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Ways and means / June 26, 2014
There seems to be a great deal of confusion at the present moment about the “Virginia Way” — one of the hoariest conceits you’ll find anywhere in politics. The phrase made sense back in the time of Madison and Monroe, and maybe even when Harry F. Byrds Sr. and Jr. were alive, insofar as they were gentlemanly fellows even if their “way” of running Virginia was to pack the courthouse with members of the political machine. You might not like it, but as a method of operation it had a certain touch to it. Today? Everything’s such a mess that it’s hard to find much method at all.

Of course, the “Virginia Way” historically has referred to something else: the state’s reputation for collegial, clean governance. In light of recent events, can we just dispense with this bullspit once and for all? Up in Richmond, everyone’s mad at each other and everyone’s lawyering up (with good reason, methinks), and this time our grifter ex-governor isn’t even involved. Whereas the scandal involving Bob and Maureen McDonnell is mostly just embarrassing and tacky, the latest sleazy behavior has had real consequences, which only makes it more infuriating.

Allow us a moment to unpack this bundle of awful: As most people probably know by now, Virginia has enacted a budget after nearly a four-month deadlock (the new fiscal year kicks in on Tuesday, July 1), and what could have been a nasty foray into budgetary no-man’s land has been avoided. Localities that rely on money from Richmond are no doubt especially relieved there won’t be a state government shutdown, but the failure to enact a budget threatened to inflict potentially worse damages, including the loss of Virginia’s Triple-A credit rating. All that unpleasantness is now behind us. Hooray.

To get to “yes” on the budget, however, the side that prevailed — the Republicans — had to execute what in the business world is known as a leveraged buyout: In this case, the buyout of Democratic Senator Phillip Puckett, who announced his retirement earlier this month, giving the GOP control of the evenly-divided State Senate. (Democrats had parliamentary control of the Senate with the lieutenant governor hailing from the same party. Republicans have a lopsided majority in the House.) The leverage over Puckett was a stalled judgeship for his daughter, a juvenile court judge back home in Southwest Virginia. The Senate adheres to a rule that it won’t bestow judgeships to family of currently-serving members, therefore Puckett’s retirement removes that obstacle. Presumably both houses of the Republican-controlled legislature now will return the favor by confirming Puckett’s daughter for the bench. Isn’t it funny how a rule that ostensibly serves the cause of ethical behavior — a ban on nepotism — should play a central role in one of the more unethical episodes in recent memory at the Capitol?

The buyout part of the Puckett deal is even trickier, in the dual sense of the word: more underhanded and, perhaps, more difficult to prove. According to reporters for The Washington Post — the same team that broke the McDonnell scandal — one of the state’s top Republicans, Scott County Del. Terry Kilgore, dangled a high-paying staff job on the Virginia Tobacco Commission to coax Puckett into retiring, as if the enticement for his daughter weren’t enough. Since that time, both Kilgore and Puckett have disputed the charge that Puckett resigned to go to work for the Tobacco Commission, although it’s a matter of public record that its executive committee was scheduled to meet two days after Puckett’s retirement to take up the hiring of a deputy director. Who are you going to believe, a pair of smiling politicians or your own lyin’ eyes?

Last week The Post reported that federal prosecutors are looking into Puckett’s resignation to see if he or anyone else involved committed “honest services fraud” — the selling of position or influence for material gain. Hmm. A day after news of the criminal inquiry broke, The Post followed up with the reaction of legislators who are shocked — shocked! — that anyone seriously thinks such untoward acts take place at the Capitol. This sense of disbelief, more out of sadness than in anger, hasn’t kept both Kilgore and Puckett from retaining legal help as a safeguard, just in case.

(“Neither the FBI nor the U.S. attorney’s office has contacted Delegate Kilgore in connection with this investigation,” Kilgore’s attorney, Thomas Cullen, told The Post. “He’s done absolutely nothing wrong and has nothing to hide.” I seem to recall people saying vaguely similar things about former Gov. McDonnell in the quiet days just before federal prosecutors dropped a 14-count felony indictment on his head.)

