Despite the obvious need, Virginia still has done very little to address its monumental problems with ethics reform. The latest endeavor was announced yesterday by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, but it seems too much like just another panel.
And panel it is. McAuliffe has created the 10-member Commission to Ensure Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government. The good news is that it is bipartisan and seems filled with reasonable people, including Christopher Howard, president of Hampden-Sydney College and Sharon Bulova, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
Leading it will be for Lt .Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who has shown good sense in recent years and got screwed over by party hardliners who maneuvered to get former Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli, a wild man, to run and lose in the 2013 governor’s race. His Democratic counterpart will be Rick Boucher, a former legislator from southwest Virginia.
The plan is to present a package of reforms that will deal with gift-giving and donations to politicians, and redistricting, or possibly redesigning some districts away from the madness that some, and mostly Republican legislators have created.
The impetus, naturally, is the first-ever conviction of a governor for corruption. Three weeks ago, a federal jury gave a resounding “guilty” on felony charges against Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen. The U.S. Justice Department stepped in because Virginia’s state ethics laws were so ridiculously lax no one could ever have made the case. There had been lots of “gee, I don’t see a smoking gun” jabber on this blog and elsewhere, but, hey, why not poll the jury?
Just as the McDonnells were being indicted last January, the 2014 General Assembly considered ethics reform but did squat. It made accepting more than $250 in gifts verboten and expanded disclosure requirements to immediate family but the Republican-led led legislature left in a pile of loopholes. “Intangible” gifts, such as African safaris or trips to the Masters golf tournament are A-OK.
What’s needed is a real ethics commission with subpoena power. McAuliffe’s action was quickly derided by such leading lights of ethics reform as House Speaker Bill Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment. These two Ayatollahs of the Status Quo claimed that McAuliffe was a “latecomer” to an issue that they obviously have done nothing to improve despite their many years in office.
GOP Party Boss Pat Mullins took an irrelevant swipe at McAuliffe’s perceived ethics problems long before he was even governor.
Redistricting is just as important as ethics and I’m glad it is being addressed. Many Virginia districts have been gerrymandered to keep a particular party in office in ways that protect the status quo and prevent change. Of 100 House of Delegates races in 2013, “only 12 to 14 were competitive,” notes Leigh Middleditch Jr., a Charlottesville lawyer and a founder of the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, told me earlier this year.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington, has studied gerrymandering for years and believes it negates general elections in favor of party primaries where a handful of hard right radicals can dominate.
This is especially true in some rural districts where tiny cadres of activists, again mostly Republicans, dominate the picks for primaries. It doesn’t matter what the general public thinks or wants. A narrow minority worms its way in power and becomes beholden not necessarily to the party overall, but a little slice of it.
That is why so little gets done.
The very fact that leaders like Howell and Norment are in place and the primary system will make McAuliffe’s efforts very difficult. One wonders if you could go outside the diseased legislative system and forced change through the courts.
It worked before against such Virginia travesties as Massive Resistance. Something to consider.