Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman

An Offer He Can't Refuse 
Here's how the tax battle ends next year, in a smoke-filled room in the General Assembly office building as the dons of Virginia politics divvy up their ill-gotten spoils.


The Goshfather




Governor Mark Warner as The Goshfather

Senator John Chichester as Don Barzini

John Bennett as Luca Brasi

Nick Perrins as Michael Corleone

Jeff Mitchell as Tom Hagan

Ellen Qualls as Kay

and Bill Howell as himself

The story begins...  

It was the last day of the 2004 General Assembly Session, and the Goshfather waited with his inner circle in his third-floor office. In another building, Don Barzini sat across the table from Speaker Bill Howell, the House-Senate budget conferees in their third day of eyeball-to-eyeball. The senate, led by Barzini, had passed what Bill Howell called the High Tax budget. The House, led by Howell, had passed what Barzini called the Fairy Tale budget. The Goshfather had made some concessions. But no deal yet.

"Come on Bill, the game is up" said the Don.  

The Goshfather and Don Barzini had agreed on the strategy last year, one known only to Luca Brasi. First, they did the thing to pad the revenue during
Warner's last 18 months. Then they did the budget bombshell thing with all the new spending, backed up by the $2 million "educational" effort still in full-swing, every school district in Virginia having spent the promised money a dozen times over, the big new car tax payment factored in by many, and of course, if they needed another $2 million to make the case, the elimination of the estate tax gave them some deep pockets to hit.

"We want our new money," shouted 1,000 protesters outside where the conferees were meeting. Luca Brasi and Michael had put them on buses and told them what to do. "Save our schools, save our children," they said.

Now, it was time for the final hammer of the three-part strategy to work: The Don's threat to go to the mattresses against Bill Howell.

"Billy, Billy, we have made a reasonable offer," said Don Barzini, his hand-picked conferees all well-known button men in the state senate, tough as nails, standing behind him. "I you don't accept, we have no other choice but to go to the mattresses and see who has the stones."

The Don's plan was clear to Howell. Unlike the 2001 stalemate, the state budget was in its second year. Thus, on July 1, 2004, a new budget year would start. If there was no agreement this time on a new budget, it would require the Gingrich vs. Clinton option: closing down the government.

"Don't bluff me, Don," said Howell. "The Goshfather will never let you go to the mattresses."

The Don excused himself.

The Goshfather grew stiff as the phone line rang. Tom Hagan answered.

"It is Don Barzini" he said, calling from the budget negotiations. He gave the cell phone to the Goshfather.

"Hello Don."

"Hello Goshfather." The Don took a deep breath." Billy won't budge."

A look of disappointment crossed the Goshfather's face. His cheeks turned white, his twitching fingers reaching for a bottle of spring water. Kay looked at Michael and then both looked at Tom Hagan. The look on the Goshfather said it all.

"For gosh sakes, Don," said the Goshfather. "I have given in on so many things already."

"I don't disagree" said the wise Don. "If it were me, I would have gone to the mattresses a long time ago."

The mattresses! The Goshfather didn't like that option. In 2001, when the Don had left Howell's predecessor, Vance Wilkins at the budget negotiation table without a deal, the state was in the first year of the two year budget. Thus, there was a budget in place, and so nothing had to be shut down. This time, things would get a lot uglier.

"It will ruin Howell and the GOP," said the Don, who now saw himself above politics, neither a Republican nor Democrat, but merely one of Plato's guardians.

"Gosh," said the Goshfather. "That's like Chapter Eleven. I have had some companies do that. Usually, I had Michael get me out at the top. But you want
me to ride the thing all the way to the bottom? I don't know, kinda of risky."

Barzini took a deep breath. He had always worried that the Goshfather would falter at the prospect of going to the mattresses. But it was still March, the budget ran until June 30th. So the Don knew the Goshfather would play out the string longer.

"Well, then," said Barzini, "you either have to sweeten the deal or send over Luca Brasi to make Howell an offer he can't refuse."

Goshfather didn't like that.

"Aren't you worried about the structural deficit?" the Goshfather asked the Don. Both men had made that a big part of their analysis in recent years.

"I created it!" laughed the Don, as the Goshfather chuckled nervously. "And you went along despite the public image."


"I know, I know" said the Goshfather. "Gosh," he thought. He didn't want to wind up like Ted Kennedy did on Medicare. The senator had cozied up to the GOP, and thought he had an understanding on the drug prescription bill. He bolted from his party to cut that deal. Then, according to Teddy's allies, he got double-

crossed by Speaker Hastert and the House-Senate conferees.

