Va. Democrats See Hope in Legislative Losses
By Craig Timberg
RICHMOND –– While the Republican package of tax cuts and local aid is advancing steadily as the General Assembly session enters its final week, Democrats think they are winning something more important: issues for November's legislative elections.
The Democrats are discovering in their lost floor fights the seeds of a campaign strategy based on expanding patients' rights, sending more state money to schools and cutting the food tax faster and deeper.
The approach is a shift for Democrats, who dominated Virginia politics for so long they are only now learning minority-party strategy. In their second year of being outnumbered in the state Senate and only at parity in the House -- a position made even weaker by the veto power of Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III -- Democrats are hoping to find that legislative losses can lead to electoral victories.
"Some of the people on this side of the aisle are not used to losing," said Del. Thomas M. Jackson Jr. (Carroll), a top House Democrat. But he added that party leaders have a new philosophy: "Stick up for issues you care about, let the votes occur, then let the people decide."
All 140 seats and control of both houses of the General Assembly will be at stake this fall.
The legislative strategy might be easier to execute if the session were more contentious. With a surplus of nearly $1 billion, Gilmore and leaders of both parties have agreed on many major issues. Even the power-sharing agreement that caused turbulence in the House last year has gone smoothly this year, with Republicans and Democrats co-chairing committees with little complaint.
In the Capitol, both houses already have passed -- and Gilmore plans to sign -- a 20 percent cut to public college tuition, a plan to cut the sales tax on groceries nearly in half and a ban on using barges to import garbage to Virginia landfills.
The assembly is still battling over reforms to the managed-care industry and plans to send state lottery profits to schools, but legislative leaders predict some eventual compromise with Gilmore on those issues. Northern Virginia lawmakers also are optimistic that the governor will sign a transportation bill that would give $104 million in highway money to the region -- even though the governor has been wary of the plan.
But with those few exceptions, Gilmore and the Republicans can already claim victory.
"From a partisan perspective," said Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax), "I think the Republican Party has delivered and delivered well."
Yet running on kept promises has shortcomings as a campaign strategy. Republican operative Dick Leggitt, a Gilmore adviser, said the party needs to retool its message for the fall campaigns now that so much of the governor's agenda -- including his signature car-tax cut -- has passed in his first two legislative sessions.
"We have to have a message of the future," Leggitt said. "It's not enough to say: 'Look at me. Look at what I've done in the past.' "
The Democrats, meanwhile, have unfinished business on several issues they believe will strike a populist chord in November.
Gilmore will sign a food-tax cut, but it is slower and smaller than the Democratic version. The half-cent cut Gilmore approved for the plan's first year -- worth 50 cents each time a family spends $100 at the grocery store -- doesn't take effect until after the election.
The "Patients' Bill of Rights" pushed by Democrats has met a similar fate. Republicans have signed onto some reforms to health maintenance organizations and the managed-care industry, but GOP lawmakers blocked a bill that would have let patients or their families sue insurance companies if a decision on coverage caused harm.
And although the fight over sending state lottery money to local school districts continues, few legislative leaders expect Gilmore to sign the Democratic version, which guarantees about $300 million a year -- far more, in 2001 and beyond, than the GOP plan of about $120 million a year.
Some races also might feature debate about Gilmore's handling of the Hugh Finn case, in which the governor and some GOP lawmakers worked to block Finn's wife, Michele, from having the feeding tube removed from her severely brain-damaged husband last fall.
"That Hugh Finn case resonates deeply," said Del. Barnie K. Day (D-Patrick). Republicans "want government out of our lives, but they want them peeking in our bedroom windows . . . and they want them in the hospital as we make our most private family decisions."
Gilmore's resistance to increasing funding for transportation needs might also become an election issue even if he approves the $104 million in Northern Virginia highway improvements, several legislators say. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has pushed that package, but Democrats hope his reluctance to bolster highway spending will hurt Republicans in car-clogged areas such as the Washington suburbs and downstate, where highway construction is key to economic development.
Republican strategist Ray Allen, another Gilmore adviser, dismisses those potential Democratic issues as weak compared with the governor's record of tax cuts, lower college tuition and increased aid to local governments.
"They are sniping around the edges," Allen said. "There is no pretense that they have a governing vision that's different from the liberal nonsense of the last four years. . . . Nothing they're doing worries me a bit."
Some Democrats also are hoping to benefit from the aftermath of congressional Republicans' failed effort to remove President Clinton from office.
Leaders of both parties say that legislative races are inherently local -- more resembling races for school board than governor -- and that the Clinton scandal will be far from voters' minds by November. But Del. Kenneth R. Plum (Fairfax), the state Democratic Party chairman, said the party may benefit from a bump in contributions and in the motivation of party activists.
Even so, the heart of his agenda will grow from the successes and failures of the legislative session scheduled to end Saturday.
"My campaign poster is going to say, 'Vote for Ken Plum: Funding for education, food-tax reduction and reforming HMOs,' " Plum said. "That's what we did in the session. That's what we stand for."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company