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The McDonnell Trial Gets Underway

mcdonnells arraignedBy Peter Galuszka

This morning marks the start of the long-awaited corruption trial for Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen, the first ever involving the governor of a state that fancies itself above petty corruption.

McDonnell, a Republican, faces 14 felony counts in federal court including wire fraud and lying on a federal loan application. This morning’s session at U.D. District Court before Judge James Spencer will involve jury selection. The trial is expected to last six weeks.

It promises to be a cross between a soap opera and a reality show with overtones of a Greek tragedy. Involved are strong personalities, a classic triangle (the governor, his wife and Jonnie Williams, a businessman who is the feds star witness) and lots of big, big Virginia names. The lawyers’ list reads like the wine list at a five-star restaurant.

There will be lots of politics and lots of venality, such as why Ms. McDonnell insisted on Williams supplying luxury trinkets and money, whether the First Family, regarded as a fine example of Virginia public service, was living far beyond their means and why the state’s squeaky-clean image is a myth.

A few more takeaways:

  • This is a federal case, not a state one. There is no way the case could ever have gone anywhere in state court – the laws are nonexistent. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a federal case and, traditionally, federal courts are used to go after local politicians and business people. Remember that it was the feds who nailed Al Capone in federal court, not Chicago or Illinois state courts. Just arguing that state law doesn’t go that far is irrelevant.
  • It’s going to get very ugly. Much of the melodrama takes place in the governors’ Capitol Hill house ruled by Ms. McDonnell and from which the case originally stemmed. It had to do with an executive chef who was accused of theft and was tried. He blew the whistle on the relationship between McDonnells, the gifts and Williams. Now, we find that the defense may subpoena the housekeeper for previous Democratic Govs. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both now U.S. Senators. It could be an episode of “Housewives of the Executive Mansion.” Stay tuned.
  • There’s no getting around the politics. I have to admit that it seemed very curious last year that the McDonnell case seemed to spring up from nowhere in the governor’s last year in office (he can’t succeed himself). It happened during a bitter gubernatorial race between hard-right Republican Kenneth Cuccinelli and Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe. There were media leaks galore last summer which made for great, gossipy reading but one did wonder about the propriety of it all.
  • Suppose the McDonnells are acquitted? If so, what was all the Sound and Fury about? Blogger Paul Goldman, former head of the state Democratic Party, believes an acquittal could bring calls for the resignation of U.S. Atty. Gen Eric Holder. Sounds extreme.

All in all, the trial represents a transitional phase for Virginia. Its old ways, conceited and quaint they may have been, have faded. Welcome to the 21st Century, y’all!

How Not to Shift From Coal

coal-plantBy Peter Galuszka

Coal is rightly the scourge of environmentalists. Economic pressure is on to shift to cleaner natural gas made plentiful by controversial hydraulic fracking. Political pressure is on to replace fossil fuels with renewables such as wind, solar and other methods.

In Virginia, Dominion, the state’s largest utility, relies for 46 percent of its generating capacity on coal and is moving in fits and starts to natural gas. It doesn’t get much from renewables. How much and how fast should it shift?

Yet out of Colorado comes a cautionary tale. According to The Washington Post, a family in the impoverished city of Pueblo is at odds running power. They only use a window air conditioner part of the time. They avoid using their oven in the summer. It uses electricity they not longer can afford because it overheats the house in summer.

For the family of Sharon Garcia, the problem is Black Hills Energy, which recently bought the local power company – Aquila, which got some of its power from a coal plant that was first built in 1897 with peaking extra power from Xcel, another utility.

Then, in 2008, Black Hills bought out Aquila and everything changed. Xcel decided it could make more money selling power at retail rates in Denver and not at wholesale rates to the utility serving Pueblo. In the midst of these events, a state law prompted Black Hills to shut down older coal plants for cleaner natural gas.

The state approved rate increases so Black Hills could build new infrastructure to handle natural gas and and rates when up significantly.

