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  •   With GOP on the Rise, Cranwell Becomes Leader of Opposition to Car Tax Phaseout

    State Del. Richard Cranwell with wife Elizabeth and son Jack
    State Del. Richard Cranwell plays with his son Jack while his wife Elizabeth looks on. (By Nancy Andrews/TWP)
    By R. H. Melton
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, February 17, 1998; Page B04

    RICHMOND, Feb. 16—He arrived at Virginia's General Assembly as a newly minted country lawyer and long-haired fashion plate, daring to prowl Jefferson's elegant Capitol in a double-knit leisure suit with leather pockets and Davy Crockett fringe.

    Today, 26 years later, C. Richard Cranwell (D) sports the snazzy silk ties and dark suits of a millionaire legislator. The days of long sideburns are behind him, but he still has a cunning, aw-shucks gift for deal-making and power politics that has no peer in the House of Delegates, and probably the entire General Assembly.

    In this session, those skills are being tested as never before. After years as the imperious traffic cop on legislation in his role as the House majority floor leader, the Roanoke Democrat must deal with a chamber evenly split between his party and Republicans.

    The new GOP power in the legislature -- along with Republicans' sweep of the statewide elections in November -- initially forced Cranwell to be much more solicitous toward Republicans. At the start of this session, he openly courted them in a way he never had to a decade ago, when Democrats dominated the House.

    But as Cranwell dissected the fine print of Gov. James S. Gilmore III's plan to phase out the property tax on cars and trucks, his tone has become more urgent, more populist.

    Day after day, in House floor sessions, news conferences and committee meetings, he has pleaded and cajoled in what sometimes has been a one-man campaign against Gilmore's five-year plan, which Cranwell says will prevent the state from having enough money to address billions of dollars in future education needs.

    Confident Republicans initially brushed off Cranwell's dart-throwing. But last week, with Democratic proposals to cut the sales tax on food and to begin a massive school-building program gaining more attention, the GOP became concerned enough about Cranwell's threats to the car-tax cut to begin firing back.

    Gilmore took a highly publicized fly-around tour of Virginia and the GOP began a sophisticated mass-mailing and telephone bank operation to try to pressure any wavering legislators to vote in favor of the rollback.

    "This year, it's okay to lie," a scowling Cranwell said the other day, flashing his irritation at how the cost estimate for Gilmore's tax cut has nearly doubled since the November election, to $2.8 billion over five years.

    Cranwell was an ardent supporter of Gilmore's opponent, then-Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr., and looked forward to working with a Democratic governor from his perch on the back bench of a Democrat-controlled House.

    But Gilmore rode the car tax to easy victory, and a series of special elections this winter -- some created by Gilmore's appointment of Democratic lawmakers to his administration -- gave the GOP parity in the House. It's meant heartburn to the man whom everyone calls "Dickie" (a nickname he doesn't much like).

    And yet, Cranwell is so good at what he does -- building coalitions of varying numbers of delegates -- that a small but growing number of Democrats are rallying around him, proposing alternative tax cuts, including the 4.5 percent levy on food.

    A proposal to eliminate the food tax died on a 50 to 50, party-line vote in the House on Saturday. But Cranwell and his followers vowed as late as tonight, the eve of a legislative deadline for major action on bills, to continue pressing the plan as a more equitable tax cut than Gilmore's.

    "Part of his magic is in pulling people together in many different ways," said former governor Gerald L. Baliles, who relied on Cranwell in 1986 to shepherd a record increase in transportation taxes through a nervous House. "He uses the party, but also regional ties, economic interests. He spots openings. He is a master of opportunities."

    Regardless of their party, every delegate and lobbyist here has a Cranwell story, and while some cringe at the times he browbeat them from his chairman's seat in the Finance Committee or summarily killed their bills, many more recall the closed-door meetings in which he quietly pulled together bitterly divided camps to forge compromise.

    One year, that meant corralling the National Rifle Association, gun dealers, handgun foes and the state police for a bill to create instant background checks on gun buyers. Last year, it meant getting business and labor to come to terms on a worker's compensation measure.

    "He gives you enough to take back home so you have something to show," said E.L. "Bill" Crump, who began lobbying for Virginia Power the same year Cranwell came to the House.

    "I like his style, which is essentially a nonpolitical style," said John T. "Til" Hazel Jr., a Northern Virginia real estate developer and an old friend of Cranwell's. The House, added Hazel, who spent much of this week here buttonholing legislators on his pet issues, "is different now. There's no set rudder. I don't see a substantial person taking his place."

    When it comes to funding shortages in education, transportation and other areas, "most of the General Assembly -- with the exception of Dick -- is in denial," Hazel said.

    Cranwell is one of the most successful trial lawyers in the state, winning huge judgments for clients, and his debating and courtroom skills serve him well in the heat of legislative battle. He also can be overly sarcastic at times; one day last week, he needled one arch-conservative Republican by pointing out that only four states have a lower tax burden than Virginia.

    "I will say to the gentleman from Virginia Beach, I will pay your moving expenses!" to leave the state, Cranwell cried, to hoots and guffaws from his side of the aisle.

    Still whip-thin at 55 (he was a football star at Virginia Tech), Cranwell is noticeably more mellow today than in past years, friends say, thanks largely to his wife, Elizabeth, 33, and their 6-month-old son, Jack. Cranwell has four grown children from his first marriage.

    But when it comes to real politicking, the old Cranwell is never far away.

    "He's vociferous, not laid back by any stretch," said Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), the Maryland Senate president who has worked with Cranwell on national party fund-raising projects. "When's he drawn into the arena, he feels he's got to take up a cudgel."

    Republicans in Richmond agree. "He's a consummate legislator -- and very, very partisan, on the down side," said Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax). "We never underestimate him."

    John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), who like Dillard ascended to a committee chairmanship because of the power-sharing agreement in the House, said the new arrangements are forcing an "identity shift in the Democrats. Dickie's dusting off some of Henry Howell's stuff, trying to find their populist roots" as that fiery Norfolk politician did in the 1970s.

    Gilmore has assembled a team of Republican advisers to counter Cranwell's arguments at every turn and seems driven to end his inaugural tussle with the General Assembly with a bang. When asked this week about car-tax strategy in general and Cranwell in particular, an unsmiling Gilmore replied: "Delegate Cranwell should respond to the wishes of the people."

    So far, Cranwell has cobbled together a small and seemingly unlikely group of suburban and downstate Democrats against the tax cut but faces the daunting task of convincing the waverers -- and there are many -- to join him.

    "Dickie's shrewd, tough and can be mean as hell," said Del. Barnie K. Day, a Democrat from Patrick whose drawl is even thicker than Cranwell's valley twang. "I'd rather have him with me than against me."

    Cranwell has his pessimistic moments -- "I'm probably going to get mowed down," he sighed one day last week -- but if he fails to derail Gilmore's tax cut or at least alter it, it won't be for lack of trying.

    And if, as he says, he doesn't fret about a House in complete Republican control, others are certainly doing it for him.

    "It may be a good relief" being a minority leader, Cranwell mused. "I could make their life hell on Earth.

    "But I'd like to think I wouldn't do that."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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