Some of Virginia's wealthiest business executives are preparing to launch a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign aimed at reelecting centrist members of the House of Delegates in both parties next year and ousting incumbents they consider extreme.
Executives familiar with the effort said they plan to announce the formation of a political action committee in the next few months and are seeking to raise $1 million to $2 million by next summer's primaries. That would make the PAC one of the largest political money machines in the state.
Gov. Mark R. Warner plans a similar fundraising campaign for Democrats in the legislature, he said last week. And the state Senate's top Republicans, who are known around the capital as the Gang of Five, have created their own PAC to raise money for fiscally moderate Republican candidates across the state.
"There are just too many folks out there who are driven by ideological interests and sound-bite politics," said James Ukrop, chief executive of a Richmond-based chain of supermarkets. "I'm supportive of all efforts that try to get fiscal responsibility and good financial stewardship for our state."
The immediate goal of the three campaigns is to protect incumbent lawmakers whose votes in favor of tax increases this year make them political targets. During the 2004 General Assembly session, moderate Republicans joined Democrats to approve a $1.5 billion tax increase over the objections of conservatives.
But the ambitions of the parallel fundraising efforts go beyond the 2005 election season, according to several participants. In private meetings, strategy sessions and one-on-one conversations, the organizers have discussed their desire to underwrite a moderate political voice in a state whose legislature is increasingly dominated by young and passionately anti-tax Republicans.
That message of moderation, with enough money, would be carried to Virginia's voters by the same coalition of nurses, teachers, police officers, county officials and state workers that helped Warner win passage of his tax program, the participants said. The grass-roots work could be performed by the Foundation for Virginia, a nonprofit, pro-education group that could retool its mission for the new campaign, sources said.
"They are trying to create a succeeding generation of Virginians who are interested in investing in Virginia," said Fairfax attorney and developer John T. "Til" Hazel, who said he has pledged his financial support to the new group. "I hope they succeed. The mission they are on is important."
Virginia's extended debate over taxes during the 2004 General Assembly session exposed a deep rift between some top members of the Republican Party and many of the state's leading executives. The state's largest business groups and many individual company officials backed Warner's push for higher taxes as a way of investing in the state's struggling schools, colleges, roads and health care systems.
Now, many of those same business leaders say they are ready to pay back lawmakers who supported their philosophy and punish those who did not.
"It's no longer rocket science to see who the good guys are and who the bad guys are," said Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University and a supporter of the fundraising effort. "The business community now sees who voted against them and then came to a cocktail party and said, 'I'm your friend.' You can't have it both ways."
National and state anti-tax organizations have pledged to use their own fundraising muscle to oust lawmakers who voted in favor of tax increases this year, especially the 17 to 20 Republicans in the House of Delegates who broke with their leadership to back the tax plan throughout the session.
But there is no comparable fundraising effort underway by Republican lawmakers who opposed the tax increases. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said his political action committee will be used to find challengers to Democrats and to help incumbent Republicans regardless of whether they supported the tax increases.
"I got a call from a guy who wanted to run against one of the 17, and he asked would I support him," Howell said. "I said, no indeed."
But Howell, who led the opposition to the tax increases, said he does not believe the entire business community is backing the push for more moderate lawmakers. He said most businesses care about other issues, too, and support House Republicans.
"I see headlines in the paper that the business community shuns House Republicans. That's just not true," Howell said. "You have some business leaders who travel in the same circles, and their idea of good government is to raise taxes. That's fine, but [if they succeed] they may find they are dealing with a House that is much less favorable to things that they care about."
The business PAC is being organized by Roanoke area executive W. Heywood Fralin, owner of a chain of nursing homes, and John O. "Dubby" Wynne, former chief executive of Landmark Communications, which owns the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk and the Weather Channel in Atlanta, among other properties. Both executives were vocal supporters of Warner's efforts to raise taxes and increase investment in state programs this year.
Wynne did not return several calls; Fralin, whose son is a Republican delegate who voted for the tax plan, declined to comment on the effort.
Last month, the pair made a plea for support to the 123 Club, an elite group of wealthy business leaders in Northern Virginia. According to people at the group's July 13 dinner meeting, Fralin and Wynne said several of the lawmakers who voted for the tax increase will need financial help next year to get reelected.
But the group also discussed the possibility of financing moderate candidates to run against House members who staunchly opposed the new taxes.
"The money isn't going to be diddled away tilting at windmills," Hazel said. "It will be used when it can make a difference."
Warner, who spent months courting moderate Republicans during his battle with the assembly over taxes, is quick to point out that his own efforts to raise money will benefit Democrats, not the GOP.
His political action committee, One Virginia, will support "moderate Democratic candidates committed to advancing a philosophy that we need to be fiscally prudent," he said.
But the governor praised the broader push by business leaders and Senate Republicans.
"I am aware there are other efforts," he said, by people "who want to see this moderate center hold and this not be a one-time event. We saw this year people in both parties step up and do what was in the long-term interests of Virginia. I'd like to see that happen again."
Leaders of the new fundraising effort for moderates say Warner can use his bully pulpit and the money from his PAC to help define an election-year agenda that is helpful to their cause.
But one executive, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive partisan issues involved, said Warner has been urged to stay out of the planning and operation of the campaign. The participation of a high-profile Democratic politician could doom the idea, he said.
"I don't think he can be involved," the executive said of Warner. "He may be a cheerleader, but that's all he is."
Some business executives expressed a similar concern about the Senate Leadership Trust, the Gang of Five's new PAC, which is overtly designed to help Republicans in that chamber.
Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (Henrico), one of the PAC's founders and its current trustee, said the group will help finance the campaigns of incumbent GOP senators who share the leadership's philosophy. He also said money from the group could be spent to elect like-minded delegates to open House seats.
He said the money will not be used to try to oust sitting House members.
"We have to invest. We have huge issues with how to fund education and higher education, not to say anything about transportation," Stosch said.
At the end of July, Stosch and the other members of the Senate leadership met in Richmond with about 20 top business executives, including some involved in the larger fundraising effort, Stosch said.
He said the senators described a mission that will require long-term financial support.
"The unstated goal," Stosch said, is "we've got to look beyond one or two years. We have to have a long-term way of developing a new perspective."