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Reversals in Position Mark Beyer's Tenure

By Eric Lipton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 1997; Page B01

As momentum was building to abolish parole in Virginia, Don Beyer was in a tough spot. The Democrat had been skeptical of the idea, citing the cost of building more prisons.

But he saw the political danger of ignoring the tearful relatives of murder victims demanding justice, the petitions attracting thousands of signers and the growing list of lawmakers endorsing the tough-on-crime proposal by Republican Gov. George Allen.

So in the summer of 1994, already planning to run for governor, Beyer borrowed an airplane and scheduled news conferences across the state. The lieutenant governor announced that he not only wanted to eliminate parole but also wanted to make the change retroactive, wiping out the possibility of early release for 7,500 inmates.

The legal community quickly dismissed his plan as unconstitutional. Within two weeks, the General Assembly had adopted Allen's plan. Beyer's switch in positions yielded only an embarrassing defeat.

The outcome foreshadowed what would happen three years later, when candidate Beyer, 47, confronted his opponent's plan to slash Virginia's car tax. First he derided the idea, then political instinct forced him to adopt his own version. But it did him little good. A recent Washington Post poll shows that Republican Jim Gilmore's plan is twice as popular as Beyer's, and is viewed as an important reason for Gilmore's current lead in the governor's race.

Beyer's detractors say it's the same old story: During his two terms as lieutenant governor and a leader of Virginia Democrats, he has been reluctant to get out front on highly visible issues. When he did, it was often a decision made at the last minute, requiring Beyer to reverse what he stood for. And more often than not, he came out the loser.

"In a political struggle, clarity of vision is essential," said G.C. Morse, a longtime Democratic activist who was a speech writer for Gerald L. Baliles when he was governor. "You have to be able to plant a flag and say, `There is where I stand,' and then stick to it. And Don has just pulled the flag out of the ground a few too many times."

Although Beyer is widely admired for his hard work, intelligence and commitment to important issues such as care for the disabled, critics suggest that he is sometimes motivated more by opportunism than principle. Beyer rejects the notion that he is prone to waver when the political winds begin blowing.

"I think it is a ridiculous criticism," he said in a recent interview. "What I have built is a very successful body of public work that has really made a great difference in changing people's lives. . . . I can list a long list of core values upon which I have not wavered."

Although he gives himself high marks for leadership, Beyer at times during his tenure as lieutenant governor has suggested that he didn't feel comfortable jumping into the middle of the partisan squabbles that often accompany policy debates.

"Democratic activists are calling and wanting me to throw some red meat out there, stack up the boxes and rail at the sky," Beyer said on the eve of the contentious 1995 legislative session, where Allen would skirmish with Democrats. "But that's the part that comes least naturally to me."

For some, Beyer's distaste for confrontation is what has made him such an effective lieutenant governor. Instead of trying to incite partisan battles, he spent his time carefully finding solutions to complex problems and then building a consensus to get the ideas written into law, his supporters say.

"Governors can't just make a declaration and assume their plan will happen. George Allen learned that," said Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), referring to rejection of major parts of Allen's agenda during the last two years. "You have got to be able to work with the legislature, build the bridges and Don Beyer as lieutenant governor has proven adept at that."

Beyer, an auto dealer from Alexandria, made his first run for public office in 1989, surprising political observers as he won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor by pushing aside veteran Democrat Sen. Richard L. Saslaw and then defeating a well-known GOP opponent, Sen. Edwina Dalton.

During Beyer's first term, while Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was busy building himself a national reputation, Beyer was often out of the public eye. He served as chairman of six study commissions appointed to examine issues such as child abuse and economic development.

Beyer's major duty as lieutenant governor was to preside over the Senate, but he voted only when there was a tie -- which happened 49 times in the last eight years. In his first year in office, the only tie Beyer had to break involved a bill to update state marriage law, and he voted to approve the measure.

In his second year, while recession forced a bitter battle over the state budget, Beyer's primary legislative initiative was a measure toughening enforcement of the seat belt law. He helped it pass in the Senate by breaking a tie, but it later died in the House of Delegates.

Beyer gradually took on more substantive matters, advancing legislation that toughened penalties for repeat sexual offenders, created a statewide registry of sex offenders released from jail and expanded programs for the disabled.

Before Wilder left office, Beyer began a push that lasted several years to overhaul the state's welfare system, serving as chairman of a commission that in 1993 presented the General Assembly with "a plan for Virginia to offer a hand up instead of a hand out."

The legislature adopted a pilot welfare program -- providing job training to chronically unemployed welfare recipients who enrolled voluntarily. But over the next two years lawmakers revisited the issue twice more, adopting a more stringent program that requires recipients to find work within 90 days, a standard advocated by Allen and ultimately supported by Beyer.

Throughout those years, defining Beyer politically remained difficult.

Some Democrats criticized him for capitulating to the governor on the 1995 welfare package, accepting standards that they considered too hard on the poor. At the same time, Republicans complained that he initially had pushed a plan that was too generous to the poor and too expensive for taxpayers.

Beyer's inconsistent stands also clouded his image.

He criticized a Republican call for charter schools, semi-public schools that receive money from the government but operate independently of the local public school system. But later Beyer said he backs them.

The first time he ran for lieutenant governor, Beyer said he supported a law requiring that parents be notified before teenage girls have abortions. But on three occasions when Republicans tried to enact such a requirement, he used his power as president of the Senate to rule that the amendments were not germane to the legislation being debated, killing the effort for the moment. It finally passed this year; Beyer did not participate in the vote.

