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Beyer Says He’s Sensible; Foes Say He’s Fickle

Richard Cranwell jokes with Don Beyer
Va. House Majority Leader Richard Cranwell, at podium, with Don Beyer. His wife, Megan, and daughter, Clara, laugh.
AP Photo/The Roanoke Times, Eric Brady
Mike Allen and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 16, 1997; Page A01

For years, Don Beyer heard the complaints. From customers at his Volvo dealership in Falls Church, from his employees, from folks he came across as Virginia’s lieutenant governor: If you’re ever governor, they’d say, get rid of the property tax on cars and trucks.

Beyer would be sympathetic but adamant. Think of the money we’ll need to keep improving schools for our children, he’d say. Think of the roads we’ll need. I don’t like the tax either, but we can’t afford to get rid of it. Look at the Big Picture.

He isn’t giving that speech anymore. After Beyer began his campaign by raising the possibility of a tax increase to finance more spending on education and transportation, he instead proposed what he believes the people want: a plan that amounts to a cut in the car tax.

His turnabout after a similar proposal came from his Republican opponent, James S. Gilmore III, once again stirred up the kind of criticism that has followed Beyer throughout his political career. Gilmore and other Republicans deride him as a "Donnie-come-lately," a shameless flip-flopper willing to change where he stands if it means gaining political advantage.

Friends and supporters defend the 47-year-old Alexandria Democrat against that characterization, even as they acknowledge that at times he can appear indecisive and too reliant on polls.

Beyer, they say, is torn between his dreams of being a socially conscious governor who takes on big things and the reality of what it takes to succeed in the conservative political climate of Virginia, where many people want limited government and lower taxes.

"The reality is, you don’t get appointed governor. You’ve got to get elected," said Harris N. Miller, a longtime friend of Beyer’s and president of a software trade group in Northern Virginia.

Miller said Beyer "wrestled with his angel" and, after hundreds of hours of conference calls with consultants, lawmakers and other advisers, came up with a tax cut plan he could live with: an income tax credit of as much as $250 a year for families making less than $75,000, intended to ease the burden of the car tax.

Earlier this summer, Beyer tried to explain his $1 billion plan to miffed Northern Virginia business leaders, who had counted on him to push for more money for roads and schools.

"My first responsibility is to fashion this campaign in the most honest and responsible way I can — and still win the election," Beyer said.

Miller and other Beyer friends see that as pragmatism, not opportunism, and cite it as one of the two-term lieutenant governor’s best attributes. In Beyer they see a candidate who overcame childhood disabilities, buried himself in books and blossomed into a good-natured intellectual with the ability to inspire.

"Don is not afraid to say, ‘Well, maybe I need to change a position,’‚" said Christopher "Kit" Smith, a Washington lawyer and avid hiker who once climbed Washington state’s Mount Rainier with Beyer. "Taking a dogged approach to an issue isn’t necessarily always the right answer."

Don Beyer is, after all, a car salesman. In politics, and in his Volvo and Land Rover showrooms, there are lots of ways to close a sale. Compromising, responding to the customers’ desires, is part of the game.

Said Alan Albert, another friend and a former executive director of Virginia’s Democratic Party: "I remember Don telling me on several occasions, ‘At the end of it, you need to look them in the eye and say, ‘Will you buy this car?’"

‘You Have a Trade-Off’
It’s difficult to imagine now, with Gilmore and other Republicans painting him as tax-and-spend liberal, but there was a time when Donald Sternoff Beyer Jr. thought he might be a Republican.

It was 1981, and Beyer was president of the Volvo dealership started by his father, Donald S. "Buck" Beyer. The younger Beyer had been president of the Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce but was looking for a little more excitement. He decided politics would be a way to follow a family tradition of volunteerism and activism.

His grandmother, Clara Beyer, had fought for the rights of workers, children and women as a Labor Department official under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and had emphasized her values to her grandson during Sunday afternoon chats on her farm in McLean.

But this was the Reagan era, and through his car dealership, Beyer had become friends with people of all political stripes. On the wall of his office, he had photos of Charles S. Robb, a Democrat who then was Virginia’s governor and now is a U.S. senator, and Howard Baker, a Republican who was then a U.S. senator from Tennessee.

"There are many, many moderate business Republicans that I’m friends with and close to," Beyer said, recalling how he analyzed which party best reflected his ideals — and chances for eventual political success.

In the end, Beyer took a cue from his grandmother and from a photo of himself in high school shaking hands with President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic architect of the Great Society.

"I reached the thought that the extremes in our party were extremes to protect children, to protect workers, to protect African Americans, to protect the least powerful in our society," Beyer said. "And the extremes in the other party were intolerant."

Those sentiments — the idea that an active government can be good — are at the root of Beyer’s political beliefs, friends say. They also are behind perhaps his biggest challenge as he runs for the top office in a state where the current governor, popular Republican George Allen, runs a get-government-out-of-your-life administration.

Just before Beyer announced his candidacy in March, he talked of building public support for huge construction projects and other "investments" in schools and roads. He was reprising his slogan from his first campaign for lieutenant governor, in 1989: "Investing in Virginia."

