Three decades ago, as a young man in his early 30s, John H. Chichester left Virginia's Democratic Party because he thought it had become too friendly to big government. Fifteen years ago, at the mid-point of the Reagan years in Washington, he ran for lieutenant governor as a Reagan supporter and spokesman for his party's conservative wing.
Today, at 63, as president pro tempore and Finance chairman in the Virginia Senate, Chichester is finally in a position to translate his views into action. And he is doing that. But he is surprising a lot of the people who thought they knew him.
As the state legislature met this year for an unusually combative two- month session, Chichester found himself the leading opponent of the tax and budget cuts promoted by his own party's governor, James S. Gilmore III. He emerged as a defender of numerous state agencies and programs Gilmore wanted to trim in order to make room for the next installment of a massive reduction in the automobile property tax.
Chichester is quick to insist that he hasn't renounced any of his conservative beliefs. In his view, he is defending Virginia's fiscal integrity. Gilmore won office in 1997--and helped the GOP gain its legislative majority--on the strength of a pledge to enact the car tax rollback. The tax cut was put in place the following year, with Chichester as its chief Senate sponsor. It was to be phased in over several years, with the amount of reduction scheduled to increase this year from 47.5 percent to 70 percent. But with Virginia's economy slowing and state revenues less than anticipated, Gilmore essentially planned to pay for the cut by trimming state spending and issuing bonds, a move that Chichester--and the Senate as a whole--quickly labeled irresponsible.
"Instead of moving to cut the car tax without sacrificing basic services, we were asked to do whatever was necessary to move the car tax cut to the next level," Chichester said in what amounted to a public rebuke of the governor. "Should we ask our children and grandchildren to pay an extra $210 million by 2020 so that we can each enjoy an average tax cut of $55 per car this year?"
The legislature adjourned at the end of February with the issue undecided, with no budget at all enacted, and the GOP in a state of internecine warfare as it heads into a campaign this fall for the governorship Gilmore must vacate. "What you have right now," says political scientist Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia, "is the Republicans controlling everything and indulging themselves in factionalism the way the Democrats once did."
The way Chichester sees things, he isn't the one who has changed. His party has moved away from him. And he has a point. The Republican Party in Virginia today is not the GOP of the 1970s. Its imprint on the state, after this most recent legislative session, reflects a conservative social agenda and widespread support for cutting taxes whatever the cost: Legislators placed new restrictions on abortion, decided to require students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance each day, and tried to post "In God We Trust" signs in all schools, in addition to backing Gilmore on the car tax in the House. In this respect, Chichester seems in danger of being swept aside by his party's political currents.
"When I became a Republican," he explains, "our view was that we should have limited taxation and as small a government as we could have and still be effective--with the least intrusion in personal lives of people by government." But, he adds, "I have always viewed government as an institution that has a role in our lives. Not everyone is as fortunate as we are, and it's a role we in government have to deal with."