How to succeed in politics and make it look easy.

The Luck of Jerry Kilgore

Southwest Virginia is not rich, though it is abundant in minerals. It is a tough place for many people to live — farming and mining were always hard, and are getting harder — so many don’t bother trying. They light out for bigger cities instead.

The people who do stay pride themselves on their mountain forebears, on their toughness and on their native savvy. Politicians call the region the “Fighting 9th” because of the ferocity of its political battles. They do things the hard way there.

All of which brings us to Jerry Kilgore.

In the last six months, much to the shock of people who don’t know him, Kilgore has become the attorney general of Virginia and the unofficial general of Virginia’s Republican Party. He also has become the anointed Republican candidate to replace Democrat Mark Warner as governor.

All this has transpired to a man who for years has been dismissed by his opponents as an intellectual lightweight, as too rural to be a political force in the rest of the state.

As he has moved upward, opposition has melted before him. Doors have opened as he approached. Potential rivals have self-destructed.

Jerry Kilgore, it seems, is either the luckiest politician around, or the most underestimated.

The first of the many strokes of good luck to befall Jerry Kilgore came when he was born where he was, though it probably didn’t seem that way at the time.

Kilgore likes to talk about his hometown. These days, he often sits in his office in the Pocahontas Building, which has the state Capitol framed in the windows, and tells visitors of a very different Virginia than the one seen in Richmond.

In his sharply pressed shirt and tie he looks as poised as a suitor. Last year, he shaved off his mustache, which to some gave him the appearance of a slick used-car salesman, and his face now has a polished glow. His pleasant, gentle voice is redolent of the nasal drawl of the mountains.

Kilgore’s hometown, Gate City, has about 22,000 residents. It is the political center of Scott County, and local politicians like to mention that it’s closer to six other state capitals than it is to Richmond, which is 360 miles away.

Kilgore and his identical-twin brother, Terry, were born 41 years ago, the sons of a mother who was a drugstore clerk and a father who worked as a welder for Eastman Kodak in nearby Tennessee. (John Kilgore was a supervisor of subcontractors by the time he retired from the company two years ago.)

Kilgore’s family was a bit unusual for the region. His mother, Willie Kilgore, for example, became the first policewoman in Gate City — “try getting in trouble in your town when your mother is the only woman on the police force,” Kilgore jokes.

Their politics also set them apart. In the 1968 election, the Kilgores backed Nixon, a Republican, while almost everyone else backed Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate.

At the time, Gate City was one of the few toeholds Virginia Republicans had in Southwest Virginia. Since the 1880s, Democrats had established political and legal roadblocks in a successful campaign to lock two groups out of power: blacks and Republicans.

Jerry and Terry Kilgore saw the way the Democrats had strangled their party for almost a century, and hated it. In that view they were hardly alone among Southwest Virginia Republicans. But they came along just when that power was weakening.

Sen. Harry Byrd died in 1966, and the Voting Rights Act struck down such tactics as poll taxes. The Republicans rallied while the Democrats split into factions. In 1969, the state elected Linwood Holton as the first Republican governor of Virginia in the 20th century.

By 1978, the entire Kilgore family was active in the campaign of John Warner, a Republican former secretary of the Navy who was running for Senate.

Jerry and Terry Kilgore, who were teen-agers at the time, have vivid memories of Warner’s then-wife, Elizabeth Taylor, touring the area and receiving a parade in her honor. They handed out pro-Warner fliers to anyone who would take them.

By 1980, their father was chairman of the county Republican Party, their mother was county registrar, and the Kilgore twins were planning their political futures.

Terry Kilgore, the more garrulous, outspoken of the two, would be the candidate. Jerry, the more methodical, diffident twin, would run the campaigns. (Terry Kilgore puts it this way: “Jerry is a tree person, and I’m a forest person.”)

“I always thought I would be the person behind the scenes,” Jerry Kilgore says now. “I consider myself to be a planner, a person who makes sure things get done. I felt like I was there to move my brother on — not to run myself.”

It didn’t quite work out that way.

For a while, the twins’ plan held. They went to Clinch Valley College, where Terry was elected president of the student government association. Jerry was his campaign manager. They sat next to each other in class. Then they attended law school together at the College of William & Mary.

In 1986, once out of law school, Jerry got a job with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Roanoke. After a stint as a prosecutor there, he moved to the office in Abingdon.

In Abingdon, he aggressively pursued smugglers — he got prison terms for a father-and-son team who were shipping tractor-trailer-loads of drugs into Scott County from Oregon — and began getting a reputation as a soft-spoken up-and-comer who somehow never angered people.

