Gilmore's blundering and meanspirited maneuvers, some of them nonsensical, hamstrung Mark Earley's campaign. 

Self-Inflicted Wounds

The hard edge of accountability was felt at the Omni Hotel on the night of Nov. 6. The mood at the state Republican Party's so-called victory party was not exactly what the GOP faithful had had in mind.

Of the three statewide candidates the Republicans offered to Virginia's voters only one had emerged a winner. The two men at the top of the ticket, former Attorney General Mark Earley and Jay Katzen, lost; for Earley it wasn't even close. Only Jerry Kilgore, now the attorney general-elect, won.

Gov. Jim Gilmore got exactly what he deserved — a slap in the face from the voters.

Gilmore may never admit it publicly, but he's the one who handed the keys to the Executive Mansion to Mark Warner. Gilmore's own blundering and mean-spirited maneuvers, some of them nonsensical, hamstrung Earley's campaign from the start.

On June 2, when Earley left the GOP convention at the Richmond Coliseum as the gubernatorial nominee, he was in trouble and he knew it.

While Earley's delegate strength was strong enough to secure the party's nod, he desperately needed the support of Republicans with deep pockets who had favored his rival, the more moderate John Hager. As it turned out, Earley never got them on board.

Perhaps if Earley had pushed away from Gilmore during the summer, it would have made some difference, but probably not enough. The Gilmore factor, the sense of widespread outrage and resentment within Team Elephant's ranks, meant Earley never could raise enough money to be competitive, and it launched "Virginians for Warner," a group headed by turncoat Republicans bent on dealing out a measure of payback to the recalcitrant sitting governor.

The most obvious of the heavy Gilmore baggage Earley had to tote was the car-tax/budget imbroglio. The victory that Gilmore squeezed out of the impasse he created with the General Assembly was Pyrrhic at best. While he eventually got to fashion the state's budget himself, by repeatedly insulting several of the Senate's Republican members and refusing to compromise, the governor made enemies in many camps. This was the first time in history the Virginia legislature failed to approve a budget.

What Gilmore gained by this is difficult to discern. He lost a lot.

Gilmore acted as if phasing the car tax out by his schedule was more important than anything else. Clearly, it's not, and wise heads in his own party called him on it. Notably, Jerry Kilgore bailed out on that untenable position during the campaign, and he won his race handily.

Gilmore also made enemies needlessly in two well-publicized cases: the Hugh Finn "death-with-dignity" matter and the Sally Mann exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Intervening as he did in the decision by a brain-dead man's spouse to pull the plug was disgusting. And it was unforgivable that Gilmore then chose to drag the affair out and eventually tried to deny compensation to the widow, Michelle Finn, for the legal fees his actions forced on her.

With the Sally Mann flap, in May 2000, Gilmore not only acted like a bull in a china shop, he offended some of those same deep pockets mentioned above. In this case he made front-page headlines by scolding the museum's staff for presenting material tantamount to pornography based on one anonymous tipster's complaint. The governor-turned-art critic apparently never even bothered to see the material; apparently he wasn't aware of Mann's well-earned reputation as one of Virginia's foremost photographers.

Last but certainly not the least of Jim Gilmore's puzzling moves was his decision to take on chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. By accepting that job, he broke a longstanding custom in the Old Dominion: Sitting governors do not play an obvious role in national politics. By turning his back on that tradition Jim Gilmore ruffled many feathers across the commonwealth, Democrats and Republicans alike.

On Nov. 6 at the Marriott Hotel, a few blocks north of the Omni, a beaming Mark Warner made his appearance shortly after 11 p.m. The stage was filled with Democratic officeholders, fat-cat contributors and supporters. Warner thanked all the usual suspects politicians always thank at the end of a campaign. Although Warner said nothing remarkable, the happy crowd cheered his every sentence.

Why not? The donkeys had won, and although the beer wasn't free, it was cold.

Yes, the sausage-making of American politics is not always pretty. Frequently the cynics are right about seeing partisan politics as tainted by under-the-table influences. Yes, there's much about Virginia's politics that could be made better. Yet, there are a lot of people in this world who would love to have what democracy offers ordinary citizens in this country — accountability.

Virginia may still be for lovers; let's hope so. If you ask Gov. Gilmore to take time out from bragging about his supposed popularity in opinion polls, he might finally admit — off the record, of course — that he's recently learned something about his home state: Virginia is for accountability.

F.T. Rea is a writer who lives in Richmond

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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