The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

VDOT had loads of warning that wetlands could kill the U.S. 460 project but the state charged ahead with a design-build contract that everyone knew could explode.

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Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

A California developer is teaming with Daimler AG to bring buses, shuttles and ride sharing to an Orange County community -- with no government subsidies.

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Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

Putting the Garden in Rain Garden

Soon Virginians will start spending billions to meet tough storm-water regs. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden wants to show how we can save the bay – and look really good doing it.

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Tech Insurrection

Tech Insurrection

Smart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

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Sprawl’s Hidden Subsidies

Sprawl's Hidden Subsidies

The answer to sprawl isn't more regulation, says Pamela Blais, it's fixing the endemic biases embedded in taxes, utility fees, municipal services and mortgages.

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A Confederacy of Cynics

But Maureen gave them back

But Maureen gave them back

By Peter Galuszka

It was an odd scene. The first floor security point at Richmond’s federal court was filled with spiffy, middle aged blonde women all chattering loudly as the grandfatherly guards tried to herd them through. Some had so much bling, they had to go through the metal detector three times after removing yet another trinket or belt or watch or bit of jewelry. Normally, the line would be the usual mob of family, reporters, sketch artists and stray onlookers.

On the  corridor outside the seventh floor trial room, it might have been cocktail hour at the Republican Governor’s Association. The same pack of blondes was there. Many had large handbags stuffed with big pillows for their day on the hard wooden seats. Hugs and kisses everywhere. One man was especially natty in a Navy blue blazer, open necked striped dress shirt and a year-round tan. Palm Beach, anyone?

A younger woman kept bumping into people amidst the din as we all waited to be let in the courtroom. She sported a thin Louis Vuitton handbag. Then it struck. This is Maureen McDonnell’s cheering section for closing arguments that lasted from morning until early evening on Friday. That designer name, along with Oscar de la Renta, seems to have been her favorites when she pushed businessman Jonnie Williams to take her on shopping sprees or send her things.

After the Virginia State Police called in for an interview in February 2013, she packed up the goodies and sent them back to Jonnie. In some cases, these were items she had received two years before. Suddenly Maureen wanted to give them to “charity” or to one of the Williams’ daughters.

And that — the curious timing of scores of seemingly unrelated events over a period of more than two years from 2010 to 2013 — is what the seven men and five women jury must decide this coming Tuesday.

The point isn’t the gaucheness of the designer label stuff. Ms. McDonnell wasn’t a public servant and normally could accept whatever she wanted from Williams or anyone else. If it were stock, her husband, the former governor, would have to report it on his annual Statement of Economic Impact form. One year, Ms. McDonnell sold her stock in Williams’ company Star Scientific before the reporting deadline only to repurchase it the next year. The conclusion seems obvious, but draw your own.

It’s these kinds of coincidences that really do add up, argued David Harbach, a deputy at the public integrity section of the U.S. Department of Justice, who set up a powerful case against the McDonnells by connecting the evidentiary dots. Jonnie meets with the couple, the inaugural dress comes up and is dismissed by the governor’s staff but Maureen gets a Williams spending spree in New York as a consolation prize.

Or take the Bob McDonnell. He’s setting up meetings for Williams to break free possible research on his product by top state schools just as he is mulling of terms for a $50,000 loan from Williams (his staff is kept in the dark about how much he is in hock to JW, a self-styled “Southern Boy”). The pattern seems rather obvious after five weeks of mucking through a swamp of often confusing evidence. An email comes in, a deal with Jonnie for something personal is struck, a check arrives, an email is sent, and a luncheon at the Executive Mansion or some other event featuring the Governor or the First Lady or both pushing Anatabloc, Williams’ anti-inflammatory nutraceutical, is scheduled.

“He wrapped himself up in the flag of the Commonwealth and stomped on it,” Harbach told the jury. “This is not how governors behave. Don’t stand on the coattails of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. Don’t let them do this.”

