It's not like nobody warned me. Ellen Qualls, Warner's sardonic press secretary, had tried to convey to me the force of the organism that forms around Virginia's chief executive. She calls it "the Blob."
"The Blob has a life of its own," Qualls says, looking serious. "It's bigger than me or you. It's bigger than any one of us. It has tentacles that reach out from wherever he is. It can find you wherever you are. You cannot escape. You cannot escape from the Blob and its power."
She pauses. "Now go down the stairs, and quickly, or you'll get run over by the actual nucleus." At that, Qualls begins racing down the stairwell. That's when I feel Warner's hand pushing me, and I begin to run.
It's the morning of Feb. 14, and Warner has a typically packed schedule. He's finishing up his second legislative session as governor two down, two to go and so far he has managed to aggravate just about everybody in the Capitol.
Warner is in his first elected office. He has no direct legislative experience. He's fond of saying he's a businessman, not a politician. His critics say he's proving it.
Republicans say he's so hands-off that they don't know what the governor stands for. "If there's an issue that's important to the governor and some of his staff I have a hard time knowing what it is," says Delegate H. Morgan Griffith, R-Roanoke, the House majority leader and a consistent Warner critic.
Says Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, the Republican front-runner for governor in 2004: "Our more recent governors had well-defined agendas and aggressively lobbied legislators for votes. With Governor [George] Allen, fighting crime dominated his legislative agenda. Governor Gilmore targeted taxes. With Governor Warner, it is often difficult to determine what his agenda is and which bills he is supporting."
Many of Warner's fellow Democrats say the same thing and add that he's not leading them into the fray. They say, for example, that Warner has not lobbied hard enough against legislation that would limit Virginia's abortion rights. They say he didn't fight the legislators' vote to repeal the estate tax. They say he stood by as Republicans publicly humiliated and forced out a judge the Democrats supported.
Some wonder if Warner is simply biding his time until he can run for a national elected office. These skeptics among the Democrats say that might explain why Warner prefers not to pick fights it may be better to have a reputation as a bipartisan peacemaker than a fighter.
Or maybe Warner's just simply playing rope-a-dope, letting his enemies wear themselves out while he refuses to fight back.
"The perception is out there that he's not engaged," concedes one of Warner's staunchest allies, Delegate Brian Moran, D-Alexandria, the head of the House Democratic caucus. "If he vetoes a couple of high-profile bills, it may change that perception. He has to recognize that the perception is out there, whether it's real or false, and to be successful, he's going to have to change that perception."
Warner says that perception has arisen because he refuses to govern the state in a partisan manner. Instead, he says that while cutting the budget to manageable levels, he has attempted to build bridges between Democrats and Republicans "as a governor of all Virginians."
"The best thing I can do for the Democratic Party is to be a good governor," Warner says. "I'm proud to be a Democrat. But to turn every issue into a partisan scrum isn't what I'm about. If Virginians wanted a traditional politician they shouldn't have hired me in the first place."
Warner is, in essence, a salesman. It's how he started, how he gained his immense fortune, how he became governor as a Democrat in a Republican-leaning state. Salesmen find common ground and exploit it, and Warner is at his best when convincing people to work toward a common goal what salesmen call "getting to yes."
He's also a businessman who prides himself on finding rational solutions, not political ones. He has learned that by working hard and working on the details, amazing successes can be gained. He says he's not interested in taking doomed philosophical stands on issues important to his party, only in getting things done.
"The charge of being a pragmatist? I'm guilty as charged," Warner says during one of our talks. "In the end, I've got to end up getting it [legislation] through with Republican votes."
Later in the same discussion, Warner returns to that point. "In a lot of politics, there's an emphasis on confrontation," he says. "The world I come from is more measured by your results. I'm not going to change who I am I'd rather work toward getting a result than in getting headlines along the way. I'd rather be getting us through the worst budget crisis in 50 years and have pushed through the most substantive legislative agenda of the past 50 years. Will I take that? Absolutely."
