Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman

Governor Warner's

"Peculiar Priorities"?
A Washington Post column, so entitled, calls Gov. Mark Warner a "wealthy dilettante without a cohesive political agenda." His campaign strategist responds.


Last Thursday, I took my young son for lunch at the Governor's Mansion. Thomas got a chance to see the room where his parents, one Jewish, one Catholic, were married by Robert Merhige, the legendary jurist who integrated the Richmond schools under the threat of death, with Gov. L. Douglas Wilder as best man, and a statue of former Gov. Harry F. Byrd staring in disbelief from across the capital grounds. My T-Man had the usual barrage of questions, which I intended to use as the basis for a column explaining the historical and philosophical reasons for why a budget veto, not higher taxes, is the right Democratic fiscal stance.

But upon reading Melanie Scarborough's column entitled "Gov. Warner's Peculiar Priorities" in the Sunday Washington Post, it seemed both necessary and proper for the chief political campaign strategist for the 2001 Warner-for-Governor campaign to refute her point by point, especially as the article was based not just on factual errors and personal comments but anonymous political attacks from unnamed Democrats.

Having been the target of personal attacks from unnamed Democrats for many years -- as documented in the award-winning book When Hell Froze Over by Roanoke Times & World-News political editor Dwayne Yancey - I know precisely how Mr. Warner is feeling right now. In my efforts to achieve what I had been raised to think Democrats believed in -- equal rights for African-Americans and women in the sphere of statewide politics -- not a single person, outside of Wilder himself, truly defended me publicly. I had vowed many times not to let that happen to anyone else.

So, I couldn't, in good conscience, let my friend Mr. Warner twist slowly in the wind without publicly defending him against Ms. Scarborough's allegations.


With all due modesty, I bring unique credibility to the task.

First, no one spent more time nor energy than I did editing and re-editing the final language of candidate Warner's 86-page "Action Plan for Virginia," the campaign's platform. As Warner rightly said, the Action Plan was the most comprehensive such document in Virginia's political history. As any experienced campaign manager will tell you, the risk of giving your opponent an opening with a single ill-chosen sentence far, far outweighs the political reward. But candidate Warner wanted to lay out his comprehensive political agenda.

As things have now turned out 18 months later, the candidate was right: The Action Plan totally refutes Ms. Scarborough's literary Scud missile. When she writes that Gov. Warner has confirmed the suspicions of those who deemed him a "wealthy dilettante without a cohesive political agenda," there is no person in Virginia politics better positioned to counter that charge then the guy who ran up a $700 cell-phone bill editing the Action Plan from dawn to midnight even while driving back and forth from Alexandria.

Secondly, I write this rejoinder as someone who is not on the governor's payroll. I do not have, nor am I seeking, the favor of the governor or the administration for anything of monetary value, whether a government contract, lobbying contract, appointment, side business deal, or the like.

Thirdly, I hold no official position in the state Democratic Party, nor am I currently seeking any. The group presently controlling the state Central Committee recently condoned -- again -- the use of symbols offensive to African-Americans and failed to issue a formal rebuke of the state senators who subjected the first female African-American circuit court jurist to what Congressman Bobby Scott called a "lynch mob," and then voted her off the bench. Having been the campaign manager for the legendary Henry Howell, the great anti-segregation leader who founded Virginia's modern Democratic Party, and former Gov. Wilder, I would demean everything they stood for were I to accept a position with such an insensitive, tone-deaf organization -- one I once presided over as we elected more women and African-Americans to office, both at the state level and the federal level, than ever before.  

And fourthly, I can respond as someone who recently wrote a column, "Candidate Warner vs Governor Warner," urging the governor to follow the truth-in-budgeting blueprint we had etched into our "Action Plan," and therefore veto the fiscally reckless budget the GOP-controlled General Assembly passed last month.

There is, therefore, no one in Virginia politics with more substantive political knowledge of the subjects raised by the Post columnist, nor more demonstrated independence and leadership in Democratic circles, to answer her point by point.

(1) She writes on Warner's threatened vetoes: Of the hundreds of bills the Virginia General Assembly passed this year, Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner has threatened to veto only those that would repeal the estate tax and marginally restrict abortion. His selection of targets confirms the suspicion of those who deem him a wealthy dilettante without a cohesive political agenda.