For the jury to do just that, it will have to weigh a key point of law. This is how far the idea of “honest services” goes with the wire fraud counts. It basically means that it is a crime if public officials deny their honest services to their citizens by accepting bribes or become involved in a conflict of interest. Prosecutors argued there doesn’t have to be a clear quid pro quo, something defense attorneys William Burck and Henry Asbill hammered against for hours. Honest services fraud has been used to nail former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, former U.S. Congress (and top Navy pilot in Vietnam) Duke Cunningham and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The Supreme Court has moved to define more narrowly how “honest services” can be defined but it still is on the books. A crucial turn in the drama will come Tuesday, when U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer gives his extensive instructions to the jury. His definition of “honest services” will be an important part of that. Meanwhile, if you demand a “smoking gun” (whatever that is supposed to mean), I suggest you get back to watching Perry Mason reruns.

The defense spent a lot of time bringing up the McDonnells’ troubled marriage and financial debt. This is sad, tough stuff to go through day after day. And it is easy for anyone to be drawn into pangs of sympathy for hyper-anxious, lonely Maureen or serious, well-meaning Bob, “Boy Scout of the Year,” according to one friendly witness.

Contrasting that, of course, is the greedy, scheming Maureen (a “nutbag,” according to a staffer) and a self-absorbed, double-dealing Bob who should have known what is right and wrong for a public official to do. Conversely, he also would know how to hide stuff on his disclosure forms. We tend to forget that he was state attorney general not that long ago.

The creepiest part of all of this is how slyly the defense has humiliated Maureen as part of the “throw her under the bus” strategy. Yet she is going along with it, as her husband of 38 years. In doing so, the McDonnells are doing an amazing thing. They are actually beating Jonnie Williams on the cynicism scale and even the prosecution says he’s a criminal. No doubt about it.

I agree with the prosecution that Bob is a phony. On the stand, he was by turns humble and scolding. He casts himself as a public servant so pure of heart that it was almost a joke to listen to. He was always “accepting responsibility.” But he was always blaming someone else. Maureen, of course. His former brother-in-law screwed up the books at the troubled beach houses. He didn’t report a few golf outings on Jonnie’s tab at the posh Kinloch club in Goochland County because his staff screwed it up.

“This is a sad case, “Michael Dry, a prosecutor, told the jury Friday. “It is sad for the McDonnell family and sad for the state of Virginia.”

Plumbing the SOL Racial Gap

SOL_gapby James A. Bacon

Jim Weigand, also known on this blog as Hill City Jim, responded to my call yesterday for a crowd-sourcing of the Standards of Learning data to better understand the key drivers of educational performance. Why do some school systems show SOL pass rates that are so much higher than others? Clearly, the level of affluence and education in a school division plays a major role. But does that tell the whole story? Do some racial or regional groups put a higher or lesser premium on educational achievement than others? Do some school divisions simply do a better job?

One of the starkest demographic divisions in SOL performance is race. As Weigand crunched the numbers, white students statewide had an 84% pass rate on their SOLs while black students had a 63% pass rate — a racial gap of 21 percentage points. (Weigand did not run numbers for Asians, Hispanics or other ethnic/racial minorities.) Tragically, the low pass rate is an advance indicator that yet another generation of blacks will be relegated to the bottom of the educational and income hierarchy in the United States.

The big question is why. Does the SOL performance gap reflect inequalities in the distribution of resources in Virginia school systems? Does it reflect different cultural attitudes among blacks — an aversion to “acting white”? Or are other factors responsible — subtler forms of institutional racism, perhaps, or the distribution of races between wealthy and poor regions of the state? Liberals and conservatives will be tempted to revert to their default ideological positions (liberals skew to resources/racism explanations, conservatives tend to blame black cultural attitudes) but this is too important to leave to ideology. We need reality-based answers so we can address real problems, not philosophical figments.