To Warner, politics, like all things, can be weighed as a balance sheet. In the most recent session, 35 of Warner's bills passed in a legislature controlled by Republicans while two did not. He considers this proof of his legislative success. Whether the bills were the sorts of bills people remember or talk about is not as important to him as whether they do something. Warner's successful bill to combine the state's information-technologies functions under one roof is a prime example.
But politicians don't think of politics that way. Says L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat who battled a contentious General Assembly and a budget shortfall during his tenure as governor: "The issue is not who you have to work with. The issue is, What do you want? What is your stand? People want to know that you're out there fighting for your cause. The base of the party is saying, 'We don't see you out there fighting for us.'"
In business, everyone in a deal can be presumed to have a common interest in making money. But the General Assembly is not interested in helping Warner get anything done. The Republican-dominated legislature, for example, has no incentive to support Warner's budget-cutting attempts, preferring to leave the governor as the sole advocate of cuts.
That idea may be sinking in. In the time leading up to the veto session, which convenes April 2, Warner will have the opportunity to take stronger stands. He hints broadly that he will veto or rewrite legislation that passed this year, including the estate-tax repeal, some abortion legislation and a budget he says is "full of air" and based on unrealistic financial projections.
arner leans into everything. When he's talking to you, he inclines toward you, gazing intently into your eyes, occasionally punching the air for emphasis. He talkslikethis, then takes a break to grin broadly. His teeth are famously large and square. A generous person could describe his appearance as Lincolnesque: He's built of sinew and rough-sawn planks. When he's moving, his emphatic physicality is engaging, and he's well-spoken and thoughtful when you get used to the pace and ratatat quality of his delivery.
He has fans. On his way out of his office, Warner stops to have his picture taken with a family visiting from Russell County. "I've learned to like this part," Warner tells them. He poses for the snapshot, his arms around them, smiling, head bulled forward, all chin and teeth.
"We're Warners, too," they inform him, delighted. "That's just great," he says. "Just great." He grabs hands and pumps them, two-handed, then whirlwinds on.
Warner is wrapping up one of the tensest sessions the state legislature has had in modern times, in one of the tensest eras. He was elected less than two months after 9/11. The state economy has collapsed. Last year, a drought of biblical proportions stunned much of the state just after floods swept through other parts. And now that the nation is at war with Iraq, Warner must oversee a state that includes the Pentagon and one of the world's largest naval bases and thousands of Virginians who serve in the armed forces.
In the past year, he says, he has learned the power and the limitations of being governor. In March 2002, Warner toured towns in Southwest Virginia that had been ravaged by flood and was struck by how much people appreciated the fact that the state's governor had come. "Me being there didn't bring any money or aid any quicker," Warner says. "But simply being there as governor, what it could mean on a kind of human-to-human basis, that I don't think I had fully realized."
Last fall, by contrast, Warner found his hands tied when sniper attacks terrorized the East Coast. "That was the most challenging time how to provide leadership during this kind of randomness, this kind of terror," Warner says. "Law enforcement was telling me to keep a low profile so I wouldn't encourage more attacks. While at the same time, I recognized that there were a lot of people looking for reassurance."
His relationship with the state legislature, meanwhile, has soured. This year, he's still fighting for his budget. Most recently, he's been fighting for his bill to make it a more serious offense to not wear a seat belt while driving. A day earlier, the bill had passed in a close vote, but the Republican lawmakers in control used a parliamentary procedure to hold the bill back to be voted on again.
As Warner prepares to leave the Capitol, Delegate Kenneth R. Melvin, D-Portsmouth, one of four Democrats to vote against the bill, was telling the House that he was voting against the seat-belt bill because he feared it would worsen police harassment of black drivers. "I've voted with the governor 99 times out of a hundred," Melvin says to the House, "but this is the hundredth time." He also says, "The governor's staff has been lobbying for this bill very hard, and I don't understand why. It seems to me that the governor is not being well-served by his staff when a seat-belt bill is the governor's top priority." Melvin's speech to the House is transmitted via closed-circuit television to the governor's office on the third floor of the Capitol, where it is duly noted.
