Chichester, 69, the leader of what has been the dominant wing of Republican moderates in the Senate, was also the chairman of the Finance Committee.
He leaves his seat in a pivotal election year as Democrats make a concerted effort to reclaim a Senate majority for the first time in 12 years.
His departure also creates leadership vacancies on both of the General Assembly's dominant budget writing panels. Chichester's House counterpart, Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr., R-Fairfax County, announced last week that he would not seek re-election to a 21st term.
Chichester e-mailed a 10-paragraph statement to reporters announcing his retirement from the Senate seat he won in a 1978 special election. "It is now time for the baton to be passed to another," wrote Chichester, who lives in the Chesapeake Bay waterfront community of Reedville with his wife, Karen, whom he cited as being influential in his decision.
"She has been my partner in this endeavor for many years, but there are other things that we would like to do together," Chichester wrote.
There was no reply to telephone messages left at Chichester's home.
Chichester's career in elected office peaked after 2000, when he became president pro tem of the Senate. He fell short in his lone run for statewide office, an unsuccessful 1985 race for lieutenant governor against L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat who in 1989 became the nation's first elected black governor.
Chichester's retirement comes at the end of a year that saw a break in the remarkable unanimity the Senate's centrist Republicans and minority Democrats had demonstrated in several major showdowns with the conservative Republicans who dominate the House of Delegates over Virginia's fiscal policy. Until this year, a Chichester- led coalition of House and Senate Republicans had held since the protracted 2001 dispute with House Republicans and the GOP governor at the time, Jim Gilmore, over freezing the scheduled phaseout of the car tax cut.
In 2004, Chichester's Senate coalition and Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, outmaneuvered the House to enact a budget-balancing $1.4 billion tax increase. The more than $1 billion in additional revenues the Senate sought for road, rail and transit projects was omitted from the final legislation.
In 2006, the Senate again pushed for more than $1 billion annually for transportation in a fruitless, nine-month legislative battle with the House. But this year, anxious about November's elections for all 140 House and Senate seats, Republicans in both chambers met privately - excluding Chichester - and negotiated a transportation package. Chichester vehemently opposed the plan's diversion to transportation of existing general state revenues normally reserved for health care, schools and public safety.
For the first time since the GOP took charge of the Senate in 1995, that pitted Chichester in a fiscal policy battle against three Senate Republicans who had been his closest lieutenants: Thomas K. Norment of James City County; Kenneth W. Stolle of Virginia Beach and Walter A. Stosch of Henrico. Chichester's alliances with Democrats in tax battles made him a pariah among the conservatives who dominate his own party. But he easily brushed a side a primary challenge from a hard-line conservative in his final re-election bid in 2003. In 2005, when Governing Magazine ranked Virginia the nation's best-managed state, a Chichester and Warner - the architects of the 2004 tax package - were on the publication's cover photo. Warner said he was saddened at Chichester's exit. "He always put Virginia first in his actions as a senator, and his approach to governance always looked out for Virginia's long term interests and not quick sound bite solutions," Warner said in a statement issued by his political action committee, Forward Together. Warner's Democratic successor, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, praised Chichester's willingness to defy the GOP's prevailing anti-tax orthodoxy. "John Chichester's leadership and knowledge will be missed, and his dedication to the commonwealth is a testimony to the power of public service that is larger than any single legislative district or political ideology," Kaine said in a written statement. House Speaker William J. Howell and Chichester for years were fellow Republicans who lived in Stafford County and represented the Fredericksburg area. They found their interests diverge in 2001 during the car tax fight and the following year with Howell's ascent to the post of speaker. "John has been a friend for the past 30 years. I remember working on his very first campaign for the Senate and he helped me in my first campaign for the House," Howell said in a telephone interview. Chichester's exit would place Sen. William Wampler, R-Bristol, next in line to head the Finance panel should the GOP retain control of the Senate. He is also the second senior Republican to announce his retirement. Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., another Republican at odds with GOP conservatives and chairman of the Education and Health Committee, announced in an emotional March 22 floor speech he would not return. AP-ES-03-12-07 1644EDT