Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman

Hidden Agenda?

The arguments of Virginians for a two-term governor are so easily refuted that a political commentator must ask the "T" question.


What follows is partly confession and partly a proof, at least to any open-minded reader, that allowing governors to run for two consecutive elections will erode what little real political competition still exists in Virginia politics. Admittedly, the confession makes a more interesting "read," as they say in journalism, for it touches on the hidden reasons why so many of Virginia's business, political and editorial elite suddenly display an urgent desire to change the state Constitution.

But as I tell my seven-year old, he doesn't live at South Court Inn, in Luray, where they let you eat your dessert before dinner. So, not wanting to ruin anyone's appetite for the main course, let me start with the mundane task of marshaling the evidence to prove that the two-term idea is wrong for Virginia at this point in time.

The level of political competition in Virginia today would concern even renowned political scientist V.O. Key who in 1949 called Byrd machine-dominated Virginia a "museum piece." In the recently completed November 2002 elections, neither Republican Senator John Warner nor any of the state's eleven members of Congress - eight Republicans and three Democrats - faced a serious threat of being denied reelection. Sen. Warner got 82 percent of the vote. No challenger to an incumbent member of Congress won as much as 38 percent of the vote. In sum, there was not a single competitive race in the elections that are intended to give average Virginians a voice in the Congress of the United States. Not a one.

In 2001, all knowledgeable commentators on Virginia politics lamented what they called a significant reduction in competition for the 100 House of Delegate seats up for election that year. This situation resulted from the very partisan redistricting by the GOP majority after the 2000 census. Indeed, Governor Warner and the Virginia Democratic Party spent hundreds of thousands of dollars suing the Republicans, claiming among other things that GOP redistricting had unfairly reduced political competition for the positions of state senator and state delegate.

They were right: the GOP had purposely curtailed competition in order to gain more General Assembly seats. Back in the 1960s, the one-person, one-vote cases of the Warren Court had declared that such super-political gerrymandering was likely unconstitutional. But last year, following the new posture of the Rehnquist Court, the Virginia Supreme Court said the state constitution gave the Republicans the right to use new computer technology to make the redistricting process as partisan-and anti-competitive -- as they wanted.

Most observers expect the trend to less competition to manifest itself again in the 2003 for the House and state Senate.

All in all, Virginians elect 153 federal and state legislators to do the people's business in Washington and Richmond. Yet the evidence is irrefutable: The level of real political competition, and thus the practical utility of the people's vote, has been diminishing in our Commonwealth.

The practical, democratic ideal underlying our governmental system -- that the people govern through the use of the voting franchise – is fast becoming a theoretical proposition. We need a marketplace of ideas not only in the private sector, but likewise in the public sector, especially the electoral system. Given the current reality in Virginia, I do not believe the situation will be easily resolved. But at the very least, surely we should take care not to do anything that further reduces the precious little political competition still remaining in the Commonwealth.

Accordingly, I must confess -- no, this isn't the real confession just yet -- surprise that the newly formed Virginia Coalition for a Two-Term Governor not only shows no concern for this reality, but appears to have persuaded Gov. Mark R. Warner and Lt. Gov. Kaine to support their efforts. 

Why am I surprised? Because both men, and indeed I believe many in the Two-Term Coalition, are also supporting the creation of a Virginia Redistricting Commission aimed at removing the legislative redistricting process from the Republican-controlled General Assembly. They claim, as do their business and editorial allies, that such an unprecedented Virginia governmental entity, with a membership aimed at giving each party an equal voice, is needed due to the lack of real competition in our state and federal legislative elections!

Thus, they concede my factual premise regarding the growing lack of competition in Virginia politics.

Logic impels me to ask: How, then, is it consistent for all these sensible political, business and editorial movers and shakers to back the two-term amendment if such an amendment would significantly reduce the level of political competition which, by their own admission, is already unacceptable?

An honest observer can give only one answer: Their positions are not consistent. So let me demonstrate why the two-term law would do precisely what they claim in a different context that they don't want!

We all know that the powers of incumbency are formidable. If the state constitution were changed to allow a sitting chief executive to run for a second elected term, instead of enjoying a competitive contest every four years, Virginians often would be treated to 2002-style elections in which the incumbent governor faced no serious, adequately funded opponent.

Competition for the posts of lieutenant governor and attorney general would suffer, too. In the past five gubernatorial contests, not only were the general elections competitive, but in one party or the other, there has generally been a tough intraparty battle for the nomination, sometimes between the sitting lieutenant governor and the attorney general.

Why? The lack of an incumbent in the top spot encouraged the two other state officeholders to yield their offices in hopes of winning the big prize in Virginia politics. In the same five-cycle period cited above, only two incumbent statewide officeholders -- Attorney General Mary Sue Terry in 1989 and Lt. Governor Donald S. Beyer in 1993 -- ran for reelection. And each of them did so to avoid a nasty intraparty gubernatorial nomination fight with another statewide officeholder.

But let's assume the state constitution is changed to allow a sitting governor to run for a second elected term. The sitting lieutenant governor and attorney general are almost surely going to seek reelection. Challenging the sitting governor of one’s own party is a suicidal proposition. Challenging the governor from another party is very risky, especially given the incumbent governor's ability to raise campaign cash. The sensible political play for the lieutenant governor or attorney general would be to run for a second term and seek the top spot next time, when the incumbent governor is barred from running for another term.