The problem is likely to be further complicated if the utilities move on the renewables, which, in the short term, are more expensive than either coal or gas.

This is not to say that companies should stick with coal forever, or natural gas. Renewables should still be the goal. But during the transition, green activists, many of them affluent, need to realize who pays the price. What’s a few dozen extra dollars for some is a tragedy for others.

More Defense Cuts Plague Virginia

Special deliveryBy Peter Galuszka

Virginia continues to see painful military spending cuts in the aftermath of the years’- long U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among the latest news is that the Army may cut 3,600 jobs at Ft. Lee, ironically the site of a recent and large expansion, by 2020. That could result in a decline of 9,000 residents near Petersburg which is close to  the base.

Plus, the Air Force plans on cutting 742 positions at its Air Combat Command headquarters at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton although some of the positions are already vacant and won’t be filled.

These are just some of the changes that are affecting Virginia, which is the No. 2 defense industry state after California. Many of the cuts involve active duty personnel whose vacancies are not being filled or are being asked to take early retirement.

Defense industry jobs are likewise taking cuts. A report by the National Association of Manufacturers states that in 2014, California will lose the most military-related jobs (148,400) followed by Virginia (114,900) and then Texas (109,000). Maryland will lose 40,200 jobs, the report says.

Many of the jobs are in heavy manufacturing, such as aerospace and ship building, and search and navigational services, but general business and other services will also be affected.

The news is especially hard on Petersburg and nearby Ft. Lee which just a few years ago enjoyed a major boost after a Base and Realignment and Closure round consolidated many multi-service logistics and supply functions. The influx of thousands of soldiers, contractors and their families boosted the city and surrounding areas.

Hampton, the location of Langley Air Force Base, doesn’t seem to be in store for such heavy impacts since the cuts involve some jobs already being lost to attrition. Other bases and areas hurt by the Air Force cuts include Washington, D.C.; San Antonio; Texas; Dayton, Ohio; and Belleville, Illinois.

Newport News Shipbuilding, now owned by Huntington Ingalls Industries, could lose a deal to build one submarine and might delay another to build as Ford class nuclear attack carrier, if automatic defense budget cuts return in 2016. Another potential hit: refueling the nuclear-powered carrier George Washington but may mothball the ship if the budget cuts kick in. About 24,000 people work at Newport News Shipbuilding, making it the largest private employer in the state.

Besides the Washington area, Hampton Roads is greatly dependent upon defense spending. Some 47 percent of the regional economy depends on it. Anticipating more defense cuts, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell formed a commission to come up with ideas before he left office this year. One of them is to be pro-active and recommend cuts of its liking before the federal government acts.

One of its recommendations cuts both ways on environmental issues. It recommends against offshore oil and gas drilling in watery areas where the military trains, thus making them available over the long term. It likewise recommends against wind turbines in the same areas.

These are interesting, but very difficult choices.

McAuliffe Hits Private IT Outsourcing

mcauliffeBy Peter Galuszka

Just a decade ago, privatizing and out-sourcing traditionally government work was all the rage.

Virginia’s Democrats and Republicans alike saw a philosophical advantage in fending off Information Technology, road maintenance and other work to for-profit, private companies who supposedly – if you believed the hype then  –could always do things better, faster and more efficiently than state workers.

The concept of “government” workers always seemed to be negative. Not only would taxpayers have to pay their health and retirement benefits, they might try to join unions and make labor negotiations even more difficult. It didn’t wash with Virginia’s conceit of being an anti-labor, “right-to-work” state that promised to keep workers docile as the state tried to recruit outside firms.

Now, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is turning this concept on its head. He is ordering a review of state contracts, especially on out-sourced IT service work that he says may be inefficient and expensive. “I am concerned that state government is inappropriately dependent on expensive contract labor when traditionally appointed state employees can perform at a higher level at a lower cost.”

