of the U.S. state
, 1998-2002. Gilmore rose to prominence as a prosecutor
in suburban Richmond, VA
, going from the (elected) commonwealth's attorney
position in Henrico County to be elected attorney general
in 1993 (serving 1994-1997) in the George Allen
landslide, then winning an easy race in 1997 against Democratic lieutenant governor Don Beyer
to succeed Allen.
These days, though, Gilmore is not too popular in Virginia Republican circles, as he was essentially solely responsible for handing the Governor's Mansion back to the Democrats in 2001.
Gilmore's 1997 election was as close to a foregone conclusion as American electoral politics come. By the unwritten rules of party politics, it was "his turn": he was the highest-ranking Republican official in the state after the governor (VA elects governor and lieutenant separately, and the lieutenant was a Democrat), and VA governors are term-limited against being elected to successive terms. Allen's success in welfare reform and placing restrictions on parole had earned the Republicans much goodwill in this fairly conservative state, and Allen virtually anointed Gilmore as his worthy successor.
Gilmore couldn't exactly run on a platform of "George Allen says I'm good, now vote for me," though. So he picked an issue that was a virtual no-brainer: "No Car Tax." Virginia vehicle owners pay personal property tax on their cars or trucks to their municipality (city, county or town), which funds all manner of municipal government activities. Gilmore's plan was simple: with the revenue from the booming economy (especially in Northern Virginia), the state could replace the municipalities' property tax revenue from its own coffers. The plan was implemented as a phase-out, and eventually passed in 1999 to take effect for the 2000 fiscal year.
What happened next? The dot-com bubble burst.
The actual reasons are more complex than that (textile factory shutdowns in Southside Virginia also contributed), but the absurd growth rate of the Virginia economy suddenly dropped in late 2000 and early 2001, thanks in large part to the technology slowdown. With that, tax revenues on which the fast phase-out depended were no longer coming in. Common sense would have indicated that at least a slowdown of the phase-out would have been appropriate, but this option didn't seem good to Gilmore.
In fairness, the obscure calculus of electoral politics partially forced his hand. The Democrats, smelling blood and a chance to undo seven years of Republican efforts in a state so conservative that it supported Bob Dole in 1996, pushed hard for just this solution, a slowdown of the phase-out, and influential newspapers like the Washington Post and (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot threw their editorial weight behind it. The problem was that if he had accepted this, he would have been open to charges of failing to deliver on his "No Car Tax" campaign promise of 1997, and this would have reflected negatively on his attorney general, Mark Earley, now running for governor. I would argue, though, that he could have successfully made the case that a campaign promise is not a suicide pact. Accepting the car tax for 2-3 more years in order to avoid deep budget cuts in higher education and transportation (including the explosive Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement project) would have been a good compromise to make.
A savvy politician could have pulled this off. Gilmore didn't even try.
The Democrats ran the young, telegenic, successful businessman Mark Warner against Earley, and Earley had to spend nearly as much time defending Gilmore's policies as he did promoting his own -- despite trying to disassociate himself from Gilmore's budget fumbling earlier that year. Meanwhile, Gilmore further compromised his position by accepting a job as Republican National Committee chair in Washington in the summer of 2001 -- while he was still Governor of Virginia -- as a reward for helping President Bush's campaign during the final months of 2000, while he still had some personal political credibility. Earley fought hard against a Warner campaign that some said essentially presented him as a Republican (highlighting his business experience and fiscal conservatism), but the disgust with Gilmore did him in -- even as Republicans won a better than two-thirds majority in the Virginia House of Delegates, and kept a solid majority in the state Senate.
Several months later, Gilmore was quietly replaced as RNC head by Montanan Marc Racicot, another term-limited former governor and Bush confidant who had not screwed the pooch before he left office.