Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman



Show Some Backbone


State Democrats should set their own priorities, like K-12 education, rather than follow the agenda set by the GOP Senate Finance Chair.

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 state history.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the usual "experts" in Virginia, 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 points.

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.

Jim's" 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 looking prism.

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 education?

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 law.

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


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Paul Goldman, the Rebel With a Cause, was chief political strategist for the past two winning Democratic governors in Virginia and was credited with leading a "revolution in American politics" by The New York Times for his role in breaking America's 300-year-old color barrier in national politics.