The most that any lieutenant governor does is break the occasional tie in the state Senate, so ordinary Virginians can be forgiven if they did not instantly recognize the name of former Lt. Gov. John Hager, who passed away over the weekend at age 83.
Hager was something of an accidental Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 1997, and, as far as Democrats are concerned, something of an accidental winner. Never again was he on a statewide ballot. Nonetheless, he helped reshape both political parties in Virginia — just not always in ways he intended.
Let’s turn back the calendar to 1997, a time that saw Republicans rising and Democrats falling, two trends exactly the opposite of what we now see. Virginia’s government was divided — Republicans held the governorship and the attorney general’s office, while Democrats retained the lieutenant governorship and clung to a slim and declining majority in the House of Delegates. The state Senate was tied — the first time since the early 1880s that the Democrats had not controlled the entire legislature. That set up 1997 as a pivotal election. Could Democrats figure out how to win again? Could Republicans consolidate their recent gains and win even more?
There also was something else changing Virginia politics in ways beyond mere partisan politics: The rising power of Northern Virginia, a part of the state that was seen then as completely fickle and not a sure thing for either party. The Republican candidate for governor in 1997 was Jim Gilmore, the state’s hard-charging attorney general from the Richmond suburbs. The Democratic candidate was Don Beyer, the state’s oh-so-likeable lieutenant governor, who had the distinct advantage of being from those unpredictable Northern Virginia suburbs.
That meant each party faced a different challenge: Could Beyer win back rural Virginia? (Yes, that really was a priority for the party in ’97) Meanwhile, could Republicans keep winning in Northern Virginia if they didn’t have a candidate from there but the other side did?
That problem was seemingly solved with the GOP’s most likely candidate for lieutenant governor: T. Coleman Andrews III seemed a candidate straight out of Central Casting. He came from a long-time political family in Virginia, something that mattered more in those days than it does now. He also was a millionaire businessman in Northern Virginia, where he ran a technology company. He was young (42) with an old name. He had built a well-funded political organization that was considered the awe of other Republicans and was certainly far better than the one by he only other candidate for the nomination — John Hager, a retired Richmond tobacco executive. The only dissonant voices came from what was then considered the party’s far right — social conservatives felt that Andrews was far too moderate for their tastes, and they endorsed Hager. Those voters, though, weren’t likely to count for much in a Republican primary in 1997. Andrews wasn’t just the odds-on favorite to win the primary. Many saw him as the future of the party — a tech-savvy Northern Virginian who might well be a future governor and perhaps even more.
Then one day in April 1997, it all came to an end. Andrews abruptly quit the race, saying one of his children had a medical condition that demanded his attention. He disappeared from Virginia politics (records show he gave some money to the Republican candidate for governor in 2001 but nothing since). Andrews’ exit left Hager as the nominee by default. The deadline for getting on the primary ballot had passed. Going into the fall election, Hager was considered by far the weakest of the three Republican candidates.
Republicans strategists figured out how to deal with Northern Virginia. Gilmore ran on one of the most effective campaign slogans ever devised — “no car tax.” Never mind that the property tax on cars was a local tax, not a state tax. In Northern Virginia, it was quite high and voters didn’t care which level of government imposed it. “No car tax” was brilliant politics, even if it was bad policy. (Gilmore’s solution was to have the state pay to keep localities whole, which effectively meant that the state treasury would write big checks to the most affluent localities in the state).
Democrats clung to their one hope — former Rep. L.F. Payne of Nelson County, their candidate for lieutenant governor. Former Republican state Sen. Ray Garland summed up the Democrats’ strategy in a column for The Roanoke Times: “The idea is the ersatz conservative Payne will shore up the genuinely liberal Beyer in rural Virginia, where Democrats took a beating in 1993.” (Notice how commentators then were surprised at how poorly Democrats had run in rural Virginia; now that’s taken for granted.)
None of that worked for Democrats. Hager, lifted by a rising Republican tide, eked out 50.2% of the vote. Oh how the times were different then: He won, narrowly, in Fairfax County. He lost in many of the coalfield counties and parts of Southside Virginia.
Hager’s win made history in this way: 1997 was the first time Republicans had swept all three state offices. This was the year that Republican dominance in Virginia really began. Republicans won the state Senate for the first time ever. Democrats narrowly retained the House, but not for long. One resignation and one special election later, the House was tied and two years later Republicans won full control and kept in until last year’s electoral upheaval.
Hager’s win also effectively ended Payne’s career. Had Payne won and become the only Democrat in statewide office, he might have been the likely nominee for governor in 2001 (even if the left thought he was far too moderate for their tastes). Instead, Payne’s defeat opened the way for someone completely new — Alexandria businessman Mark Warner, whose victory heralded the arrival of a new Democratic Party in the state.
Hager’s backing among social conservatives was short-lived. He was a really a moderate, old-school Republican — a literal country club Republican. He had once been president of the Country Club of Virginia. Hager went on to chair the state Republican Party — until forced out by conservatives in 2008. Today those conservatives fully control the state party, Northern Virginia votes solidly Democratic and Republicans are out of power in a way they haven’t been in 50 years. Republicans now mourning Hager’s passing might want to remember a time when they nominated him and others like him and won in places where today they are losing.
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