Virginia Republicans sought today to broaden the legislative campaign beyond the transportation headaches that Democrats have seized upon, saying education and issues such as taxes and crime will propel the GOP to commanding majorities in the General Assembly.
Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), an assembly veteran and co-chairman of the House Education Committee, told reporters at a Capitol news conference that what happens in Virginia's classrooms is the No. 1 issue this year.
As he knocks on doors every day, Dillard said, "I find they're talking about education, even with all the hype on transportation.
"That's the real key to success in Virginia" politics, said Dillard, a retired teacher.
Democrats, stoking fires under the administration of Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) on transportation, have had "a promise-of-the-month club," said Republican state Chairman J. Randy Forbes of Chesapeake.
"They have totally abandoned the education initiatives . . . by not talking about them," Forbes said.
The GOP chairman offered few new programs, once more endorsing Gilmore's long-standing plan for 4,000 new teachers and innovations in school safety, early reading for youngsters and alternative teacher licensing, as well as $510 million in new funds to meet educational standards.
Senior Republican strategists said the GOP news conference was part of a calculated effort to open new fronts in the statewide war for control of the General Assembly, a struggle defined in recent weeks by Democratic charges that the governor is allowing traffic congestion to worsen.
By focusing unceasingly on transportation, Democrats are "surrendering the ground on education, crime, taxes," said Ray Allen, a top Gilmore adviser. "On all fronts, it's very easy to trump what they've said."
The GOP news conference was the latest volley in the game of political Ping-Pong the two major parties have played all summer, each side trying to find the issue that could tip the legislative balance of power in its favor. All 140 seats in the legislature are up for election Nov. 2.
In Northern Virginia, lawmakers and that region's business community have pushed state Democratic leaders for new action--and dollars--to ease traffic congestion in the Washington suburbs and other congested areas around the state. Without derailing the governor completely, Democrats have forced Gilmore to confront the politics of road congestion, party operatives on both sides say.
"It's a partisan thing," Gilmore said today in an interview. "They're taking a public-policy issue and making it an election issue."
Gilmore plans a major address next week on transportation funding, using Washington area radio listeners as his primary audience.
Craig K. Bieber, the Democratic Party executive director who attended the GOP news conference, said Democrats had focused on transportation because of the "overwhelming" voter response to their call for an infusion of money to build more roads.
As early as mid-July, Bieber said, Democrats unveiled a "Safety and Savings" program for improved school safety by increasing spending on alternative schools and on police officers who are stationed full time in middle and high schools.
Yet, on transportation, "we have talked about that constantly," Bieber said, adding that Democrats will speak in greater detail on other issues after Labor Day, when the summer holiday season ends.