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Carefully, Gilmore Climbs Toward Top

Jim Gilmore with Bob Dole and George Allen
Jim Gilmore with Gov. George Allen and Robert J. Dole.
File photo/The Virginian-Pilot via Associated Press
By Doug Struck and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 15, 1997; Page A01

RICHMOND Jim Gilmore approaches politics the way a bomb squad regards a suspicious package. He studies it intensely, edges warily toward it, handles it gingerly and has learned when to run for cover.

And please, no jokes while working. Virginia's Republican candidate for governor is as serious as a man deciding whether to clip the red wire or the green one.

"I'm not reckless," the candidate declares, an understatement echoed by supporters and critics.

Friends and family his wife among them describe Gilmore in "C" notes: careful, cautious, conservative, calculating. Some would add cold.

It's a persona that has helped James S. Gilmore III maneuver his way from Henrico County political operative to local prosecutor, state attorney general and, this fall, the doorstep of the governor's mansion.

Gilmore will tell you that his success has been the result of an underdog's determination. For the butcher's son who favored band over sports, there always was someone more popular, with more money, with a break Gilmore felt he didn't get.

When he talks of his Democratic opponent in this race, millionaire Volvo dealer Donald S. Beyer Jr. of Alexandria, Gilmore uses the same lament as when he discusses other competitors in his life: other students, other lawyers, other candidates. It's as if Don Beyer rich, charming, privileged, glib is a symbol for what Gilmore never had.

"Paths can be much easier if you are from money, from position," Gilmore said.

"I didn't have that. I didn't have any patrons who were willing to do that for me. I don't have a lot of safety nets. I don't have a personal fortune to fall back on. I don't have someone who is going to protect me."

It's a gritty story line for his campaign, one that clearly motivates Gilmore. But the 48-year-old Republican's background suburban and middle class isn't really as hardscrabble as he suggests, his career not nearly so solitary.

Old law school chums and political veterans have guided him. Wealthy contributors who have met Gilmore through his patrons have poured money into his campaign. And the popularity (and endorsement) of Republican Gov. George Allen, a former classmate at the University of Virginia law school, has helped put Gilmore in position to be governor.

But even though his campaign is being boosted by the tobacco and financial interests that are a big part of Richmond's old-money establishment, Gilmore continues to play the little guy, the ambitious Everyman who stays the course and out-hustles more gifted players.

His longtime devotion to conservative politics is reflected in old stories about how he was a jacket-and-tie Republican with a disdain for protests during the tie-dyed 1970s at U-Va., and how, as commonwealth's attorney a decade later, he frequently sparred with political rivals as one of the few Republican officeholders in Henrico County.

Gilmore's steady, measured approach may not inspire even his supporters, but it does foster an appreciation of his consistency.

"He'd be a good governor," said W. Marshall Tuck, a former colleague of Gilmore's in a Richmond law firm. "He's not going to rock the world, climb the heights. But he's not going to do something stupid. He'd be steady-as-you-go."

'I Had to Make My Own Way'
Not all of Gilmore's longtime friends and colleagues who knew of his hankering for political office say they would have voted him the most likely to succeed. But they certainly would have chosen him most likely to try.

"To understand Jim Gilmore, read 'The United States of Ambition,'" said Patrick McSweeney, who was chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia from 1992 to 1996. The 1991 book by Alan Ehrenhalt describes successful politicians as loners and indefatigable campaigners, dependent on consultants and cash, running for office in a pursuit that leaves little time for other interests.

Gilmore "is someone who is focused on his political career, who studied and worked the process," McSweeney said.

But for Gilmore, perhaps the real test of politics is putting aside his natural reserve, overcoming his sobersides nature, laying himself out for public scrutiny to grin, glad-hand and ask people to vote for him. And succeed.

"Politics is a very difficult thing to be involved in," said Gilmore, who, after 3o years as Virginia's attorney general, resigned in June to concentrate on his campaign for governor. "I'm proud of what I've done."

Before he launched his campaign in May, Gilmore read Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, "Means of Ascent," a virtual blueprint of a local politician rising from humble roots, becoming well-connected and going on to political stardom.

Their politics are not in the same neighborhood, but their ambitions have striking similarities. Gilmore, though, has none of LBJ's flamboyance. In this race, he is trying to leaven his image as a political shadow, a grayish, all-too-serious fellow with a supportive wife, two kids and a nice house in the suburbs. Even his hobbies add little spice to the profile: He collects stamps, watches NASCAR races and roots for an old and hapless favorite, the Indianapolis Colts.

Gilmore's roots are not high-brow, though hardly planted in poverty.

His father worked for Safeway. His mother was a secretary. They lived in what his childhood neighbor John Pinch, now a physician, describes as "an average, middle-class neighborhood" in Richmond. Gilmore's parents made enough together with his summer jobs and one school loan to send him to college.

As a youngster, he wanted to be a musician. He was good at the clarinet in high school good enough to teach others and to play in an all-America band. But on a European tour with that group, he saw a clarinetist who was really gifted. He realized he would never be that good.