He said such projects would help promote the state’s growing technology industry, which Beyer sees as a gold mine for workers of all types — notably blue-collar folks who could foresee dwindling opportunities in Virginia’s economic war horse, the tobacco industry.

But then Gilmore said that all of Beyer’s rhetoric was simply code for "tax increase." He accused Beyer of quietly following the path of Gerald L. Baliles, who, as governor during the mid-1980s, pushed a tax increase through the legislature to finance a massive road-building campaign.

Within 24 hours, Beyer retreated and stopped talking about "leaving every tool on the table" to raise revenue for big projects. For Beyer, the Big Picture suddenly took a back seat to political survival.

Shortly afterward, when a woman at a rally in Harrisonburg asked what had happened to his big plans, Beyer said with a smile, "That’s the larger vision."

Some Democrats were disappointed that he moved so quickly toward a tax cut just months after raising the possibility of bold spending initiatives.

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), a friend of Beyer’s, said the Democratic tax-cut plan "doesn’t sound to me like Don’s idea — it sounds more like a consultant’s."

"Don is a unique individual, much more thoughtful than your average politician," Moran added. "He’s far stronger when he’s trusting his instincts and showing initiative, rather than being reactive. I personally would prefer that he follow his own compass."

But Beyer said that his reversal was "my responsibility" and that it came after he considered a variety of opinions, from fellow business leaders in Northern Virginia, to watermen on Tangier Island, to coal miners in Southwest.

"You get to all those different places, you find that the commitment to new road-building is not represented by all those different people," he said. "You have a trade-off. There’s always the danger that you only listen to your friends.

"I knew when I offered my plan that I would take a lot of heat for me-tooing it," he said. "I did that with my eyes open."

‘A Humble Confidence’
Beyer, the oldest of six children, grew up in a family that encouraged achievement and had the means and resolve to help him overcome physical limitations.

When Beyer was born in a U.S. Army hospital in Trieste, Italy — where his father was a military policeman — several bones were missing from his right little finger.

After a series of surgeries, the little finger was removed, and a later operation fixed webbing on his hand. Now, when he sees schoolchildren staring, he breaks the ice by saying, "Give me four!"

His mother, Nancy Beyer, recalls a day when her son was 5 and had just returned to their home in West Point, N.Y., after his first surgery. A boy from the neighborhood tearfully brought Beyer a toy car.

"Donnie said, ‘Thanks,’ and he came to me and he said, ‘Do you feel sorry for me?’" his mother recalled. "And I said, ‘Well, why should I?’ And he said, ‘Because of my hand.’ It was all wrapped up in a bandage. And I said, ‘No.’ And that was the end of it. Who would have thought that he would end up shaking a thousand hands a day?"

As a child, Beyer also had a wandering eye that was improved with three operations.

"This part was hard on him," his mother said. "At school, they didn’t even choose him for umpire. He couldn’t catch anything. But he was a personable kid, and he was so smart, he was always from day one chosen to be student council representative or whatever."

After the last operation on his eye, Beyer was determined to play basketball for the parochial school he attended on scholarship, Gonzaga College High School. The summer before his senior year, Nancy Beyer said, he spent 12 hours a day shooting baskets and finally made the junior varsity.

Joseph McCarthy, an associate dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, has known Beyer since they were in first grade together at Our Lady of Victory school in Northwest Washington, where the family moved in 1956. McCarthy remembers Beyer telling him in the eighth grade that "there won’t be wars in the future as we know them, but wars of economic sanctions, economic treaties."

"I wondered what he was talking about," McCarthy said. "That’s the first time I ever heard of it. And now, of course, much more of what we do in foreign relations is through economic sanctions."

Friends recall that Beyer loved to work on cars even before his father went into the business and that he had a blue-collar side that set him apart from his largely privileged classmates at Gonzaga, many of whom came from Chevy Chase. Beyer, who lived in the Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington, skipped the drinking and carousing that were part of life for many of his classmates.

Some classmates remember Beyer as the first kid at Gonzaga to have an eight-track tape player. He played guitar in a band, the Top Hats, that landed mostly basement gigs.

His future business and political style was evident when he ran for — and won — the post of junior class president.

"He wasn’t a glad-handing Bill Clinton," said former Gonzaga classmate Paul Warren, 47, who owns a publishing company in the District. "It was a subtle show of affability, a sort of humble confidence."

Beyer was a classroom whiz and a bookworm. On the Scholastic Aptitude Test that got him into the exclusive Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., he scored a perfect 800 on the math section, and 780 on the verbal.

Gordon Winston, who taught economics at Williams, said Beyer grappled with racial and economic inequality in a senior class project that demonstrated how much more difficult it was for inner-city dwellers to get car loans than it was for suburban residents.

"This was back in the early ’70s, and it had to do with what has since become a pretty well-established fact," Winston said. "It was just a very thoughtful, very careful and very compassionate piece of work."

Beyer graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. His worst grade in four years: a C+ in American government.