Still, schedules must be kept. The governor's team coalesces around him, and the Blob flows down the winding staircase from the governor's offices to the ground level, moves swiftly out of the Capitol and slips into a black Lincoln Navigator. Warner sits in a middle seat while the others arrange themselves around him: A.J. Walden, a state trooper in plainclothes who serves as the governor's driver-slash-security-man; Qualls; the governor's full-time photographer; two other staffers and me.
Warner pulls out his Blackberry and starts checking e-mails. Others snap open cell phones.
Curiously, considering that the topic is Warner's seat-belt bill, no one puts on seat belts.
The Navigator pulls smoothly out of the Capitol. "Get Jim," Warner says to the air. Someone starts dialing a cell phone.
"See?" Qualls whispers to me. "The Blob's tentacles are already reaching out."
Warner puts away his Blackberry. He is handed the phone. "What was the vote on reconsideration?" Warner asks the person on the other end. He's referring to the fact that one day after approving Warner's seat-belt bill the House elected to re-vote on it, presumably after legislators and constituents had another chance to lobby.
There is a long pause. "Oh, they took a caucus position," he says. Pause. "Who flipped?" Pause. "Someone else didn't vote then, because it was 50-48 yesterday." Pause. "All right. Very good." He hangs up. "Seat-belt went down, 49 to 48," he announces to the other passengers.
Kevin Hall, one of Warner's spokesmen, has been checking his e-mail from his seat in the back. It turns out that three Republican delegates who had fought for the seat-belt bill turned against it the second time it came up for vote. One, Charles W. Carrico Sr., a retired state trooper from Grayson County who had argued in favor of the bill, said he switched his vote after receiving calls from constituents. But Hall announces to the delight of the others in the Navigator that Delegate John S. Reid, R-Henrico, one of the most vocal opponents, accidentally pushed the wrong button on his voting machine and voted for it. "Jack voted for it?" Warner says. "That's great."
In Warner's lap rests a black leather binder that says in gold letters, "Schedule," and in smaller letters, "Governor Mark R. Warner." Warner flips through the speech he's about to give. We're headed to Elkhardt Middle School, one of the state's lowest-performing schools, which is off Hull Street in South Richmond. Since it's Black History Month, Warner's talk will tie together the twin themes of African-American contributions and education.
Hall reaches over the seat back and hands Warner a draft of a letter Warner intends to give the nine Republican conferees the conference committee of House and Senate members this afternoon. It's a tough letter that lays out Warner's objections to the legislature's rewritten budget and accuses the legislators of, among other things, artificially increasing revenue projections and promising raises the state won't be able to pay.
Warner tests out a few phrases, then says, "Good. Better." He hands it back.
Soon the group is at Elkhardt. Walden pilots the Navigator onto the school's driveway, then bumps it over the curb and across the lawn Warner winces and parks near a door. Warner is greeted by school employees and hugs the principal. He enters the auditorium, which is filled with middle-school students stoically listening to a student jazz band.
After a brief introduction, Warner praises four black Virginians Maggie Walker, the pioneering banker; Carter Woodson, who created Black History Month as Negro History Week; Thomas Cannon, the generous postal worker; and former Gov. Wilder.
"I would not be standing here as your governor had it not been for this individual," Warner says of Wilder. "They said, 'Hell will freeze over before Doug Wilder is elected governor in the commonwealth of Virginia.' Well, because of an awful lot of people, black and white, who said, 'We have moved and made too much progress to hold someone back,' and because he was the most qualified individual in 1989, your state made history and elected Doug Wilder governor."
arner was born in December 1954 in Indianapolis, the son of a risk engineer for Aetna Life and Casualty and a homemaker. He grew up in Indianapolis, then moved to Peoria, Ill., then Hartford, Conn. He was an avid high-school basketball player. He has said his family is Republican, but that he became a Democrat "because it was the 1960s."
Because he wanted to move to Washington, D.C., to be near national politics, he used a student loan to attend George Washington University, where he was class valedictorian. He took another student loan to attend Harvard Law School but never practiced law. Instead, in 1980 he took a job paying $18,000 a year as a fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee. Among other things, Warner helped raise money for Jimmy Carter's 1980 campaign.
