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Laboratories of Democracy

Monday, September 1, 1997

This November, voters will settle political battles in New Jersey and Virginia, two states with little in common, it seems, except disgruntled automobile owners. Here's an overview of how these gubernatorial races might advance the cause of conservatism.

New Jersey's Promise Keeper

Republican governor Christine Todd Whitman's promenade across the national stage after her election four years ago was accompanied by a chorus of praise from "big tent" conservatives. Since then, the chorus has shrunk to an occasional soloist.

After staking out a radical pro-choice position on the abortion issue and paying for spending increases by borrowing from the state pension plan, "Christie" Whitman will have to seek re-election without the enthusiastic support of social or economic conservatives. At press time she was leading her Democratic opponent, state senator and Woodbridge mayor James McGreevey, by about 15 points in independent polls. Most observers believe she will win, but by a smaller margin than anyone would have predicted a year or two ago.

McGreevey, who supported the massive state tax hikes that cost Democratic governor Jim Florio re-election in 1993, will run a strong campaign. He is a traditional liberal backed by a smooth party machine, and he can count on the support of unionized, working-class Catholic voters in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Reagan twice in the 1980s and for Clinton twice in the 1990s. His electoral base, central New Jersey, is rich with minority and urban voters. Unfortunately for conservatives, McGreevey is more liberal than the Democrat he beat in the primary, which gives Whitman plenty of room to campaign on centrist positions. Unlike 1993, when Florio's broken promise on taxes incensed his detractors and numbed his supporters, this election offers no singularly motivating campaign issue.

Whitman's slogan, "Promises Made, Promises Kept," implies that she plans to make her income-tax cut the centerpiece of her campaign. Although the Right criticized her for limiting the full benefits of her 30 percent tax cut to lower- and middle-income New Jerseyans, Whitman did manage to fulfill her promise by 1995, a year ahead of schedule. Her lesser-known accomplishments include eliminating the state's department of higher education, ending more than 4,000 unnecessary state jobs, and trimming her own staff and budget by more than 20 percent.

But will voters give her credit for it? A Quinnipiac College poll taken in late June indicates a majority of voters disapprove of her record on taxes. This is due in part to the fact that property tax rates have risen during her term. These taxes are levied by municipal governments, not the state, but Democrats attribute their rise to Whitman's cutback of state aid to towns and counties, and the charges seem to stick.

Even worse news for Whitman is that 70 percent of voters fault her handling of auto-insurance reform. New Jersey drivers pay the highest premiums in the nation and have been asking their politicians for relief since at least the 1980s. Whitman had hoped to make insurance reform her heroic deed of the year, but the Republican-controlled legislature didn't come through for her this time. She wound up settling for a skeletal insurance reform bill as state legislators scurried out of Trenton for recess this June.

While conservatives within the state and around the country laud her tax cuts, they bemoan her resistance to cutting spending as well. By postponing part of this year's payment to the state pension fund to balance the budget, Whitman allowed Democrats and the New York Times to decry a "pension-fund raid." But few conservatives or Republicans have defended her. Says Richard Pezzullo, the Conservative Party's candidate for governor, "You don't borrow on your Visa card to invest in the stock market."

John Sheridan, the president of New Jersey Citizens for Tax Reform, supports Whitman tepidly because she's "as conservative as it gets in New Jersey." Along with auto-insurance reform, he lists as disappointments her state budget "shenanigans," her failure to push for the right to enact laws directly through initiative and referendum, and her retreat in the fight for state-funded school vouchers that parents could use to send their children to private schools.

Of Whitman's flirtation with vouchers, says Sheridan, "I don't fault her as much as I do the leadership of the senate and assembly." Although Republicans control both houses of the state legislature (24-16 in the Senate, 50-30 in the General Assembly), they are moderate-to-liberal lawmakers who tend to shrink from bold initiatives. Sheridan contends that this timidity may cost Republicans their majority in the Senate this November.

