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Votes

Odd Allies

Opponents of sales tax referendum try to form alliance to defeat transportation tax

<bt>An unlikely coalition of advocacy groups with a range of agendas is tentatively coming together to defeat November's half-cent sales-tax referendum for transportation.

Environmentalists, smart-growth advocates, anti-tax activists and rank-and-file members of local Republican parties are considering ways to encourage a "no" vote in November.

Their reasons for doing so differ.

The Republicans and the anti-tax groups say they are trying to stop officials from raising taxes; the smart-growth advocates want to see more mass-transit alternatives to road construction; and the environmental groups say they worry about the environmental consequences of more road projects.

"A lot of this is very informal," said James Parmelee, president of Republicans United for Tax Relief. "The more you have groups who haven't worked together in the past work on this thing, it opens up a lot of possibilities."

SO FAR, NONE of these disparate interests has been formally brought together in any kind of coalition. But Parmelee suggested that as the campaign surrounding the referendum heats up, opponents might try to show a unified front.

"I put together all kinds of wacky alliances with all sorts of people," he said. "You have to not be afraid to ask."

Parmelee has been in touch with members of the smart-growth community. "We're exploring ways in which we can work together," Parmelee said.

Parmelee has organized a group composed mainly of Republican and anti-tax organizations around the issue.

Paul Hughes, president of the Fairfax Coalition for Smarter Growth, said an alliance with other interests "would definitely be a possibility for this issue."

"Our group is not predominantly one party or another," he said.

But any alliance could hit snags as ideologies collide. For instance, smart-growth groups could find themselves teamed up with property-rights groups, who have traditionally viewed smart-growth advocates with suspicion.

“THE PEOPLE INVOLVED in smart growth, I consider them undesirables," said Jack Shockey, president of Citizens for Property Rights in Loudoun County. Although Shockey's organization has not formally taken a position on the referendum yet, it is expected to oppose it.

But if Citizens for Property Rights announces its opposition to referendum, Shockey would not consider working with environmentalists or smart-growth advocates, he said.

"They have no respect for property rights, for the Constitution," he said. "This whole smart-growth thing comes from the U.N. and a certain type of socialism."

It is also doubtful that the Sierra Club, which also opposes the sales tax, will join any potential alliance. To join forces with other groups, local chapters of the Sierra Club must first get permission from the national office in San Francisco. Nevertheless, said Jim Wamsley of the Fairfax County chapter, "we'll talk to anybody who wants to talk to us at any time."

OPPONENTS of the sales-tax increase face a challenge from local elected officials, nearly all of whom have endorsed the sales tax. On May 6, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors became the first county in the region to endorse the sales tax.

"I didn't see why in mid-May we had to rush out and endorse it," said Supervisor Michael Frey (R-Sully), the only supervisor to oppose the measure. "It was for some perceived political benefit of being first."

The other two Republicans on the board — Supervisors Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield) and Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville) — approved the motion, breaking ranks with the Republican rank-and-file membership.

"The party is over 95 percent against it," said Parmelee. "There was no reason at all for Elaine [McConnell] and Stu [Mendelsohn] to vote for this thing. With the sales tax, they just rolled over for the Democrats."

He added that several Republican incumbents might face tough primaries if the referendum passes. "It's going to feel awfully lonely for them if Republicans feel they betrayed them."

MENDELSOHN DISPUTES the notion that the Republican party is overwhelmingly opposed to the sales tax. "I've talked to a number of different rank-and-file Republicans who agree with me," he said.

He attributed the lack of public support for the sales-tax increase to poor communication between elected officials and citizens.

The business community also supports the referendum, putting those Republicans who oppose it in a delicate position.

"I am pro-business, but this is a mistake for the business community because if there's one group in Virginia that supports business, it's the Republicans," said Parmelee.

Parmelee also predicted many Democrats, upset at not seeing education on the ballot, were going to vote "no" in November.

But Jan Reeves, chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, said that although the Party has not taken an official position yet, she thought that "people are behind their elected officials."

"Personally, I would be a little surprised if they don't support it," she said.