Now that’s a major turn-around, even for a Democrat. After all, it was fellow Democrat and former Gov. and now U.S. Senator Mark Warner, currently running for re-election, that worked the get the state to accept a $2.3 billion contract for defense contractor Northrop Grumman to take over and upgrade the state’s antiquated IT system in 2005.

That deal proved disastrous as the contractor’s performance issues brought on bouts of oversight and renegotiation. The state ended up extending its contract with Northrop Grumman by three years.

An underlying problem is that while the contract lasts until 2019, the state must make some decisions if it wants to continue with the outsourcing route or start relying on its own state workers.

Another problem is whether the state identifies independent contractors as such or employees of state organizations. About 1 percent of the state’s workers were misidentified as independents. Apparently, state workers have their Social Security and taxes withheld from paychecks. But are they really independents? Or is it just window dressing to play homage to some fad thought up by fiscal conservatives?

McAuliffe is right to start thinking in these terms. What he’s going to have to face, however, is the conventional wisdom in Virginia that “public” is always bad and “private, for-profit” is always good. For evidence of this hidebound view, just read this blog regularly.

How Charlotte Stays Economically Competitive

Buildings participating in the Envision Charlotte energy-conservation initiative.

Envision Charlotte, a public-private partnership in Charlotte, N.C., has set the goal of reducing energy consumption in the city center by 20%. The initiative has achieved 8.4% savings so far, saving businesses in the central business district an estimated $10 million or more, Envision Charlotte and Duke Energy announced last week.

“We have cracked the code in understanding and measuring how energy is used and wasted within these buildings, and we are implementing programs today that are making a real difference in helping these businesses save money,” said Amy Aussikier, executive director of Envision Charlotte. The program encompasses more than 60 downtown buildings.

Not only does the program save businesses money, local officials see it as a competitive economic advantage for Charlotte. “Envision Charlotte is an economic development differentiator for Uptown Charlotte, where about 40% of the region’s office space is located,” said Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter. “Lowering energy costs and showing a true commitment to sustainability makes us attractive to millennials, knowledge workers and companies that value cost savings.”

Bacon’s bottom line: This is a classic example of how “economic development” has evolved way past the traditional reliance upon industrial and corporate recruitment. Charlotte’s leaders are thinking about how to help make their existing businesses leaner and greener while driving down costs. They are thinking about what it takes to attract forward-thinking enterprises and knowledge workers. Charlotte isn’t the only city doing this — San Diego is pursuing a similar initiative. Why isn’t this happening anywhere in Virginia?

Actually, the opportunity exists to leapfrog Charlotte and do even better. Energy conservation for individual buildings is great, but it only scratches the surface of what’s possible. Cities should be exploring ideas like eco-districts that not only bolster the energy-efficiency of individual buildings but entire neighborhoods through shared energy generation, recycling of heat, installation of green roofs and the fostering of more compact development.

– JAB

Finally, Some Sense on Climate Change

mowbray archBy Peter Galuszka

Pulling the state’s head out of the sand, Gov. Terry McAuliffe has reversed his predecessor’s policy on addressing climate change.

He has reestablished a 35-member panel to see what the state can do to deal with what many scientists believe is an impending crisis. McAuliffe revived the panel first created by Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine and then left to wither away by former Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell.

Ironically, the new panel includes Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climatologist who was the target of bitter and petty attacks by former arch-conservative Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli over his view that mankind was responsible for carbon dioxide-driven greenhouse gases that are helping warm up the earth, melt polar ice caps and potentially flood huge sections of coastal cities such as Norfolk.

It’s about time that Virginia rejoined the 21st Century. McDonnell took the state backwards on environmental issues by gutting commissions such as this one and creating others that were devoid of ecological viewpoints and stacked with members of the fossil fuel industry and utility executives.

McAuliffe’s new commission has utility people like Dominion Virginia Power President Robert M. Blue and Bernice McIntyre of Washington Gas Light Company. But it is also well stocked with green types such as the Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Southern Environmental Law Center whose views were pretty much in the wilderness during the McDonnell term.

