Unpopular car tax propels Gilmore into lead in Va. A seemingly small issue gives bland GOP candidate a real shot at governorship

October 31, 1997|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

VIENNA, Va. -- As Jim Gilmore marched in the Halloween parade of this Northern Virginia suburb, an attractive blonde in a sheepskin jacket scampered into the street and embraced the Republican gubernatorial candidate.

"He's a good man," gushed Jill Beezley, 38, upon rejoining her family at curbside. "And I'm all for that 'no car tax.' "

Gilmore, a 48-year-old lawyer with a reputation for blandness, is getting rock-star treatment these days for one reason: He's promised to virtually eliminate the most despised levy in the commonwealth -- a property tax on cars and trucks that must be paid every year a vehicle is owned.

The Beezleys, who drive older cars, wrote out an $800 check for this year's car tax. Many Virginians with more expensive vehicles paid several times that amount.

The issue has broken open the governor's race and propelled Gilmore into a solid lead over two-term Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr., who has belatedly proposed a car-tax cut of his own.

"It's resonating stronger than we ever thought that it would," acknowledged Gilmore, who stepped down as state attorney general earlier this year to campaign full time.

If Gilmore's "No Car Tax" slogan carries him to a big victory in Tuesday's election, the issue, or something like it, also could start reverberating beyond Virginia's borders, "It just proves what works in the age of micro-politics," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

With "macro" problems, such as the economy, currently under control, smaller issues are emerging in the two states holding elections for governor this fall. In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman is fighting a strong challenge from Democrat James E. McGreevey, who has her on the defensive over rising property taxes and auto insurance rates.

"I think we're going to see a lot more of this," Sabato predicted. "Candidates are going to find some tax or some other relatively special problem that proves really irritating to people."

With Republican Gov. George F. Allen barred from seeking re-election this year (Virginia is the only state whose governor cannot serve two consecutive terms), Gilmore hopes to extend his party's winning streak in Richmond.

A Gilmore landslide could give Republicans control of the Virginia Legislature for the first time. And it would almost certainly spark renewed interest in tax-cutting as a strong political weapon.

Ever since Ronald Reagan won the presidency, after the California property tax revolt of the '70s, on a pledge to slash income tax rates, tax relief has been a staple of Republican and, to a lesser degree, Democratic politics.

But Republicans are unable to unite around a single tax issue now, other than the need to reform the Internal Revenue Service. The Republican majority in Congress is split over what to do with projected federal budget surpluses. Some want to use them to pay down the national debt. Others are pushing for further tax cuts.

"Basically, the elections this year are being waged along economic, rather than cultural, lines," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican who believes the results in his state will influence the federal debate on the other side of the Potomac.

Democratic efforts to attack the conservative Gilmore for his opposition to abortion and his ties to religious conservatives, including Pat Robertson, who donated $50,000 to his campaign, have been neutralized by the car-tax issue.

Gilmore's pollster John McLaughlin says swing voters, including suburban women, have been won over by the car-tax issue. He offers that as proof that tax-cutting can help Republicans counter the agenda of President Clinton and centrist Democrats.

"People hear good economic times, but in their daily lives they're still treading water," the pollster said. "I think what you will see in next year's elections are Republicans and Democrats racing to the middle and finding ways to help the middle class economically."

In Virginia, Democrats have seen the car-tax issue demolish their campaign plan.

At the outset, Beyer, 47, a wealthy Volvo dealer from the Washington suburbs, refused to rule out a tax increase for better schools and roads. He reversed field later and came out with a $1 billion tax cut of his own.

Now, he's denouncing his opponent's "no-car-tax" proposal as a gimmick that would rob the state of the money it needs to train badly needed workers for the state's high-technology industries.

But Beyer acknowledges the voter appeal of the tax issue. "Ellen Sauerbrey, who was, by all accounts, not a credible candidate, came within a hair of beating Parris Glendening, who was eminently qualified," he said, referring to the 1994 Maryland governor's race.

The key, according to Gilmore's advisers, is finding the right target -- a tax that is particularly loathed.

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