April 19, 2007 [LINK / comment]
With less than two months to go in the primary campaign, State Senator Emmett Hanger was finally given an opportunity to address the members of the Staunton Republican Committee on Tuesday night. His opponent in the June 12 primary election, Scott Sayre, had already appeared at our meeting in February, following a controversial public statement of support for him by the committee chair, Anne Taetszch. Several committee members felt very strongly that the incumbent should be given an equal opportunity to present his case at one of our meetings, as a matter of basic fairness. Because of disagreement on this point, however, it became necessary to resort to a provision in the committee bylaws under which the committee members themselves can issue a meeting call. As the newly elected secretary of the committee, I took a lead role in this initiative, in close consultation with other committee members who have more experience and knowledge of party rules and protocol than I have. Because neither the chair nor the vice-chair showed up at this meeting, I led the proceedings in my capacity as secretary.
After "reintroducing" himself to party members, Sen. Hanger spent the better part of an hour explaining the intricacies of various aspects of state tax policy. He displayed a strong grasp of a wide variety of complex fiscal issues. He lamented his inability to accomplish more in the area of tax reform, such as raising personal exemptions and standard deductions in the state income tax for the sake of lower-income people. He did cite progress, nonetheless, in reducing the disparities in tax burden among the various geographical regions of the Commonwealth (helping our area), in ensuring consistent tax treatment of the telecommunications sector (Internet, TV, and telephone), and in repealing the estate tax. He also called for reforming real estate taxes, shifting them to a "cost-plus" basis that does not automatically escalate in parallel with the often-volatile market prices. Sen. Hanger then moved on to other issues, stressing the need for more accountability in the state's public education system, criticizing the "No Child Left Behind" initiative of the Bush administration. Finally, he hailed the accomplishments yielded by the 1999 Land Conservation Act, criticizing Governor Tim Kaine for taking credit for the annual benefits that have accrued from this piece of legislation.
The members of the committee then asked Sen. Hanger a series of questions. Ray Ergenbright asked about the anti-tax pledge signed by Scott Sayre, pointing out that the Virginia Republican Creed stresses "fiscal responsibility and budgetary restraints," but says nothing about cutting taxes. Sen. Hanger declined to comment on his opponent's positions, but made it clear that he wants the government to be able to pay for its proper obligations. He made a critical reference in this regard to how the ongoing war in Iraq is being funded: "We are borrowing money from the Chinese to pay for bullets..."
Stacey Morris wanted to know what additional steps can be taken to stop sexual predators, and Sen. Hanger pointed to his past advocacy of castration and even capital punishment for the most heinous offenders. He said it is costing the state at least $100 million a year to keep those convicted of sex crimes incarcerated or monitored after they are paroled. This illustrated the dilemma of trying to tackle pressing social problems without imposing an excessive tax burden on the citizens.
Wally Almquist then asked about the accusation that Sen. Hanger voted for "the largest tax increase in state history" in the 2004 legislative session. Hanger dismissed that as just a "30-second sound bite," noting that students and other users of services provided by the state would have borne a huge additional cost burden otherwise. He emphasized that the real "largest tax increase in state history" takes place every year at the local level when property taxes are leveed.
At the end of the question-and-answer session, Erma Fretwell and others expressed a strong willingness to help with Sen. Hanger's campaign. I think it is safe to say that Sen. Hanger received a much friendlier reception in Staunton than the opposing candidate did in February.
This event was covered by David Royer, a reporter for the Staunton News Leader. Unfortunately, the article in yesterday's paper focused on what had until now been a behind-the-scenes phenomenon: "a faction of the Staunton Republican Committee bypassed its chairwoman to stage a question-and-answer session with Hanger, highlighting the party rift." In my blog posts and personal conversations, I have made a point of treating the tensions within the party in a very discreet fashion, in contrast to some other bloggers who are fond of spreading rumors. I have not pretended that such divisions don't exist, and I have occasionally alluded to these problems in the context of the broader tensions within the Republican Party, which are well known to the public. I am fairly certain that the "rifts" would not have been exposed if the pro-Sayre minority faction had attended the meeting on Tuesday. I also reported on this event (in a less opinionated fashion) at the Staunton GOP Web site.
I should state that I have no problem with those in the Republican ranks who are working to elect the political novice Scott Sayre, just as I have no problem with those who sincerely object to the Bush administration's policy in Iraq. Honest disagreement is perfectly normal in the world of politics, and loyal dissent is a cherished right in any democracy. It strikes me as quite ironic, however, that many of those who favor the challenging candidate Sayre are the first to accuse others -- often in very harsh terms -- of stirring up dissension within the Party of Lincoln. I think this biblical quotation aptly gets to the root of our problem:
Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife;
quarrels and insults are ended. [Proverbs 22: 10]
Earlier this month, the (Waynesboro) News Virginian reported that the opposing candidate, Scott Sayre, had signed the Americans for Tax Reform's Taxpayer Protection Pledge. (That is the organization created by Grover Norquist, for you folks in Rio Linda.) At the February meeting of Staunton Republicans, I asked Mr. Sayre if he would pledge not to accept any campaign contributions from businesses that employ illegal immigrants, to back up his strong stand on that issue. He declined to do so, however, stating that it was not his policy to make such pledges. Well, if that is the case, why did he sign the anti-tax pledge??