Profile of Mark Warner: Ivy Leaguer with rural NASCAR draw

As the Democratic keynote speaker, he has the down-home image his party needs to broaden its support.

REUTERS/Larry Downing
Party leaders: Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean (right) and former Virginia Governor Mark Warner onstage Sunday before the convention in Denver. Mr. Warner delivers the keynote address Tuesday.

Reston, Va. – Democrats could cite many reasons for tapping former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner to give the keynote address at their national convention Tuesday night.

Here’s the executive summary: Highly successful venture capitalist becomes even more successful governor of a swing state seen as critical to Democratic presidential hopes in 2008. Also: Democrat sinks deep roots in a gun-toting, NASCAR-loving culture long ceded to Republicans – and wins.

For a new generation of Democrats, Warner represents the pragmatic face of a less partisan, bitter, and gridlocked future. He aims to develop those themes in his convention speech.

Senator Obama has touched a chord in people that is pretty special. Clearly, he has got the policy papers and he’s going to start laying out the plan. What I want to try to say is: This plan is doable,” he said in an interview with the Monitor in the run-up to this week’s Democratic National Convention (DNC).

“Sometimes, you’ve got this litany of problems and it feels overwhelming, and if there’s nothing else I want to convey it is that this can be fixed. For all our challenges, this is the greatest nation in the world and we can do this,” he adds, speaking in Reston, Va., after a town meeting with employees at Unisys Corporation.

Warner’s address comes on a highly charged night for the DNC that includes a speech by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York, Obama’s closest rival once viewed as the party’s “inevitable” nominee in 2008. Both are expected to address the economy.

Warner says that he will use this speech to talk about the future.

“The Democratic Party is at its best when it’s about the future,” he says. “It’s at its best when it’s expanding wealth, not redistributing it; embracing new technology tools, like the Internet, rather than protecting the old.”

“There are elements in the Democratic Party that are afraid of the future,” he adds.

But the subtext of the evening is how the party’s most committed activists will absorb the fallout of the Clinton-Obama power struggle.

On Monday, the McCain campaign released a new ad featuring a Clinton supporter urging a crossover vote for John McCain.

“My gut feeling is that this anger and frustration is not being driven by Senators Obama and Clinton themselves, but by their most loyal followers in some cases. And at some point they’ve got to say: This is too important a time. The stakes are too high,” he says.

As in his business career, Warner’s life in politics included missteps and failures, but he always found a way forward. His first two business ventures in energy and real estate failed.

Then, he moved into venture capital and helped start up Nextel, a cellular phone network that merged with rival Sprint, leaving Warner with millions in seed money for new ventures.

In 1996, Warner opted to get into politics. He started at the top with a bid to unseat Virginia’s senior senator John Warner (no relation) by running as “the technology candidate.” Despite spending some $10 million of his own money on that campaign, he lost, although at 52-47 percent the race was closer than many expected.

“Mark Warner learned from that race that the rest of the state was not like northern Virginia, where he spent most of his time,” says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report. To progress in politics, “He had to go into rural areas and talk about economic development,” she says.

“There’s nothing I’ve ever done that I haven’t failed in at some point,” Warner says. “The greatest lessons of my life have come from failure.”

Born in Indianapolis, Ind., Warner grew up in a small town 15 miles from Peoria, Ill., before moving to Vernon, Conn.
His father, Robert, was an insurance agent and lifelong Republican; his mother, Marge, a housewife. In an eighth-grade debate, he played the Nixon surrogate. Even then, he says he had “a little bit” of the political bug.

“In 1968, I was in the eighth grade – old enough to get touched by the idealism of the ‘60s, but not old enough to get jaded by it,” he says. “This world was transforming around the whole notion that you could make change, but I wasn’t out marching, because I was too young and, besides, my parents would have killed me,” he says.

Warner graduated from George Washington University in Washington D.C., the first in his family to complete college, and from Harvard Law School in 1980. Looking back, he says that he never expected to do well in business.

“I got drawn into this enormous wave of entrepreneurship, and it was cool to get things done. Being in that world, you shouldn’t be afraid of the future,” he says. “You can’t predict it, but I’m sure not afraid of it, and that has awesome potential.”

After losing his 1996 Senate race, he began reaching out more to rural parts of the state with a series of public/private initiatives to help raise prospects for local economic growth.

He concluded that there were things you could get done, but “think of what you could do if you could get back into the public sector.” In 2001 he ran and won his race to be governor.

Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, who worked with Warner on rural strategy in those years, credits him with cultivating a genuine respect for Virginia’s rural culture. “He was the first Democrat to get a majority of the rural vote in a statewide election in Virginia,” he said in a telephone interview.

“The key is that Mark understood – and it’s a lesson so many Democrats ought to be taking from him – that you don’t have to be from the culture to be accepted by the culture. He was genuine with us, it’s that simple,” he says.

“He seemed down-to-earth and interested in talking to you,” said Dr. Ralph Stanley, a Virginia bluegrass icon who publicly supported Warner in his run for governor in 2001.

As governor, Warner faced a Republican legislature that outweighed Democrats two-to-one.

He threw the weight of his office behind an ongoing rural campaign to keep and create jobs, along with the infrastructure to sustain them. He launched a Virginia Motorsports Initiative to encourage NASCAR jobs to move to southwest Virginia, an area battered by a loss of manufacturing jobs.

Limited to one term by state law, Warner left the office in 2006 to prospect a run for the White House. He opted out of a presidential campaign in October 2006, citing family concerns, and is now heavily favored to replace retiring John Warner in the US Senate.

Last Wednesday Warner and Obama met with workers in a warehouse in Martinsville, Va., financed by the Motorsports Initiative.

“Mark, as governor, I think understood that for a state to be successful, you’ve got to grow all areas of the state,” said Senator Obama.

Delaware Treasurer Jack Markell (D), who is currently running for governor, worked with Warner in the early days at Nextel.

“When people tell me that you seem like a Mark Warner Democrat, I take that as a great compliment,” he says.

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