Taking Centrist Line, Businessman Warner Takes Virginia State House

Being a Democrat in the Commonwealth of Virginia used to be a positive. Now, after years of Republic control of the state, businessman Mark Warner has turned it into a positive again.

Warner, 46, was elected governor Tuesday on a centrist, bipartisan message — and a record $20 million campaign, including some $5 million of his personal fortune.

“We said that old-style politics, with its regional divisions and partisan bickering and personal attacks, was not the approach for an Information Age Virginia,” Warner told supporters in his victory speech in Richmond Tuesday night. “Now, the people of Virginia have spoken. They said they want a new approach to our commonwealth.”

Republicans won firm control of the state’s House of Delegates, however, which may restrict Warner’s effectiveness in office.

Warner portrayed himself as a Democrat who is not too liberal for conservative Virginia, one who wants to protect “Virginia values.”

Combining that message with a focus on economic development for the “21st century,” the businessman resonated with voters, especially with Jewish voters in Northern Virginia, who traditionally are Democratic.

“He represents the core values I identify with,” while also being a “new-era thinker,” said Sam Simon of McLean, who served on Warner’s campaign finance committee.

“He’s a successful leader and he has united the Democratic Party around the state,” Alexandria attorney Steven Stone said, “and has provided a new direction for new times.”

Warner has never held elective office, but he’s no political novice. Besides an unsuccessful run against Republican Sen. John Warner in 1996, Warner was state Democratic Party chair from 1993 to 1995 and the campaign manager for former Gov. Doug Wilder in 1989.

But he got his start — and what is said to be a $200 million fortune — through his involvement in reselling cell phone licenses in the nascent days of the wireless phone industry. He is a founding partner of Columbia Capital Corporation, a technology venture capital fund in Alexandria.

Warner used some of that fortune both in this campaign and in the 1996 race, but in recent years also put some of that money back into the community to provide health care, combat the “digital divide” and assist with technology training of college students.

Stone was particularly impressed by SeniorNavigator.com, an Internet site being created by the Virginia Health Care Foundation, of which Warner is founding chair. The project is an Internet resource to help the elderly find health care services and information.

But a candidate without a public record raised some doubts in voters’ minds.

“How can you be sure of a candidate’s position once elected if he doesn’t have a track record?” asked Steven Silver, a Republican from Vienna.

Democrats say Warner’s experience in the business world provided him with skills that are equally valuable.

“He ran a business, he knows how to manage people, how to get things done, and he knows what the bottom line is,” said Paul Frommer of Alexandria.

Bernard Cohen of Alexandria, who served 16 years in the House of Delegates, agreed.

Being a governor “requires an executive with good leadership qualities,” Cohen said. “Mark Warner has developed executive capacities to a very high degree” by “building a business from nothing.”

One Jewish Democrat did have a complaint about Warner’s position on gun control.

As part of his emphasis on “Virginia values,” Warner courted the National Rifle Association, Simon pointed out, and talked of the importance of protecting the rights of hunters and fisherman.

While the NRA did not endorse Warner — the group gave him a C grade — it didn’t endorse Republican opponent Mark Earley either.

Simon said, though, that he understood Warner’s moves as part of politics, and felt Warner would not concentrate on gun issues in office.

Simon also was disappointed that Warner expressed support for the minute of silence in Virginia schools, a law under challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court.

At a joint appearance with Earley at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia last month, Warner told the audience, “I support the right to a moment of silence. What I don’t support is school prayer.”

He also pledged to resist any effort to weaken church-state separation.

A graduate of George Washington University, Warner drew clear differences between himself and Earley on the issue of reproductive rights. Warner said he supports Virginia’s current laws on the subject — which include one that requires a minor to notify her parents before getting an abortion — but “opposes any further restrictions,” and supports a woman’s right to an abortion.

Warner’s children attend private school, but he emphatically opposed any kind of aid to private education, whether vouchers or tuition tax credits. He stressed the importance for the state to increase the amount of money it contributes to education relative to what local jurisdictions spend, and said he would raise teacher salaries in all four years of his administration.

Warner also said he would create a Cabinet position focusing on issues affecting “older Virginians,” and expressed support for continuing the state’s economic partnership with Israel.

“It is a relationship in our commonwealth’s best interest, our country’s best interest and our economy’s best interest,” Warner told the JCC audience.

Of course, possibly the most important day-to-day problem Northern Virginians face is traffic congestion. Warner pledged to allow local jurisdictions to levy taxes on their populations in order to raise money to improve the transportation system.

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