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Into the sunset / March 12, 2009
In just about all of life’s pursuits you’ll find solid, hardworking, competent people who keep their heads down, theirs lips zipped and their eyes on the ball. They usually do a great job of tending to business — theirs, and sometimes even yours.

Then there are folks who go the other way: people who can’t leave well enough alone, who go out of their way to act in gratuitous fashion, who won’t shoot straight because that’s hard to do so while talking out of both sides of the mouth.

If the latter description sounds like a politician, well, so it is — at least that’s the popular conception of the job. But believe it or not, there are politicians who ably serve the public interest by toiling behind the scenes, quietly putting together coalitions and getting things done for the good of their constituents. Such people tend to have long careers in politics. They have many attributes, but first and foremost is being temperamentally suited for the job.

With his unexpected decision not to seek re-election, and following a General Assembly session marked by some frankly bizarre behavior on his part, Delegate Clarke Hogan has demonstrated that for all his other alleged gifts, he lacks a proper temperament for the job.

Some people may think that’s a good thing in a contrary way. I don’t buy it, but Hogan certainly can point to some victories in his eight years in the House and say the bull-in-the-china-shop approach was a key to his success. Rising to the rarified status of House budget conferee, Hogan was well-situated to protect important local initiatives such as the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center. The SVHEC is one of the best things going in Halifax County, and to the extent that Hogan was able to milk the state’s coffers to boost its budget, hooray for him.

But let’s take a break from the amen chorus long enough to ask: How well did Hogan do in fulfilling his most important pledge, made when he first ran for office, to create jobs and reverse the economic slide of Halifax County? The results speak for themselves. Obviously this is a challenge that requires a lot of people pulling in the same direction to overcome, so you can’t lay the failure at the feet of any one individual. But when the proverbial leader of the team sets the wrong direction and the wrong tone besides, and the rest of us have to live with the results, then it becomes fair to ask: What did Clarke Hogan ever do for his district?

Being a bit of a pack rat, I still have a campaign flyer from Hogan’s first run for office in 2001. Under the cheesy title of “a J.O.B.S. program” for Southside Virginia, our fledgling delegate-to-be promised his unflagging efforts on behalf of several worthwhile objectives, one being the four-lane expansion of U.S. Route 501 to Lynchburg. Once he got to Richmond Hogan went in the 180 degree opposite direction. Not only did he never make a serious effort to win funding for 501, he ingratiated himself with the House leadership — particularly Speaker of the House William Howell, forever Hogan’s patron — by signing up for the partisan duty of killing whatever legislation the other side proposed to fix the problem. If Hogan had a plan for Halifax County that he felt he could achieve as hatchet man in the legislature, he did a darn fine job of keeping it a secret.

Well, you might say: Politicians break their promises all the time. And so they do. But Hogan’s utter abandonment of this local priority points up a curious aspect of his political career: he always had a lot more success advancing his career than his district. In fact, his quick rise in the legislature arguably came at the district’s expense. Think about it: prior to the economic downtown and the cratering of Virginia’s budget, the roads issue was front and center in the General Assembly. Any semi-competent politician, Republican or Democrat, could have offered his support for a transportation solution for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads in exchange for expansion of Route 501 or, for that matter, completion of the Superhighway 58 project. (While a four-laned 501 should be a top priority for the local economic development crowd — and I use the term advisedly and loosely — fixing this awful highway also would have saved lives over the eight years that Hogan has served as delegate.) Hogan’s agenda ultimately has been about Hogan: if that required carrying water for a House GOP leadership that has no appreciation for the needs of Southside Virginia, then so be it.

And Hogan’s constant abusive behavior towards our last two governors, Warner and Kaine, has simply been an embarrassment. I don’t subscribe to the view that people in politics need to always get along, and it would be a boring world indeed if we all lived by Marquis of Queensbury rules, but Hogan pulled more than a few stunts that were guaranteed to put him, and by extension us, on the coal-and-ashes list at the Governor’s Mansion. Here we are in Halifax County, with one of the weakest economies in the state of Virginia, and our elected representative in Richmond practically has gone out of his way to alienate the powers-that-be outside his circle of friends and confidants in the House. (I’m told that most Republicans in the House don’t even like him). If Hogan had leverage over his enemies, that would be one thing: in such situations you can write off abrasiveness as a cost of doing business. But in the absence of any such dynamic, what you’re left with is a politician of overweening arrogance. How does that serve the public interest?

Hogan arguably suffered a Macaca moment this session when he cursed out fellow Republican delegate Robert Marshall over what would seem to be a trifling matter: Marshall’s memorial resolution for a constituent who drowned saving his disabled son. The resolution was co-sponsored by every member of the General Assembly, save our delegate. Just as George Allen revealed his true self when he used a bizarre slur to describe a young man of Indian descent, so too did Hogan open the window on his Richmond self by jumping all over Marshall. What sort of person thinks he can get away with such inexcusable behavior? Where was Clarke Hogan’s apology? Has he ever apologized for anything?

Hogan’s base of power has always been his relationship with Speaker Howell. That relationship has fed speculation that something isn’t quite right in the smoke-filled corridors of the House of Delegates. Hogan’s rapid rise caught the attention of such players on the media landscape as Jeff Shapiro, the influential columnist for the Times-Dispatch, and the state’s top political blog,, run by political consultant Ben Tribbett. Tribbett has offered some fascinating, albeit thinly sourced, takes on Hogan’s activities in the House. Some time ago he posted a snippet of video from the House floor showing our delegate putting forth a $5 million amendment for the Honeywell Corp. plant in Hopewell that the local delegation (a Republican and a Democrat) knew nothing about. Normal boundaries of propriety would dictate that Clarke Hogan would be among the last people to get involved in this issue. Yet there was Hogan, carrying water for a corporate donor (and polluter) outside his district, for no apparent reason.

Tribbett points to a tangle of lobbying relationships involving Honeywell and argues that Howell and Hogan were buck-raking at the public’s expense. I have no idea if this is true, although certainly it wouldn’t surprise me if it were. (After Hopewell-area delegates Joe Morrissey and Riley Ingram cried foul on the deal, Hogan’s amendment went down by a 96-2 vote.) Shapiro offered a similar revelation in one of his columns that destroyed Hogan’s reputation as Southside Virginia’s chief defender against uranium mining. While the folks back home were still celebrating Hogan’s success in bottling up a uranium mining study bill in the House, Shapiro reported that our delegate was up in Maine at the family vacation home playing footsie with a lobbyist for Virginia Uranium, Inc. Shapiro does a consistently fine job of exposing the incestuous nature of Richmond politics, but I don’t know if he’s ever quite captured a nascent act of betrayal quite like that one. And guess what: Despite Hogan’s alleged best efforts to derail it, the uranium study is back on track.

I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that new leadership has been needed in the 60th District, and now it looks like we’ll get it. We can only hope, echoing The Who, that the new boss won’t be the same as the old boss. In explaining why he decided not to seek a new term, Hogan said he needed to tend to business at the family woodmill, Ontario Hardwood, which like most construction-related businesses has been hit hard by the collapse of the housing and real estate sectors of the economy. May he experience the best of luck fighting the tide; that’s a wish I would grant to anyone regardless of their political persuasion. But politics ultimately is, or should be, about the people’s business. Hogan long ago lost sight of this simple fact, which is why his retirement at the age of 39, strange as the thought may seem, is the best thing for all involved.

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