In the modern history of Virginia politics, three sitting statewide officeholders -- Terry, Beyer and Democratic Attorney General Andrew Miller in 1973 -- sought reelection. None faced opposition for renomination. In the general election, Democrats Beyer and Miller both won second terms, even though the Republican gubernatorial candidate was elected. Terry and Miller faced only token opposition; Beyer faced tough competition, but his incumbency allowed him to win a close election even during a Republican gubernatorial landslide victory.
Accordingly, political history, both nationally and in Virginia, strongly supports the proposition that incumbent officeholders in down-ballot statewide elections are difficult to defeat. They would be unlikely to forego such favorable reelection odds to challenge a sitting governor, unless the incumbent appeared easy to beat.

Therefore, the facts overwhelmingly support this electoral axiom: If the two-term Governorship becomes law, Virginians can expect a sharp reduction in the intraparty competition for the offices of lieutenant governor and attorney general, and greatly reduced general election competition as well. Incumbents, armed with big bankrolls and high name recognition, are unlikely to face serious challenges.

So I ask again: How can those who say we need a Redistricting Commission to spur competition for General Assembly seats turn around and support a two-term gubernatorial law that would impair competition for statewide office? They can't argue both positions and remain consistent in terms of principle.

That leads me to my confession. About this time last year, I had occasion to give Gov. Warner advice on another idea being pushed by many of the same business leaders, political powers, and editorial writers now backing the two-term gubernatorial amendment. Back then, they were pushing for a Transportation Tax Referendum in Tidewater. During the gubernatorial campaign of 2001, one of the big issues was a Transportation Tax Referendum in Northern Virginia. Gov. Warner campaigned on a promise to put such a referendum on the 2002 election ballot. But he avoided any pledge to sign a law putting a similar tax measure on the Tidewater election ballot.

As I have written before, the business leaders and editorialists in Tidewater used a "cooked" poll to claim the people of their area overwhelmingly supported such a tax when they had reason to suspect, if not know, the results of this public opinion survey had been purposely skewed. I don't question the sincerity of their convictions on the transportation issue. But they did manipulate the system, through their access to power, in order to force the hand of the Governor.

I was sure at the time -- and said so -- that the poll results were "cooked" and manipulated for political purposes. In retrospect, I blame myself for not having been more assertive in making my feelings known and fighting more strongly to avoid an unnecessary embarrassment for the governor. The governor was set up, put in a no-win political position on the Tidewater Tax Referendum. Old news, yes. But confessions, by definition, concern old news one doesn't want to see repeated.

In hindsight, I should have stuck to my guns and made a stronger case to endorse the Northern Virginia referendum only. Admittedly, that one also lost. But people in Northern Virginia had fought for 13 years to get a referendum and candidate Warner had made a campaign promise to help them. It was a matter of honor for a freshman governor to keep the promise.        

So, the issue here is not about winning or losing, as no one who fights for his or her principles is successful all the time. In the end, the people decide. But it serves no useful purpose to go down a blind alley -- as with the Tidewater Tax referendum -- for the wrong reasons.

I see the same trouble building on the two-term Governorship and, therefore, feel duty bound to make my feelings clearly known.

On the issue of the two-term gubernatorial amendment, Gov. Warner needs to rethink the growing pressure from so many of the same business leaders, politicians and editorialists who got him in hot water for the Tidewater referendum. They have, in my judgment, a hidden agenda.

It is not merely a case of their failure to appreciate the impact of the two-term governor on political competition in the state. It is not even a case of their messing in an area beyond their proven zone of competence. Rather, I believe they are masking their real motivation.


The two-term advocates assert that a governor serving two consecutive terms could do a better job of managing the state’s financial and governmental affairs. Let me be blunt: There is absolutely no evidence that Virginia has suffered from the governor’s one-term limit in any regard. Just recently, Gov. Warner pointed out how Virginia had the highest bond rating of any state and how it was able to balance its budget without some of the drastic cuts being made in many other states.

I suppose a cynic would say that he was praising himself, so his remarks should be taken with a grain of salt. But the fact is, he was telling the truth. Accordingly, I ask: If we are doing better at managing our affairs than all these other states with two-term governorships, then what are all these advocates really talking about?

Let me cut through their rhetoric. I believe they seized on the two-term Governorship idea after their push for higher taxes was defeated this past November and, as they expect, will be defeated again in the current session of the General Assembly. In my view, they have become convinced that a two-term governorship is the only way to strengthen the governor's hand sufficiently to allow him, or her, to push a tax increase through the General Assembly.

That's right: The hidden agenda is more about taxes, not about some imagined "handicap" of a one-term governor that makes it impossible for him or her
to provide the necessary financial management or governmental planning. As indicated above, the evidence from other states decisively undercuts the claim made on behalf of the two-term law in that regard.

Let me ask you: Do these business and other leaders believe "Deficit Jim" Gilmore would have been any less fiscally recklessness if he had been allowed to seek reelection? Of course not.

Moreover, the two-term advocates see politics through the prism of political access, not through the viewpoint of the average citizen who only has his or her vote to make their wishes known. Powerful business leaders, politicians, and editorial writers will always have unfettered access to whomever is governor -- regardless of party -- as long as they have enough money, votes and printers ink. Thus, the lack of competition is not a great concern to them.

So, there it is: my confession. They say confession is good for the soul. Here is hoping it also will be good for our Commonwealth, too, by opening up some eyes as to what is really behind this sudden private sector initiative for a seemingly benign proposal.

-- January 20, 2002

(c) Copyright. All rights reserved. Paul Goldman. 2003.


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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.