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New Gov. Mark Warner has defined himself as a different kind of entrepreneur-politician.

By Bob Guldin

When night fell on the election of Nov. 6, 2001—when all the placards had been taken down and when all the votes had been tallied, from the Roanoke Valley to Richmond to Appalachia to Northern Virginia—the commonwealth of Virginia had elected a new governor: GW’s Mark Warner, BA ’77, who is not only a GW graduate but also a recent member of the University’s Board of Trustees (1993-2001)

The son of an insurance safety inspector who was and still is a staunch Republican, Mark Warner is native of Indiana and Illinois. During his campaign, he often reminded voters that “in Illinois, I walked through a cornfield to go to school.”

Indeed, Warner’s family was far from rich: during his teens in Connecticut, he worked as a paperboy, a dishwasher, a shoe salesman, and a janitor. It was in Connecticut that he started to show his political bent: he was elected high school class president three years in a row.

Clearly fascinated by politics, the young Warner knew he wanted to go to college in Washington, D.C. He chose George Washington, he says, “because it was right in the middle of everything,” and also because of the persuasive personality of the late Ron Howard, a long-time GW admissions officer.


Warner came to be Virginia’s governor by a path that was purposely political, including the decade he spent becoming a high-tech venture capitalist. Along the way, his four years at GW (1973 to 1977) were crucial in his political development.

When he got to D.C. in 1973, Warner immediately started working in the office of Sen. Abe Ribicoff (D-Conn.). “I’ll always remember my first job on Capitol Hill. I would ride my bike every day—I had to be there at 7:15 to open the mail. Here I was, a freshman in college, I thought it was pretty cool.”

From that point on, Warner says with a smile, “I majored in Washington, D.C.” He took time off from college to work on Ella Grasso’s successful campaign for governor of Connecticut. “The first woman elected a state governor in her own right,” he says with pride. From there, he went on—at the ripe age of 21—to manage the congressional re-election campaign of Chris Dodd (D-Conn).

As busy as he was in Democratic politics, Warner still made an impression on campus, recalls Keith Frederick, who roomed with him freshman year in Thurston Hall and who’s still a close friend. “Mark stood out because he was so successful landing jobs on Capitol Hill and still got good grades. He would organize study groups; he was already showing managerial skills.”

Warner likes to say that he was inspired—but not jaded— by the protest movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Says Frederick about the mood on campus, “We were hugely affected by Watergate,” the scandal that riveted Washington during their freshman year. “There was a lot of idealism, the idea of proactively working for change. Cynicism about government hadn’t taken hold yet.”

And then there was hoops, which Warner played intramural in college and which he still loves. “I played a lot of basketball at the old Tin Tabernacle and then at the Smith Center,” he says.

“I had a group of guys I ran with,” Warner recalls.. Back at GW, they lived in adjoining apartments and later in a big group house that a number of them fixed up together. Amazingly, 25 years later, the 12 or so guys still come back for informal reunions in Washington, year after year. (See Postlude by Bill Glovin, BA ’77, GW Magazine summer 2001).

When asked what keeps the gang together, Warner replies, “We all follow GW basketball. We come back to see a game, somebody will find a gym and we’ll take our tired bones up and down the court for an hour or two trying not to injure each other. It just developed into an annual ritual.”

Warner, campaigning in Richmond at a rally of supporters Nov. 5.

Keith Frederick, one of that crew, says that Warner has changed in many ways over the past 25 years, but not his aggressive style of hoops: “He’s all elbows and hips.” Frederick, who runs his own polling firm in Virginia, has played a big role in Warner’s two campaigns as an adviser and unofficial pollster.

After GW, Warner headed to Harvard Law, but he couldn’t stay away from Washington. After earning his JD, he came back and took a job as an $18,000-a-year fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.

At that point, his career took an unexpected turn. When he realized how big a role fundraising played in politics, Warner decided that he needed to become financially independent before he could think about seeking office. He set out to make some real money.