Beyer had planned to go to medical school but put it off to work as a parts-truck driver and, later, bookkeeper at the Volvo dealership his father, a former stock car driver, founded in 1973. By Christmas, young Don Beyer was selling cars and writing ad copy.

Listening was Beyer’s secret on the car lot, where he wasn’t known as an efficient salesman — he’d sometimes spend four hours with a customer — but invariably would wind up getting a signature on a sales contract.

"What people really want is somebody who will listen carefully to what they need and then work to meet those needs," he said. He added that that this is not a bad policy to follow in politics.

In 1986, Beyer and his youngest brother, Mike, bought the business from their parents. The slogan of the Volvo dealership — and the corporate name of the Land Rover outlet they opened in Alexandria this year — is "The Great Experiment." Mike Beyer says that’s "our approach to customer satisfaction: We’ll try anything. Don got it from [Alexis] de Tocqueville, who talked about democracy in America as a great experiment."

Don Beyer began helping Democratic candidates, and he coordinated the Northern Virginia campaign of Baliles, who was elected governor in 1985.

Baliles appointed Beyer to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, and Beyer’s political ascension had begun. In 1989, the little-known Beyer surprised Democratic activists by announcing a bid for lieutenant governor. He says now that "I wanted to run for the highest office I could plausibly win."

Scorching the Tube
The lieutenant governor’s only real job is to preside over the Virginia Senate and break tie votes. But Beyer has bolstered his résumé by leading commissions and has pushed legislation focusing on early childhood education, day care and protecting women and children from domestic and sexual abuse. He pushed welfare-to-work programs before President Clinton did.

But since Beyer took office, Republicans — aided in part by a recession that pinched Virginians’ pocketbooks — have increased their power. Statewide campaigns have become more bitter, with Democrats trying to preserve generations of dominance, and upstart Republicans such as home-schooling advocate Michael P. Farris, of Loudoun County, trying to take power.

Farris’s challenge of Beyer in 1993 led the Democrat to show a nasty side. Beyer’s TV ad accusing the conservative Farris of trying "to force public schools to remove stories like ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’‚" was blasted by analysts as out of bounds; Republicans said it showed Beyer’s overly ambitious side.

Gilmore is making a similar complaint about Beyer’s ads that link the Republican with the conservative social agenda of Virginia Beach television evangelist Pat Robertson, who has donated $50,000 to Gilmore’s campaign this year.

Among other things, Beyer, who supports abortion rights, is accusing Gilmore of being an extremist in his abortion views. He cites Gilmore’s recent suggestion that Virginia should consider a law to require minor girls to get a parent’s permission before having an abortion; current law requires such girls only to notify a parent. And just this week, Gilmore initially said he would consider supporting — then quickly disavowed — requiring a woman to notify her husband before having an abortion.

Gilmore counters that Beyer, back in 1989, was quoted in news articles as saying that he supported a parental-consent law. But Beyer says now that he was only for parental notification, that the terms "notification" and "consent" were used interchangeably back then, and that he hasn’t changed his position.

‘In a Perfect World . . . ’
Beyer defends his commercials, past and present, as simply pointing out key differences between himself and his opponents.

"In a perfect world, we would run campaigns simply about our differences, our different visions about what we want to do, what we would like Virginia to become," Beyer said.

But as Virginia’s political scene has turned more conservative in recent years, it hasn’t exactly been a perfect world for Don Beyer.

Beyer initially lauded GOP efforts to cut taxes in 1995. But then he joined Democrats in opposing Allen’s proposed $2.1 billion tax cut, which he now says would have led to $90 million in education cuts.

Two years earlier, Beyer had raised questions about the cost of Allen’s plan to abolish parole when the Republican was running for governor. But then in 1994, he proposed that no-parole policies be made retroactive to cover criminals already in prison — a plan that critics said was unconstitutional.

"There will always be, in any person’s record, an opportunity to learn from the past — to change your mind," Beyer said. "There are certainly things over eight years of my life that I’ve changed my mind on."

But, Beyer added, "I can’t think of one off the top of my head."

‘Not Just About Tax Cuts’
With Beyer trying to live down the flip-flop label this fall, supporters like Moran are encouraging him to quit playing defense and to be less concerned with the political winds of the moment.

"I’m always disappointed when I see people perceived as less than they are," Moran said. "Unfortunately, the impression some people are getting of Don is that of less than the leader and the visionary that he is."

In the campaign’s final weeks, Beyer is de-emphasizing his tax-cut plan and focusing on his support for abortion rights and his proposals to raise teacher pay, fight crime and improve the environment. He says repeatedly, "I hope this election isn’t just about tax cuts, but about the future of Virginia." And he seems relieved to be entering the campaign’s final days.

"This is when it gets fun, because you don’t have two weeks to run a poll on how you’re going to decide on any given thing," Beyer said. "If I become obsessed with whether I’m winning or losing — if ambition becomes the only goal — then I’m not going to answer the questions as honestly and spontaneously as I must. The most important function of leadership is to inspire — to bring hope."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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