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Warner's an unknown? Never mind. It's the well-known I fear

November 4, 2001 5:00 am

SURE, THERE ARE the volleys of candidates' television commercials. There have been debates. Newspapers have plenty of stories about the candidates, their campaign promises and the depth of their pockets.

But I don't think Tuesday's election in Virginia is competing very favorably in people's minds with the events of Sept. 11 or America's war on terrorism or the risk of exposure to anthrax. It doesn't help that New Jersey is the only other state with an election. Election Day is not a national event this year.

So sometimes--and this is one of those times--things need to be made extra simple and clear for voters whose minds are otherwise occupied.

For Virginia's own good, the time is right for a change in leadership in Richmond. Unlike former Gov. George Allen, Gov. Jim Gilmore doesn't have much to show for his four years--no parole reform, no welfare reform, no
juvenile-justice reform, no obscene surplus of prison cells.

Thanks to Gilmore's tunnel vision on repealing the car tax, Virginia is in the worst possible position to absorb the economic downturn and the costly aftermath of Sept. 11. The state could be facing a revenue shortfall of as much
as $1 billion.

You can expect more of the same, dangerous Gilmore free-lunch gibberish with Mark Earley, the Republican candidate for governor.

Earley is already advocating his own budget hocus-pocus by telling Northern Virginians they can have the road improvements they want without voting themselves onto the tax-hike highway.

How long can voters let themselves be duped by such promises of reduced taxes with no compromise in services? It's a wonderful vote-winning strategy until that doggoned reality sets in. Doesn't it matter when teachers or police officers don't get their pay raises?

Virginia's fiscal crisis means tax cuts and political pork are even more difficult to justify. Campaign promises should be renamed for what they are: wish lists.

Question: When is it better to trade the devil you know for the devil you don't know?

Answer: When the devil you don't know is Mark Warner.

Though many Virginians may feel they hardly know Warner, they do know that the Democratic candidate for governor has run an excellent campaign. That means he has chosen quality people to run it, and that indicates he would surround himself with quality people once he's in the Governor's Mansion.

They also know that he's a self-made millionaire, which suggests not that he can afford to buy himself into office, but that he understands how to manage money.

I give Warner high marks for two particular decisions during the campaign.

First, he sided with an effort by Northern Virginians to hold a referendum on whether to levy a sales-tax increase to pay for highway improvements.

No matter what Earley says, Warner is not endorsing a tax increase. He is backing their democratic effort to learn if residents are willing to put their money where their gridlock is.

Second, Warner was extremely quick to pay his respects to the victims of Sept. 11 and their families, and offer thanks to emergency and rescue personnel who have given so much of themselves. His hastily updated campaign ads effectively targeted a constituency in mourning.

The Earley campaign, on the other hand, continued to run
the same old ads, seemingly unaware that no issue, no election, matters anymore unless it is set in the context of post-Sept. 11 America.

What else doesn't Earley get?

He doesn't get that Virginia can't afford to complete the repeal of the car tax next year. Gilmore strong-armed this year's installment through by ignoring his agreement to repeal the tax only if the state could afford it.

Unlike Gilmore, Earley doesn't have a deal to renege on with the General Assembly. The dollars will be doing all the talking next winter, and what they'll be saying is that there aren't enough
of us to go around.

Earley's failure to separate himself from Gilmore's cockeyed car-tax optimism should cost him the vote of every Virginian with a measurable IQ. Among those Virginians are many Republicans--such as those
state senators who stood up to Gilmore's bad judgment and questionable methods.

As the campaign draws to a close, Virginia voters would do well to focus on the matter at hand. This election is no less important than any other--it's just that certain events have compromised our ability to

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