The governor who would be president received two standing ovations from the students before he opened his mouth. The president of the university, a Republican and former U.S. senator, introduced the governor as a "visionary entrepreneur and trailblazer in the new world of the information age."
"Gov. Mark Warner serves our state and nation with remarkable integrity, intelligence and insight," said Paul S. Trible Jr., president of Christopher Newport University. That was just for starters.
"In politics today, there are few real leaders and too many politicians whose purpose is to tell people what the polls say they want to hear," Trible continued. Warner had "the courage . . . to reform our taxes, put our financial house in order and generate more revenue to fund higher education and other core services essential to the future of Virginia."
Trible went beyond the call of introduction duty. He implicitly rebutted the contention, advanced by Republican gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore and the populist wing of the state GOP, that Warner unnecessarily led the charge to raise taxes and saddled "working men and women" with a grievous new burden.
In fewer than 10 years Trible has taken what was once a functional but average state-supported liberal arts college and brought it national recognition. Warner gave his speech from Christopher Newport's new Ferguson Center for the Arts, a stunning and widely praised $54 million facility -- one part of a $300 million building program that Trible embarked upon by the simple expedient of asking for private money to supplement state funding.
In so doing, however, Trible has discovered what other state academic leaders have learned over the years: Raise the money if you can, but check your back to see that Virginia still is fulfilling its end of the bargain.
In recent years, with the General Assembly repeatedly yanking money out of higher education, Virginia's leading universities have pleaded for a new arrangement with state government. They won it earlier this year when Warner and the legislature passed "restructuring" legislation.
Now the state schools supposedly have Virginia's commitment to "base adequacy" funding, as well as new performance standards, announced just two weeks ago. Where tuition costs go from this point and what the new performance standards actually translate into are anything but clear, however.
Quick, how much have you heard about this issue during the current governor's race?
Right, not much.
In any state but Virginia, the governor would be pressed on what comes next. The commonwealth's constitution, however, bars Warner from succeeding himself, and how the "restructuring" of Virginia higher education will play out is anybody's guess.
Warner, when asked whether Virginia's single-term limitation frustrates him, answers, "Yes, absolutely." (His predecessors probably would have said the same.)
"Passing legislation is just the beginning of change," Warner says. How you implement it is the crux of the matter. "Will momentum slack off?" he asks.
It's a management thing, you see. Warner cites his successful efforts to improve state procurement, consolidate technology and reform Virginia's real estate portfolio, and no one disputes that the governor's businessman-turned-politician mentality has had salutary effects. Taxpayer money -- lots of it -- has been saved. But will the mind-set of getting Virginia government to pay its bills and run more efficiently survive the election?
When Tim Kaine, the Democratic candidate for governor, went before the Northern Virginia Technology Council, he got questions on tax policy and offered up a measured response. He would do all he could to keep the industry competitive, he said, but only within the state's larger financial interests -- a Warner-like reply.
Kilgore, on the other hand, simply said, "Sure" to allowing local governments to raise their own taxes for road and rail projects, and the council endorsed him.
Kilgore's tendency to say "sure" in all instances troubles the thinking wing of the Republican Party as well as anyone with a passing familiarity with looming state obligations. The big-ticket items -- the colleges, Medicaid, an underfunded state pension system, new prisons, state educational standards and car-tax reimbursement -- will absorb available state revenue in the next budget.
Still, Kilgore has embraced spending proposals across the board, and he plans to go into the general fund, which supports education, to help pay for transportation projects. Kilgore says he is ready to spend the money Warner raised with tax increases. No GOP standard-bearer in modern Virginia history has been so undiscriminating in his enthusiasm for new spending.
Such expansionary thinking normally would progress to tax increases to pay for it, but no one thinks that's where this is going, because Kilgore wants big tax cuts, too. Should Kilgore become governor, look instead for a fiscal debacle of the likes that characterized the last years of Warner's predecessor, James S. Gilmore III.
Kilgore reads the polls, and he tells people what they want to hear. He thinks it will get him elected governor, and, well, fiddledeedee, he must figure, tomorrow is another day.