Category Archives: Electoral process

Why Five Ex-Attorneys General Are So Wrong

mcdonnells arraignedBy Peter Galuszka

The practice of law in Virginia is supposed to be an honorable profession.

The state, which produced such orators as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, loves its lawyers perhaps much more than individuals who actually create or do something of value. It could be why the state has so many of them.

This makes a filing in the McDonnell corruption case by five former attorneys general all the more despicable. The bunch includes both parties and is made up of Andrew P. Miller, J. Marshall Coleman, Mary Sue Terry, Stephen D. Rosenthal and Mark L. Earley.

They want corruption charges thrown out against former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who, with his wife, has been indicted on 14 federal corruption charges. Their trial, expected in July, will explore charges they misused their position to help a dietary supplement maker who showered them with more than $165,000 in personal gifts and loans.

The five attorneys general claim that there is no clear evidence the McDonnells did anything wrong. Odd, but I thought lawyers knew enough not to try and bias a case that has been through the indictment and arraignment phase and is due for trial but then I didn’t go to law school.

Their other reason is actually more upsetting. Their filing claims that future governors might be reluctant to invite state business leaders on foreign trade missions or to host campaign donors at the governors mansion, according to The Washington Post.

Huh? I don’t see the connection. Of course, governor’s can host trade missions. They can invite people to the Executive Mansion. It’s just that, in the process, the governors can’t reasonably be OK with accepting a $6,500 Rolex from the head of Kia Motors or a special loan for his failing beach houses from the local rep of Rolls Royce North America.

It is stunning that the five attorneys general are caught up in “the Virginia Way” of having hardly any controls on gift giving and spending that everything is OK. They also can’t seem to move beyond the conceit that  anyone who occupies the governor’s chair must naturally be an honest gentleman or gentlewoman.

This kind of thinking helps explain nothing substantive has been done to reform the state’s ethics laws. I can give you five reasons why.

The Koch’s Bizarre Meddling in Chesterfield

koch brothersBy Peter Galuszka

The Koch brothers are back in the bucolic suburban tracts of Chesterfield County.

This time, their national group, Americans for Prosperity, has launched a robocall campaign to oppose a proposed real estate tax hike of 4.6 cents to help pay for $304 million renovations to schools or perhaps hire more teachers to bring classroom sizes back to pre-recession levels.

It’s apparently the second time that Americans for Prosperity have been on their case in Chesterfield. Last year, the hard-right group sent out bizarre “report cards” to ordinary citizens bashing them for not registering to vote.

In one famous local case, a recipient was actually a registered and active voter and greatly resented the idea that a multi-million dollar national outfit like the Americans for Prosperity was trying to monitor his personal business.

This time, Sean Lansing, the group’s Virginia director told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the goal is to “educate” residents on the issues, as if they are too stupid to understand local tax and classroom size problems that they probably know far better than some AEP appartchiki.

Chesterfield has caught itself in a bind because it hasn’t raised real estate taxes since 1990 despite its brisk growth rate. Voters in November voted down a 2 percent meals tax that could have raised money for schools. Henrico County voters, by contrast, narrowly approved a 4 percent meals tax and thus have no budget crisis that another tax hike is needed to resolve.

Admittedly, one of Chesterfield’s problems is bad planning. The staunchly Republican county has a long history of being very friendly to developers. Consequently, the county is in a constant service “catch up” mode. Need schools, such as Cosby High near some of the county’s largest residential developments, was already way overcrowded before it was finished a few years ago.

What is puzzling is what the Koch brothers are so interested in Chesterfield. It is hardly an election battleground. There is no strong Democratic or other opposing party. Yet with consummate arrogance, this cabal believes that residents need robocalls to “educate” them.

“Educate” them for what? If you want good schools and other services, someone has to pay for them. And as a Chesterfield resident for nearly 14 years, I can attest that taxes here are considerably lower than other places I have lived as an adult (Washington, New York, Chicago, suburban Cleveland, etc.).

Is Virginia Now the “Mother of Dictators?”

Dictator_charlie3315 By Peter Galuszka

One of the serious problems in this state that has been called the “Mother of Presidents” is that its electoral process is in many ways anything but a democracy.

