Chichester Speaks

With Gov. Mark R. Warner a lame duck who spends an increasing amount of his time outside the state, the most powerful politician in Virginia today is Sen. John H. Chichester, the Senate Finance Chair, and he will remain so until the inauguration of the next governor. For a man so powerful, Chichester is remarkably uncommunicative. His natural arena is in the clotured halls of the General Assembly, a turf he dominates. Other than the rare speech and occasional word to the press, he leaves us spectators of the General Assembly guessing at his intentions and reasoning.

Thus it is remarkable that he issued an op-ed piece nearly a month ago, and very little was made of it. I missed it entirely. I don’t recall seeing it mentioned in print, and no one has discussed it on this blog. (If other bloggers have taken note of it, I apologize for overlooking your contribution to public understanding.) The op-ed came to my attention only because Phil Rodokanakis cited it in his up-coming column in Bacon’s Rebellion.

The purpose of Chichester’s column is to contest the thinking behind the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) initiative backed by the Virginia Institute for Public Policy and other conservative, anti-tax groups. The title of the column, “Virginia is not on automatic pilot,” sums up his philosophy nicely. You can read the column here.

One thing becomes very clear from a reading of the op-ed: Chichester applies the perspective of a bean counter. He is driven by the accountant’s fixation with balancing the books. Don’t misunderstand me: Balancing the books and maintaining a AAA credit rating are important, but the challenge of managing state government does not end there. No company ever bean-counted its way to greatness, and neither has any state.

There is no boldness in Chichester’s worldview, no passion, no imagination, no hint that there could be a better, more efficient, more creative to do things. The word “innovation” does not appear to be part of his vocabulary. Chichester gives no hint in his op-ed that he can conceive operating government any differently than it is run now. Judging by his column, the words “reinventing,” “restructuring,” “re-engineering,” “outsourcing,” “right-sizing,” “focusing on core competencies” and other management concepts of the past 20 years do not impinge upon his thinking.

Chichester brings to state government the constricted, risk-averse world view of a small-town insurance broker… which is exactly what he is. May God save the Commonwealth from such a small mind.

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  1. Addison Avatar

    TABOR proponent Norm Leahy rebutted it.

    One Man’s Trash on Chichester’s column

  2. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Jim: Mayhaps I haven’t read enough of your stuff, but from what I have, this commentary is one of the best pieces you have ever written – powerful, persuasive, and cogent. Hooah x times.

  3. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    Jim, I’m the Rodney Dangerfield of this blog:

    You really have hit upon something that I certainly didn’t note–the passionless crunching of budget numbers, formulaic and inevitable.

  4. The Jaded JD Avatar
    The Jaded JD

    Well, God forbid that the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee have a devotion to making sure the books balance. As opposed, say, to a gubernatorial candidate who promises to hand out money from the treasury like there’s a printing press in the basement of the General Assembly Building. (Well, OK, there is a printing press in the basement of the General Assembly Building, but it’s not for currency.) I mean, we could always take a West Coast approach to public financial management and just borrow a few billion dollars here or there in order to smooth over the gaping chasm between political promises and reality.

    As for as risk-aversion, I’ve never considered the public fisc to be a hedge fund, with money paid in by forcibly subscribed mutual funders to be dizzyingly diversified in innovative new schemes. If the worst criticism that can be leveled at Senator Chichester is that he lacks financial imagination, then we should be in safe hands indeed. We’ve seen creativity in state budgeting before–Jim Gilmore’s administration was very creative, and I have to give those folks credit for being able to do so much with a handful of smoke and mirrors.

    When it comes to my tax dollars, I don’t want a junk bond dealer managing the money. Though I can’t speak for the countless Virginians who legitimately rely on state funding–children, the eldery, the disabled–I suspect that they’re happier to have someone with a keen understanding of fiduciary duty, someone with a dedication to fulfilling the past promises made on which they rely, someone who would rather stretch what there is as far as it will go rather than risk it all on the latest new fad. But I guess there are some people who take their mortgage and grocery money and wager it at Colonial Downs, and still call themselves Republicans. I, for one, am glad that the Senate Finance Committee isn’t one of them.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    No, Will, You aren’t the Rodney Dangerfield of the blog, I’m the dunce of the blog. I can’t believe I didn’t make the connection with your previous post! The difference is, this time I finally read what Chichester had to say… and came away less than impressed. Thank you for keeping the Bacon’s Rebellion blog up to speed with critical developments, even if the editor was too dense to appreciate it at the time.

