Election-Year Dynamics Expected
To Color Virginia Assembly Session
By R.H. Melton
RICHMOND Virginia's legislative races next fall -- and the anticipation of the 2001 governor's race -- will give a partisan tang to the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 13.
With Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III's administration riding high on a revenue surplus of nearly $900 million, an informal survey of legislators found them generally optimistic about the state economy and about what they can do with that money during the 45-day session.
But many are wary of potential skirmishes along party lines as the GOP tries to capture control of the assembly for the first time in more than a century during the fall elections, when all 140 House and Senate seats will be on the ballot.
"Any time you corner a dog, he's going to bite," said Chris LaCivita, executive director of the state Republican Party, referring to the opposition Democrats.
LaCivita said he expects that Democrats -- having lost control of the Senate and clinging to a razor-thin majority in the 100-member House of Delegates -- will try to gain partisan ground with bread-and-butter issues such as money for school construction and an accelerated cut in the sales tax on food.
Democrats, meanwhile, are insisting on credit for those politically popular ideas, as well as a college tuition cut that Gilmore now claims as his own.
"The Republican attempt to co-opt Democratic ideas made everybody's life a hell of a lot easier," said Del. C. Richard Cranwell (D-Roanoke), a legislative tactician who was Gilmore's chief nemesis during the session last winter. At that time, Democrats forced the governor to accept a school construction package before they would back his plan to cut the state's car tax.
Meanwhile, leaders of both parties will be watching one of this town's best sideshows, the minuet involving Gilmore's GOP running mates, Lt. Gov. John H. Hager and state Attorney General Mark L. Earley, both of whom want to be governor. (Under Virginia law, Gilmore is prohibited from serving consecutive terms.)
Having settled into their jobs in the past year -- Hager presiding over the state Senate and traveling throughout the state, Earley staying close to Richmond as the government's top lawyer -- they have gone about preparing themselves for the 2001 governor's race in very different ways, with sharply contrasting styles.
Earley, a quiet and cerebral former state senator, said he will use the session to continue his campaign to end binge drinking on college campuses. He also plans to announce another effort soon to recruit 5,000 volunteers to mentor young people.
Hager, a blunt-spoken, retired tobacco executive who is only the fourth non-legislator in Virginia history to serve as lieutenant governor, said he wants to focus on fighting drunken driving and limiting garbage being hauled into the state, among other issues.
In recent days, the two have signaled a serious commitment to the 2001 race. Hager is fusing two fund-raising groups into a single political action committee, and Earley has created the Campaign for Virginia's Future, a PAC that already is sprinkling money to GOP candidates across the state.
Hager, an energetic campaigner with a no-nonsense style as a stump speaker, said he relishes courting voter support in competition with Earley. "I think it's very healthy," he said.
Earley said: "All of the speculation about John and I, quite frankly, is driven more by outside forces than by us. Speculating about what's going to happen three years from now is counterproductive."
Still, the speculation about the two is intense here, with no firmly declared Democratic hopeful in sight. And given a dearth of divisive issues this session and a House and Senate tinged by election-year politics, the Earley-Hager show has attracted more attention than it might have otherwise.
Guided by Dick Leggitt, a Gilmore adviser and GOP operative who specializes in statewide campaigns, Hager has transformed his tiny office into what is effectively a full-time politicking machine. In response, Earley has sought to heighten his profile, speaking out more on issues affecting voters.
Earley is expected to step up the pace of speaking to groups such as chambers of commerce, bar associations and business round tables and at party functions, one adviser said.
Hager is hosting a Jan. 7 gala at Richmond's swankiest hotel featuring U.S. Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), a prospective presidential candidate. Leggitt said both Earley and Hager will have opportunities to raise their profiles this session.
"I would call it an opportunity session for everybody," Leggitt said.
Legislators and lobbyists, meanwhile, doubt the session will produce the kind of partisan attacks that marked the opening of last winter's assembly, after Republicans won a series of special House elections and forced a power-sharing agreement with Democrats, who for decades had ruled state politics with an iron fist.
With such a big state surplus on hand, "the objective is not to screw up -- be more cautious," said Charles J. Davis III, a former gubernatorial press secretary and veteran lobbyist who has close ties to GOP lawmakers.
Del. Jay W. DeBoer (Petersburg), a senior Democrat, agreed. "It should be a relatively sedate session," he said, but added that interest groups and political activists will continue to agitate for their pet causes.
"In an election year, there are demands to put bills in the hopper and people say they're the best thing since steam heat," DeBoer said. "And our will to resist it is practically nonexistent."
A few members fear that the session will be more contentious, echoing the bitter sessions that followed the 1993 election to the governor's office of George Allen (R) as Republicans cemented their gains in the legislature.
"Both Democrats and Republicans are going to try to frame issues that say where they stand," said Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington).
Gilmore has spent the past year trying to emerge from Allen's shadow by crafting a more compassionate brand of conservatism, even as Allen was deciding to challenge U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.).
Although he professes a willingness to work with Democrats on certain issues, Gilmore is already thinking of completing the GOP takeover of state government by winning the House next fall.
"A more progressive conservatism is afoot," Gilmore said in an interview yesterday. "We have approached this in a way that has been careful and successful, therefore. I don't think we've been reckless.
"It wasn't just same-old, same-old."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company