It is finally time for the state to realize that climate change is real. Study after study shows that the state is vulnerable – from agricultural impacts brought on by different weather patterns to rising water in coastal areas. One area worth study is doing more to speed the switch to renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

McDonnell had pushed a policy that would make Virginia “the Energy Capital of the East Coast,” but the effort excluded renewables in favor of offshore oil and gas companies, nuclear power and coal.

Curiously, McAuliffe also favors such endeavors as offshore petroleum development. That raises questions in the face of massive fracking onshore for natural gas and the revolution it has sparked. Perhaps the new commission can provide some guidance.

It is refreshing that Virginia is finally emerging from the intellectual horse blinders that kept the debate stuck in Benghazi-style debates over emails at a British university or trying, unsuccessfully, as Cuccinelli did, to harass scientists globally over a ridiculous claim that Michael Mann had defrauded Virginia taxpayers by asserting what most climatologists do – that climate change is real and mankind is a reason for it.

Finally. . .

Two UMW Daughters of the ’60s

Birmingham By Peter Galuszka

Just a few days ago, Elena Siddall, a Mathews County Republican activist and Tea Party Patriot, posted her account on the Rebellion of being a social worker in New York in the 1960s and the wrong-headedness of Saul Alinsky, a leftist organizer who had had a lot of influence back in the day, among others. I won’t comment on Ms. Siddall’s lively account and conservative point of view. But I do notice one thing: she is a 1963 graduate of what is now the University of Mary Washington, which then was considered the female side of the University of Virginia (campuses being segregated by sex back then).

I have a tie as well to Mary Wash, which is now coed. My daughter graduated from there last year and my cousin-in-law, now living in Tennessee, went there was well before moving on the U.Va. nursing. Our family experience at Mary Wash has been a big positive and I support the school. So, it is with considerable interest that I noticed that the Spring 2014 issue of the University of Mary Washington Magazine had a cover story of a different kind of graduate than Ms. Siddall with some very different views.

So, in the interest of providing some equal time among women who came of age during those years of intense ethical and political awareness, I thought I’d toss in the magazine story to further the debate and show that not every Eagle from Mary Wash thinks like Ms. Siddall (no disrespect intended).

The story has to do with Nan Grogan Orrock, class of ’65, the daughter of an Abingdon forest ranger, who got the civil rights fever when it wasn’t always easy for a young, white woman in Virginia to be an activist. But activist she was, from exhorting her classmates to join protests, to spending summers and other time in the Deep South demonstrating with African-Americans in SNCC, to staring down the real possibility of being beaten or killed and to even today, when she’s been active in the Georgia legislature shaking things up, such as trying to get the Confederate flag off public buildings.

The article, written by Mary Carter Bishop, class of ’67, is intriguing. The writer is a career journalist who was part of a team that won a Pulitzer in 1980 for the Philadelphia Inquirer when that paper was one of the liveliest and best in the nation.

As Bishop writes:Nan Grogan Orrock ’65 is among the South’s most veteran and well-respected advocates of social change. She is one of the longest-serving and most progressive members of the Georgia legislature and has left her mark on every sector of social justice: civil rights, women’s rights, worker rights, gay rights, environmental rights.

“She’s chased after cross-burning Ku Klux Klansmen, cut sugar cane in Cuba, started an alternative newspaper, organized unions, led strikes, been arrested a bunch of times, and still stands on picket lines. At 70, she’s far from done. I had to finally get to know her. The week before Christmas, I flew to Atlanta and sat down with her at the State Capitol.”

Please read both accounts – Ms. Siddall’s and Ms. Bishop’s article – and see ideas through opposite prisms of the 1960s involving two obviously very bright women.

Denying Truth on the Outer Banks

Sun Realty

Sun Realty

By Peter Galuszka

North Carolina’s Outer Banks have always been a touchstone for me – in as much as anyone can associate permanence with sandy islands being perpetually tossed  around by tremendous wind and water forces.

