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There's No Free Lunch, Battered Beyer Tells Voters

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 1997; Page B01

Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr., whose campaign for Virginia governor is hobbled by his opponent's popular tax-cut plan, played down his own mini-cut yesterday and resurrected his summer attacks on Republican James S. Gilmore III's effort to kill the annual tax on cars and trucks.

"My God, we have to have a bigger vision than this of what Virginia can become," Beyer, the state's lieutenant governor, said at a rally in Alexandria's Market Square, where he said Gilmore's plan could wind up diverting money from schools and roads. "Virginians are not gullible. They know there's no such thing as a free lunch. They're not stupid."

Beyer, of Alexandria, a car dealer whose plans of riding Northern Virginia votes into the governor's mansion are threatened by the highly taxed region's apparent infatuation with Gilmore's plan, is scrambling to find an issue that will excite voters. Beyer is trying to avoid becoming "Mary Sue II," the moniker some worried Democrats use in referring to Beyer's chances of repeating Democrat Mary Sue Terry's blowout loss to Gov. George Allen (R) in 1993.

A Washington Post poll found this week that Gilmore had jumped to a 48 percent to 41 percent lead in the long-deadlocked race; a poll released yesterday by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research put Gilmore's lead at 47 percent to 42 percent. In part, Gilmore has jumped ahead by distilling his campaign to eight letters: "No car tax."

On Tuesday, Beyer's high command said that "women are in revolt" over Gilmore's conservative antiabortion stands and that abortion was the key issue in the race. By Wednesday, the same aides said the issue was education.

Yesterday, it was guns. At the Alexandria rally, Beyer was endorsed by James S. Brady, who was wounded during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, and his wife, Sarah Brady, the chairwoman of Handgun Control Inc.

Meanwhile, in Richmond, a confident Gilmore was urging backers who packed a private-jet terminal to help elect other Republicans: John H. Hager for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Mark L. Earley, of Chesapeake, for attorney general, and the party's candidates for the House of Delegates, where the GOP needs to gain four of the 100 seats to win a majority for the first time in more than a century.

The Post poll found that Gilmore, a former Virginia attorney general, had built a wide following for his proposal to phase out the car tax, which is collected by cities and counties each year and is based on vehicles' value.

Gilmore's plan has as much fine print as a phone book. Even if several economic and political planets align, people will not stop paying the personal-property tax for at least five years, when a Governor Gilmore would have left office.

But the red, white and blue "No Car Tax" signs have multiplied on the highways and back roads of the Old Dominion, taunting Beyer as he has ridden around trying to explain why killing the tax is a bad idea and why he thought his plan to lessen its impact is preferable.

On Beyer's home turf of Northern Virginia, where residents typically drive more expensive cars and local tax rates are higher than those downstate, Beyer has found his "fiscal responsibility" theme to be a tough sell.

At Electronic Data Systems Corp. in Herndon this week, Beyer had to explain to a cafeteria full of engineers and programmers why his tax-cut plan was better, even though it wouldn't help most of them.

Beyer's plan would allow an income-tax credit of as much as $250 to help residents get back the money they pay toward the car tax, but it benefits only families making less than $75,000 a year -- just below the median household income in Fairfax County. Beyer says his plan, which would exclude nearly half the households in vote-rich Northern Virginia, would cost $1 billion over five years, whereas Gilmore's would cost $3 billion.

"My plan is focused on the people that really need it," Beyer said. "I just have to hope and trust in your good judgment, that you will be willing to pay the necessary local taxes to give us good schools, good law enforcement, good fire and emergency, and a continued commitment to our environment."

Charles Powell, an EDS computer help-desk official who asked Beyer about his plan, wasn't buying it. "I want to stop getting the bill," he said.

So yesterday, Beyer mentioned his tax-cut plan only in passing, and instead focused on sounding the alarm about what he says would be the drastic cuts in services to result from Gilmore's plan.

"I wonder whether I'm running against a candidate or whether I'm running against a slogan," Beyer said. "That slogan insults the intelligence of the people of Virginia. . . . `No car tax?' No roads, no education, no hope, no future."

Beyer, who began his day at the 5:30 a.m. shift change at a paper mill in the Allegheny Highlands, said he remains a resolute optimist. "Virginia's future is on the line," he said.

Originally it was a sheep tax, imposed by the old House of Burgesses on cattle in 1654 and later applied to slaves, mules, coaches and pianos.

Now collected mostly on vehicles, the personal-property tax has become the bane of commuters. The issue gave Gilmore, a no-nonsense, driven former prosecutor from suburban Richmond, entree to the turf that was to be the stronghold of Beyer, a dashing, witty Volvo and Land Rover dealer who lives in Old Town.

So that no one can miss the message, today the Gilmore campaign plans to unfurl a 60-foot-wide, 20-foot-long banner -- "No Car Tax! Vote Gilmore/1-888-NO-CAR-TAX" -- on the 14-story Springfield Tower building near the "mixing bowl" at Shirley Highway and the Capital Beltway.

Touting his car-tax cut, Gilmore revved up the crowd at a Falls Church fund-raiser late Wednesday with a boast that once might have been the most wishful of thinking.

"We're not going to get close in Northern Virginia," he said. "We're going to win Northern Virginia!"

It's in reach. In the Post poll, Gilmore and Beyer were in a statistical tie in Northern Virginia, with Gilmore receiving 47 percent to Beyer's 45 percent.

When Gilmore announced his plan to cut the car tax in May, Beyer branded it reckless and unconstitutional. After Beyer's pollsters found it was a winner, the Democrat came out with his own plan in July. Officials in both parties now say that in hindsight, that probably was a strategic blunder.

Rep. James P. Moran Jr., an Alexandria Democrat, said after hearing Beyer speak yesterday that "you're always better emphasizing the differences -- and in this campaign, they're stark -- than trying to obscure them."

"Don is a visionary: He wants to invest more in education and schools," Moran said. "I think that was the theme of his campaign, and I wish the campaign had stayed on that message. I think Don did. I'm not sure that all his consultants kept him on message throughout. But this is the right message today."

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Fairfax County Republican, agreed that Beyer gave up "any high road he might have been able to take" on the tax issue by offering his own tax-cut plan.

"He's got the worst of both worlds," Davis said. "People who don't want the car tax are going to go with Gilmore. And Beyer's base, who tend to be more service-oriented and spending-oriented, kind of lose faith."

Staff writer Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

Democrats Say Gilmore Should Return $1.2 Million

Virginia Democrats called on Republican James S. Gilmore III to return $1.2 million in contributions to his campaign for governor from three national GOP committees yesterday, saying the committees violated state financial disclosure laws.

The Republican National Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee have given more than one-seventh of the money Gilmore has raised.

But NRCC failed to register with the Virginia State Board of Elections, as required by state law, and the other groups' filings were incomplete.

-- Spencer S. Hsu

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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