Mark Warner is not a lifetime Virginian. He was born in Indianapolis in 1954 and grew up in Connecticut. He came to Washington D.C. to earn his undergraduate degree in 1977 at George Washington University. He then attended Harvard to earn a law degree. Warner entered the world of politics by joining the staff of Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. Later in the 1980s, in northern Virginia, Warner used his knowledge of telecommunications law to broker deals and to co-found Nextel in the early days of the new cell phone technology. Warner found this highly profitable, and his personal fortune now approaches $200 million.
Warner made the transition into Virginia statewide politics, managing the successful campaign of Democratic candidate Douglas Wilder for Governor in 1989, then serving as Democratic Party chair for Virginia. Finally in 2001, the time was ripe for him to run for Governor against Republican Mark Earley, who had been weakened in a primary fight with fellow Republican John Hager. Warner won.
In Warner’s four years as Governor, there were serious budget problems. Virginia was dealing with reduced revenue due to the acts of the previous Governor, Jim Gilmore, in eliminating much of the Virginia Car Tax. Warner was forced to dismiss nearly 2000 state employees in the first year. Warner then campaigned for a referendum to permit local taxes for road construction in the crowded communities of northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. The referendum was defeated. Warner sought a means of putting Virginia, as he perceived it, on firmer financial footing. The crowning success of his administration then came in 2004, when he enlisted moderate Republican legislators to enact a tax reform package which raised $1.5 billion per year. Warner claimed that this revenue increase preserved Virginia’s AAA bond rating. His public approval rating at the end of his Governorship in 2005 was at 70%.
Warner returned to politics in 2008, running for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the retiring, well-respected moderate Republican, John Warner. Mark Warner’s opponent was Jim Gilmore. Warner won the election by a margin of 65% of 34%. As a freshman Senator, Warner has supported much of President Obama’s agenda in the first two years. He voted in support of the health reform legislation and to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In December 2010, he renewed his pro-business credentials by being one of three Democratic Senators to vote with Republicans to sustain a filibuster of the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act.
In his personal life, Warner is married to Lisa Collis, who he met in 1984 and married in 1989. Collis is the first Virginia First Lady to retain her own last name. They have three daughters: Madison, Gillian, and Eliza.
Warner is soft spoken and conciliatory, not as dynamic a speaker as Obama. On the other hand, his experience in the world of business grants him a degree of immunity from the recent public fears of a slide into socialism- at least in terms of independent voters who are the critical swing sector of the electorate these days. His approach to governance is to portray himself as a technocrat, a person who is interested in matching public policy to the challenge of the day, then fine-tuning the resulting policy to make it even more effective. He once told a group of Virginia legislators “that which gets measured, gets improved.” His greatest political triumph, the bipartisan effort to re-do the Virginia tax code in the wake of the Gilmore revenue shortfall during his time as Governor, rejected the traditional Republican no-new-taxes pledge in favor of Democratic Party tax raising. The tax raise, however, was in response to a real problem, and solved that problem. After resolving the budget shortfall, Warner asked the Virginia General Assembly not to get ambitious with new spending plans.
It is possible to imagine independent voters flocking to Warner in a national campaign. As a person with a moderate image, his challenge is more likely to be one of energizing the Democrat left wing. At the present time, Warner is working with Georgia Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss to promote the idea of fiscal compromise in the face of a strong partisan battle between the President and the House Republicans. This effort seems calculated to position Warner once again as a bipartisan figure willing to deal with Republicans on a practical level. But Warner does still adhere to Democratic Party commitments to promote an economic future for low income citizens.
In terms of timing, Warner’s first Senate term runs out in 2014. If he would run for a second term and win, Warner would be able to stay in office to 2020- or to use his Senate seat as a base of operations to run for President in 2016 when Obama is no longer on the stage. It is unclear if Warner actually desires the Presidency, or if he may be satisfied with continuing to serve as a U.S. Senator. The most likely possibility is that Warner is focusing on his job as Senator while staying alert to a possible future invitation to serve as a vice-presidential candidate in 2016.
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“Warner endures rocky months- cites substance, not ‘sound bites’” by Michael Hardy and Jeff Schapiro. Richmond Times Dispatch, December 22, 2002.
“’Err on the side of caution’ Warner says- he tells lawmakers not to plan long-term spending with state’s budget surplus” by Michael Hardy. Richmond Times Dispatch, November 23, 2004.
“Mark R. Warner- Democratic Candidate for Governor” Richmond Times Dispatch, October 14, 2001.
“Warner worth $200 million” by Tyler Whitley. Richmond Times Dispatch, April 25, 2001.