Answer: This assertion is factually untrue and demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the veto process. In Virginia, the governor has a "line-item veto," a power not given to the president of the United States. Accordingly, Gov. Warner has already "threatened to veto" -- by using his line-item power either to amend or totally reject individual budget actions of the General Assembly -- any number of specific appropriations he knows are fiscally reckless in one way or another.

As I wrote last week, he risks making a serious political and fiscal mistake in not threatening to veto the whole budget bill, given that the measure contains the kinds of accounting gimmicks, inflated revenue estimates and phony promises that we campaigned against in 2001. Hopefully, he will come around to my point of view. Even if he doesn't, his use of the line-item veto will demonstrate the factual inaccuracy of Scarborough's assertion.

(2) She writes on the Estate Tax debate: How can a governor who pledged to apply business principles to state operations favor taxing the property that people leave behind when they die? ... Moreover, the logic of estate taxes -- that people who accumulate a certain amount of assets must leave a portion to the state to redistribute upon their deaths -- is anti-capitalist. Estate taxes are bad business because they penalize thrift. Can Warner really make the case that the state is entitled to share in such hard-earned savings?

Answer: Rejecting the GOP Estate Tax repeal in today's fiscal situation is the right budget discipline and totally consistent with previous decisions by Democrats and Republicans. In 1990, Governor Wilder, with Republican support, delayed implementation of his campaign promise to remove the tax on certain drugs and medications, a widely popular proposal. Why? After being sworn in as Governor, Mr. Wilder discovered that his predecessor had failed to tell him about the record budget deficit he had inherited.

The current fiscal crisis has likewise left Virginia awash in red ink, expanding both the current account deficit and what I call the structural deficit, those twin budget problems facing Virginia and discussed by this author on the pages of Ms. Scarborough's Washington Post. Yet despite all the General Assembly's calls for "shared sacrifice" and their cutting benefits for the poor, the Republicans passed legislation that would give some of the wealthiest families in Virginia an average $2.3 million tax break (assuming the legislation had been in effect in 2002, the latest available state data). This legislation, if enacted, would blow a cumulative $250 million hole in future state budgets, all to benefit 398 families (again, assuming that 2002 state data applied).

Ms. Scarborough, let me say this: Had my friend Mark Warner NOT agreed to at least veto this bill - I believe he needs to do more as indicated in a  previous column -- then you would have been correct in your assessment that he has no political philosophy. But his commitment to veto the bill demonstrates precisely the opposite of what you claim.

(3) She writes on the seat-belt law debate: While Warner opposes the repeal of the estate tax, which would undoubtedly ease taxpayers' burden, he was all for primary enforcement of the seat-belt law, which would have either added to taxpayers' burden, because more police would be needed, or reduced the amount of time police had to devote to real crime. A governor who throws his weight behind such eat-your-peas proposals either shepherds a state with no pressing problems -- hardly the case with the commonwealth -- or lacks political vision.

Answer: For the record, I have always opposed the seat belt law, having taken this position on my radio show several years ago when then-Lt. Governor John Hager, now the state's Anti-Terrorism Czar, first promoted the proposal. My reasons were several, from the "racial profiling" aspect raised by Del. Kenneth R. Melvin, D-Portsmouth, in casting his tie-breaking vote that defeated the measure, to the "nannyism" argument made by U.S. Sen. George Allen in an on-air interview after he called the station to agree with my position.

So, yes, I do disagree with the governor on this measure. But Ms. Scarborough's attempt to draw some philosophic straight-line between the seat belt law and the estate tax is nonsensical. For example, I support reducing taxes while spending more on state police and the abolition of parole. Based on her logic, this means I have no cohesive political philosophy, nor do the overwhelming majority of Virginians who agree with me. Rather, it is her writing that lacks a cohesive argument.

