On Election Day 2002, we learned that:

* Northern Virginia has no transportation crisis, at least not a financial one.

* A mighty Republican tide is washing over the Washington suburbs, drowning the Democrats' agenda at will.

* Anti-sprawl advocates have a mandate for radical change in suburban land use.

* Last, but certainly not least, Mark R. Warner has lost what little authority he had as Democratic governor of a GOP state.

It's funny how a message from voters can say different things, depending on who's listening.

Every interest group in Virginia politics is claiming a share of the credit, or accepting its assigned portion of the blame, after the overwhelming voter defeat of sales tax proposals that were to fund major transportation projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Voters in both regions spoke resoundingly, but with no single voice, at least not in Northern Virginia, where Washington Post reporters fanned out on Election Day and heard as many rationales for voting no as they found folks to interview.

Of course, many were fed up with taxes, and, yes, others complained about sprawl, but there was no unifying message in voters' discontent with business as usual.

Except for this: There was an underlying frustration with elected leaders from top to bottom -- an impatience, if you will, at representative governments that don't work smartly any more, especially on land development, taxes, commuting and other big issues of the day.

That ought to be a wake-up call to everyone in public life, from lowly county supervisors on up to the governor himself. It's a slap-'em-upside-the-head message about the disconnect between generally affluent and sophisticated voters and a generation of leaders who perform far below maximum efficiency.

The message was not, as many Virginia Republicans are saying, do more with less. The message was: You haven't shown us that you can handle what we've given you already.

The Northern Virginia sales tax increase was doomed from the start because it was a desperation "solution." Elected officials and other elites in the business community had simply thrown up their hands a few years back about Northern Virginia's traffic congestion and settled on the sales tax increase as the only practicable way to fix it.

Instead of a coherent blend of land-use programs, more progressive taxes and tolls if need be and much greater community involvement, voters were handed an up-or-down choice on a makeshift solution that Warner himself kept saying was imperfect.

Everywhere he went, Warner told audiences how flawed the transportation tax was. In light of that, voting no, or what he called "doing nothing," became a pretty attractive option.

In the aftermath of Nov. 5, Warner still didn't get it. He complained rather petulantly about how the tax had been "nibbled" to death by opponents, once again looking at the issue from the top down, rather than from the bottom up.

Democrats in Virginia just can't seem to figure out this democracy thing. They are continually baffled, enraged and finally heartbroken by even the most lopsided electoral result. Losing always catches them by surprise.

The arrogance of Virginia's once-mighty majority party blinded Warner and other Democrats to the significance of Ken Cuccinelli, who parlayed a restive electorate into an important state Senate victory in August. That was followed on Nov. 5 by fellow Republican James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax) breezing through yet another special Senate race.

Proponents of the transportation tax sneered at Cuccinelli last summer, ignoring the deeper import of his hard-won election. They scoffed at his credentials, dismissing him as a fringe politician even as he whipped every opponent in sight. When he and fellow anti-taxers turned their attention to the sales tax proposal, proponents bragged about their superior organization.

Well, the opponents won, and sure enough, the establishmentarians who run the General Assembly are gunning for him in Richmond.

Cuccinelli said he is approaching the Senate, and the coming partisan battles over budget cuts, with a certain amount of humility. He acknowledges that, as a freshman, he doesn't have all the answers. Interestingly, he has also adopted some of the "smart growth" rhetoric, again reminding his waiting adversaries not to underestimate him or his ilk.

Republicans should be careful not to overstate defeat of the transportation tax. The message from voters on Nov. 5 was not to hack away at state spending until Virginia's government looks like something out of the 1950s.

So many of the circumstances that created the environment for the referendum are part of the GOP record. Spiraling budget shortfalls and virtual bankruptcy of the Virginia Department of Transportation developed on the watch of Republican governors and their allies in the legislature.

Similarly, the conservation community will want to grab what it can in the aftermath of Nov. 5, but it, too, should tread lightly. The referendum campaign destroyed its already uneasy relationship with Warner that was rooted in mutual contempt for the other's rigidity. However, the governor is as friendly an environmentalist as anti-sprawl activists are likely to get in the state's highest office.

Repairing that relationship should be a high priority if "smart growth" proponents hope to win lasting success after Nov. 5. At this point, they need him more than he needs them.

Warner? It's premature to be writing his political obituary. He still has a budget to propose next month and an agenda to pursue.

Warner's challenge will be overcoming his tendency to wallow in the referendum debacle. Three years is plenty of time to incubate ideas and craft a record of accomplishment, once the sulking stops.