In 1992, Kilgore went to work for his brother, who had just been elected commonwealth’s attorney for Scott County, as an assistant prosecutor. There, his good luck held. One of the people he had impressed as a prosecutor was Glen Williams, a well-connected judge, and one day Judge Williams invited him to meet a former clerk of his over lunch.

The ex-clerk was George Allen, who had worked for Judge Williams in the late 1970s. By then Allen was an ambitious former state delegate and U.S. congressman.

“Anyone who Judge Williams thinks is a good person has credibility with me,” says Allen, now a U.S. senator. The two talked about law and about Scott County — Williams was trying to convince Allen to set up his law practice there, Allen recalls.

“I was impressed with him,” Kilgore recalls. “He seemed to have good ideas.”

From then on, Allen had an ally in the Kilgores. When Allen ran for governor, the Kilgore family helped set up rallies for him and made sure he knew whom to talk to.

“The nomination battle was really something,” Allen says. “And the Kilgores were great leaders and very influential on the grass-roots level for my campaign.” The brothers gave Allen a horseshoe for luck. He still has it.

Kilgore was busy too, helping his twin run for the House of Delegates. As he had in college, Jerry Kilgore acted as his brother’s planner and campaign manager.

Jerry Kilgore may speak softly, his brother says, but as a campaigner “he’s hard-nosed — he’s tough.” And he tirelessly whipped his candidate along the trail. “He’d be on me every day,” Terry Kilgore says. “‘You’ve got to go to this community, they’ve got a hot-dog supper or a baseball game or a barbecue. You’ve got to go.'”

(An aside: On that campaign, and on the many that would follow, Kilgore became known for his obsession with Dairy Queen’s Blizzards. “Jerry lives on these things,” Allen says. “I think he knows where every Dairy Queen in Virginia is.”)

Terry Kilgore won his seat in the House of Delegates in 1993. That same year, George Allen was elected governor, walloping Mary Sue Terry, the Democrat who had been attorney general.

Kilgore and his regional party members contacted Allen. “We decided we needed to approach Allen and remind him that it was important for Southwest Virginia to have a seat at the table,” Kilgore says.

Kilgore likes to give Allen all the credit for what happened next. But he didn’t leave things to chance. Kilgore also made it clear to Allen that he’d like to be considered for a job.

As he assembled his cabinet, Allen was looking for a prosecutor with experience to be his secretary of public safety. Though many of his advisers were against the idea — they would have preferred someone with more Richmond experience — Allen wanted Kilgore.

Allen made the call: Would Kilgore be willing?

Kilgore took the job. He was 32.

From 1993 to 1997, Kilgore managed 11 state agencies, including the Virginia State Police, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice. He oversaw more than 17,000 employees and a billion-dollar budget.

But Kilgore’s primary job was to work endlessly to push Allen’s aggressive crime-fighting agenda through the General Assembly. Allen wanted to end parole, spend $400 million on new prisons and revamp the juvenile-justice system. As secretary of public safety, the key man in many of those issues was Jerry Kilgore.

As he worked on Allen’s punch-list of radical reforms, Kilgore methodically trained himself in the ways of the General Assembly.

“I got thrown right in,” Kilgore says. “I had to figure out how to get bills through the General Assembly, and they had to be bills that would work systemwide — with sentencing commissions, parole boards, everybody.

“I learned a lot about the budget process in Virginia. You have to gather it piece by piece. … The General Assembly doesn’t just vote on budget issues as a body. They break into subcommittees, and they meet in odd hours. I would be there.”

Reasoning that the Democrats would delay or kill his parole-reform initiatives if they were debated along with other bills in the regular session, Allen called a special session of the General Assembly to vote on the issue.

The critics — and there were many in the Democrat-controlled legislature — cried out that parole abolition would result in a flood of crowded prisons. Kilgore called public hearings and reached out to his former associates — commonwealth’s attorneys and federal prosecutors, especially — to speak in support of Allen’s proposals. He worked on finding money to build more prisons (the legislature agreed to spend $100 million on prisons, not the $400 million Allen wanted). They said not enough judges would go along with the plan. Kilgore worked to convince them that the plan would work.

Juvenile courts should be focused on rehabilitating young people who need gentle correction, the critics said. So Kilgore held public hearings around the state to publicize Allen’s view of juvenile justice. When people objected, he rained statistics on them that painted a picture of a rising tide of young criminals out of control. When a few scholars pointed out that some of those statistics could be interpreted in less-frightening ways, Kilgore ignored them.