I have refined Weigand’s numbers with an eye to identifying outliers: the 10 school divisions with the smallest racial performance gaps and the 10 divisions with the largest gaps. Interestingly enough, the tiny West Point school system is an extreme outlier. In yesterday’s analysis, the mill town showed the second highest SOL composite pass rate of any system in the state. In today’s data, it is the one school system in Virginia where black students marginally out-performed white students! Once again, I challenge an enterprising newspaper reporter to take a close look at the West Point school system to see what’s going on there.

Other observations from the outliers:

  • School divisions with small gaps in racial performance are smaller school systems. Are these divisions more thoroughly integrated by virtue of having fewer schools? If you’ve got only one high school in the jurisdiction, it has to be integrated. Or are there other ways in which smaller school systems could lead to more egalitarian results?
  • The smallest-gap school divisions also tend to come from poor regions of the state. If everyone is poor together, perhaps there are fewer racial disparities in household income and education.
  • The biggest-gap school divisions skew more urban. And what’s going on in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, both of which appear on the list of school divisions with the biggest racial gaps? That is not what we’d expect from school systems that serve children of University of Virginia faculty and administrators.

Looking at outliers is a useful exercise but it will take us only so far. We need to look at the distribution of SOL performance across all school systems, including those closer to the mean. It’s also worth exploring other performance gaps — how about the gap between Asians and everyone else, including whites? How about the gender gap? To what degree do girls out-perform boys statewide? And what about the gender gap within racial groups? Is that gap greater in some ethnic or regional cultures (inner-city black, white Appalachian) than others?

If you want to take this analysis to the next level, you can access Weigand’s numbers here. Or, please, bring fresh data to the discussion.

Identifying the Education X Factor

by James A. Bacon

The 2014 Standards of Learning (SOL) scores are in, and it appears that Virginia’s school divisions made decent improvements in mathematics over the past year while losing ground marginally in reading, writing, science and history. Bottom line: Virginia students tread water another year.

Here are the percentage pass rates across all grades and schools systems. (The cells highlighted in blue reflect old tests, which were changed in 2012-13 to make them more rigorous.)

SOLs
Another year running in place – that’s demoralizing. Can we find some seeds of succor? There are a few. I plowed through the data released by the Virginia Department of Education and compiled composite pass scores for every school district. The highest possible score — a 100% pass rate for all five subjects — is 500. I pulled out the school districts with an average pass rate of 80%, hardly a world-beating performance but at least sufficient to prosper in a knowledge-based economy.

top_SOLs

As one would expect, affluent Northern Virginia cities and counties, which have some of the highest median incomes and highest average levels of education in the country, stood out in this list of the top-24 performing school districts.

But there are some pleasant surprises, most notably West Point, a small mill town on the York River and one of only two towns in Virginia that maintains its own school district. The median household income in 2010 fell short of $50,000 — less than half that of Loudoun County, Virginia’s most prosperous locality. (Although incomes are not high, poverty is very low in the town — less than 3.0%.)

How do the school children of a small, southern mill town out-perform super-affluent localities such as Loudoun, Arlington and Fairfax Counties? It could be a fluke — the town’s population is only 3,300. Maybe the outstanding performance was the result of random variation, which create wider swings in smaller numbers. Or maybe West Point schools are doing something right that others could emulate. Some enterprising newspaper reporter should find out.

Other stand-outs are schools in the Roanoke Valley. Roanoke County, Salem and Botetourt County schools all scored in the top twelve. Those school districts are significantly larger than West Point’s, so it’s harder to attribute such consistently high scores to random fluctuations.

Even more surprising is the performance of school divisions in far Southwest Virginia. Wise County, which racked up scores equal to Fairfax County, sits in the heart of Virginia’s economically ravaged coalfields. This is deepest, darkest Appalachia. Scott County and Washington County, also in Southwest Virginia, performed in line with affluent exurban school districts in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions.