In far too many districts, especially rural and suburban ones, gerrymandering and autocratic party diktat mean that the races are utterly non-competitive and devoid of much debate on issues essential for the state’s well-being.

In 2013, for instance, only 12 or 14 of the 100 races for the House of Delegates were actually competitive, according to the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. That’s an odd fact to ponder.

And that is why you get unneeded legislative sessions such as the one starting today to try and sort out Medicaid expansion and a $96 billion, two year budget. My view is that both the expansion and the budget are being held hostage by hard-line social and fiscal conservatives who are unwilling to consider the needs of moderates or even their own constituents, many of whom are receiving Medicaid or who benefit by its expansion. Indeed, polls show that more Virginians are in favor of expanding Medicaid. A broad coalition of activists, Democrats, business executives and moderate Republicans favors it.

For more, check this opinion piece I wrote this Sunday in The Washington Post.

The bottom line is that Virginia is changing but how fast is held in check by engineered voting districts. More people from other states or countries are moving here and that is certain to shake up the old ways of doing business. More millennials are leaving rural areas for cities where there are more jobs and progressive ideas. Eventually, their voices will be heard but not until there’s a level playing field.

According to Leigh Middleditch, a Charlottesville lawyer and Sorenson founder, a crucial task for the Old Dominion is to address redistricting issues. He’s part of the bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Reform Coalition, to bring elections back into balance. As he notes, they’re getting the money and haven’t given themselves six years to complete the job.

I wish them well. If that happens you won’t have a tiny, hard-right cadre representing maybe three percent of the eligible electorate dictating who the candidate is because they only have to worry about a primary in a rigged district.

It’s become “the Virginia Way.”

The Tragic Lessons of Kiev

A pro-European protester swings a metal chain during riots in KievBy Peter Galuszka

The news from Ukraine is frightening and familiar.

At least 100 people have been killed in rioting in Kiev. Some were shot by Interior Ministry snipers after demanding that President Viktor Yanukovych allow new elections. The latest is that he may do just that.

Like all former Soviet republics, Ukraine has been caught in the usual post-collapse of the U.S.S.R. Liberal Democrats can’t amass enough power to overturn leftovers from the Communist system who have prisons and police at their disposal.

The economy has not recovered from the shock of the Soviet split up. It happened too fast. You can’t go from a seriously ossified command structure that provided cradle-to-grave services, crash it and then pretend the “magic of the market” will work overnight, or even in 25 years.

These failures have set up the tragedy in Kiev that if not controlled soon, could get truly scary. All Europe needs right now is a civil war on its edge. So far, the Ukrainian military is not involved and luckily for the world, Ukraine apparently got rid of its 5,000 nuclear weapons after the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991.

For me personally, the Kiev drama is reminiscent on several levels. I used to go to Kiev and Ukraine fairly often. Downtown Kiev is lovely. The main drag where the violence is taking place is on Khristyatyk Street, an impressive boulevard of monuments and buildings. I used to stay at a hotel around the corner near a leafy park on a bluff overlooking the Dnieper River.

Ukrainians are pleasant and friendly – somewhat like U.S. Midwesterners or Southerners. Ukraine used to be a farming dynamo until Stalin got involved. It also has some impressive industries, including advanced metallurgy and an aircraft plant that makes gigantic Antonov cargo planes. Tragically, it was also the scene of Chernobyl.

There’s been an underlying tension between western Ukrainians who felt much more in common with Western Europe and the east where Russians and their language prevailed. The friction, however, never got as intense as between Russians and, say, the Chechens or Central Asians. Ukrainians are very close in religion, language and color. There were rivalries and insults, such as Russians who dubbed Ukrainians “Hok-lee” which is a putdown of the Ukrainian language which is very close to Russian but has different inflections. Some Ukrainians hate being called “the” Ukraine because it means “on the edge” of Russia.

