State law had been changed since Gilmore's days as a prosecutor; the new statute clearly allowed a legal guardian to make this decision for a patient without hope of recovery.

After hearing medical testimony, the local circuit judge agreed that Michele Finn, her husband's legal guardian, would be carrying out his wishes by terminating life support. Members of Hugh Finn's family at first accepted this decision; later, some of them became convinced that he was not really in a persistent vegetative state. They carried their protests to Del. Robert Marshall (R-Prince William), an outspoken foe of abortion, and Attorney General Mark Earley, a leader of the GOP's religious right. Marshall enlisted the public support of national right-to-life groups in D.C., which began to picket the nursing home where Finn was a patient.

After the judge reaffirmed his order, Gilmore jumped in, bringing suit against Michele Finn under an obscure statute giving the governor authority to represent Virginia residents in need of protection. His suit charged that terminating life support was euthanasia. A mere 21/2 hours after receiving Gilmore's appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court rejected this claim, ruling that disconnecting feeding tubes "merely permits the natural process of dying and is not mercy killing or euthanasia."

To Gilmore, it was the Henrico County case all over again – even though the statute had been changed. To the former prosecutor, disconnecting life support still seemed like killing. He had made his mind up about the issue years before, and changed circumstances did not affect him.

But in Henrico County, he had been a local official giving advice behind the scenes. Now he was the most powerful man in the state – the embodiment of big government – thrusting himself into a private family tragedy. Political advisers warned that his actions would bring public disapproval down on him. Gilmore's intervention was easy to interpret as a political payoff to the religious right. "It's really about abuse of power," argues Gregory L. Murphy, Michele Finn's lawyer. "I thought Republicans stood for not having government interference in private lives."

Gilmore's aggressive and clumsy handling of the controversy will probably be linked with his name every bit as long as the car-tax repeal. Still, he insists he did the right thing. "I didn't think that it was a political issue at all, to tell you the truth – or even a public issue," Gilmore says. "I have been surprised that it created a situation that could be exploited. I didn't foresee that."

Gilmore seemed equally tone-deaf to political implications when he appeared in a magazine ad for the National Rifle Association. "I'm the NRA," he said, holding a hunting weapon, a pose that may have permanently alienated some suburban voters. When he publicly fires an appointee for questioning his policies, or threatens to veto a bill paying Michele Finn's legal fees, he makes himself look petty and mean. And such an impression, once created, can be hard to change.

Which brings us to the Suburban Matron of All Battles, the public burning of Panny Rhodes.

Del. Anne Rhodes (R-Richmond) is everything Jim Gilmore is not. The daughter of a North Carolina textile-mill owner, she is married to a wealthy utility executive. Rhodes mixes easily with the crowd that gathers at the Country Club of Virginia and shops on "the Avenues" in Richmond's near West End ("You can tell she gets her clothes at Talbot's," one colleague says affectionately).

Rhodes has served in the legislature since 1992, after she won the nomination against a former Democrat backed by Tom Bliley and Jim Gilmore. Since her election, she has steered an independent course that has infuriated Gilmore and George Allen. She repeatedly helped block Allen's plans to cut state income taxes. When Gilmore became governor, she publicly sided with Democrats about the figures that underlay the car-tax repeal. And she voted against Gilmore's bill to require parental notification when underage women seek abortions.

This spring, Panny Rhodes found herself in a bitter primary against a more conservative opponent with the improbable name of Ruble Hord. Hord is a multimillionaire; he is also one of the coterie of Gilmore-style true believers who entered the ranks of the Virginia GOP in the '60s. Gilmore stepped publicly into the primary fight in a way few Virginia governors ever have. On May 3, in the fourth-floor press room of the Capitol, he lined up Tom Bliley, Attorney General Mark Earley, former attorney general Richard Cullen and Joe Benedetti, director of the state Department of Criminal Justice Services – an entire nine yards of angry white male – to blast Rhodes as no better than a Democrat.

To Gilmore, the decision to intervene was a matter of management. He does not simply want a Republican majority in the House, he wants a working majority – one that reliably follows his lead. "There's no real risk involved" in the purge attempt, he explained later. The 68th District is reliably Republican; whoever won the primary would win the seat.

Yet, once again, he seems not to have grasped how launching a full scrum of business-suited, white Republican males at Panny Rhodes would transform an obscure intraparty race into a statewide phenomenon. Rhodes adroitly fought back with a press conference in which she noted that she is the senior female member of the Republican caucus and questioned the motives of the male phalanx attacking her. "I was raised to believe that reasonable people could disagree," Rhodes said. "Apparently, Jim Gilmore and those that appeared with him today do not believe that includes reasonable women." She gained further visibility a few days later when Sen. John Warner stepped in to take her side.

Gilmore mailed out full-color brochures with his photo, attacking Rhodes and supporting Hord. West Enders were offended. Republican legislators from around the state endorsed Rhodes. Upscale Democrats who had never voted in a GOP primary crossed over on June 8, and Rhodes won handily. The voice of the Republican-leaning elite, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which has never warmed to the unclubbable governor, declared that "Gilmore & Co. were as fatuous in the heavy-handedness of their action as [Rhodes] was in declaring them anti-woman." Warner publicly rejoiced, and rebuked Gilmore chief of staff Boyd Marcus, whom he once branded "the Prince of Darkness." Because Gilmore had staked so much on this obscure battle, the result was a major, needless black eye for the governor.

The irony is that Rhodes is precisely the kind of independent thinker who used to be the chief adornment of the Virginia GOP. If Gilmore must purge his party in order to defeat "undemocratic" Democratic machine politics, he may in the end be seen as simply forging a new, Republican machine-carpet-bombing liberty in order to save it. And the image of highhandedness could discourage voters from giving him the GOP majority he wants. Warns Democratic Sen. Joseph Gartlan (who is retiring), Democratic gains in the fall would guarantee the governor "a very long two years."

Defeat has never stopped Jim Gilmore. In the months ahead, he will be charging toward that brilliant future when liberty is triumphant and the Democrats lie under his heel like the fallen tyrant pictured on the Virginia state flag. Whether he gets there or not, few who have studied his career doubt that he will seek further office. If Warner retires in 2002, Gilmore will be a natural candidate to replace him. Or he might easily gain appointive office in a possible Bush administration.

The unanswered question, though, is whether he will remain the taciturn, bare-knuckled infighter of his first two years in office, or show the public the thoughtful, creative conservative thinker his staff and friends know and admire. If he does, he will still be the boy from the 'burbs – but no longer Little Jim.

Garrett Epps is an associate professor of law at the University of Oregon. He is a native of Richmond and author of The Shad Treatment, a novel of Virginia politics.

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