Again, one must ask the question: How do these school systems beat the odds? They have fewer resources. Students’ parents have lower incomes and less education than in more affluent districts. The bromides about what determines school performance — spending per student, socio-economic status and education levels of the students’ parents — provide an incomplete explanation at best. What is that X factor? Can we capture it, bottle it and share it with other school districts?

I would love to crowd-source the analysis of these questions. For anyone who is interested in digging into the numbers, here they are:

What Price Happiness?

San Luis Obispo. Who wouldn't be happy living here... if you could afford it?

San Luis Obispo. Who wouldn’t be happy living here… if you could afford it?

by James A. Bacon

After learning that Virginia cities report some of the highest levels of personal satisfaction in the country (see “Happy“), I have been thinking a lot about what creates happy communities. In the hope of gaining a better understanding, I recently finished reading Dan Buettner’s 2010 book, “Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way,” that plumbed the social, economic and political wellsprings of happiness around the world.

The premise was intriguing: Buettner visited four “blue zones,” locations where research indicated inhabitants were world leaders in happiness. Visiting these zones — Denmark; Singapore; Monterey, Mexico; and San Luis Obispo, California — he interviewed politicians, academics, civic leaders and everyday people about why they thought their country/city measured off the charts.

The book is an easy and thought-provoking read. Buettner asks intriguing questions. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are all across the board. While there are some universal constants — people are happier when they aren’t starving, dying from pestilence and in continual fear of their physical safety; people value family and friendships; people with a sense of purpose are happier than those without – different cultures define happiness in different ways. The things that make Danes happy often are very different from the things that make Mexicans happy. Transplant a Mexican family from Monterey to Copenhagen and the result will not be joy and contentment.

While the United States doesn’t set the standard for worldwide happiness, its inhabitants are happier than most. And of all the places in the country, it turns out that the residents of San Luis Obispo are, on average, the happiest in the United States. The picture that Buettner paints of San Luis Obispo, a city of 45,000 amid a county of 270,000, is an attractive one. Set in central California, the region has a great climate. There are lots of bike trails. The town is highly walkable. Local ordinances ban gaudy commercial signage. People are healthy and physically active. As home to California Polytechnic, the town has a lively cultural scene. People are tolerant of cultural minorities. Much wine is consumed. In sum, San Luis Obispo is the Charlottesville of California. Not coincidentally, Charlottesville was ranked happiest among all of America’s small metros in a 2010 Center for Disease Control survey cited in a July National Bureau of Economic Research paper, “Unhappy Cities.” (I do not know if the CDC used the same methodology for ascertaining happiness as the researchers cited by Buettner.)

There may be more to San Luis Obispo’s secret sauce than meets the eye, however. Outside the university, there are limited economic opportunities, Buettner writes. And the quality of life is so desirable that people drive up the price of the limited supply of housing to levels that are unaffordable to many.

In other words, San Luis Obispo has used strict zoning and growth controls to create a delightful environment… for those who can afford it. Judging by happiness surveys, the people who live there are extremely satisfied with the results. But think about what that means. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of less affluent Californians who would like to share in that happiness but have been effectively priced out of the market. Who are those Californians? For the most part they are poor and minorities. San Luis Obispo is 85% white. Hispanics, some of whom are classified as white, constitute only 14.7% of the population. The number of Asians and native Indians is small, and the number of African-Americans is insignificant.

So, while San Luis Obispo celebrates diversity, it does not practice it. People — liberals and conservatives alike – like living around other people like them. The shared values stemming from such cultural homogeneity builds trust, and trust is a critical ingredient for happiness. The wider the radius of trust and cooperation in a community, the happier the people living there.

San Luis Obispo is hardly the only community to engage in exclusionary zoning. The practice is widespread around the country. But zoning out poor people, who tend to be less happy, is not in accord with America’s ideas of social justice. There is a rising tide of thought that nations should measure themselves not just by the size of their economies but by their Gross National Happiness. That sounds like a wonderful idea — until you ask whose happiness and how it is achieved.

Surprise — People Who Live in the Burbs Like Living There

Suburban living -- people seem to like it.