    Jaded JD, You’re creating a straw man. Here’s the point, which you seemed to have missed entirely. No one is saying we should run government like a hedge fund.

    Chichester believes in doing Business As Usual. Gov. Warner, whom I’m sure you’re willing to praise, has been fairly creative (though not nearly as aggressive as I would have liked) in exploring ways to find efficiencies in government. Read Monday’s Bacon’s Rebellion: We’ll run a column by Bill Leighty giving a lengthy recitation of Warner administration initiatives. I don’t think you can credit a single one of those initiatives to Chichester, who has been AWOL on the issue of reforming government. Finding innovative ways to run government more efficiently is part of Warner’s mindset, but it’s not part of Chichester’s — at least it’s not, based on anything he’s said publicly.

    If you want to defend the status quo in governance, that’s your prerogative. You’ll probably wind up on the winning side of the debate. Virginia is, after all, an incredibly conservative state — conservative, as in resistant to change.

  6. Barnie Day Avatar
    Barnie Day

    Jim, that light you sometimes keep hidden under a bushel must have blown out. Your “remarkably uncommunicative” applied to Chichester is the dopiest chacterization I think I’ve ever read. Some of us communicate with him frequently. Maybe you just don’t pay attention to what he says, or maybe you don’t listen. To be sure, you would be among those in state government you can count on one hand who would view him with such dismissiveness–and on the org chart you’d find them somewhere below ‘broom closet.’ You can read this “small” mind yourself in ‘Notes from the sausage factory.’ See his essay, ‘Investing in tomorrow’s leaders.’ This piece, by Paul Akers is illuminating, too:

    Chichester next Tuesday: Drive a stake through the heart of poisonous politics
    Paul Akers 6/4/03
    Just as in “Casablanca” everyone comes to Rick’s, almost everyone hereabouts sometimes walks the streets of Fredericksburg. On those streets, one is liable to bump into virtually anyone, and do so, despite differences of opinion, without blood in the eye. Maybe the rock-bottom definition of community is the disinclination to mentally assassinate others on sight. Beneath that is no community at all, which makes those who would upset this compact a threat to all.
    The campaign to unseat state Sen. John Chichester, R-Stafford, by the boosters of his primary opponent, Mike Rothfeld, has been one long, shrill vilification of a serious public man who―agree or not with his politics―carries an earned reputation for devoted service and good character. The Chichester way is not one of venom. When in 1985 his handlers urged him to “go negative” in his race for lieutenant governor against Democrat Douglas Wilder, who had vulnerabilities, Chichester kept his punches up above the belt, losing with 48% of the vote. Yet for Chichester to forgive anytime soon the orchestrated slurs of the current campaign would require that Chichester’s name be preceded not by “Sen.” but by “St.” His supporters are roused for a warpath that stretches beyond Election Day. The strategy of the Rothfeld forces is not new to anyone familiar with the smashface school of American politics. It involves combing the hundreds of votes cast by a veteran legislator, carefully selecting the most unflattering ones (or those that can be “spun” to seem so), and presenting these as the essence of the incumbent. Mike Rothfeld has placed the voting record of John Chichester in front of a funhouse mirror, pointed to the distortions in the glass, and called them reality. Not so.
    Of course there are philosophical differences between Chichester and Rothfeld, and of course politics is often about sharpening such differences, and of course Rothfeld, a relative unknown, must carry a large whetstone to sharpen them. But to make the case that Chichester is agnostic on abortion you must disregard his 90% lifetime favorable voting rating by the Virginia Society for Human Life. To make the case that he is a promiscuous tax-and-spender, you must hide dozens of his votes to kill measures carrying a price tag for taxpayers, and you must not say that he has voted for precisely three tax increases in 25 years, including two miniscule hikes in the gas tax (1 cent, 2 cents) and one “horse trade” vote for legislation with no chance of passage. To make the case that Chichester is an enemy of private educational alternatives, you must edit from your mailers his 1984 sponsorship of homeschooling academic safeguards without which the state may have tried to stop the practice. To claim that Chichester is a closet liberal, you must forget to say that he left the Democratic Party in 1969 because of its excessive liberalism. Indeed, the demonization process requires copious memory lapses. The truth is, if the worst moments of the average life were made into a feature film, its owner would have to leave town in disguise. But Chichester, by any fair accounting, has had fewer of these moments than most people with a 25-year legislative record to potshot.
    To say that all is fair in politics should not mean that all must be foul. The Rothfeld campaign’s lowest blow (so far; there is still a week to go; the lads are creative) is to paint Chichester as a friend of “sodomy.” A flier, styled as a candidate questionnaire, stuck last Sunday behind the windshield wipers of cars parked at area churches asks “Do you support a ban on the teaching of sodomy to schoolchildren?” In the John Chichester column: “No.” In the Mike Rothfeld column: “Yes.” Chichester received no such “questionnaire,” much less gave the answer purported. Herbert Lux, who describes himself as Rothfeld’s “director of grassroots activities,” accuses Chichester of, in effect, introducing a curriculum of “oral or anal sex” to kids. Lux evidently believes that grass roots grow hardiest when fed sewage. Sadly, the distortion of Chichester’s public life is paced by another distortion―that of the judgment of a large chunk of the Rothfeld base, conservative Christians. In their ardor to reform the body politic, some of these citizens have fallen into what, if they would take a step back, they might recognize as heresy. In hot pursuit of some virtues, they have lightened their load by casting off others. To quote Psalm XXIV: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall rise up in his holy place? Even he that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; and that hath not…sworn to deceive his neighbor.”
    The conservative-Christian critique of society, as it happens, has much validity. Christian traditionalists were the first to lambaste a popular culture whose crud quotient is sufficiently high to alarm even the irreligious. The Christian Right, in its preference for sectarian schools and homeschooling, correctly recognizes the moral hazards that lurk in public schools where harmful peer pressure is barely checked by hamstrung adult authority. In their condemnation of nonmarital sex, orthodox believers were ahead of the social scientists, who have since documented the calamitous consequences (crime, poverty, etc.) of epidemic out-of-wedlock births. And even pro-choice Americans must sense that social mores have become more callous―regarding the treatment of women, for example―since the Age of Abortion removed meaningful protection for defenseless human beings on the wrong side of the birth canal.
    But in their zeal to make a better society, conservative Christians can be tempted by expediency. As the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis wrote, “[W]ickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way.” Was Lewis ever right. The publisher of the after-church sodomy indictment strewn under windshield wipers is American Renewal, “the legislative action arm of Family Research Council.” Thoughtful believers on a mission to convince a skeptical public of the truth of their positions are undercut when those acting under their flag spurn fair play and turn the cannons of ruthless rhetoric on decent public servants. Christian soldiers? These are Christian terrorists. Believers who link themselves with these ends-oriented wretches soil the causes they champion and the faith they profess.
    Several area political leaders who accept the label “Christian conservative” are thoroughly honorable women and men. They should amend their policy regarding primary endorsements, break their silence, and join House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford, in disavowing the Rothfeld campaign’s methods and urging Chichester’s re-election. There may be a higher imperative to do this than secular politics.
    Every registered voter should cast a ballot in next Tuesday’s election―and not just to retain the services of Chichester, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, though that is hugely important to this area. Equally important, the forces aligned with Rothfeld must be defeated, as the military says, “in detail.” The way to accomplish that is with a massive turnout that renders an unspinnable verdict
    on the politics of defamation.
    Of this disease, democracy is the surest cure. After “pushing all the right wing’s hot buttons” to get its supporters to the polls, the “sole goal” of the Rothfeld campaign, says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, “is to produce a very low turnout. June is not when most Virginians are used to voting. But there is no election in November. This is the election.”
    A crushing Chichester win on June 10, in a primary open to voters of every party, would tell all the slick-jowled opinion-manipulators inside the Beltway that their direct-mail attacks and church-lot sleazesheets are―in a true community―a waste of suckers’ money. “The Irish,” groused Freud, “are the only people who don’t benefit from psychoanalysis.” Let the Fredericksburg area be likewise exceptional in resisting poisonous propaganda. Never let our streets become mean streets.
    Copyright 2003 The Free Lance-Star. Reprinted with permission.

