Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman

Chichester's Unreported Contribution

Is Larry Sabato worth 10 times more than Julia Roberts?


In the movie "Pretty Woman," Richard Gere asks Julia Roberts how much she costs for the whole night. Julia blows her now famous chewing-gum bubble and, on the road to Hollywood super-stardom, says it's more than he can afford. When Gere's character persists, she finally says $300 dollars. By the movie's end, the Beatles were proven wrong when they sang, "Money Can't Buy Me Love."

So much for Hollywood endings. In the real world, it is now clear that Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political science professor and the state's most-quoted professorial pontificator, could have taught Ms. Roberts a thing or two she didn't learn from ex-fiancee Kiefer Sutherland. Despite the state's huge budget deficits and claims by the politicians in Richmond that they had no choice -- in the phrase of Sen. John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg -- but to cause real "pain" by cutting services to average citizens, Sabato persuaded our elected officials to give him over $400,000 in the 2003 General Assembly session for some pet projects.

Admittedly, Sabato wasn't the only highly quoted, self-described "objective" political analyst getting big bucks from the politicians he is supposedly fearlessly analyzing: Professor Robert Holsworth, a public policy professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, also got six figures in earmarked state cash for his public policy center.

As Sarah Jessica Parker might ask at the start of the next episode of Sex in the City: When someone gives you a lot of money, what do they really think they are really buying?

Professor Sabato and Dr. Holsworth would have you believe their roles as political analysts are not even slightly compromised by their acceptance of hundreds of thousands of state cash. Yet, in another context, they no doubt suggest, if not require, that their students and other budding political experts read Professor Charles Beard's seminal work An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, focusing on the seeming role of economic self-interest in the actions of even our most revered politicians.

So, the tough but fair and necessary question needs to be asked: How can individuals dependent, in some significant measure, upon state largesse be assumed to be objectively commenting upon the very politicians who control these purse strings?

That question arose recently when Mr. Sabato went to Fredericksburg to give his take on the June 10th GOP primary contest between Senate Finance Chairman John Chichester and his election opponent, Mike Rothfeld.

(For purposes of full disclosure, I feel obligated to state -- lest someone think I am hiding anything -- that 18 years ago, Professor Sabato called Mr. Chichester a "sure winner," or words to that effect, in a race in which I was the campaign manager for the other candidate. Mr. Sabato and I got into a few words over what he was saying about my candidate, and I was told he actually consulted a lawyer to see if he could sue me for libel and slander, which of course he couldn't because all I had done was tell the truth, as the facts proved about a year later.)

Today, Larry and I are friends, and he is as good a professor of government as you will find in the country. I can think of no one better to teach my son about political theory and install in him an appreciation for the importance of being an active participant in political affairs with a commitment to making a positive difference.

I do not question Larry or Bob's integrity, as I know both of them to be good, honorable people. They are both great assets to Virginia, as educators and human beings.

But I do not believe you can improve the state of things political when you have a double standard, one for those favored by the political elite and another for the rest of the citizenry.

Thus, the growing interdependence of the Iron Triangle in Richmond between lobbyists, elected officials and allegedly fearless political commentators and members of the media, is a great concern to those of us who have actually fought on the front lines to change the status quo in Virginia politics.

Why? Because the cynicism of too many of Virginia's political elite is the drug causing much of the apathy and lack of leadership plaguing our state's political system.

Richard Gere thought Julia Roberts had her price, and she did.

When Professor Sabato went to Fredericksburg to declare that Mr. Chichester was the likely winner of Tuesday's primary and said that the GOP finance chief had huge amounts of "seniority" and "power" that awed even the state's most renown pundit, he was in effect endorsing the senator's campaign. Mr. Chichester surely took notice, as I was told he was in the audience, along with is buddy House of Delegates Speaker William Howell, R-Fredericksburg.

Now, it may be pure coincidence that Mr. Chichester helped Mr. Sabato get his $400,000 at time when the politicians in Richmond were again balancing the budget on the backs of those struggling up the ladder
of success. Moreover, it may be that despite all the state's budget difficulties, legislators deemed the funding of Mr. Sabato's pet projects a higher priority than funds for projects for some needy and vulnerable Virginians. Additionally, I cannot blame Sabato or anyone for pleading their own case, as we are all human after all.

But this fact remains: no reporter or news organization would ever consider any lobbyist, any private corporate executive, or even a public interest group getting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the state's top elected politicians for a pet project to be an objective source. This is self-evident.

Indeed, the General Assembly's own conflict-of-

interest rules would not allow either professor -- should they ever be elected to serve -- to vote on measures giving them money others do not get. So, I ask: Do they not have the same conflict when commenting on the performance of those voting to give them this money?

I enjoyed "Pretty Woman." But what I see in Virginia -- the Iron Triangle strangling the efforts to fix our budget and other problems -- is pretty ugly, especially given the price tag to the hard-pressed Virginians being made to pay the bill.


-- June 9, 2003


(c) Copyright. All rights reserved. Paul Goldman. 2003.


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Paul Goldman, the Rebel With a Cause, was chief political strategist for the past two winning Democratic governors in Virginia and was credited with leading a "revolution in American politics" by The New York Times for his role in breaking America's 300-year-old color barrier in national politics.


You can reach him at