Two events from last week illustrate the extremes of Virginia's current political climate.
On Sept. 14, national anti-tax guru Grover Norquist lashed out -- again -- at the Republican lawmakers who supported this year's $1.5 billion tax increase. Among the offenders listed in a Wild West-style "Least Wanted" poster was Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford), chairman of the Finance Committee, who pushed for an even larger tax increase.
Norquist and his allies also took aim at Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), the man they see as the architect of just about everything evil. They repeatedly called him a liar who told voters he would never raise taxes, then led the charge for a doozy of a tax hike.
"Being a Republican legislator does not have to mean give me liberty or give me death," said Paul J. Gessing, director of government affairs for the National Taxpayers Union. "But it does mean not going along with the liberal Democratic governor in his plan to raise taxes."
The event was basically political theater. Norquist and the other groups did not commit any money to the effort to unseat Republican lawmakers in Virginia. And aside from promising to mail the poster to lawmakers nationwide, they did not outline a plan of action.
It was also noteworthy that the tactics did not earn the endorsement of the state's GOP leadership, which is nervous about participating in an all-out civil war within the party.
Still, the hard-core anti-tax wing exists in Virginia. It helped defeat transportation referendums in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads in 2002. The Norquist event served as a warning to the senators and delegates who voted for the tax and budget plan this year.
Meanwhile, last Friday, Governing magazine announced it had selected Warner and Chichester as co-recipients of its 2004 Public Official of the Year Award. The pair will be honored at a dinner and reception Nov. 10.
The press release from the trade publication cites the Virginians' successful bid to form "a bipartisan alliance that moved a comprehensive tax reform package through an initially hostile legislature."
Along with six other honorees across the nation, the magazine said, Warner and Chichester "came into situations that involved almost unbelievable complexity and seemingly endless bureaucratic and political obstacles. Ordinary public officials might have just steered clear. And yet they persevered, and they accomplished remarkable things."
The magazine seems to have a penchant for rewarding politicians whose actions displease Norquist and his ilk. In 2003, it gave the award to Bob Riley, the Republican governor of Alabama who pushed for a massive tax increase in his state through a voter referendum.
The initiative failed at the polls, big-time. But the magazine cited him anyway, saying that "in fighting for tax reform, Riley proved to be a model of conviction, candor and integrity. His selection as a Public Official of the Year for 2003 serves as a reminder that in government, unlike in professional football, winning isn't the only thing. Character matters as well."
(The magazine's 2003 award winners also, by chance, included Fairfax County's chief information officer, David Molchany, and his deputy, Wanda Gibson. The magazine said "Molchany and Gibson have all but written the book on how to break through the fragmentation and set the creative process free.")
In Virginia politics, the magazine's decision to honor Warner and Chichester serves as quite a contrast to the vengeful Norquist message. And it represents the view of many in the business community, who along with others have pledged to raise millions of dollars to protect incumbent Republicans against the Norquist backlash, should there be one.
But it will eventually be up to the voters to decide which of the competing visions for Virginia they will choose.
Will it be Norquist's no-tax-hikes-at-all-costs approach? Or will they decide that governing can include increasing taxes, and that this one was okay?
The voters will be given several opportunities to answer. Next year, Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) will take on Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) in a race that many say will highlight different approaches to taxes. Members of the House of Delegates also will be up for reelection.
In 2006, Warner might run against Sen. George Allen (R), a staunch conservative. And in 2007, the entire state Senate will be up for reelection.
It will be fascinating to see what they decide.