Despite its aversion to controversy, the state legislature passed a ban on the "partial-birth" abortion procedure earlier this year. To the dismay of Republicans and conservatives nationwide, Whitman promptly vetoed it. This action may not cost her re-election as governor, but it snuffed out her chances of earning the GOP nomination for president or vice president. Even pro-choice Republicans like Sheridan find her defense of the procedure difficult to understand. "I was surprised and troubled by it, and I'm pro-choice," says Sheridan.

All in all, the state's conservatives feel troubled, but not betrayed. After all, Whitman never promised them a rose garden-just a tax cut.

Virginia's Heir Apparent

If the eyes are the window to the soul, perhaps Web sites are the window to the campaign. The staff for gubernatorial candidate Don Beyer, a successful Volvo salesman and the Democratic lieutenant governor, have put together a site that is sleek, graphic, colorful, and 3-D. My 67-year-old boss, who has little patience for Web sites, remarked that it made him feel like going out and buying a car. Jim Gilmore, the Republican candidate, appears on his site like the stiff state attorney general and career prosecutor he once was. The scads of unadorned text read like the computerized card catalog in a law library, and Gilmore's portrait evokes the forbidding Professor Kingsley in The Paper Chase.

The election to replace Republican governor George Allen is shaping up to be a contest between substance and style: Gilmore has a winning idea, but Beyer enjoys both a reputation as a New Democrat and high name recognition in northern Virginia, where he owns a well-advertised, eponymous car dealership. Gilmore, the more conservative candidate, will have to overcome a dearth of charisma. Conservatives have noted some improvements in Gilmore's campaigning, but say he still has a long way to go. "You come away from a meeting with Beyer feeling all warm and fuzzy," says Bill Kincaid, a veteran conservative activist who is campaigning for Mark Earley, the Republican candidate for attorney general.

Gilmore recently promised to cut the state's dreaded "personal property" tax on cars and trucks. Gilmore would exempt the first $20,000 of value from the tax, which is collected annually in October. Just a few weeks before Election Day this year, every car-driving Virginian will have to write a painful check to the state government for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

After criticizing the costs of Gilmore's tax cut, Beyer has offered a scaled-down version, available only to lower-income car owners. He has also copied Gilmore's proposal for scholarships for higher education and touted his own record as a crime-fighter.

One political asset Beyer can't borrow from Gilmore is the Republican's association with Allen, a conservative whose approval rating after four years in office is still around 70 percent. Virginia law bars him from running for a second consecutive term. "There's a sense you're re-electing an incumbent," says Kevin Gentry, a Republican party activist and the executive vice president of the Leadership Institute, in Arlington, Virginia. But it has been said that Gilmore is to Allen as George Bush was to Ronald Reagan. Gilmore is cautious, more process-oriented than ideological, and on a few issues--like gun rights and abortion--simply more liberal. But on a scale of 1 to 100, says Gentry, "he's a 90 to a 95."

Allen has earned high grades from conservatives for abolishing parole and increasing prison sentences, requiring able-bodied welfare recipients to work, and setting respectable academic standards for public education over the objections of the teachers unions. He has drawn mild criticism from the Right for doing too little to secure parental rights, reduce state spending, and resist the federal Goals 2000 education program, which he reluctantly joined despite federal mandates that accompany the funding.

Since Democrats currently control both the house of delegates (52-46) and the senate (20-20 with Beyer breaking ties as lieutenant governor), Allen couldn't have been expected to win every battle. Jay Katzan, a House Republican, predicts that with a few more GOPers in his chamber and another like-minded governor, conservatives next year could advance charter schools, the parental-rights amendment, more welfare reform, and, of course, a cut in personal property taxes.

It seems more likely that Gilmore will win the governorship than Republicans will take over either legislative chamber. "He's an absolutely dogged candidate," says Morton Blackwell, a national Republican committeeman for Virginia. Keeping up with Beyer in the polls and fundraising, Gilmore has a shot at victory if conservatives will trust him to preserve and extend Allen's conservative legacy.