Suburban living — people seem to like it.

Americans living in the suburbs are more satisfied with their communities overall than their counterparts in urban or rural areas, finds the new Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll. Eighty-four percent of suburban residents rated their communities excellent or good, compared to 75% of urban dwellers and 78% of rural residents.

That finding seems all the more significant given the strong pro-urban bias of Atlantic Media, which publishes the Atlantic CityLab. A major theme of CityLab is how city centers and downtowns are undergoing a renaissance, reflecting a profound shift in American preferences for urban living over suburban living. It cannot have been easy for CityLab to conclude, “When it comes to overall community satisfaction, the suburbs are still king.”

But a closer examination of the data shows that conclusion to be almost meaningless — and that’s before considering the methodological issues related to divvying up the country into “urban,” “suburban” and “rural.” (CityLab acknowledges that some “suburban” areas are hard to distinguish from “urban” and others hard to distinguish from “rural.”) The poll results released yesterday don’t tell us what it is about “suburban” versus “urban” that people like or dislike.

Urbanism advocates generally argue that the preference for the urban way of life resides in its human settlement patterns — more compact development, walkable streets, transportation options and availability of amenities not found elsewhere. I would argue that those urban advantages were overwhelmed by unrelated issues such as inner-city poverty, crime, troubled schools and higher taxes, which drove whites and middle-class blacks into the suburbs. Any analysis needs to distinguish between the human environment and the built environment.

According to the Atlantic Media/Siemens data, white people, college-educated people, homeowners, older people, people with higher incomes — all categories with a high degree of overlap — tend to be happier with their communities than non-whites, less-than-college educated, younger, lower-income Americans. What a surprise. People with greater financial resources gravitate to the more desirable neighborhoods and are happier as a result. Who would have thunk it?

In coming weeks, CityLab will explore its findings relating to crime and policing, transportation, education, housing, energy and infrastructure. I expect those findings will be more revealing.

– JAB

The View from Federal Court’s Media Room

mcdonnell By Peter Galuszka

The media corps is just starting to amble into small room granted by the U.S. District Court, albeit with tight rules. No cell phone calls outside the cramped quarters in the hallways. No slouching in the corridor with your laptop on the floor hoping your cellphone hot spot still works.

If you violate the rules, guards under the supervision of U.S. District Judge James Spencer, you could have your electronics confiscated.

The fun part is that it’s a congenial group with several from the local newspaper, three from The Washington Post which broke the McDonnell story, one from the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, Politico and me, for Bloomberg News.

We sit for hours on hardwood seats waiting for breaks to file updates or stories. The television folks must go tot he sidewalks outside and they have been admonished by tough Judge Spencer not to block the doorways.

The witnesses are a study in contrast — the largest being former Gov. Bob McDonnell who seemed calm, collected, even charming under three days of defense direct questioning.

It was a different tune yesterday under cross by Asst. U.S. Atty. Mike Dry, who in a steady and deliberate manner foisted a metamorphosis of McDonnell that would have done Kafka proud. Gone was the likable, good-looking man who almost broke down when he was shown the lovesick email he wrote his wife to save his failing marriage.

McDonnell had turned clipped, angry and confrontational. The more crew-cut Dry hit home at the contradictions, the more McDonnell went to tart ?No” or “Yes” answers.

How could it be that you and Maureen were so strained in your relations that you barely spoke (and thus could hardly conspire) when you took 18 trips with her in a 22 month time frame, including Florida, Kiawah, Smith Mountain Lake and other places.

You say you are a “good personal friend” of Richmond philanthropist William Goodwin (who gave you the $23,000 Kiawah trip). Name his children. McDonnell couldn’t.

You say your finances are in order (and you had a financial “expert” show that rentals at Sunseeker down in Sandbridge and the other properties were on the mend. How is it then that about a dozen financial institutions turned you down for traditional refinancing and you had to go to personal sources like Jonnie Williams for a bailout?