Vladimir Putin is a major player in today’s problems. Just as Ukraine was getting closer to the European Union in aid, trade and funding, Putin swept in with a $15 billion aid package. Putin is part of the old “Sil” or “forces” such as the KGB who have re-emerged in a new form, sort of like the robo-cop in the Terminator II movie. Continue reading

Virginia’s Philosophical Crossroads

Judge-Arenda-Wright-Allen-Virginia

Judge Arenda Wright Allen

Standing before a trim, white, clapboard house off Lafayette Boulevard in Norfolk last week, friends and supporters of gay rights cheered loudly as two same sex couples approached a front-yard podium to celebrate their legal victory in having Virginia’s gay marriage ban overturned.

The night before, U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen, citing Abraham Lincoln and the unfairness of the state’s previous ban on interracial marriage, had declared Virginia’s ban unconstitutional.

It had been supported by the state’s conservatives and also by 57 percent of voters who approved a constitutional amendment in 2006 declaring marriage as only for men and women. Popular opinion, however, appears to have shifted

It was an historic moment on a par with federal courts overturning racial segregation and other blunt violations of human rights. Seventeen states now allow gay marriage and a host of lawsuits tend to push overturning bans. Virginia is the first Southern state to do so.

Immediately, hard-right politicians such as Prince William County’s Bob Marshall called for the judge’s impeachment just as some demanded the ouster of the new state Attorney General, Mark Herring, for, correctly, refusing to defend the marriage ban.

The situation represents a huge shift in philosophy for the state. For years, Virginia has been dominated by conservative thinking that is enormously contradictory.

As Richmond Times Dispatch columnist Jeff Schapiro points out this morning, the tension is between promoting limited government and individual freedom in some areas (little regulation of business and politicians) and badly suppressing individual rights in cases such as marriage and abortion.

Just as history was being made in Norfolk federal court, the General Assembly was putting the finishing touches on useless new rules that do next to nothing to police Virginia’s incredibly lax governance of gift giving and political donations.

This comes after the state’s reputation was badly stained by the first-ever indictment of a former governor (Robert F. McDonnell) on federal corruption charges. So much for “the Virginia way” that touts Thomas Jefferson and the entire cadre for freedom.

I have always been frustrated by the state’s bi-polar attitudes about individual rights. Not a Virginian by birth, I was glad to leave the state in 1983 after reporting from it for about eight years. I was sick and tired of its genuflecting before big business on environment and labor issues. Little-regulated Big Business, after all, had given Virginians such presents the Kepone ecological disaster.

Years later, I was passing through Virginia from New York driving from New York to visit my parents in North Carolina. We stopped at a Denny’s and were told by a waitress that we could not order our cheeseburgers medium rare because that’s what the legislature had ruled. More recently, I ended up shelling out a few hundred bucks because my daughter needed new contact lenses and state rules require unneeded yearly optical exams. Apparently that’s due to lobbying by the state eye-care industry.

The philosophical contradictions are finally catching up. Even though proponents of gay rights at the Norfolk press conference made a big deal about Virginia being the first “southern” state to confront ending the gay marriage ban, I am not so sure the state is really “Southern” any more. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Schools and Higher Ed

bacon_bitsOK, people, you’re out of control. You’re generating way too much quality content that is disappearing into the ether because Virginia’s newspapers and bloggers simply aren’t equipped to cover it all. Once again, I find myself falling back upon the Bacon Bits format, just to ensure that readers know what’s out there.

Advanced placement credits. Virginia boasts the third-highest percentage of public high school seniors qualifying for college credit on Advanced Placement tests, according to the College Board’s 2104 report. Reports Virginia Business magazine: “28.3 percent of Virginia’s 2013 graduating seniors earned a grade of three or higher on at least one AP exam. Virginia’s seniors trailed behind students in Connecticut and Maryland, who earned the No. 1 spot.” Gains over the past 10 years have been especially marked for African-American and Hispanic students.

Fixing virtual school governance. Chris Braunlich, writing in the Jefferson Policy Journal, elucidates how Virginia lags the country in using virtual (online) schools to provide education to children with special needs or circumstances at home. More than 2750,00 students are enrolled in virtual schools nationally, and the number is growing 30% per year.  The number in Virginia: less than 1,000. Writes Braunlich: “It’s just one example of state law not keeping pace with a 21st century world in which students aren’t limited to their neighborhood school, but quite literally are ‘students without borders.’ The fact that the law hasn’t kept up with technology has badly hurt the growth of full-time virtual schools.”