A great deal changed for Beyer in 1994, when Allen came on the scene, the first Republican governor in a dozen years.

Beyer was then the only statewide elected Democrat in Richmond. Partisans suggested that he leave his reflective and studious habits behind and engage in a much more aggressive fight against the GOP agenda. He was the first to admit that he wasn't too excited about his new assignment.

"I'm much more comfortable as a builder than a destroyer," he said on the eve of the opening of the 1995 session. "Even if it were smart politics, that's not who I am."

The pressure only increased in 1996, when the Senate was split 20-20 between Republicans and Democrats -- a first in at least 100 years -- suddenly giving Beyer more power than any of his predecessors.

Beyer had 20 chances in the last two years to break tie votes. When the issues were partisan, he almost always sided with the Democrats. He voted to kill an Allen-backed plan to allow citizens to petition proposed laws onto the ballot, and to reject a GOP call for a constitutional amendment to establish "parents' rights."

Beyer also started to play a more prominent role in debates over the GOP agenda, attacking Allen's 1995 State of the Commonwealth Address, in which the governor proposed a $2.1 billion tax cut, as well as his tougher welfare overhaul.

"Much that you have heard tonight . . . I stand against," Beyer told the General Assembly in a televised address. "Citizens have a right to demand that we manage frugally and wisely. We must be lean, but not cruel; smart, and not reckless. As leaders we must think about the future and emphatically not about short-term political gain."

But days after those remarks, Beyer began a three-week series of ambiguous statements regarding just what he thought of Allen's proposed tax cut. First, Beyer said he was "trying to do a lot of listening" before taking a stand. Then he said, "I think there is a common sense that we will support the tax cut."

Finally, on the same day its Republican sponsors declared that the Allen tax cut was dead, Beyer announced to applause at a public hearing that it was a terrible idea, that it would hurt schoolchildren, senior citizens and the mentally ill.

"The test is not simply how many dollars a family gets to keep but the measure of the well-being of that family," he said.

As his long-planned run for the governor's office approached, Beyer took steps to better define his position on a variety of issues, from education to public safety.

For the first time, he began to prepare formal legislative packages that he released to the news media before the start of each session. And instead of waiting for Allen to announce his plan to increase education spending in 1996 by nearly $1 billion, Beyer preempted the governor and rolled out his own proposal.

This year, as Allen began to recede into the background, Beyer asked his Democratic colleagues to introduce nearly two dozen pieces of legislation, including bills seeking to improve reading skills of elementary students and to add $11.4 million in state money to a federal grant to hire more than 1,100 new state and local police officers.

Beyer's critics note that many of the initiatives appeared to be ready-made for the campaign, such as giving teachers authority to remove disruptive students from class and checking each year to make sure there are no safety hazards in schools.

No matter what the motive, by the time the session ended in February, almost every item Beyer had proposed had been passed by the General Assembly and was soon signed by Allen into law. Beyer sees those accomplishments as evidence that he has matured into a more aggressive leader.

"It is certainly something that I have grown into over the last eight years," he said. "I have a greater familiarity with all of the issues and all of the arguments. As the leadership turns over, there is more of an opportunity to make the most of the bully pulpit you have as lieutenant governor."

When the split in the Senate made the lieutenant governor's tie-breaking role potentially more important, "the call for action, the demand for leadership became much more necessary," Beyer said. "I am certainly more comfortable with it in the second term than the first term."

Despite his successes, Beyer's critics maintain that there is still no evidence of a clear set of values guiding his positions. Beyer's careful, studied approach may be fine for a legislator or lieutenant governor, said Sen. William T. Bolling (R-Hanover), but more aggressive action is needed from someone who wants to lead the state.

"Don is a nice guy, easy to get along with, and a smart man, very knowledgeable," Bolling said. "The problem, with all due respect, is that I don't think he believes in anything. There is no essence of political conviction that I see.

"And if there aren't some fundamental principles that inspire your actions, you are not going to be effective, as you have got to be willing to stand up and fight for what you think is right."

DONALD S. BEYER JR.: A LOOK AT THE RECORD

WELFARE Headed commission in 1993 that recommended the state overhaul its welfare system. By 1995, legislature adopted a more demanding plan by Gov. George Allen (R) incorporating many of Beyer's ideas. Beyer endorsed the Allen plan, which requires most welfare recipients to find work within 90 days, but he was criticized by those who feel the measure is punitive.
SEX ASSAULT, CHILD ABUSE Successfully pushed legislation that in 1995 toughened penalties for sexual assault, particularly for repeat offenders, and required that victims be notified when former stalkers are released from jail. In 1994, Beyer pushed legislation that created a public database of convicted sex offenders.
PAROLE In 1992, Beyer broke a tie vote in the Senate to pass a bill making it easier for non-violent offenders to get early parole. The bill died in the House. He then expressed skepticism about a 1994 plan by Gov. Allen to abolish parole, calling it too expensive. But as public support for Allen's plan grew, Beyer announced that he not only backed the governor's plan, but would go further, abolishing parole even for violent offenders already in jail. Beyer's idea was rejected; the legislature adopted Allen's plan.
TAXES AND BUSINESS In 1992, successfully advocated a deregulation of the credit card industry -- allowing it to charge customers interest from time of purchase -- to encourage new banking jobs in Virginia. In 1996, he pushed bill to passage that lets local governments exempt small businesses from Business, Professional and Occupational Licensing tax.
EDUCATION Legislature adopted Beyer-backed bills to provide more money for school repairs and to require schools to offer extra help for sixth-graders who fail standardized reading and math tests.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company


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