By 1982, Warner had decided to start a business. First, he tried to sell a gadget to make oil furnaces burn more efficiently. That lasted six months. Then he started a real-estate firm based in Atlanta. That failed, too. But while working in Georgia, Warner met Tom McMillen, who was playing pro basketball in Atlanta. McMillen introduced him to someone who knew about the coming federal lottery for cellular-phone licenses.
The government decided during the Reagan administration to give away almost 1,500 cell-phone licenses across the country. Using his Rolodex full of wealthy Washington business people, Warner rounded up investors and helped put together application packages for them. In return, Warner received a small fee and, often, 5 percent ownership in the partnerships if they got licenses. Many of them did. In 1985, Warner and three partners started Columbia Capital Corp., which became a powerful investor in the young wireless-communications industry among the companies it helped start was Nextel.
Warner's fortune was made. Through a trademark combination of connections, salesmanship and organizational talent, Warner had moved from $18,000 a year in 1980 to millions five years later. By 2000, Warner could list his personal wealth as $200 million.
In 1989, Warner took an unpaid position with then-Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's gubernatorial campaign. Wilder was running against the wishes of much of the party's powerful, and his campaign was struggling and chaotic. But soon after Warner stepped in, the campaign retooled as an efficient political machine. Wilder seized on abortion rights as a key campaign theme, and he won by a whisker to become the first and so far only black governor elected in U.S. history.
In 1992 Wilder made Warner the state party chairman. He took on the role with relish. The party had become fractious and difficult for the governor to work with, and state Senate and House Democrats didn't work closely together. To craft the party's first joint caucus agreement, Warner traveled incessantly around the state to build coalitions. He conducted about 40 "town meetings" around the state, sometimes two or three in a day. He set up discussions among party members, emphasized common bonds and pushed to get people to talk.
"If Mark wants to sell you something, he's relentless," says one longtime Democratic insider, recalling this period. "From grabbing shoulders to eyeball-to-eyeball to relentless phone calls to set up dates for meetings. He would go anywhere and do anything."
The organizing paid off. In 1994, the state party helped Sen. Chuck Robb fight off a powerful campaign by Oliver North, the charismatic, controversial Iran-Contra figure. The campaign, which inspired national attention and an excellent documentary ("A Perfect Candidate"), was one of the state party's most joyous achievements since the rise of the Virginia Republicans decades earlier. It helped ease the sting of 1993's painful loss of the governor's seat to Republican George Allen. In fact, Republicans were increasing in power statewide, though they so far remained a minority in the General Assembly.
In 1996, Warner decided to run for office himself. He targeted U.S. Sen. John Warner, the veteran Republican one wag called "the senator from central casting." Though polls and newspaper reports were uniformly discouraging Mark Warner routinely polled 15 points or more behind the senator the Democrat spent untold energy and $10 million of his own money on the race.
To the astonishment of everyone but him, Mark Warner finished within 5 percentage points of John Warner in the election. He immediately became the party's front-runner for the 2001 campaign for governor.
t's noon on Feb. 14. The Blob is traveling by foot from the executive mansion, where Warner now lives with his wife, Lisa Collis, and their two young daughters, toward the Monroe Building, a nearby skyscraper stuffed with state bureaucrats. Warner is leading the way, with long strides.
I am struck by a thought. I jog from the center of the Blob to its front. I try to keep pace with Warner. "Governor," I say, between puffs of breath, "your bill would have made it a more serious offense to not wear a seat belt. But earlier, when we were riding in the Navigator, I noticed that no one in the car wore their seat belts. Any comment?"
He keeps walking. There is an uncomfortable silence. "Well," he says. I've never seen him at a loss for words before. "Usually, you know, I ride in the front. But this time I rode in the middle. So I usually wear my seat belt. I don't know why I didn't this time. I don't usually ride in that seat. I guess that's why."
It occurs to me that Warner is painfully aware of how this looks. He has become enormously sensitive to how his critics perceive him. That may come from recent painful experiences.
In 2001 Warner defeated Mark Earley, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, by focusing on his business success and by promising to be nonpartisan and moderate.
But at the same time, a Republican landslide was reshaping the political landscape. In 2001, the General Assembly, which had been moderately Republican, became overwhelmingly so.
