There are few public officials who can transform a run-of-the-mill legislative hearing into an electric event merely by being present.
James S. Gilmore III is one of them.
From the moment Virginia's combative former governor entered House Room C on Monday, it was clear this would be no ordinary meeting of the Joint Committee to Study the Appropriate Balance of Power Between the Legislative and Executive Branches to Support a Two-Term Governor in the Commonwealth.
Legislative aides' boring testimony about comparative legislative powers was shunted to the end of the meeting to accommodate one of Richmond's most outsize personalities. True to his reputation as a pugnacious former prosecutor and a blunt-spoken conservative Republican, Gilmore did not disappoint.
In a 40-minute appearance that was playful and sharp-edged, and that sometimes resembled a campaign speech more than legislative testimony, Gilmore urged lawmakers to give future governors the opportunity to be reelected after four years -- a run-of-the-mill feature of governance elsewhere that prevented Gilmore from seeking a second term in 2001.
"The two-term governor is better for the public," Gilmore said. "It's better for the democracy of the state."
He didn't stop there. Gilmore also offered a backhanded criticism of college presidents, with whom he frequently clashed as governor, by noting that some make as much as $500,000 a year, three times the governor's salary.
He also took aim at the people who invited him to the legislative hearing.
Gilmore's last year as governor was marked by a bitter feud with lawmakers over how quickly to eliminate Virginia's car tax. His battle sparked Virginia's first budget impasse and made political enemies of several senior Republican lawmakers in the state Senate.
On Monday, he chided lawmakers for failing to fully phase out Virginia's car tax after he finished his four-year term. The clear implication: If he had had another four years, things would have been different.
"We agreed to a five-year phaseout," he reminded them. "Now, that remains unfinished business."
He also blamed the one-term limit for the acrimony of his last year, saying that a governor who wants to be "an agent for change" can't afford to be nice all the time.
"You have to get rough-edged. You have to shove pretty hard," Gilmore said. In the understatement of the morning, Gilmore added, "Sometimes that is interpreted as being harsh."
Gilmore rarely misses a chance to publicly brag about his record in office, and he did so Monday, touting his achievements in economic development and transportation. Under his leadership, he said, Virginia made serious progress on rebuilding the Springfield interchange and on the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
To critics who contend that those projects should have been completed much sooner, he said Virginia's term limit on governors makes it impossible to start, construct and finish large transportation projects in one term.
"You can't move a transportation project in one term," he said. "Not possible."
Although Gilmore at times sounded like a candidate, he ignored the question on everyone's mind: Could he stand to benefit from a two-term governorship? Is he planning to run for the state's top office again, as is sometimes rumored throughout Capitol Square?
It is widely presumed that Republicans will nominate Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore for governor next year. Gilmore is said to have flirted with the idea of a comeback when Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and lawmakers froze his car tax cuts this year.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Gilmore did little but stoke those rumors.
"I'd like to be a candidate again statewide," he said, smiling broadly. "But I have business to attend to right now."