After a couple of costly false starts, Warner learned about a brand new business opportunity—cellular phones. In the early 1980s, the federal government was awarding free licenses to those who promised to get the new technology up and running. Warner used his extensive political contacts and his formidable powers of persuasion to recruit investors. Before long, his businesses had taken off and Warner was wealthy.

It was during this period that Warner met and married Lisa Collis. They now have three daughters, ages 7, 10 and 11.

Now living in Alexandria, Va., Warner followed his game plan and got back into politics. He became a major donor to the Virginia Democratic Party. In 1989, when gubernatorial candidate Douglas Wilder was having trouble, Warner took a leave from his cell phone business to manage the campaign. Wilder won, becoming America’s first and only African American governor. He later named Warner chair of the state Democratic Party.

In 1996, Warner decided to run against Republican Sen. John Warner (who is not related). Warner lost to the popular incumbent, but for a first-time candidate he made a very respectable showing with 47 percent of the vote. One measure of his seriousness: He jump-started his campaign with $10 million of his own funds.

At about the same time, Warner moved out of the cell phone business and started Columbia Capital Corp., an investment and venture capital firm. Warner’s personal wealth has been estimated at $200 million.


Nov. 4 found Warner stumping in Norton, Va.

Over the next few years, Warner took the lead in starting a string of public-private initiatives. He used his public prominence, his personal wealth, and his high-tech connections to build five regional venture capital funds in some of the more rural, less developed parts of Virginia.

As Warner explains it, “You can build the next Microsoft or AOL in a rural community if you’ve got the early-stage capital.” Lots of the state’s biggest investors, including many Republicans, put money into the funds. Putting up about $2 million of his own money, Warner managed to attract $68 million. While the funds have not all prospered, they helped build Warner’s image as a leader with new ideas, someone willing to risk his own money to help Virginia’s economy.

Working through a foundation he and his wife set up, Warner also started a series of nonprofit agencies, all focused on bringing Virginians into the technology age he sees as the state’s future. One initiative places students from historically black colleges into high-tech jobs and internships. Another created a high-tech competency exam for liberal arts students, so that, as Warner explains, “if you’re a history major from GW, you should at least be looked at by AOL.” A project named TechRiders brought computer training into churches, to make it more accessible. And he launched, a Web site with health-care information geared toward older Virginians.

These initiatives may look like the ongoing—if unconventional—campaign of a man planning to run for office, but Warner swears it wasn’t so. “That’s the presumption of a lot of people, that I was definitely going to run again. But that was not my presumption, it certainly wasn’t my wife and kids’ presumption.”

“What drove me to try politics again was that no one else had really emerged on the Virginia scene advocating a progressive agenda for the information age,” he says. “But,” he acknowledges, “when I decided to run, these projects were the validators. I could point to them as tangible examples of opportunities this new age offers.”

The new governor speaks warmly of his GW connections: “GW has a bright, bright future. With our Loudoun campus and our programs in Hampton Roads, GW is actually the largest private college in Virginia in terms of the number of students enrolled. Very few people know that,” Warner says.

Warner talks about the long road that led to victory. He says that the “country” flavor of his campaign, though strikingly effective, wasn’t really planned: “What started as isolated incidents turned into a kind of rural strategy.” Warner expands a bit on the bluegrass anthem that became the campaign’s theme song. “A supporter, ‘Mudcat’ Saunders, wrote the song, (to the tune of an old bluegrass song, “Dooley”), didn’t tell me about it. I had to hear the song three times before I realized they were singing about me. But it was a good enough song that a band with a following in the Roanoke Valley began to play it in bars, and it started getting requested. Then it got played on the radio as a real song, so we decided to use it in our TV commercial.”

His campaign sponsored a NASCAR team in the same spur-of-the-moment way. But, Warner says with a smile, “We sponsored one truck in one race, and the perception was suddenly that we were involved with NASCAR racing all over the South.”

Former Georgia Congressman Ben Jones, now living in Virginia, volunteered to help Warner and added a deep-South flavor to campaign rallies. Jones is best known as an actor for having played Cooter the mechanic in the 1980s TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which featured moonshiners and lots of car chases.