(4) She writes on parental consent: Warner's argument that adults are not entitled to make that decision [to buckle-up] for themselves was unsuccessful. Yet Warner argues that children are entitled to make one of life's most momentous decisions on their own and threatens to veto a bill requiring teenage girls to get parental consent for abortions. The governor apparently has no dispute with the principle of parental sovereignty: Last year he signed into law bills giving parents the right to know the results of their children's drug tests and exempting youngsters employed by their parents from child labor laws. So if one accepts the validity of parental consent for less consequential activities, the only reason to oppose it for abortion is the fear that consent might be withheld. That indicates a graduation from pro-choice to pro-abortion.

Answer: Ms. Scarborough's last line is extremely offensive to me, as it is, I believe, for most Virginians of good will. It is an Ugli - like the fruit -- statement and demands a strong rebuttal. Mark Warner has three daughters, so to say he is drifting toward a pro-abortion position is really offensive to me and most Virginians.

The specific issue of parental consent is a hotly debated issue within the general parameters of parental responsibility. Ms. Scarborough seems to feel there is a single litmus test to apply in all cases. In the "Action Plan for Virginia," candidate Warner spells out a very reasoned and most cohesive position on the entire issue of women's health, with specifics on page 68 relating to the abortion issue. He says he supports parental notification but vows to "fight efforts to chip away at a woman's right to choose."

The Governor is distinctly pro-family, and can be expected to view parental consent legislation in that context. Ms. Scarborough's support of this legislation is surely within the mainstream of political thought, at least as defined by the votes of members of the General Assembly. But that being said, a journalist does not advance her case by trying to twist an issue discussion so it can bend through her peculiar prism.

(5) She writes on partial-birth abortion: Last year Warner vetoed a bill that would have outlawed the gruesome practice of partial-birth abortion. He threatens to repeat the veto this year, even though it is hard to comprehend how anyone could defend something so brutal. One does not have to oppose abortion in general to oppose this method. Yet Warner deems the procedure's availability so imperative that he overruled the majority of Virginia legislators who abhor it.

Answer: Ms. Scarborough, this is the kind of political writing that discourages people from running for office, or even caring about things political as they naturally want to avoid immersing themselves in such a sleazy, grotesque debate. The fact is, as you would know if you bothered to do your homework, that Gov. Warner opposes what you describe as "partial-birth abortion." Indeed, he supported a federal Constitutional Amendment to outlaw the practice in 1996.

I know: I helped him draft that position. On the same page 68 of the "Action Plan for Virginia" gubernatorial candidate Warner says he would ban partial-birth abortions, as long as the legislation "protect[s] the mother's life or health," the same basic legal position as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the pro-choice jurist whose is widely regarded as the swing vote on the abortion issue and who favors a ban on partial-birth abortions.

The Virginia GOP has consistently refused to pass a partial-birth abortion ban that contains a protection for the health of the mother. A similar bill, signed by former GOP Governor Gilmore and defended by then GOP Attorney General Earley, was ruled unconstitutional. Admittedly, the new 2003 legislation is written differently and, as a lawyer, I must say the author, my friend Bob Marshall, has been most inventive.

I personally agree with former U.S. Sen. Patrick Moynihan, the much admired scholar, that we need to outlaw this rarely used practice in America, for it is infanticide, and to do it quickly.  

But if Gov. Warner decides to veto the Marshall bill, I know it is not based on Ms. Scarborough's position that he deems the procedure "so imperative" that he is defending its availability at all costs. Such a statement is contemptible.

(6) She says on Democrats calling Warner ineffectual leader: But we already know why even some Democrats are deriding the governor as ineffectual: Warner's continued demonstration of philosophical incoherence. And no one wants to follow a leader who seems unsure of where to go.

As indicated previously, I am singularly unfazed by Ms. Scarborough's reliance on anonymous attributions, speaking as they are from what, in a more innocent age, was once called Buffalo Bob's peanut gallery. Until she gets Democrats of stature and achievement publicly on the record by name, this is tabloid journalism.

Ms. Scarborough is of course entitled to state her views in her own way. Moreover, I don't pretend that all wisdom resides with me; I also should be held to the requisite standard of proof. But in terms of what has been accepted as informed political debate in our Commonwealth since the days of Patrick Henry, the analysis above conclusively rebuts, point-by-point, the substantive basis of Ms. Scarborough's columns to any objective reader.


-- March 3, 2003



(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.


You can reach him at