"And this is not your Republican legislature of old," adds Larry Sabato, a professor of government and foreign affairs from the University of Virginia. "This is an Idaho-Utah kind of Republican legislature. They are deeply conservative."
Meanwhile, the state's economy, like that of many states, went into the tank. State government, it turned out, was billions of dollars in the red.
Warner came into office with plans to revamp public education, particularly in rural areas, for example, and to fix Northern Virginia's road systems. But the government he inherited is broke. And people aren't in the mood to spend money or to accept higher taxes. Though Warner spent a considerable effort publicizing the importance of rebuilding state roads, last year voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads roundly rebuffed his recommendation that they pay for bonds to fund them.
Finally, Warner has gained a reputation of being personally effective but politically clumsy. When Warner warned that cutting government would mean cutting government services, few listened; but when he shut down 13 DMV offices and cut hours at others, people howled. Republicans charged that he was playing politics, and eventually, Warner reopened the closed offices. When Warner was forced to use one-time-only funding mechanisms to prop up the state's wilting budget the same sorts of accounting tricks he had railed against during the campaign skeptics said he was being hypocritical.
"No matter how much Warner has dabbled in politics, he's really a novice," Sabato says. "He doesn't know where the bodies are buried. He doesn't know much about legislative procedure. He is truly a businessman and expected that he could run his office like a business. But government is not the same as business. Businesses serve their customers. Government serves everyone, all the time. Businesses, ideally, operate on rational principles. Government doesn't government operates on emotion."
At this moment, the head of state government is entering the Monroe Building. He is here to thank state employees who voluntarily raised $3 million for charity last year. He and the rest of the Blob sweep toward a large, sunlit conference room filled with folding tables and plastic chairs. Rock music booms from large speakers propped on poles. It's "Start Me Up," by the Rolling Stones.
As Warner moves to shake hands, Sandra Bowen, the state secretary of administration, steps forward to speak to Qualls.
"I'm told he likes this music," Bowen tells the press secretary. Qualls makes a noncommital face. Blanching, Bowen presses further: "Does he?"
"He never listens to music when I'm with him," Qualls says. "So I don't know. He usually listens to cell phones and e-mail, to be honest."
"I'm told he prefers Bob Dylan," Bowen offers. "I don't even know who this is."
"It's the Stones," Qualls says.
"Yeah," someone else says. "That's Mick now."
Qualls looks at me. "He likes the Stones," she says. "I mean, who doesn't?"
Warner skips lunch, preferring to talk to the state workers. Someone packs him a chicken-barbecue sandwich from the buffet table. After the luncheon, Warner and the rest of the Blob return to his offices on the third floor of the Capitol. Between large bites of barbecue sandwich, Warner reflects on his upcoming discussion with the Republican legislators who have rewritten parts of his budget.
"This whole year, the major theme has been, how do you maintain and restore Virginia's reputation for financial planning and for conservative finances?" Warner says. "This budget" he means the one the conferees are coming to talk to him about "doesn't have the appropriate level of conservative approach, considering the uncertainty of the economy and of the uncertainty of a war. There are ways in the amendment process that we can modify it. But taking out the air means cuts which is not popular."
Of his plan to talk the Republicans into changing their budget, Warner says: "A lot of this today will be just kind of an appeal to do the right thing."
At 2 p.m., the Republicans in the General Assembly budget-conference committee gather at the doorway of the governor's offices, then disappear for the closed-door session.
Fifteen minutes later, the conference committee has left the governor's offices. I watch its members stride across the Capitol lawn.
Apparently the discussion did not go well. At a news conference called soon after, Warner says the Republicans are "basically writing a check now and hoping we'll have the money in the budget to cover it."
He makes it clear that he will fight the budget changes during the veto session in April. "They need to be making the hard choices," Warner adds. "We made the hard choices, and we took the political flak and heat for those choices. Now they need to make them."
Postscript: A week later, Qualls leaves a message on my voice mail. "The Guv has been thinking about the response he gave you about the seat belts, and thinks he may have been too flippant," Qualls says. "He says he was wrong. He should have worn his seat belt." S
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