University endowments kicking bootay. The University of Virginia endowment grew to $5.16 billion during fiscal 2013, up 7.9%, making it the largest endowment in Virginia and the 19th largest in the country. Runner-up was the University of Richmond, whose endowment surpassed $2 billion, followed by Washington & Lee ($1.345 billion) and the College of William & Mary ($698 million). Read Richmond BizSense’s recap here (the article lists all endowed Virginia universities) and read the report upon which it was based.

The end of higher ed’s golden age. A must-read essay by Clay Shirkey describes the dilemma facing higher ed today:

Decades of rising revenue meant we could simultaneously become the research arm of government and industry, the training ground for a rapidly professionalizing workforce, and the preservers of the liberal arts tradition. Even better, we could do all of this while increasing faculty ranks and reducing the time senior professors spent in the classroom. This was the Golden Age of American academia.

As long as the income was incoming, we were happy to trade funding our institutions with our money (tuition and endowment) for funding it with other people’s money (loans and grants.) And so long as college remained a source of cheap and effective job credentials, our new sources of support—students with loans, governments with research agendas—were happy to let us regard ourselves as priests instead of service workers. …

Golden Age economics ended. Golden Age assumptions did not. For 30 wonderful years, we had been unusually flush, and we got used to it, re-designing our institutions to assume unending increases in subsidized demand. This did not happen. The year it started not happening was 1975. Every year since, we tweaked our finances, hiking tuition a bit, taking in a few more students, making large lectures a little larger, hiring a few more adjuncts.

Each of these changes looked small and reversible at the time. Over the decades, though, we’ve behaved like an embezzler who starts by taking only what he means to replace, but ends up extracting so much that embezzlement becomes the system. There is no longer enough income to support a full-time faculty and provide students a reasonably priced education of acceptable quality at most colleges or universities in this country.

Our current difficulties are not the result of current problems. They are the bill coming due for 40 years of trying to preserve a set of practices that have outlived the economics that made them possible.

(Hat tip: Michael Cassidy.)

Tar Heel Grief Just Down the Road

By Peter Galuszka

It’s sad to see mccrorytwo states to which I have personal ties – North Carolina and West Virginia — in such bad ways.

The latest raw news comes from the Tar Heel state where we are seeing the handiwork of hard-right- Gov. Pat McCrory who has been on a tear for a year now bashing civil rights here, pulling back from regulation there.

The big news is Duke Energy’s spill of coal ash and contaminated water near Eden into the Dan River, which supplies Danville and potentially Virginia Beach with drinking water. Reports are creeping out that the McCrory regime has been pressuring the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to pull back from regulation.

According to Rachel Maddow, DENR officials had stepped in with environmentalists as plaintiffs on two occasions in lawsuits to get Duke Energy to clean up coal ash. But when a third suit was filed, McCrory, a former Charlotte Mayor and career Duke Energy employee, influenced a third lawsuit settlement against Duke to be delayed.

Also, not long before the Eden spill, the City of Burlington released sewage into the Haw River which flows into Lake Jordan serving drinking water to Cary, Apex and Pittsboro. DENR allegedly did not release news of the spill to the public.

Late last year, Amy Adams, a senior DENR official, resigned to protest the massive cuts McCrory and Republican legislators were forcing at her department, notably in its water quality section.

McCrory’s been on a Ken Cuccinelli-style rip in other ways such as cutting back on unemployment benefits in a top manufacturing state badly hit by the recession and globalization. He’s shut down abortion clinics by suddenly raising the sanitation rules to hospital levels, much like former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell did in Virginia.

A reaction to McCrory is building, however. Recently, I chatted with Jason Thigpen who served in the Army and was wounded in Iraq in 2009. When Thigpen returned to his home in southeastern North Carolina, he was upset that the state was sticking it to vets by making them pay out-of-state college tuition in cases where some had been state residents before deploying. So, he started an activist group to protect them.