It was a lesson not lost. Young Gilmore gave up the clarinet, took up law and politics and was determined not to fall short again. He graduated from U-Va. in 1971. Faced with a low draft number (87), he enlisted in the Army for three years. He served in the intelligence corps at NATO headquarters in Germany and returned to his alma mater on the GI Bill to obtain a law degree.

To get into the highly ranked U-Va. law school, Gilmore, who had a mediocre undergraduate record and was put on an admissions waiting list, showed up in the admissions office on the first day of classes, hoping to show administrators how eager he was to get in. When a spot opened and he got the nod, Gilmore readily abandoned the University of Richmond, where he had already started law classes, to return to a school renowned as a spawning ground for Virginia politicians. He cites that time when asked to recount his life's toughest trials.

"It was very tough to get into that law school, very tough. I'm proud I got into it and proud that I succeeded there, which I did," Gilmore said. "It was a very tough place because of the natural talent of the people there. I had to work very hard."

Gilmore is vague about why he became a Republican mostly his upbringing, he surmises. William H. Hurd, a classmate who became his deputy when he was attorney general, recalls Gilmore in law school as a "hard-working, focused, straight arrow" who waged spirited debates attacking "the excesses" of Earl Warren's Supreme Court decisions that expanded civil rights and the role of government.

Virtually identical descriptions "focused ... intense ... dedicated" come from nearly everyone who knew him then.

"He gets an idea in his mind and really focuses on it," said Briggs Andrews, who was Gilmore's undergraduate school roommate. The woman who would become Gilmore's wife, Roxane Gatling, agreed.
Jim Gilmore with his wife Roxane
Gilmore and his wife Roxane share a private moment.
File photo/By Khue Bui The Washington Post

"We were both pretty serious students. We were devoted to our studies," said Roxane, who was a history student. Gilmore met her at the Jefferson debating society and asked her for a date campaigning door-to-door for a GOP congressman.

As Gilmore attended classes in his jacket and tie, a fellow law school classmate with untamed hair, blue jeans and a wad of tobacco in his cheek dreamed up rugby strategy and drove about campus in an open Jeep. George Allen was decidedly less grave in law school but eventually led a crop of several Virginia politicians that grew out of U-Va.'s law class of 1977, including Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), state GOP Chairman J. Randy Forbes and state Supreme Court Justice Cynthia Kinser.

After graduation, as Gilmore tells the story, he knocked on the doors of dozens of law firms, trying to get his first job.

"I wasn't connected. I had to go find a job and track it down and make my own way. I didn't come from a family of leisure," he said as he flew between campaign stops on a hectic day of handshaking around Virginia recently. "Some people who are well-connected get advantages. I didn't get any."

He concedes he might have had a good job offer if he had been willing to leave Virginia and his potential political future. Instead, he took a job in a struggling young Richmond law firm headed by Bill Harris Sr., who later became a Circuit Court judge. Harris recalls Gilmore as a "straight-laced, incorruptible, serious-minded" young attorney, a "solid lawyer."

"He was sort of square. He's a vanilla guy, not some wild guy," said Tuck, one of the lawyers in that firm. "He never embarrassed us."

"I've had more brilliant lawyers working for me," Harris said. But "you don't have to be a rocket scientist to be governor."

'Always Alert to Opportunities'
As a young professional, Gilmore practiced law and politics. He plunged into organizing Republicans in the Richmond suburbs in Henrico, and he fashioned a close relationship in the early 1980s with Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R), now chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee.

Some old-line Republicans saw Gilmore as overly ambitious and said he was part of a new, more conservative generation that pushed aside some party regulars in taking over the Henrico GOP.

"Politics is the pursuit of power ... and Jim has been interested in politics from his early days," said Richard Cocke, a retired GOP activist in Henrico and past candidate for clerk of court who was a veteran of personality-driven clashes among Henrico Republicans through the 1980s.

"To me, he was always alert to opportunities to advance his ambitions," said Cocke, an early critic of Gilmore who now says he supports him. "He was not deterred by lack of success. If one opportunity didn't materialize, he was ready to cut his losses and move on to something else."

In 1987, after the local prosecutor died on an exercise bike, Gilmore beat the appointed Democrat and stepped into the office of Henrico commonwealth's attorney.

His term was marked by continued party infighting. He teamed with Bliley and plotted strategy with M. Boyd Marcus, a fellow U-Va. graduate who has become one of Virginia's top GOP consultants.

"In politics, Boyd knows the decision to make, and Jim takes his advice," said state Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach).

With introductions by Bliley, Gilmore connected with powerful financial backers and tobacco interests. Richmond industrialist Bruce Gottwald, chairman of Ethyl Corp., is his biggest supporter; Gottwald's family and company contributed $170,000 in Gilmore's last two election bids.

In 1993, Gilmore won the GOP nomination for attorney general in a tumultuous party convention that left lingering scars. Gilmore painted conservative Del. G. Steven Agee of Roanoke as a liberal on abortion, gun control and taxes.