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Barnie, I haven’t reached Chichester’s essay in “Sausage Factory” yet, but I look forward to reading it. If he shows any sign of thinking that transcends the very narrow definition of fiscal conservatism that appears in the public statements that I have read to this point, I will happily retract my characterization.

    As for the smears against Chichester in the last campaign — painting him as “a friend of sodomy” — I don’t countenance those in any way. That’s reprehensible and has no place in Virginia politics.

    However, there’s one campaiogn charge against Chichester that cannot be swept under the rug: the charge that he would raise taxes. As I understand it through second-hand sources — and I haven’t heard this contradicted — Chichester denied that he had any intention of raising taxes, and he criticized his opponent for suggesting that he would do so. He certainly never intimidated to voters that he would spring a tax-increase proposal upon the General Assembly that would dwarf even Gov. Warner’s proposal. Now, every politician is entitled to change his stance in response to the revelation of new information, but to suggest that Chichester had no idea that he would propose such a massive tax hike is to invite mocking skepticism.

  8. Jim-

    In your reply to Barnie you wrote “He certainly never intimidated to voters that he would spring a tax-increase proposal upon the General Assembly that would dwarf even Gov. Warner’s proposal.”

    I assume you meant to say “intimate”, and not “intimidate”?

    Just my $.02

  9. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Bwana, Good catch. My bad.

  10. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Subpatre, you raise an interesting issue regarding the structure of the state senate. I’ve often wondered how Chichester manages to dominate a group of men and women with such strong egos. Not knowing the man, I am left to speculate. Does he have a forceful personality that’s evident only when you’re face to face with him? He is a masterful manipulator, working the arcane machinery of senate rules and procedures? Or does the senate simply bequeath extraordinary powers to the position he occupies? The people who are part of the political process know the answer, but no one writes about it.outsider to the process, I tend to endow Chichester with an aura of mystery and power.

  11. Phil Rodokanakis Avatar
    Phil Rodokanakis


    I wouldn’t take Barnie’s comments about Chichester too seriously. Barnie is enamored with tax-and-spend RINOs–the likes of Chichester, Dillard, et al. Which raises the question why would a partisan Democrat fawn at so called Republicans?

    The answer is obvious. Because their policies closely mirror those of the extreme left wing of the Democrat Party–not core Republican principles which stand for lower taxes and smaller government.

    You’re absolutely correct that Chichester campaigned on a promise not to raise taxes. He put out campaign literature to that effect. He said that we could trust him not to raise taxes. All those promises were conveniently forgotten once he was safely back in the State Senate and proposed a $4 billion tax increase. Talk about lying to get elected–but then again we have a long history of politicians in Virginia lying to get elected, the biggest liar being Gov. “I will not raise your taxes” Warner.

    And while I’m at it, let me respond to JDD’s post. He says that when it comes to tax dollars he suspects that Virginians are happier with someone “with a dedication to fulfilling past promises made on which they can rely.” Tell that to Commissar Chichester’s constituents who relied on his past promises not to raise taxes when they reelected him to office in 2003.

  12. Barnie Day Avatar
    Barnie Day

    Jim and Subpatre raise interesting and pertinent questions regarding the structure, primacy, etc. of the Senate Finance Committee, and by extension, its chairman, John Chichester. I offer a short bibliography that might illuminate these issues, keeping in mind that in the House, money is raised and spent by two different committees, but on the Senate side, the same committee, Finance, does both. (1) As general background, read the state constitution. (2) For specific, deep background, read the Senate Rules (the House has published rules, too). (3) Read up on Ed Willey and Hunter Andrews, the two previous chairmen. (I modestly suggest a book on Virginia politics that is just out and available at Willey and Andrews, of course, are deceased, but they remain the key to understanding the tradition extended now by Chichester. Willey made Finance primary to all other committees in Virginia government–by force of personality and by–and this is key–hiring a world-class professional staff, a staff that to this day–though the names have changed over the years–remains for the most part, faceless and invisible. (Don’t think for one second that Mark Warner didn’t know exactly what he was doing when he reached into this staff and plucked out Bill Leighty and John Bennett.) Chichester’s personality (think Pat Boone) could not be more disparate, but he is proving to be every bit as tough as Willey (Mafia don) or Andrews (Genghis Khan with a tooth ache). On the issue of structure, it is a problem. Jim, some of us have, in fact, written about it. (see ‘A Lesson From Luke’ 12-30-02, archives,

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