And if you were upset that wife Maureen had taken a $50,000 loan from Williams without your knowledge, why did you wait more than a month to contact Williams to ask what was going on?

We’ll have to see how long Dry continues with his cross examination. Some say it might end today. His strategy is to draw out endless inconsistencies. We’ll see how it works with the jury.

Overruns, Subsidies and Pollution

Tide Light Rail in downtown Norfolk. Photo credit: Hamptonroads.com

Tide Light Rail in downtown Norfolk. Photo credit: Hamptonroads.com

by James A. Bacon

Randal O’Toole, the Cato Institute’s transportation scholar, has penned a devastating take-down of Norfolk’s light rail system, the Tide. The rail line, which opened in 2011 60% over budget and 16 months late, ran operating losses of $12.5 million in 2012, about double projections. Farebox revenues covered about 5% of operating costs. Hoped-for redevelopment around the Tide’s eleven stations has yet to materialize. (The post is supposed to appear on O’Toole’s blog, The Antiplanner, but I could not find it there. I am relying upon an email version.)

Now, says O’Toole, the editorial writers at the Virginian-Pilot want to compound the folly by slashing fares from $1.50 per trip (before discounts), among the lowest in the nation, to $.50 in a desperate bid to jolt ridership and stimulate economic development. The problem with that idea, he says, is that it cannot generate sufficient ridership to encourage developers to build around the train stops. The idea would expand the operating deficit while doing nothing to build the property tax base.

Ironically, light rail, much beloved by environmentalists for taking CO2-emitting cars off the road, is more energy-intensive at low levels of ridership than automobiles. Writes O’Toole: “Norfolk’s rail line uses far more energy than cars: 5,400 BTUs per passenger mile in 2012 compared with an average of less than 3,400 for cars and 4,100 for light trucks (and 3,7000 for Hampton Roads buses).”

O’Toole continues:

Rail transit is supposed to be about bringing large numbers of people into major job centers. But there are no major job centers in the region, or at least none served by the Tide rail line: Norfolk has only about 24,000 downtown jobs, less than 3 percent of the metropolitan area. Transit subsidies are also supposed to help low-income people who don’t have cars reach jobs, but the 2012 American Community Survey found that only 2.6 percent of workers in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach urban area lack cars, and half of them travel to work by car, while only 32 percent ride transit.

In fairness to the Tide, the rail line’s financial performance has improved since 2012. A mid-2014 review indicated that farebox recovery had increased to 17.7% and the operating cost had declined to $3.4 million (or $6.8 million annualized).

Still, even the updated numbers call into question the wisdom of extending the line to the Virginia Beach resort district, a project that could cost more than $1 billion. Does Virginia Beach really want to spend hundreds of millions of its own money (the state and feds would pick up much of the tab) for the privilege of creating a permanent subsidy and tax drain at a time when Americans are driving less and congestion is easing?

Bacon’s bottom line: Mass transit is a great idea… when it works. But the fact that heavy rail has done wonders in New York City and the core Washington metropolitan area does not mean that light rail will have a similarly transformative effect in a sprawling, low-density metro like Norfolk-Virginia Beach. You can’t force-feed mass transit. Commuter rail requires high-density, mixed-use pedestrian friendly development around rail stations. That land use pattern does not exist in Norfolk/Virginia Beach right now. It will take appropriate zoning, years of re-development and public investment in creating walkable streets before there is any chance of generating sufficient ridership to justify the investment.

There is a logical progression for mass transit: Serve a transportation corridor with scheduled bus service and support it with higher-density, mixed-use rezoning. If and when sufficient redevelopment occurs along the corridor to support it, upgrade the service to Bus Rapid Transit. If and when sufficient redevelopment occurs to support another phase transition, upgrade the route to rail. That process could well take decades, too long a time to satisfy impatient environmentalists who want to save the world now. But it would be fiscally sustainable in an era in which Virginia local governments are increasingly hard-pressed to meet their obligations.

