The man who was the biggest factor in the closely watched Virginia Governor's race last week wasn't even on the ballot. And that's why Democrats are starting to think that outgoing Virginia Governor Mark Warner may finally have figured out what it will take for their party to start winning in the South again. All sides agreed the morning after the election that what carried Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine to victory--in a state that hasn't voted for a Democrat for President since L.B.J.--was Warner's popularity. Part of it is style: Warner won narrowly in 2001 by courting gun owners and working the NASCAR circuit, even though he grew up in the New England state of Connecticut and is worth some $200 million. But the real political miracle is the fact that Virginians have only grown to love him more as he has slashed popular programs and raised taxes.
Even Warner, 50, a telecommunications tycoon, admits he had a lot to learn when he arrived in Richmond. At first, the Republican-controlled legislature turned down everything he put forward. Voters rejected his proposal for new taxes to solve the state's traffic congestion. Worst of all, the Governor, who had run promising to help generate high-tech jobs, saw the technology bubble burst, just as he discovered that he had a deficit of more than $3 billion to close.
Warner has never been one to be discouraged by a stumble or two. A Harvard Law grad, he started out as a fund raiser for the Democratic National Committee, a job that left him so broke he was reduced to sleeping on friends' couches, he recalls, and that he finally gave up to make some money. In the beginning, business didn't work out any better than politics. His initial venture, in energy, failed in six weeks; his second one, in real estate, took six months to fold. But in the early 1980s, Warner saw possibility in the far-out idea of cellular telephones and organized investor groups to apply for the free licenses then available. In return he got a stake in the new companies, one of which was Nextel. His friends, Warner recalls, thought he was crazy. Now he jokes, "Anytime you're around me, please don't turn off your cell phone. You hear an annoying sound. I hear ka-ching! ka-ching!"
Warner brought the same long view to his state's fiscal problems. He slashed spending for everything but education, cutting $6 billion in costs, eliminating 3,000 state jobs and even shutting down driver's-license offices one day a week. That gave him credibility as a fiscal conservative, which became important when he discovered that spending cuts were not enough to put the state on sound financial footing for the rest of the decade. Given his one-term limit, it would have been tempting for Warner to simply paper over the problem and pass it on to his successor, as other Governors had done before him. Instead, he pulled together an unlikely coalition that won enough G.O.P. votes to pass a $1.4 billion tax hike, the largest in Virginia history--and put the state on the road to fiscal stability. This year Virginia tied with Utah as the best-managed state in the country, as rated by the Government Performance Project, an academic group.