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Issues Make Strange Bedfellows

By Ellen Nakashima and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 19, 1997; Page B01

When Rush Limbaugh comes on the radio, Terence Hayes switches stations. The cook who works two jobs in Manassas usually votes Democratic. But come Nov. 4, he expects to be flipping the lever for Republican James S. Gilmore III for Virginia governor.

Why? The car tax. He likes Gilmore's plan to mostly get rid of it.

"I hate to admit it, because I really don't agree with Republicans on a lot of issues," says Hayes, 32, who just paid $292 for this year's personal property tax on his white 1994 Plymouth Acclaim. "Usually candidates are looking out for the special interests. This is more like the common interest."

Three hundred miles downstate in Stuart, stock car mechanic Hylton Tatum says that in his part of the state, "if you're going to run for office, you'd better be against abortion and for bazookas and deer hunting." That decidedly does not describe the Democratic candidate for governor, Donald S. Beyer Jr. But Beyer will be getting Tatum's vote, because of his promise to improve schools.

"Education's always number one," says Tatum, 43, nodding at his 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son during a family meal at a seafood restaurant. "That's the basis for everything else that comes afterward."

Interviews with voters suggest that the electoral map this fall includes some surprises, with Gilmore's "No Car Tax!" battle cry helping the former suburban Richmond prosecutor and attorney general make inroads in Northern Virginia. Meanwhile, Beyer -- a car dealer and two-term lieutenant governor from Alexandria -- is finding that his ideas on education and economic development are attracting voters in the more conservative, southern part of Virginia.

Although not all polls agree on how the candidates are doing throughout the state, some tend to confirm that Beyer is running stronger than expected in the rural reaches of Virginia, where his support for federal tobacco regulation does not play well with farmers. The polls also indicate that Gilmore is staying very close to Beyer on his home turf in Northern Virginia, where analysts had predicted that Beyer's politics would be more appealing.

For voters such as Randy Dingus, 46, of Prince William County, the car tax makes the difference between the candidates. He is fed up with paying more than $5,000 a year in property taxes on his 1993 Corvette, a sport-utility vehicle and two pickup trucks. That's why he likes Gilmore's proposal to ax the tax on the first $20,000 in value of a car or truck. Beyer has a more modest plan to give a $250 income tax credit to families making less than $75,000.

"Cutting the car tax is 99.9 percent of Gilmore up here," says Dingus, who owns 14 barbershops in Northern Virginia. "Just because I can afford to drive a decent car, I have to pay more than $1,000 a year to drive it."

His business partner, Craig Mosser, 47, interrupts: "Remember taxation without representation? Nobody voted for the car tax."

Doubts about both candidates' plans to cut the tax are widespread, but Marie Abraham, 44, a Centerville nurse, says that doesn't stop her from backing Gilmore. She finds his promise to nearly eliminate the tax in five years more appealing than Beyer's plan -- even if some economists call it pie-in-the-sky.

"Why not take a chance?" she says.

So tantalizing is the prospect of ditching the tax that people who have never heard of Gilmore now say they will vote for him -- even over the better-known Beyer, whose Volvo dealership's radio ads have boosted his name recognition in the area.

Joe Dzura says he knows only one thing about the governor's race: Gilmore doesn't want Joe Dzura to have to pay $1,000 a year in property taxes on his 1996 Mustang. The 42-year-old electrical engineer made his choice for governor solely on that issue.

"I don't know anything else about the guy," says Dzura, who lives in Burke.

Meanwhile, Tatum, who finished high school but not college, says he likes Beyer's emphasis on education as the key to prosperity in his part of the state. His family has been in Patrick County since the late 1700s, so he'd like his children, Kellie and Ross, to be able to stay. But without an education that prepares young people for a high-tech economy, they may well have to head out of state, he says.

"If you've got a bunch of 10-year-olds who know the basics of computers, they're going to be a whole lot better off down the road and have the knowledge that it takes to compete for a better job," says Tatum, who works for Wood Bros., a NASCAR racing team.

"When you educate the kids, the jobs that you can attract are higher-paying jobs, higher-quality jobs," he says, digging into a plate of steaming steak tips. "I'd rather have my kids working for a high-tech company than for a company that pays people to sew sleeves on shirts."

To the west 150 miles, high up in the mountains of Wise County, Kathy Swanson, a bakery owner and mother of five, is worried both about school funding and the local economy. She voted for Republican George Allen for governor four years ago. But this year, she says, she's voting for the Democrat, who visited her shop in May, because she feels Beyer is committed to helping the region's schools and small businesses.

"We need someone who's going to stand behind us," says Swanson, 38, who opened Kathy's Korner Store last year in Norton.

Stewart Nelson, a father of two and a self-described fiscal conservative from South Boston, is concerned about regional inequalities in school funding. So Beyer's message about not letting any region fall behind another connects with him.

"There's definitely a need for funding in public education in an area that struggles with its tax base, because the economy locally can't support much more than what the people are already paying," says Nelson, 38, chief financial officer at Halifax Regional Hospital.

Nelson says many Southside voters see Northern Virginia, which is growing steadily in population, bringing in tax dollars for high-tech schools while many communities in rural Virginia are educating fewer students -- and therefore getting less state support -- in schools built before World War II.

"We want the same education opportunities," says Nelson, who grew up in Fairfax. "Some areas are really benefiting by their success, and we just try to keep our head above water here."

Gilmore has promised that any loss of revenue to localities will be made up, "dollar for dollar," from the state. Beyer, who has visited every city and county in southwest and Southside Virginia, says Gilmore's tax plan could force a "massive shift" of resources from poorer to wealthier regions, where taxes are higher and people tend to drive more expensive cars.

"If I'm going to lose my state taxes to another area, I'd rather pay my local taxes, which will stay here," Nelson says.

Beyer is tapping in to a feeling that some parts of the state, where tobacco and textiles no longer dominate the economy, are falling behind, says Mark Warner, a Northern Virginia millionaire businessman who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat last year.

"I think Don's commitment to education is striking a chord there," says Warner, 42, who ran better than expected in southern Virginia using the same issue.

Geoff Garin, who polled for Warner and is now helping Beyer, says that "in a lot of respects, Gilmore's strategy has put Southside up for grabs because he's written a tax plan that hurts those areas. In that part of the state, there's been much more of a focus on having leaders who won't ignore them and will help them move forward economically."

Gilmore, meanwhile, is hoping to cash in with his campaign promise to reduce the car tax, which many voters -- especially in Northern Virginia, where the bills are high -- name as the tax they hate the most.

Gilmore's campaign distributed 100,000 door hangers in March describing Gilmore's record and giving his biography, put 150,000 "No Car Tax!" fliers on windshields and attended about 200 back-to-school nights throughout the area to distribute 125,000 brochures touting the Republican's education plan.

"The Beyer campaign took Northern Virginia for granted, and everyone overestimated Beyer up here," says Trey Hardin, Gilmore's Northern Virginia director. "So the door was open for us to aggressively get Jim's message out."

Although polls show a significant number of Virginians still don't know whom they'll vote for in the governor's race, Hylton Tatum and Joe Dzura are not among them.

"I don't know where this Jim Gilmore guy came from, but I like his attitude," Dzura says.

"It's just my gut feeling that I feel more comfortable with Don Beyer's ideas," Tatum says, "that maybe he'll help our area. In the end, there's nothing more important than education. I think he understands that."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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