The motive driving these slimy machinations is the most disgraceful part of the entire tale: Republicans are dead-set against expanding the state’s Medicaid program, the cause of the budget debacle in the first place. Democrats and a handful of Republicans in the State Senate fought the good fight to extend health coverage to up to 400,000 Virginians, paid for by tax dollars already collected under the Affordable Care Act and not coming back to Virginia for any purpose other than to provide health care for low-income citizens, but the GOP said no: as disgusting an act of political obstruction as the Commonwealth has seen since the days of Massive Resistance. And, boy, did Gov. Terry McAuliffe let ‘em have it this week, vowing to “move Virginia health care forward even in the face of the demagoguery, lies, fear and cowardice that have gripped this debate for too long.” McAuliffe’s statement on Medicaid expansion and the budget is excerpted on the facing page: The whole thing is the rhetorical equivalent of whacking the opposition over the head with a two-by-four.

I took a pretty dim of view of McAuliffe as a candidate, but he’s been fine as governor — actually, better than fine, he’s been superb on Medicaid expansion, which is clearly shaping up as THE issue of his administration. But just to return to the entire “Virginia Way” nonsense, one thing I especially like about McAuliffe is he doesn’t bother with the desultory nods to Virginia’s finer governing traditions — a nicety that state Democrats have perpetuated for far too long. Besides calling out the House Republican leadership as a bunch of liars, McAuliffe also froze work on the new General Assembly office building that legislators wanted so badly: a nice touch indeed. McAuliffe threw in some other vetoes that had Republicans crying foul, including tossing several new judgeships. GOP lawmakers now complain that McAuliffe is playing politics with a key function of state government, which might have some weight if these same legislators hadn’t abused the process for years. Doesn’t your heart just go out to these people?

It figured to take some doing to turn Terry McAuliffe into the No. 1 stand-up guy in Virginia politics, but by golly if Republicans in Richmond haven’t managed a way. Of course, if you feel otherwise — if, for instance, you look at McAuliffe and see a governor who has exceeded his authority in insisting that Medicaid expansion happen one way or another, the tender feelings of legislators be damned — you still have to acknowledge that he has done more than any other governor to explode Virginia’s most exalted — which is to say, most annoying — political myths. Such as the one about gentlemen-legislators giving freely of their time and energies to carry out public business in the finest traditions of Jefferson, Washington or whatever other name you want to pick out of the history books. Or that comity and compromise are cherished commodities in Richmond. Since when? Not lately.

There still are Republicans who uphold the finer values of the Commonwealth — we saw that with the three senators who joined with the chamber’s then-Democratic majority to support Marketplace Virginia, a market-based alternative to Medicaid expansion — but for the most part GOP obstructionism has left the Virginia Way as dead as the founding fathers. As we move forward into the next realm with the Medicaid battle — to the courts — it would be wonderful if more people, and by that we mostly mean editorial writers for Virginia’s major newspapers — would acknowledge the reality of the state’s political situation. No less than Jan Brewer, the arch-conservative Republican governor of Arizona, and Mike Pence, the even more arch-conservative governor of Indiana, have pushed for Medicaid expansion in their own states. Meantime, Virginia labors under the corrupt rule of the Terry Kilgores and Frank Ruffs in the world, who are all too happy to lecture others on the virtues of forthrightness and self-sufficiency even as they tender pay-to-play job offers and travel to France with dollars set aside to revive the economies of their hard-scrabble home territories. This current conflict goes way beyond “partisan squabbling,” the favorite crutch of tut-tutting columnists everywhere. If such people are bothered by Gov. McAuliffe’s so-called smash-mouth politics, it’s only because they haven’t stopped to consider that some things really could use smashing.

Who would have guessed it’d be the used-car salesman who injected some honesty into Virginia politics?

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