Freshman governors are supposed to be seen, not heard, when they meet their elders, but a four-year clock was ticking loudly when Virginia's James S. Gilmore III (R) made a national splash on Day 39 of his tenure.
At a high-profile Washington conference in 1998, he broke with his fellow governors to oppose all taxation of the Internet.
"Governors usually come at it with a reverence, awestruck, and Jim just kind of came in and said, 'This is what I'm all about--I'm going to do this,' " recalled North Dakota Gov. Edward T. Schafer (R). "In Virginia," where the governor is prohibited from succeeding himself, "you've got to get out of the chute fast."
Now halfway through his term, Gilmore, 50, is riding high, reaping the rewards of a narrowly focused political agenda and secure in a booming state economy, the GOP's new legislative majority that will carry out his car tax repeal and his role as the self-made darling of the nation's high-technology community, much of it based in Northern Virginia.
At the same time, Gilmore concedes that he hurt himself in some internal party skirmishes and has had to revise his simplistic view of the relationship between a greenhorn governor and an often obstinate General Assembly.
Now, with two years under his belt, the former Richmond area prosecutor and state attorney general is telling members of his inner circle to remain just as intense as they were in the first half of his administration.
"At the Cabinet on Monday, what I basically said was, 'Look, we've had two great years. . . . We've got great approval ratings,' " Gilmore said in an interview last week.
"But my approach was--and this is what I said to them--this is the first Cabinet meeting of the new millennium," he added. "I told 'em I thought we were virtually writing on a blank slate now, for the last two years."
Gilmore has delivered to the legislature a record $48 billion biennial budget, a spending plan that constitutes the fine print of his political agenda. Nearly $1 billion a year will pay for the graduated elimination of the car tax, and millions have been set aside for more than a dozen other tax cuts, transportation initiatives, improvements in mental health care and outreach to the African American community in tourism, education and high technology.
"He's matured--it's attitudinal," said state Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford), a veteran lawmaker who heads the Senate Finance Committee. "Governors first get into office and do as he did: 'Here's what I want.'
"Now, it's, 'Here's what I want, but it's in the hands of the legislature,' " Chichester said.
Gilmore acknowledges he has had to modify his us-vs.-them view of the General Assembly, where even Republican members felt bruised by what they regarded as a ham-handed approach by an executive unfamiliar with their ways.
"I certainly believed when I arrived here that everything was seen in [terms of] Democrats and Republicans and that things were teams," Gilmore said.
"I have not yet cracked the Democrats in order to get a single one to support me on a single issue. Nonetheless, I have a deeper understanding of my own party."
Gilmore learned an object lesson about the wide spectrum of Republicanism during last year's historic legislative election cycle, when he tirelessly crisscrossed the state in a district-by-district attempt to win undisputed GOP control of both the Senate and the House of Delegates.
Right in his own back yard of Richmond, Gilmore backed a conservative businessman in a primary against a popular incumbent delegate who had challenged the governor, a fellow Republican, on a range of issues. Gilmore's team lost the election, and he lost considerable face.
"I expended capital and took damage," Gilmore says today. "But overall, [his election-year strategy] was a success." For the first time ever, Republicans enjoy a working, albeit narrow, majority of 52 seats in the 100-member House; the Senate is 21 to 19 for the GOP.
"Politically, he's been masterful," said Craig K. Bieber, the spokesman for the state Democratic Party. "He has certainly achieved a lot of his objectives."
The episode in Richmond last June, highlighting as it did Gilmore's unforgiving side, still rankles Republicans who might otherwise support his agenda. So, too, do other bumps in the governor's busy first half, such as his refusal to back down in the losing Hugh Finn right-to-die case and well-publicized firings of veteran bureaucrats and policy advisers.
"He's got a focus," said state Sen. John C. Watkins (R), a centrist from suburban Richmond. "What would probably help would be to share some of that focus, some of that vision.
"To lead Virginia--right now, today--there's got to be a shared vision," Watkins said.
Gilmore said he wants to keep peace in a sometimes fractious GOP while uniting different regions of Virginia, the prosperous haves and less wealthy have-nots who still harbor deep suspicions about each other.
"I can't resist telling you: Northern Virginia must exist as a component of the overall commonwealth," Gilmore said. "That's an entirely new concept.
"There was this old thought that Northern Virginia was this entity and the rest of Virginia was this entity and there was this uncomfortable joining together," he added. "We need to recognize that it is all one big family."
Nonetheless, some Republican activists continue to grumble privately about a Gilmore worldview that they say brooks no dissent. "It's the iron-fisted, my-way-or-the-highway, if-I-don't-get-you-today, then-I-will-someday approach that scares the hell out of people about Republicans," said one veteran GOP leader who has been in the legislature several terms.
Others see real virtue in Gilmore's relentless approach to problems, especially on a national stage where he heads two congressionally appointed commissions, on Internet policy and preparedness against terrorism. He also is an important fund-raiser for his party as vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
"There's a good aggressiveness about him," said North Dakota's Schafer, the governors association chairman, who expects Gilmore to raise $10 million to help 11 incumbents win reelection this year.
Added Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee: "He has a dogged determination and he brings people together around him.
" 'Less government, fewer taxes, more freedom, more individual responsibility' is Jim Gilmore's mantra, and its a winning agenda," Nicholson said. "He's a star in our party."
Gilmore's suddenly bold national profile has some of his most ardent supporters hoping that presidential contender George W. Bush of Texas will pick him as a running mate, but despite the friendship between the two southern governors--"We're buddies," Gilmore said--few expect that lightning bolt to strike. Nor is Gilmore considered likely to leave one of the country's most powerful governorships--a job held by the likes of Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, after all--for a mere cabinet post in Washington.
Gilmore and others say he is already sketching the outlines of an enduring legacy--the car tax repeal, to be sure, but more important, an enthusiastic helping hand to the Northern Virginia information technology sector so vital to the state's overall economy.
"We're not normally known for leadership on national issues, but [industry] people in Washington state are now worried about Virginia," said James W. Hazel, a lawyer-lobbyist from Arlington who represents the Sterling-based America Online Inc.
"He has transformed Virginia," Hazel said of Gilmore. "He has stood up and spoken for the industry. It's good policy and it's good politics."
Gilmore said his tax cuts and technology focus are the two "equally important" legs of his legacy. "Yes, Virginia is on the map and is going to be more on the map because we are positioned to take advantage of the information technology revolution," he said.
Democrats like Bieber, as well as many Republicans, notably those who view Gilmore from the legislature, worry that the governor is mortgaging the future to fulfill his car tax pledge, neglecting enormous needs that demand permanent fixes now.
"He's exchanged short-term, political expediency for long-term solutions to pressing problems," Bieber said. "What sort of mess has he left for his successor?"
Gilmore said he is comfortable with the balance between a national role--his interest in Internet issues has taken him to Silicon Valley regularly and to a giant Las Vegas trade show just last week--and the governor's job back home.
"If you're looking for self-critique, I can't tell you that there are any places where we went in the wrong direction," Gilmore said.
"You don't have time to go down blind alleys, turn around and retrace your steps," he added. "You don't have time."
CAPTION: Gov. James S. Gilmore III has focused on cutting taxes and fostering high-tech industry.
CAPTION: Gilmore has annoyed some fellow Republicans in the legislature but helped win the GOP majority.