Warner’s incorporated these Southern touches into his campaign stops all around the state, from the suburban campuses and clubs of Northern Virginia to the coal-mining country of Virginia’s Appalachia.

All the foregoing may have been unpremeditated, but it obviously helped on Nov. 6 to elect Democrat Mark Warner—the man from Connecticut, GW and Harvard Law—governor of a state that has been trending strongly Republican for the past 10 years.


When Warner began his campaign for governor, he found the terrain more favorable than it had been in his 1996 run for the Senate. For starters, he had statewide recognition, from his earlier race and his numerous civic projects. His GOP opponent was state Attorney General Mark Earley, a respected but uncharismatic conservative.

What’s more, a bitter dispute between Virginia’s Republican governor, James Gilmore, and the state’s Republican legislature had left the state without a budget—a serious embarrassment for the Republican Party.

From the beginning of the race, Warner led in the polls. He worked hard to keep it that way.

He out-fundraised his opponent 2-1, which enabled him to dominate the television advertising wars. While Warner donated about $4.7 million of his own money to the campaign, an additional $15 million came from 16,500 contributors. And, Warner points out, his personal investment was more than matched by the $5 million Mark Earley received from the Republican National Committee, then chaired by Virginia Governor Gilmore.

Warner focused his campaign on forward-looking issues with broad appeal, and managed to defuse some issues that had hurt Democrats in the past. Voters have been “worn out by past campaigns that have focused almost entirely on social issues like abortion and guns,” Warner said. “I think most Virginians wanted to hear a candidate talk about how their kids were going to get a good education, how there was going to be a strong economy, a transportation system that worked.”

Virginia’s population is 31 percent rural, versus 25 percent for the United States as a whole, and Warner worked effectively to appeal to the state’s country voters. Apart from his bluegrass and NASCAR imagery, Warner campaigned in camouflage and organized “Sportsmen for Warner” to show he was friendly to hunters’ concerns. The effort paid off when the National Rifle Association declined to endorse a candidate for the race—as good a result as a Democrat from Northern Virginia could hope for.

Warner’s persistent emphasis on creating good high-tech jobs in every corner of the state also played well in rural areas. The last line of his bluegrass campaign song says he’ll “keep our children home.” Everyone knew that meant finding jobs for young people.

Some local issues, like traffic, worked for Warner as well. He notes, “We live in virtual gridlock here in Northern Virginia.” Warner endorsed the idea of a regional referendum on a sales tax increase to pay for transportation improvements. Republican Mark Earley opposed the notion. But instead of getting branded as a pro-tax liberal, Warner came across as flexible, while Earley was seen as rigidly anti-tax. The controversy bolstered Warner’s already strong support in the Washington suburbs.

While his campaign used professional pollsters, Warner insists, “You’ve got know why you want the job. You’ve always got political advisers that are pushing you toward the more conventional approach. If anything, my campaign was characterized by me fighting my advisers. People are so tired of politicians who are viewed as entirely poll-driven and consultant-driven.”

“The positions that I take—the desire to sort out the challenges of the 21st century—those are not issues that are driven by polling. In the end, I think those are the things that helped me win this election.”

When the votes were counted Nov. 6, Warner had won, though his 53 percent margin was less than most polls had predicted.

Governor Warner has some hard work ahead of him. Virginia—like the rest of the country—is in a recession. Cuts will be made in state programs, which Warner acknowledges could make him “a pretty unpopular guy.” He’ll also be working with a Republican state legislature. But Warner says that hard times might well force the state to be more efficient and “use the tools of the information age to deliver services.”

Warner’s victory does seem to have had one immediate consequence, though. Jim Gilmore, the former governor whom Warner succeeded in January, had been President George W. Bush’s chosen chairman of the Republican National Committee. One week after Warner’s win in the chairman’s home state, Gilmore stepped down from his post.

When asked how it feels to have that kind of impact, Warner laughs and says, “I’m not going to speculate on what effect, if any, my election had. I accept the governor’s comments that he wants to spend more time with his family.” Then he grins that big, winning Warner grin.

Bob Guldin is a Washington writer and editor. His background includes a six-year tenure as editor of GW Magazine.

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