NEWS- Hanger stake: NRA's 'go-to guy' under fire from within

On paper, Emmett Hanger's re-election should be a lock. The three-term Republican state senator from Mount Solon has a 12-year voting record as a staunch social conservative representing the 24th district, which stretches north into Greene County, east into western Albemarle, south into Lexington and west through the Shenandoah Valley– all the way to the West Virginia line. In short, Hanger's a red state politician in one of the Commonwealth's reddest districts.

But elections don't happen on paper, and with spring primary season fast approaching, he could soon find his political career in the wastebasket. That's because a growing tumult among Republicans over Hanger's stand on a single issue has risen to the surface and moved Buena Vista businessman Scott Sayre to officially throw down the gauntlet and challenge Hanger for the GOP nomination. 

"There's a lot that needs to happen [in the Senate], and I'm an action guy," says Sayre. "In business, you either grow or you die, and I'll be putting that same approach to use in the Senate."

The bone of contention between Hanger and fellow Republicans is the state senator's stance on tax reform.

"If you're going to take the sales tax off food, eliminate the estate tax, and loosen the burden on local real estate, you have to make up that revenue somewhere," Hanger says. "My opinion has been that we're better served if you draw more from income taxes and sales taxes because that's a better indicator of someone's ability to pay."

Sayre says Hanger's figuring doesn't add up. "Solutions to problems aren't always more taxes and more spending," he says. "We need to be able to continue all the great programs that we have without raising taxes."

In recent years, several local GOP chairs have publicly expressed their displeasure with Hanger, in particular with his 2004 vote supporting then-Governor Mark Warner's $1.4 billion tax increase. Says Albemarle Republican chair Keith Drake of Hanger, "In the summer of 2003, he told me personally he was working on a tax policy that was revenue neutral. We certainly saw the tax increase, but we haven't seen any cost cutting."   

Hanger says he stands by his vote, and that to portray it as a tax hike is flatly inaccurate.

"We were in the process of eliminating the car tax, and we were beginning to short-change localities out of their public education funds," he says. "So localities were having to raise real estate taxes taxes because we weren't meeting our responsibilities to them. When we pared it down to $1.4 billion over two years, $1 billion of that went back to localities, and it was a net tax reduction for the people in my district."

Of the mutiny in his own party, Hanger says, "A lot of the [local] units have been taken over by people with different priorities than the traditional Republican priorities," by which he means "anti-tax, anti-public education, not matching up with the Republican party platform."

"That's just wrong," responds GOP chair Drake. "I don't know a single Republican here who's anti-tax. We're for taxes that meet the needs of the core responsibilities of government. To be against taxes totally is to be an anarchist."

Although Hanger says he knew his positions on tax reform would "put a target on my head," he admits he's surprised by the challenge from within his own party. "It's somewhat ironic, because I'm one of the most conservative members of the General Assembly," he says. "I'm one of the leading spokespersons on pro-life issues; I've always had a 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition; I'm regarded as the go-to guy for the NRA."

Asked why he feels compelled to run against Hanger, Sayre ducked criticizing the three-term Richmond veteran. "I never said I could do a better job," he says. "I just want to give people a choice. I've never been in politics, and I'm just trying to get the message out of who I am first."

So just who is Scott Sayre? Born and raised in Waynesboro, he started Sayre Enterprises– an embroidery, printing and engraving company– in 1987. According to the company's website, it has become an economic force in the Shenandoah Valley, growing into one of the largest embroidery outfits in the country. Before becoming a full-time entrepreneur, the VMI alum had a nine-year career in the army, reaching the rank of captain.

Drake wouldn't go as far as to endorse Sayre, but he did say he's been impressed with the political rookie thus far.

"I've met with him a few times, and he seems to have that rare combination of someone who will be a great candidate and a great elected official," he says.

Hanger says he welcomes Sayre's challenge as an opportunity to discuss the fiscal issues facing the Commonwealth.

"The people who call the 2004 budget the largest tax increase in Virginia history are not accurate," he says. "There are too many issues to fit into a soundbite. This campaign might be a good excuse to have an academic discussion of those issues."

The date for primaries statewide is June 12.

This year, for the first time, State Senator Emmett Hanger faces a challenge for his party's nomination.