As he did all this, Kilgore used his pleasant, unthreatening demeanor to convince skeptics of his good intentions. He also had his twin brother working inside the House of Representatives to ease the way for him.

In the process, he gained allies on both sides of the aisle. People in Richmond learned it’s hard to dislike Jerry Kilgore.

“He’s disarming because he’s unfailingly polite,” says Richard Cullen, a longtime Republican insider who led Allen’s anti-parole initiative. “He has the Southwest Virginia accent, which people who don’t know him might equate with a lack of sophistication — which is totally wrong. … He’s very formidable.”

By the end of Allen’s tenure as governor, Kilgore and the others on Allen’s team had convinced, exhausted and steamrollered the General Assembly into pushing much of their plan through. And things happened just as Allen had predicted. The economy improved, crime fell — violent crime dropped 12 percent, Kilgore likes to repeat — and the predicted flood of vicious young thugs never materialized. Kilgore deflects the credit, but the success of Allen’s legislative package reflected well on him.

It was time to run statewide.

When Allen left office in 1997, Kilgore’s mother wanted him to come back to Gate City. But he wanted to run for attorney general.

The Republican field was already crowded with candidates. When Kilgore entered the race, he was the fourth person seeking the Republican nomination. By all accounts, Kilgore ran a strong race, but he came in second in the primary to Mark Earley, who went on to win the attorney general’s office. While disappointed, Kilgore wasn’t crushed. The campaign hadn’t been to win as much as it had been to set the stage for 2001.

Earley made it clear that his eye was on the Executive Mansion, and Kilgore spent the next three years making sure that he would be next in line. He worked quietly and tirelessly to build on his political relationships around the state, particularly in areas that hadn’t encountered him much before, such as Tidewater and Northern Virginia.

“There’s genuine affection for him, and that translates into an incredible political base across the state,” says Cullen, who served for seven months as interim attorney general after Jim Gilmore stepped down to run for governor. “And he’s done all that … sort of under the radar screen.”

“You guys [in the Richmond media] were talking about John Conrad,” Cullen adds, “and before anybody knew what was happening, Jerry had it locked up, with no real opposition.”

The Democrats’ choice turned out to be Richmonder Donald McEachin. Kilgore couldn’t have prayed for a better opponent. McEachin, a physically imposing African-American defense attorney, was running uphill from his first day. His campaign was underfunded, and he got weak support from his party. And Kilgore and his advisers must have known McEachin would have difficulty convincing rural voters of his ability to understand them, and vice versa. Kilgore had no such problem.

Polls showed Kilgore with double-digit leads. On the other hand, McEachin was expected to do well in populous Northern Virginia, where Kilgore’s base was not as strong. And the rest of the Democratic ticket was doing very well — perhaps well enough to bring McEachin along with it. Mark Warner was running powerfully against an unfocused Mark Earley campaign, and Richmond mayor Tim Kaine was doing surprisingly well against Republican candidate Jay Katzen.

“We didn’t really know what our chances were because of Warner’s big lead,” Terry Kilgore says. “We just didn’t know, with the governor’s race going against the Republicans — we just couldn’t get a gauge on it.”

In true Southwest Virginia fashion, Kilgore took nothing for granted. He packed his days with public appearances at fairs, fund-raisers and community picnics. When an independent group put out a vitriolic mailing raising the specter of rights for homosexuals and including McEachin as part of “the most liberal ticket in Virginia history,” Kilgore said nothing.

Even after McEachin accused Kilgore of betraying his claims to an ethical campaign and threatened to sue over the mailing, Kilgore simply pointed out that the mailing was by an independent group.

On Nov. 6, 2001, Kilgore trounced McEachin by a margin so large it left mouths agape. He won 60 percent of the vote. He received more votes than Tim Kaine, who became lieutenant governor. He got more votes than Mark Warner, who won the governor’s seat.

Now he just had to be attorney general — and prepare to be governor in 2005.

Kilgore’s victory was “gigantic,” says University of Virginia political-science professor Larry Sabato. “And it was completely unexpected. So he came in with an electoral glow, but completely undefined.”

That soon changed.

In the most recent session, Kilgore worked to get his legislative agenda passed by the General Assembly. Much of it was, including some laws that surprised observers. Kilgore successfully got the legislature to back his “stand by your ad” law, which requires that political ads disclose who is paying for them. And as part of his comprehensive package of domestic-violence bills, Kilgore got laws passed to treat the rape of married women by their husbands as a crime.