Meanwhile, the Uber-Lyft revolution continues to roil the transportation industry. Using smart phones to connect drivers with riders and writing algorithms that optimize the distribution of fleet vehicles serving different price points and demographics (Cadillacs for rich riders, vans for poor riders) could render much of our transportation infrastructure obsolete. I’m still waiting for a politician who says it’s time to prioritize ride-sharing over mega-road and transit projects. Surely, there’s someone out there!

Comparing Virginia’s First Ladies

 By Peter Galuszka

Military Moms From  Ft. Belvoir Attend Group Baby Shower

Maureen McDonnell

How does Maureen McDonnell define being Virginia’s first spouse? What does she say about other women who are or have been in her role? How does she compare with other First Ladies?

Testimony in the federal corruption trial of Ms. McDonnell and her husband former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has been highly defamatory to her. She’s been characterized as a greedy, deceptive “nutbag” who misled her husband, demanded fine things like designer clothing, and maintained a strange, emotionally close relationship to Jonnie R. Williams, a businessman who gave the McDonnells more than $170,000 in various loans and gifts to gain their help in promoting his products.

In another setting, anything of this, assuming it is true, would be a personal matter. But it isn’t. The fact is that Ms. McDonnell was very much a part of the political process. McDonnell ran for office repeatedly on the theme that he and his wife were religious, family-oriented individuals dedicated to public service. She could have chosen to minimize her role but she did not.

In fact, according to evidence introduced at the trial, she actually sent instructions to state employees pretending that she had the authority of the “Gov” to do the bidding of Williams. And when she traveled with Williams out of state to promote his product Anatabloc, she represented herself as “The First Lady of Virginia” and often had security officers with her at taxpayers expense. In other words, she is fair game for comparisons. Mind you, just a few years ago, this woman could have been a possibility for First Lady of the United States some time down the road.

She grew up mostly in Northern Virginia in a large family parented by civil service workers of the FBI. The former Washington Redskins cheerleader attended community college and worked mostly as a secretarial worker or aide for the FBI and other federal agencies. She and her husband have five children, and besides raising them, she has had a small, part-time business selling beauty and creams and health aids. As First Lady, she ran an initiative to help women and promote wine, veterans benefits and other matters.

The trial, now entering its fourth week, begs questions about what differentiates her background and behavior  with that of other recent First Ladies. I think it is a fair question. None of the others has ever had similar questions about them. I think a review of their backgrounds and accomplishments is the best way to make the point. Here goes:

Dorothy McauliffeDorothy McAuliffe, wife of current Gov. Terry McAuliffe. A graduate of The Catholic University of America and the Georgetown University Law Center, she has practiced securities law and now advocates for children and family issues.

Anne Holton, wife of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. As a child, Anne-Holtonshe and her father, former Gov. Linwood Holton, made national headlines during the civil rights area when they were photographed walking hand-in-hand to a newly integrated Richmond public school. The brave image helped calm tensions over court-ordered integration. She graduated magna cum laude from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton and then got a law degree cum laude from Harvard. She was a prominent judge specializing in youth and domestic relations issues and is now Virginia’s Secretary of Education.lisa_collis2

Lisa Collis, wife of former Gov. and U.S. Senator Mark Warner. A graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of Texas, she has specialized in health and youth  issues as head of the Collis Warner Foundation.

Roxanne Gatling Gilmore, wife of former Gov. Jim Gilmore. A roxannegildescendant of the man who invented the rapid-fire Gatling gun, Ms. Gilmore is a University of Virginia graduate and has a bachelor’s and master’s degree. A specialist in classical studies she has taught Latin at the high school level and has been a professor in Greek and Roman studies at Randolph Macon College. She oversaw a multimillion makeover of the Executive Mansion and later wrote a book about it.

Susan-AllenSusan Brown Allen, wife of former Gov. and former U.S. Senator George Allen. She is a marketing specialist from Charlottesville who graduated from the University of South Carolina.

