Virginia Governor's Race Heats Up in Final Weeks
By Christina Nuckols, Special to Stateline
RICHMOND, Va. -- Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner's sterling popularity ratings suggest he would have little trouble persuading Virginia voters to give him four more years in the executive mansion.
But Virginia is the only state that limits its governors to a single term. Warner's legacy, though, is a central theme in the tight race between Democrat Timothy M. Kaine and Republican Jerry W. Kilgore. The candidates have spent much of the campaign sparring over the $1.4 billion tax increase Warner initiated last year, but they've also found time to debate capital punishment and possible solutions to road congestion.
The Old Dominion is one of two states, along with New Jersey, that elects its governor in odd-numbered years.
The men vying to succeed Warner in the Nov. 8 election already are well-known to Virginians. Kaine, the lieutenant governor, is a civil rights attorney and the former mayor of Richmond. Kilgore resigned in February from his post as attorney general to campaign full-time for governor. He is a former federal prosecutor from rural Southwest Virginia.
And there's a third candidate on the ballot, Independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr. A sports promoter from the Shenandoah Valley, Potts was elected to the state Senate as a Republican. He has broken with GOP leaders because of their opposition to tax increases and their conservative stance on social issues.
A September poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research showed Kaine and Kilgore in a dead heat with Potts trailing behind with only 6 percent.
Warner, who boasts a 74 percent job approval rating in polls, has embraced Kaine as his natural heir. In television ads airing statewide, the Democratic governor touts Kaine as the candidate best-suited to continue his good-government reforms.
Kaine was an enthusiastic ally last year when Warner pushed a $1.4 billion tax increase through the Republican-controlled Legislature. Kaine and Warner say the hike on sales and cigarette taxes was needed to bolster state support for public schools, health care programs and law enforcement agencies.
Kilgore was one of the most vocal critics of the tax increase. He points to strong economic growth and a $544 million state budget surplus this year as evidence that the hikes were unnecessary.
The Republican says he will not attempt to roll back the levies if he is elected. He has, however, vowed to pass a law prohibiting any future tax increases unless they are approved by voter referendum.
Virginia sets no limits on individual or corporate donations to political candidates, and Kaine and Kilgore have taken advantage of those open-ended laws. Kilgore has raised $14 million so far, with Kaine close behind at $13.2 million.
Much of the money is being used to pay for negative television ads.
In the most extreme example, Kilgore released an ad accusing Kaine of being so opposed to the death penalty that he would be reluctant to execute Adolf Hitler. Kaine responded with his own ads repeating his pledge to carry out executions even though he is morally opposed to capital punishment because of his Catholic faith.
The ads feature the father of a murder victim criticizing Kaine for representing death row inmates as a defense attorney. Kaine was the lead attorney for appeals in two capital cases, and he assisted in a third.
Most of the ads focus on taxes, an issue that also has taken center stage in the gubernatorial debates.
During his third and final debate with Kaine on Oct. 10, Kilgore reminded the television audience that the Democrat, as a lieutenant governor candidate, "campaigned in 2001 pledging not to raise your taxes and yet he passed on the most massive tax increase in Virginia history."
Kaine responded, "We shouldn't take what we've accomplished in Virginia and throw it away by putting the keys to the office in the hands of a person who's opposed Gov. Warner and me at every level."
Potts was not allowed to join in the debates. Kilgore initially refused to participate in debates that included the Independent, and later agreed to face off with Potts only if his support in the poll reached 15 percent.
Kaine and Kilgore both have promised ambitious education reforms if they are elected.
Kaine wants to make pre-kindergarten programs available to all 4-year-olds, at a cost of $296 million annually. Most states, including Virginia, have early learning initiatives for low-income children. Only Georgia, Florida and Oklahoma offer state-funded preschool programs to all 4-year-olds.
Kilgore's marquee education proposal is an overhaul of teacher pay that would tie salaries to job performance. The candidate has not released cost estimates or details on how the merit pay reforms would work.
No state has a full-fledged, system-wide merit pay system in place, but the idea is taking hold across the country. Colorado is seeking voter approval for performance pay reforms this fall, and governors in California, Idaho and Kentucky have proposed similar plans.
The issue receiving the most attention this year, however, is transportation. Business leaders are closely scrutinizing the candidates' road-building proposals. They want the next governor to relieve traffic congestion in the populous suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C. They also warn that improvements are needed to hurricane evacuation routes leading out of the Hampton Roads region.
Neither Kaine nor Kilgore has guaranteed a permanent new source of road and transit funding, however.
Kaine says he will not pursue new revenues for transportation until the state Constitution is amended to prevent future governors or Legislatures from diverting road funds for other purposes. That ultimatum would delay action on any tax increase or new levy until at least 2009.
Kilgore proposes the creation of regional transportation authorities with the power to raise taxes for highway and transit projects. However, the authorities would be required to gain approval through a voter referendum. Kilgore said he will remain neutral and will not campaign in support of any proposed regional tax increase.
Potts, a folksy lawmaker with a penchant for sports metaphors, is the only candidate promising to raise taxes if he is elected. Potts wants to bolster funding for roads and mass transit by $2 billion annually. He says higher gas, sales and income levies are all potential sources for those new dollars.
Christina Nuckols is a Statehouse reporter in the Richmond bureau of The Virginian-Pilot.