Gilmore's lust for that nomination became legendary in the party. He would meet in the evening with a Northern Virginian Republican committee and drive all night to be on the doorstep of another GOP group 400 miles downstate the next morning.

"I think the conventional wisdom is the race was unnecessarily bitter," said McSweeney, the former Virginia GOP chairman. "Jim would have won anyway but took that extra step."

Throughout his career, Gilmore has carefully framed his conservatism in popular stands. He won the general election for attorney general on a tough law-and-order campaign, even though the post has little to do with criminal cases. He has sided with the tobacco industry but railed against teenage smoking. He is against racial quotas but supports increased opportunities for minorities.

He supported Virginia Military Institute's men-only policy and sued the University of Virginia to support a conservative Christian student publication. He battled against federal rules directing how Virginia should do car emissions inspections and won with help from a GOP Congress. He fought federal regulations allowing residents to sue industrial polluters and lost, and he moved against pork producer Smithfield Foods Inc. for pollution violations only after the federal government threatened to do it for him.

On issues that have dominated statewide campaigns in recent elections, Gilmore is unabashedly conservative. He is for prayer in school, and he is against abortion after eight to 12 weeks of pregnancy. And yesterday he suggested that he would be open to discussing a state law to require married women to tell their husbands before having an abortion.

Gilmore is against gun control, and he supports using public money to send children to private schools. He was endorsed this year with a $50,000 check by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

Those who have worked for Gilmore credit him with bipartisan fairness; he kept most of the commonwealth's attorney and attorney general staffs appointed by Democratic predecessors.

Aubrey Hammond was a young black lawyer whom Gilmore brought into the all-white Henrico prosecutor's office in 1988. Gilmore "treated everybody in the office fairly," Hammond said. "He always backed you up."

Twice, defense lawyers in cases Hammond handled sought to use their friendship with Gilmore to their advantage, Hammond said. Gilmore ushered the lawyers out of his office and refused to interfere, Hammond said.

On the campaign trail, Gilmore trumpets his background as a prosecutor. He joined with Allen to promote stiffer sentences, abolition of parole, tougher juvenile laws and more "victim's rights" in court. And when a rash of church arsons in the South appeared to be racially motivated last year, Gilmore rallied southern attorneys general to embrace tougher penalties for hate crimes against black churches.

'Here's a Guy ... Totally Focused'
His actions after the church arsons were praised by Virginia Democrat L. Douglas Wilder, who was the nation's first elected black governor, and were a hint of how quickly Gilmore has gotten behind some popular causes during his run for governor.

With the bills for Virginia's personal property tax on cars and trucks due in October a month before the election Gilmore shaped much of his campaign around a plan to virtually eliminate the levy.

But critics, as well as friends, say Gilmore is too cautious to publicly take on difficult, unpopular causes. They say he doesn't just test the political winds he waits for a gale before deciding on an issue.

"If Jim Gilmore has taken a stand, you know it's well thought out," Allen chief of staff Jay Timmons offered carefully. After plotting his gubernatorial campaign for three years, Gilmore missed a self-imposed announcement deadline last spring because he still had not settled his platform on education and taxes.

He does not wing it. "Here's a guy who is totally focused," one of his campaign handlers said. "If you tell him that the message today is 'X,' that's what he will talk about. You don't have to worry about him going off and picking tulips."

Surprises on the campaign trail send Gilmore retreating behind his campaign staff to craft a measured response.

"Making a snap decision is generally not the right approach," he explained.

But Gilmore has drawn criticism for his lack of restraint in pursuing political advantage.

When he ran for attorney general, fund-raisers used his Henrico prosecutor's office address and phone number. He spent state money while he was attorney general on unabashed self-promotion: "Jim Gilmore" refrigerator magnets, comic books for children, bookmarks and pamphlets with his name, and a $23,000 portable display with a big color photo of a grinning Gilmore.

More ethical questions were raised over a trip Gilmore took to New York on a Philip Morris tobacco company jet to pick up $50,000 in campaign contributions while he still was attorney general and resisting lawsuits against the tobacco industry. The trip brought calls from Democrats for his resignation, and even Allen declined to defend it.

Gilmore insists there was no conflict of interest. His justification was simple.

"You have to raise the money," he said. "Because otherwise, frankly, the [other] guy just beats you."

Gilmore waves off the criticism that he would do almost anything to win, retreating once again to his underdog guise: "I bet you when they say that, they are probably saying I have an intense commitment to success that overcomes many of the advantages that opponents sometimes have. I'll take that."

As Gilmore nears the end of what has been a long quest for the crown, polls show the candidates virtually tied. Success is so near, he can almost see the inauguration. "I'm very anxious to be governor and make it work," he says. "I have plans to assemble the government, plans for the transition, plans for the first General Assembly."

But the package is still ticking, and Gilmore is not about to drop his guard. "I'm not going to start picking out the drapes yet," he said.

TOMORROW: A profile of Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr., the Democratic candidate for governor.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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