In March, a circuit-court judge ruled that the Republican’s redrawing of the state’s political districts had been illegal. The judge maintained that the redistricting had unfairly penalized Democrats and strengthened the Republicans.

Within hours of the ruling, Kilgore said he would appeal. But Warner, a Democrat and the senior official in state government, urged Kilgore to wait. The discussion quickly turned into a power struggle — Kilgore argued that as an independently elected attorney general, he had to follow his interpretation of the law, not the governor’s orders, while Warner argued that Kilgore should do as he said.

Within a week, though, the governor conceded that Kilgore’s position was more defensible. Warner agreed that the court decision should be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Surprisingly, some close to both men say the dispute drew their fragile relationship closer. “Mark likes people who are strong,” one Democrat says. “And Kilgore was no pushover.”

That debate, though, led to a more startling face-off. On March 22, Warner spoke with other party leaders, legislators and their lawyers in a conference call to discuss strategy in the redistricting case. Unbeknownst to them, the call was being listened to by Edmund Matricardi III, the executive director of the state Republican Party. It later was revealed that a top aide to House Speaker Vance Wilkins, a Republican, also was listening surreptitiously to the strategy session.

Hours after that phone call, someone gave a transcript of the Democrats’ conversation to Jerry Kilgore. Kilgore saw the transcript, weighed its meaning, and swiftly turned it over to the state police. He says simply: “It was the right thing to do.”

“The way he handled [the eavesdropping scandal], more than anything else … showed that he was a leader,” says Sen. Allen. “He could have treated it as some sort of useful information, or … the decision could have been to not say anything. But what he did was so admirable. He made it public.”

Within two weeks, Matricardi had resigned after a Richmond Circuit Court grand jury indictment accused him of illegal wire interception, and charged that he tried to use the contents of the calls for political gain. (Matricardi’s lawyer argued that the phone call was so widely known that it couldn’t be called private.)

That left a vacuum at the top of the state Republican party. But more importantly for Kilgore, the scandal rattled a party leadership that already had been weakened by the divisive campaign for governor.

In June, a Washington Post article detailed how House Speaker Wilkins, a domineering figure who had spent 24 years in the General Assembly, had paid a 26-year-old woman $100,000 the previous November to settle her complaint of sexual harassment.

Wilkins protested that he had done nothing wrong. Many Republicans, though privately appalled, wanted to wait until Wilkins fought his way through the scandal or, preferably, resigned on his own. Terry Kilgore was one of those who felt that way.

Jerry Kilgore didn’t. Though Wilkins had worked closely with him before, and had even drafted Terry Kilgore to run for his General Assembly seat, the attorney general told his staff that he found Wilkins’ behavior unacceptable — particularly when Wilkins began lobbying his fellow politicians for favorable treatment.

Some advisers, his brother among them, warned Kilgore not to push Wilkins too hard or too publicly— after all, if the speaker somehow managed to cling to power, Wilkins could have made Kilgore’s legislative life miserable for the next four years.

Kilgore disagreed. On June 12, he told a crowd of Republicans that Wilkins had to go. Two days later, Wilkins resigned as speaker. He was the first speaker in Virginia to do so.

He was replaced by Del. William J. Howell of Stafford County, who had agreed to work more harmoniously with other delegates than Wilkins had, and to share more power with other party members. Just over a month later, Wilkins, his authority and image demolished, retired from the House of Delegates.

Some Democrats, perhaps cynically, privately remark that within months of Kilgore’s ascendancy to the top of the Republican Party, his main potential rivals have suddenly vanished.

But most observers agree that Kilgore made the right calls at the right time. “Within a few months of being elected,” Sabato says, “Kilgore was thrown some really tough situations. And in each case, he has knocked them out of the park.”

Kilgore now stands alone at the top of the state party, well positioned to take over the state within four years. Warner, who by state law cannot run for governor two elections in a row, plans a run for Senate. Kaine has not pulled his image out of the pack yet. L.F. Payne, another potential Democratic challenger, has a lot of work to do.

As usual, luck has favored Jerry Kilgore. But, as usual, Kilgore has worked hard to make it do so.

“I consider myself a planner and an organizer,” Kilgore says, when asked to describe himself. “But I’m also a listener. I may have a goal or a plan, but there may be many ways to get there.”

Says Richard Cullen, one of his closest advisers: “Some of the great political leaders … have been taken too lightly by their opponents. And that’s fine with us.” S


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