Next, Thigpen decided to run for Congress. His views fit more neatly with the Republican Party but he simply could not take what McCrory was doing in Raleigh so he became a Democrat and is a contender in a primary this spring.

Why the switch? “I just couldn’t see what the GOP was doing with my state in Raleigh,” He told me. “Also, I didn’t like what they were doing with women. I had served with women in war and they come back to North Carolina and they are treated like second class citizens,” he said.

West Virginia, meanwhile, is still struggling with its drinking water issues from a spill near Charleston. Although drinking water for 300,000 is said to be potable, children are reporting rashes.

Somehow, this conjures up another story involving a Republican governor – Arch Moore.

Back in 1972, Moore was governor when Pittston, a Virginia-based energy firm, had badly sited and built some damns to hold coal waste. After torrential rains, the dams burst and a sea of filthy water raced down the hollows, inundating small villages and killing 125 people. The state wanted a $100 million settlement from Pittston for the Buffalo Creek disaster, but Moore interceded and they settled for a measly $1 million.

Moore was later convicted of five felonies after he was caught extorting $573,000 from a coal company that wanted to reduce its payments to a state fund that compensated miners who got black lung disease.

Does anyone see a pattern yet?

Meanwhile, we in Virginia should breathe a sigh of relief considering just close it was dodging the bullet last election.

Journalism’s Death Is Greatly Exaggerated

rachel_maddowBy Peter Galuszka

“Investigative reporting, R.I.P. In-depth reporting is dead. If not dead, it’s comatose. Reeling from declining revenue and eroding profit margins, print media enterprises continue to lay off staff and shrink column inches.”

Err, maybe not. James A. Bacon Jr., meet Rachel Maddow.

The quote comes from advertised “sponsorships” in which an outside entity can help fund reporting and writing on this blog. It’s a morphed form of traditional journalism and there’s nothing wrong with it, provided the funding source is made clear.

But what might be jumping the gun is the sweeping characterization that in-depth reporting is dead. That is precisely the point of Maddow’s monthly column in The Washington Post.

She notes that it was local traffic reporters and others who broke the story about Chris Christie’s finagling with toll booths to punish a political opponent. She shows evidence of other aggressive reporting in Connecticut and in South Carolina, where an intrepid reporter got up early one morning, drive 200 miles to the Atlanta airport and caught then disappeared Gov. Mark Sanford disembarking from an overseas flight to see his Latin American mistress when he had claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Closer to home, it was the Post, which has seen more than 400 newsrooms layoffs over the past years, that broke GiftGate, the worst political scandal in Virginia in recent memory. The rest of the state press popped good stories, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch that has been somewhat reinvigorated despite nearly 10 years of corporate cheerleading and limp coverage under publisher Tom Silvestri. The departure of the disastrous former editor Glenn Proctor, Silvestri’s brainchild, helped a lot as did the sale of the paper by dysfunctional Media General to Warren Buffett.

To be sure, there are sad departures. The Hook, a Charlottesville alternative, did a great job reporting the forced and temporary ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, but it has folded.

Funding, indeed, remains a huge problem, even at Bacon’s Rebellion where we all write pretty much for free. One solution, Maddow notes, happened in a tiny Arkansas town that found it was located over a decaying ExxonMobil fuel pipeline. The community raised funds to help hire more reporters to break through the news.

She suggests: “Whatever your partisan affiliation, or lack thereof, subscribe to your local paper today. It’s an act of civic virtue.”

Hear! Hear!

Add One More Item to the Ethics-Reform Agenda

Quentin Kidd

Quentin Kidd

In a recent survey of registered voters, 64% of respondents agreed with the proposition, “Political leaders are less ethical than they used to be.” Distrust of political leaders crossed party lines, gender and race. “While public officials still may think they operate with a sense of noblesse oblige, the public clearly does not,” say Quentin Kidd and Meyrem Baer in the latest edition of The Virginia News Letter, “Virginia’s Ethics Rules for Public Officials: The Need for Reform.

Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, and Baer, an undergraduate researcher, provide a useful overview of state ethics laws and regulations in Virginia. The good news: Virginia is a standout in its requirements for disclosure, rating 4th best in the nation for campaign disclosure laws in a 2008 report. The bad news: The Old Dominion falls short in almost every other regard.

The paper provides context for many of the proposals that have surfaced following the Bob McDonnell GiftGate scandal, but raises one issue that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere else. Virginia law places no real limits on how campaign funds can be spent. The law is clear that when a campaign committee is disbanded, money cannot be converted to personal use. But when it comes to spending the money during a campaign anything goes.

The unlimited way in which campaign money can be spent was illustrated by a recent case involving a delegate from Northern Virginia who reportedly spent nearly $30,000 on travel, food, and cellphone expenses in an 18-month period. A spokesperson for the State Board of Elections said recently that there were “no restrictions” on how campaign contributions could be spent, suggesting that college tuition could probably be justified. Additionally, there is no regularized auditing process of expense reports or disclosure statements by the commonwealth. … The law leaves it largely up to the candidates and campaign committees to assure the expenses are proper, with no real oversight beyond meeting the reporting and documentation deadlines.

The General Assembly will have a full plate when it comes to drafting ethics reform, and it may be impracticable to address every weakness in Virginia law. But the spending of campaign money should not be left off the list. If we don’t address it now, when will we?

– JAB

An open letter to Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling

Dear Lieutenant Governor Bolling:

I read your Op-Ed piece in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch with great interest.  In that article you outlined five points:

  1. 2013 was a disaster for the RPV.  Moreover, it was only the latest disaster for a party that has been in decline for decades.
  2. The population center of Virginia has shifted and the RPV’s rural-centric philosophy will no longer win elections.
  3. The demographics of Virginia are changing and the RPV is not.
  4. Closed conventions suck.
  5. No single philosophy or ideology can dominate Republican thinking to the exclusion of other Republican ideologies.

It is well written, insightful, cooly logical and …. doomed to fall on deaf ears.

Sir, the Republican Party of Virginia is broken beyond repair.  Or, at least, it is broken beyond any hope of repair during what’s left of your political life.  The Tea Party exerts sufficient control to keep the closed convention lunacy in place for years to come.  That closed convention philosophy, in turn, will guarantee extremist candidates from the Republican Party of Virginia.

There is another way. America in general and Virginia in particular are ready for a viable third party. Previous attempts at third party politics in the Commonwealth have been well intentioned but ill conceived.  Here’s the plan:

  • Pick our fights.  There are House of Delegates and State Senate seats that are ready for a viable third party candidate. We only run in those districts. Robert Sarvis tried to go from “zero to governor.”  That will not work. We need to start by focusing on specific House and Senate seats. We can do this
  • Conserve our cash. It costs about $200,000 to run a successful House of Delegates campaign. It costs about $1,200,000 to run a successful State Senate campaign. Roughly speaking, we raise enough money to attack 10 House districts and 2 Senate districts.  That’s $4.4M. With some funding for the party infrastructure we need about $5M. We can do this.
  • Lead with leaders. Nominating unknown people with no political experience will fail. We need to draw from the large body of moderate Republicans disaffected by the Tea Party and the equally large body of moderate Democrats disaffected by the Obama regime. Obviously, you would be a perfect leader for this new party. We can do this.
  • No bizarre policies. The Libertarians have made inroads against the tyranny of the two parties. Yet they have failed. In some ways their failure has been due to extreme policies. We will not seek to “end the Fed.” We do not want to legalize heroin. We will build a fiscally conservative, socially moderate platform with reasonable boundaries. We can do this.

This will not be easy. This will not happen quickly. This will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. But it will work. From a foothold in the House and Senate we will work in future election cycles to raise more money and elect more politicians. We will get to a point where no legislation will pass without concurrence of at least two of the three parties in Virginia. We will be the moderating influence on both the left and right. Eventually we will be in a position to campaign credibly for state-wide offices, including offices in the federal government.

Someday in the distant future our descendants will peer into whatever electronic devices they use to learn American history. There will be a chapter devoted to the death of the two party tyranny in America. Let it be your picture that accompanies that lesson.

Very truly yours,

– DJ Rippert