The Banks and I go back to 1954 and Hurricane Hazel when I was an infant. They mark many parts of my life. So, I read with great interest The Washington Post story by Lori Montgomery about how real estate officials in Dare County and other coastal parts of North Carolina are trying to alter clear-cut scientific projections about how deeply the islands will be under water by 2100.

State officials say that the ocean should rise 39 inches by the end of the century. This would mean that 8,500 structures worth $1.4 billion would be useless. Naturally, this has upset the real estate industry which is pushing for a new projection of an 8-inch rise 30 years from now. Think of it like a photo in a rental brochure. You don’t choose shots of dark and stormy days. The skies must be blue.

Ditto science. The insanity is that so many still don’t believe what is going on with climate change and carbon dioxide pollution. Over the past several years, Virginians, many of whom vacation on the Outer Banks, endured and paid for former Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli’s legal attacks against a former University of Virginia climatologist who linked global warming to human activity. The assaults went nowhere.

Instead of addressing such profoundly transitory events, too many in the region say it isn’t so or pick away at what is really happening as we speak. And as Mother Jones magazine points out, it isn’t because weather change deniers, usually conservatives, don’t understand science.

The Outer Banks are an extreme example because of their incredible fragility. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of the islands knows that they are completely under the thumb because they are where two major ocean currents meet.

The only reason Hatteras has developed at all is the Bonner Bridge, an ill-conceived, 51-year-old span over Oregon Inlet so decrepit that it is often closed for repairs. Replacing it has been constantly delayed by the lack of funding and the threat of lawsuits. The federal government has been complicit for decades by spending at least hundreds of millions on sand replenishment programs or offering flood insurance coverage.

About 15 miles south of the bridge is Rodanthe, a flyspeck village just south of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuse. It is at the point of the Banks that sticks out farthest into the Atlantic and is under the strongest attack by ocean currents and storms. Route 12, the only way to evacuate by car when a hurricane comes, is on a narrow spit of constantly shifting sand trapped between the ocean and Pamlico Sound.

I’ve been going to Rodanthe for years. Starting in the 1980s, friends and I would pool our money and  rent one of the big beach houses. We have been constantly amazed how the distance between the structures and the surf is disappearing. One favorite spot was “Serendipity,” a skinny, tall beach house that we rented perhaps twice and featured fantastic views from the top-floor bar.

It was dressed up as a bed and breakfast in the movie ”Nights At Rodanthe,” a 2008 weeper starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane. The film was panned and the house was equally threatened. In fact, the next year, the owner had the whole thing placed on a truck and moved nearly a mile down the coast where there’s a little more sand.

More hurricanes followed, cutting a new inlet a few miles into Pea Island and its watery bird impoundments. The oceanfront houses we used to rent are in trouble. The ones across Route 12 now have dramatic new views.  A small, new bridge spans the inlet.

One can argue that building on the Banks is madness, global warming or not. There’s a lot of truth to this. But rising ocean water is truly going to accelerate the changes no matter how hard politicians or North Carolina’s real estate industry say it isn’t so.

It’s Like Leaving Paris on Bastille Day

fireworksNow they tell me! The Bacon family has just made plans to spend the 4th of July watching fireworks at the national mall in Washington, D.C., only to read that WalletHub lists Richmond, of all places, as the No. 1 place to be in its 2014′s Best & Worst Cities for 4th of July Celebrations.

Our humble home town does not win based upon the most spectacular fireworks displays, which are fine but nothing special. It turns out we’re tops for families on a budget. Richmond wins based on 14 metrics that encompass its entertainment & food appeal (No. 3 in the country among the top 100 metros), attractions and recreation/outdoor activity (No. 20) and the July 4th weather forecast (No. 31). Apparently, our fair city stands out for having some of the cheapest three-star hotels anywhere and for having less traffic congestion than anyone else. As a bonus, home fireworks are legal. The number of homeowners shooting rockets into the sky is quite impressive.