With one possible exception, I’d say that Virginia should be proud of its FLOVAs, the security term for First Lady.

A Surprising Source of Resilience in SW, Southside Virginia

start-upsBack on the subject of entrepreneurship and business start-ups in Virginia… The Virginia Performs website provides a useful overview of data that describes the climate for business growth in the state. With the caveat that the data is subject to reporting lags, hence a little of out date, the picture is a modestly favorable one. The Old Dominion excels in the percentage of technology firms and the percentage of fast-growth firms, and fares in line with national averages for patents per capita, venture capital, business start-ups and university spin-offs.

Perhaps the most surprising finding emerges from the regional breakdown of business start-ups per 10,000 population broken down by region, as seen in the chart above. After years of lagging statewide averages, Southside Virginia has come on strong in recent years, surpassing even Northern Virginia in 2012. Southwest Virginia has out-performed the state average in several recent years, although it dipped in 2012.

With the perception of “Virginiagal2,” who has been touting the entrepreneurial potential for areas outside Virginia’s urban crescent in the comments section of this blog, not many observers would have predicted this trend. Of course, one must be careful with the data. We don’t know, for instance, what proportion of these new businesses are comprised of home-based businesses and micro-businesses with limited growth prospects, and what number might have fast-growth potential. Regardless, the rate of business formation suggests a hidden resilience in the Southside and Southwest Virginia economies that may keep those regions economically afloat in the face of labor-market economies that favor the major metros.

– JAB

Bob McDonnell’s Big Decision

 smith_mountain_lake2By Peter Galuszka

It was a gubernatorial quandary only Virginia could have .

In the summer of 2011, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell was ready to take a few days off. He and his family had been going to Smith Mountain Lake, a popular destination near Roanoke with lots of golf courses and seven-figure lakeside homes.

At his corruption trial this week, McDonnell testified that his summer getaway had been bankrolled by Delta Star, a company with a big factory in Lynchburg that makes portable industrial electrical gear. The firm had put him up at one of their lakefront houses for $2,474 in 2010, according the VPAP, which runs a data base about this kind of thing.

Summer 2011 had proved a big problem, however. His wife, Maureen, had become fast friends with Jonnie R. Williams a rich Goochland County businessman. Williams had given Ms. McDonnell a $50,000 check and also paid $15,000 for her daughter’s wedding luncheon that June. She had traveled with Williams helping promote Anatabloc, Williams dietary supplement that has since been pulled off the market by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The problem was — whose million-dollar-plus house would the McDonnells use? Williams very much wanted the McDonnells to stay at his sprawling domicile on the tip of a peninsula. Delta Star wanted the McDonnells to stay at their place.

What to do? They split it. The McDonnells stayed at Williams’ house for a getaway valued at $2,268 value according to VPAP. He also laid on a Ferrari that the governor could enjoy driving on the way home.

Delta Star made sure the family was entertained and fed. They provided the family with their very own boat to cruise the lake and catered meals – a $1,892 value for a long weekend.

Delta Star’s feelings didn’t seem to be hurt since they laid on another entertainment gift worth $10,182 in 2012.

And while we’re talking lakeside homes, guess who else also stayed at Williams’ place? Former Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli, that’s who – to the tune of $3,000 in 2011. We haven’t heard much recently from the former firebrand, hard right politician but he is on the witness list.

And so it goes. And, by the way, getting vacation favors is very common. Check out former Gov. Tim Kaine’s expensive sojourn on the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean Sea.

It’s not the only way Virginia’s extremely lax ethics laws work.

If you use your PAC, you have an automatic teller machine. For instance, Tim Hugo of Fairfax, the third-ranking Republican in Virginia’s House of Delegates, expensed nearly $30,000 for travel and food and $9,400 for his cellphone over an 18-month period. As a spokeswoman for the State Board of Elections told The Washington Post’s Laura Vozzella in 2013, “If they wanted to use the money to send their kids to college, they could probably do that.”