The time has come for Democrats to challenge Senate
Finance Chairman John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, on the
make-or-break issue of K-12 funding. Mr. Chichester
has been far more interested in higher education
than elementary and secondary education. He has
given several thoughtful speeches on Higher
Education funding, and has honestly acknowledged
some of the unwarranted criticisms directed at
certain Democrats during the 1990's. Clearly, Higher
Ed and K-12 are both of major importance. But right
now and in the foreseeable future, K-12 education
has to be the primary education issue.
This past year, we put Higher Education first in
terms of new initiatives. I had the good fortune to
be the lead political consultant on the Higher
Education Bond package. Thanks to the hard work of
Gov. Warner and his choice of Republican Judy Ford
to run the campaign despite the feelings of those
who felt a Democrat should have been selected for
her position, Virginia
voters by a record margin approved the largest
Higher Education and State Parks bond package in
Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the usual
these bond packages were not sure winners. I may be
criticized for revealing some polling information
right now, but so be it: Frankly, I think the press
has overplayed the governor's role in the tax
referendum defeats and underplayed his efforts for
the two bond issue victories.
Reality check: At no point did our polling ever show Higher Education receiving the 72 percent
support it got on election day, nor the 68 percent
received by the Parks Bond referendum. Indeed, in
our initial polling, it was a statistical dead heat
between those who thought the state could afford
these bond packages and those who thought we should
wait until the fiscal and economic situation
improved. That's right: It was a tie between the Yes
and No votes here, with the yes vote less than 50
percent. Even Professors Sabato and Holsworth know
what that potentially meant.
That's right, professors et al: The Higher
Education bonds were vulnerable, with no one ever
thinking 70 percent was an attainable margin. Gov.
Warner and Ms. Ford had to work very hard to put the
winning coalition together. They had a lot of help,
from college presidents like Paul Trible to
political insights from the Republican consultants
hired by Ms. Ford and criticized by others, and the
polling of Democrat Keith Frederick whose advice was
right on the money in terms of the key message
SO I ASK DEMOCRATS, INDEED ALL THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN
K-12 EDUCATION: Why aren't we doing the same thing
for elementary and secondary education, in terms of
putting together a coalition and demanding action
from the General Assembly?
Senator Chichester is not all-knowing and
all-seeing. For example, he and his Senate Finance
Committee held their annual retreat last week to
discuss the budget issues before the upcoming 2003
General Assembly Session.
He offered not a single solution or innovative idea
on K-12, or the budget crisis generally. Instead, he
lamented the current fiscal fiasco, and said
everything including K-12 education had better
prepare for his budget ax. Moreover, he absolved
himself from any of the blame for the current mess,
as if he had been a spectator for all these years.
Say what? Mr. Chichester voted for all of former
Gov. James Gilmore's red ink budgets, gimmicks and
all. Mr. Chichester voted for the car tax statutes
loophole that allowed Gilmore to basically break the
budget law to the tune of $300 million a year.
political guys, led by the wily Boyd Marcus, took
Chairman Chichester and his allies to the fiscal
cleaners here. This is self-evident, as some of us
pointed out at the time.
This brings me back to the beginning of this
article. Why are Democrats essentially fearful of
challenging Mr. Chichester on his budget politics?
With all due respect to the finance chairman, his
one and only attempt at showing statewide political
savvy ended in his losing a race Professor Sabato
and others said he couldn't possibly lose: Indeed,
they said he was a sure winner as long as he was
breathing on election day.
I refer to his 1985 run as the Republican nominee
for lieutenant governor against the sure loser,
Democrat Doug Wilder. The campaign started with Mr.
Chichester leading by 24 percent and members of the
Democratic party establishment criticizing Mr.
Wilder's campaign, figuring this was the easiest
potshot in state history.
In that campaign -- forget the electoral outcome
since this is not important as no one wins all the
time - Mr. Chichester offered not a single,
memorable policy position. His campaign was rooted
in a different generation, seeing Virginia
through a backward
In the year 2001, Sen. Chichester helped engineer
the disastrous -- for Republicans - budget stalemate
that helped elect Democrat Mark Warner. He claimed
he was trying to help the GOP.
I ask again: Why are Democrats so reluctant to
publicly challenge Mr. Chichester on statewide
budget policy especially the issue of K-12
Sen. Chichester's staff concedes that the recent
budgets prepared by their boss underfunded K-12
education by hundreds and hundreds of millions of
dollars, in terms of the constitutional and
statutory mandates in Virginia
The time has come for Democrats to start with this
message to Senator Chichester: If your budget ax is
even pointed in the direction of K-12, we are going
to challenge you publicly. Moreover, the time has
come for Democratic senators to demand the General
Assembly address this underfunding of K-12.
John Chichester is a good man, but not known for
innovative ideas for solving the state's budget or
K-12 issues. 2003 is an election year, with all the
seats in the House of Delegates and state Senate on
the ballot for the first time this century.
Democrats should not be giving Mr. Chichester their
proxy in the coming budget debate on the state's
priorities. The time has come to challenge the
Senate Finance Chairman on the issue of K-12
education and other matters.
December 2, 2002