It is some consolation that our destination city, Washington, D.C., is ranked No. 5 in the country — and is tied for No. 1 for recreation and outdoor activities…. which is precisely why we’re heading there. Well, Richmond, there’s always next year.

Tea Party Populism vs. Eric Cantor

teddy roosevelt By Peter Galuszka

Political analysts and the media are still trying to tease out the meaning of soon-to-be-former House Majority leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss last week to an obscure college professor.

Two major themes seem to be emerging. One is what the Tea Party’s role was and what the Tea Party really is. The second is how the Big Media missed the story of winner David Brat’s surprising strength, although a number of local publications did get it, including the Chesterfield Observer, a suburban weekly that I write for (although not about politics) and won a special accolade in this morning’s New York Times.

The Times also had a piece Sunday on its front page noting just how closely tied Cantor is to Corporate America. Aerospace giant Boeing saw its stock plummet just after Cantor was clobbered. Over the years, Cantor has gladly done the bidding of big companies, notably in managed care and finance. His donors provide a ready chart.

He’s backed the continuation of the Export-Import Bank that helps guarantee loans for foreign sales (to Boeing no less) and helped kill a bill that would have increased the capital gains tax made by alpha-seeking and ultra-rich hedge fund managers. Cantor does know about big business because he is a lawyer and has a degree in real estate. His wife, Diana, has worked for such Wall Street behemoths as Goldman Sachs. And, of course, Cantor was hatched and grew up in Richmond’s cliquish business community.

The interesting trend here is how Brat, touching a surprisingly sensitive populist nerve, targeted Cantor’s cozy links to Big Business along with the usual complaint menu about illegal immigrants and government spending. Brat hit Cantor for various corporate bailouts, including TARP, backing Medicare Plan D and two unfunded wars.

Such criticism resonated with his supporters, who are conservatives. But unlike the country club Republicans of yesteryear, these voters might be throwbacks to the Gilded Age during the era of gigantic trusts. I am strolling through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit” which looks at Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft at the turn of the 19th century and it is fascinating reading.

Being a Republican then meant being an upstart and independent-minded troublemaker, not a defender of the status quo and big business interests. The public seemed remarkable well informed and the media was filled with brilliant journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and S.S. McClure who took apart trust-builders such as John D. Rockefeller.

There was a real sense that too much economic power was being concentrated in two few hands and if you look at what’s happening today with the mergers of airlines, cable companies and banks, you get an uneasy sense of déjà vu. The result back then was long-standing legislation like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and bodies like the Federal Trade Commission. The concerns were inequality, lopsided economic clout and the tendency for big companies to abuse their power.

It is in this sphere where the Tea Party types, whomever they are really, might be on to something. I’m all for leniency and compassion on immigration issues but I have to say that some of the anti-Cantor comments might have harkened back to the days of McClure’s Magazine and Tarbell’s extraordinarily detailed dissection of Standard Oil.

Sadly, the journalist profession has been gutted by cost-cutting, which is one reason why the Beltway types missed the Cantor story and scrappy little papers like the Chesterfield Observer got it. If there is growth in the news media, the hot trend is setting up “data-driven” Websites but as the Times notes, these proved inadequate as well in last week’s election because they relied on imperfect data. In other words, garbage in, garbage out, no matter how lively the prose is. What really matters is shoe leather journalism and not numbers crunching.

On-the-ground reporting can capture important clues such as how Cantor misused his Majority Leader bodyguards and Black Suburban SUVs to keep his constituents at bay on the rare occasions he actually sought them out. Otherwise, he seemed to be sequestered at expensive steakhouses. Voters pummeled by the Great Recession got the message.

Add up all of these trends and you might start understanding why Cantor’s defeat was so important. It posits who exactly the Tea Party is and what they actually stand for. It could be the start of a movement as historically significant as the one 125 years ago.