"You really think Luca can, you know, do it?" asked the Goshfather said.

The Don was his usual calm self. "It will just be me, Luca and Billy in the room. We make him an offer he can't refuse."

The Goshfather reached for his water bottle. He turned to Michael. "The Don wants me to send over Luca Brasi."

Michael was all for it. Kay whispered to Tom Hagan: "What does that mean?"

Tom didn't want to tell her. "It's an NRA thing" he said. But suddenly the lawyer in him got nervous. "I am sure he meant send over Luke -- from the Dukes of Hazzard -- because the Don wants to take Bill for a spin in
The General."


Kay nodded, getting his drift. "Absolutely." 

The Don spoken softly into the telephone. "Goshfather, this is Virginia, not New Jersey. The Soprano thing is crude, northern, archaic as our tax code. We Southern boys are like LBJ, we sit down and reason together. ... It worked for Sinatra," he added, imitating LBJ by patting his back pocket.

"Let's see what he wants," the Goshfather said. "Let's see if we can't meet him half way."

So the Don went back and talked to the Speaker.

Bill would not back down. There was no give, no net increase in general taxes. No way.

"You would look good in a Newt suit," said the Don.

Bill laughed.

Howell and his allies starred at the Don and his men across the table. "You know the Goshfather is never going to agree to go to mattresses," he repeated.

"But if I go to the mattresses, he has to back me," said the Don.

"Why is that?" asked the Speaker. "He is the guy who campaigned with the promise to never let a stalemate happen again."

Barzini was not impressed. "So, what more you want?"

Howell looked at his allies. "Try this, just for discussion purposes. I ain't committing anything. I will give you 1/2 cent more on the sales tax. I will give you 7.5 cents more on the cigarette tax. I will give you, Don, your gas tax, as my offering to you, a gesture of respect. In return, you give me all those budget goodies, your pledge to work for Jerry Kilgore's election as governor, elimination of the estate tax, 100 percent car tax repeal starting in 2005, the food tax cut, the rejigging of the income tax we talked about, we don't raise any taxes on the seniors, and we make all of it revenue neutral except for the new cigarette tax which we dedicate to whatever you want.

"In other words, the general fund side of things is revenue neutral except for the money raised by the cigarette tax increase. The gas tax goes into a new fund controlled by appointees picked by you and me, not the governor."

"Why would I take that deal?" said the Don.

Howell smiled. "It is revenue neutral, but not on a cash flow basis."

Barzini smiled. "In other words, since the car tax thing is on a calendar year basis, the Goshfather can still look good this year and through his term."

Howell nodded. "I am not a communist," said the Speaker. "This is capitalism, so I understand you got to make things worth someone's while."

Barzini thought for a moment while looking at his capos. They would back him no matter what. " So I get my transportation money?" asked the Don.

Howell nodded. "That is key to a lot of your backers," said the Speaker. "And you and I control the all the money."

"You mean just the new gas tax money or all of it?"

Howell smiled. "All of it. I have a budget amendment drafted already."

The Don looked at his men. "But there is no new money for K-12, for higher Ed, and we got the AAA rating to worry about."

Howell understood. "Warner can not afford to lose the AAA on his watch. I know that and you know that. A shutdown scenario scares Moody's worse than all our other problems."

The Don laughed. "The Goshfather had toured the state promising huge new money for education. The only money's he's raised has gone to the "education" campaign."

"They get something short-term on K-12. But hey,

if you can't sell it, then I understand, everyone

has to serve somebody, as Bob Dylan said," said the Speaker.

The Don looked at his watch. "It's late. Why don't you get some dinner, and let me talk to the Goshfather and some other folks," he said.

The Speaker smiled. "Take all the time you want. But tell the Goshfather that I am still not sure I can sell the thing to my guys. State revenue collections are booming, we hit the trigger on the car tax phase-out anyway, and that $2 million he spent pressuring my folks has only made them mad.

"I am giving the Goshfather a way to look good," the Speaker continued. "By his criteria, we have made the tax system fairer, we will have enough money to keep the AAA rating, he can put more money into education during his term -- after that it is Jerry's problem to deal with the budget math -- and he gets his food tax cut, a big Dem thing.

"A little sweetener would help me though."


-- December 1, 2003
























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