Stateline Story

Savior or GOP Traitor? Virginia Lawmaker Dubbed Both

Virginia state Sen. John H. Chichester has given up his risk-taking hobbies of flying planes and driving motorcycles, but the 67-year-old Republican still plays dangerously when it comes to public policy

To many, Chichester is the force who helped steer the commonwealth back on the road of fiscal soundness through an overhaul of the state tax code last year. To others, he drove his political career and the state's anti-tax orthodoxy into the ground by teaming up with Democratic Gov. Mark Warner to hike taxes $1.2 billion.

Chichester is now the longest-serving Republican in the state Senate. A fan of barbershop chorus music, the Senate president pro tempore often is heard singing or whistling as he walks through the halls of the Statehouse, where he has served since first elected in 1977 when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. In 2000, when Republicans gained control of both Statehouse chambers, Chichester took over the powerful Senate Finance Committee, where all state spending decisions are first debated.

His role last session in shepherding the first major tax increase in Virginia in nearly 40 years has put him in the national spotlight, earning him both praise and scorn. He and Warner recently landed on the cover of Governing magazine, representing two of the eight "top public officials of the year." But both men's photos also grace "Virginia's Least Wanted" posters distributed by conservative anti-tax groups and plastered throughout Virginia mocking the state policy-makers who raised taxes. The poster includes the photos of 14 other GOP senators and 19 GOP delegates who voted for the tax package.

The silver-haired Chichester brushes off the platitudes and takes in stride the contempt. The opposition "is to be expected," he said. Debating taxes is contentious and "very unappetizing," he said in between meetings last week at the state General Assembly building in Richmond.

The tax package bumped up the state's sales tax by half a penny, put the brakes on a rollback of a celebrated car tax, and removed the state's distinction as having the lowest cigarette tax in the country at 2.5 cents a pack. Starting in July, smokers in this tobacco-rich state will pay a tax of 30 cents a pack, a whooping 1,100 percent increase.

The bottom line is that Virginia now enjoys a $1 billion surplus, maintaining its cherished AAA bond rating from Wall Street. Just last month Virginia also won top grades for managing money, people, information, and roads and buildings from the Government Performance Project, which evaluated state governments' strengths and weaknesses. The project was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, a public philanthropy based in Philadelphia that separately also funds Stateline.org.

"We all take pride in that, no matter what side of the issue you were on," said Chichester, who represents Stafford, Va., a mostly rural area midway between the metropolitan areas of Washington, D. C., and Richmond.

Anti-tax groups such as Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), the Virginia Institute and the Virginia Club for Growth call Chichester a traitor to the party. Not only did Chichester ultimately push through a revenue hike, but he also unveiled his own tax increase proposal that had a price tag $2 billion bigger than the governor's, making Warner's package appear modest.

"By all accounts, Chichester was the enabler, as he proposed a tax increase three times larger than Warner's," said Phil Rodokanakis, vice president of the Virginia Club for Growth.

"Chichester made serial tax-raiser Mark Warner look moderate," ATR President Grover Norquist said when the "Least Wanted" poster was unveiled. "Chichester doesn't belong in the Republican Party," he said.

The anti-tax groups vow to work for the defeat of those Republicans who voted for the tax hike. Voters will pick a new governor and House of Delegates this year, but Chichester's seat is safe until 2007.

Chichester calls the anti-tax groups "distracters" who use Virginia's tax hike as a "fund-raising tool for their own pockets."

The GOP senator has his firm supporters, including the governor. "John Chichester, in my mind, represents the best of the breed of citizen legislator. He is someone who always looks to the state's interest first," Warner said, adding that Chichester "was absolutely critical to last year's effort."

Sujit M. CanagaRetna, who specializes in taxes and budgets at the Atlanta office of the Council of State Governments, said Chichester "represents the highest ideals of public service. ... When I think of him, what immediately comes to mind is statesman.'"

Virginia politics is in Chichester's blood. His grandfather was a state Supreme Court justice. His father was a commonwealth attorney, an elected official equivalent to a district attorney, and his brother, Dan, currently holds that post for Stafford County.

To some, Chichester also represents a dying breed of the Republican Party and a different era of state politics when both parties worked together without today's partisan acrimony.

"The congeniality has deteriorated," Chichester conceded. "There's a great deal of my-way-or-the-highway' type mentality." Chichester said Richmond has always had its extreme elements. "When I first got here, you would have two or three on the left and now they are on the right."

The rough-and-tumble politics of Washington, D.C., seems to be seeping into gentile Virginia politics. Chichester calls the partisanship "very disconcerting. It's not the way Virginia has historically done business. I'm hoping we are just going through a phase."

Warner, too, sees a change in the way state policy is made. "Historically, ... bipartisan appeal was more the norm than the exception. Unfortunately it's becoming more the exception than the norm today, but [Chichester] goes back to that kind of classic, do-right-for-Virginia approach," the governor said.

As head of the Senate, Chichester sees governors come and go every four years; Virginia is the only state that limits its governors to a single four-year term. "I feel compelled to help whoever the governor is. Once the election is over, I don't care what party they are in. ... We want her (Virginia) to still be the best-managed state in the country. We're all in it together, and we need to put politics back on the back burner and leave it there," he said.

Chichester regrets that his entire tax package didn't get through, predicting that rising health care and education costs coupled with failing roads will come home to roost. Chichester said that in leaner years, policy-makers probably will wish they had endorsed a more ambitious tax package. "But you won't ever convince anyone of that until we go into the tank," Chichester said.

And for Chichester, seeing Virginia go into the tank is precisely what he has worked to avoid for more than 25 years.