Home Virginia Politics Paul Goldman: Put McDonnell’s ABC Privatization Plan to a Referendum

Paul Goldman: Put McDonnell’s ABC Privatization Plan to a Referendum


Thanks to Paul Goldman for the following guest column. I agree with him; let’s put the idea of privatizing ABC stores to the voters. {UPDATE: Paul suggests a subtitle for this article — “How Dems Win in 2013.”}

If you would like to see a Democrat get back in the Governor’s Mansion in 2013, read further. If not, then read further but keep your blood pressure pills — better yet a 911 medical alert button — handy.

Truth is, the ABC’s of getting back the Governor’s Mansion in 2013 were laid out for Democrats by Delegate Bob McDonnell in 1996 as part of House Joint Resolution 170. Some 14 years later, Governor Bob McDonnell has spent all of 2010 trying his best, in the name of the state’s ABC system, reminding Democrats about what he said in 1996. But being good Virginia gentlemen, House Democratic Minority Leader Ward Armstrong and Senate Democratic Majority Leader Dick Saslaw have been politely refusing, their members going along in that Virginia way.

How quaint. Yet like the energizer bunny, His Excellency refuses to allow Democrats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

lots more after the “flip”

So once again he will offer up the keys this September 8th. On this date, the same day unelected President Jerry Ford pardoned un-indicted Watergate co-conspirator Richard Nixon, the Governor will release the fateful details to a long-promised proposal to sell hard liquor the McDonnell way.  According to his aides, the proposal will replace the state’s roughly 300 state-run ABC stores with 800-1200 private owned retail shops serviced by a newly “privatized” wholesale distribution scheme based on a state-mandated Oligopoly for the great financial benefit of a handful of well-connected political players including some FOB’s, friends of Governor Bob.

The Governor says his plan is what the people want and it enjoys strong support from Virginian families. But he offers no proof and for good reason: The Governor, and his sidekick Lt. Governor Bolling, along with the GOP establishment, would be soundly rejected if they did what Mr. McDonnell wanted to do in 1996, allow the people of Virginia to have a direct say in a statewide referendum on the matter.

Ironically, of all the issues in state politics today, the one that has the longest history of statewide referenda is the sale of liquor in the Commonwealth. Ever since 1913, when gubernatorial candidate Henry Stuart pledged not to change the state’s liquor policy without first giving Virginians a direct say through an advisory referendum, every Governor, Republican or Democrat, has kept this covenant with the voters.

That a socially conservative Republican Governor, on record for expanding the reach of this covenant, would flip-flop on the liquor referendum issue is rather surprising. In 1996, he didn’t think the current advisory referendum law went far enough: he wanted to give voters who didn’t like his ABC plan the right to repeal it by direct vote, after they had collected enough signatures to get it on the referendum ballot. Still his “I was for it until I was against” flip-flop is not nearly as astounding as the refusal of Virginia Democratic leaders to realize Mr. McDonnell has committed the most basic mistake any Republican can make: he has allowed his right flank to become completely exposed. This is mind-boggling given what is now taking place in GOP primaries around the country. .

Which is why Boyd Marcus, the super-GOP strategist and guru for Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, has reason to believe God may be a Republican — for what other explanation could there be for the continuing failure of Virginia Democratic leaders to miss an unprecedented opportunity not likely to come again in state politics?  Boyd, and his very able partner Ray Allen, have crushed any number of Republicans in intra-party fights for being insufficiently conservative with far less than 200% proof, indeed without a drop of evidence in some cases! They know what is out there if Democrats would, as Robert Frost advised, “take the road not taken.”

First, the rural social conservative base of the Republican Party cannot support the McDonnell plan because it is based in good measure on a scheme to significantly increase hard liquor sales in Virginia, not to mention reduce service, raise prices and cost good jobs in their areas. When you triple the number of stores selling hard liquor, sales of the stuff are going up; that’s one reason the Governor is claiming he can get a $300-$800 million dollar one-time windfall from private sector interests eager to one of those new, protected licenses!

I ask you: When is the last time, or the next time, the rural conservative base of the GOP is going to hook-up with the urban Democratic base on a statewide issue? Yes, that’s right: Democrats understand that for the McDonnell plan to work, it has to target inner city areas with the lure of “new businesses” – as in a liquor store on every corner – and “new jobs” as in clerks pushing for more sales.

From the liberal editorial pages of the Washington Post, who know the McDonnell ABC plan to help “fix transportation” amounts to at best selling a great state asset for roughly 2 1/2 months of next year’s road maintenance budget, to the conservative weeklies across the state printing columns by religious leaders, there will be an alliance like no other, including law enforcement officials, small business owners, youth counselors, mental health advocates, medical doctors, and suburban families with young adults who know the social cost, not to mention the economic toil, from McDonnell’s risky-whiskey social experiment.

On the side of the Governor will be his hand-picked successor Mr. Bolling, along with the GOP establishment, their “Vote Yes” campaigned funded by Walmart and national liquor interests.

Who do you think wins? Which side to you think Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the leader of the GOP’s all-powerful social conservatives will be on?

But you say: “Okay Paul, if you are right, then McDonnell will never agree to a referendum.”

My response: But if the Democrats make it a pre-requisite, as has always previously been the case, for any hope of passage in the Senate, what choice does a Governor, on record since 1996 as believing such a referendum should be the right of the people, have?

True, he could say No, tell the public he doesn’t trust them or much care what they say. But if he truly believes, as he says, his plan is that good for Virginia, then how can he justify not having a referendum?

However, if he refuses, then he has effectively killed his own plan, after a year of hype.

If that doesn’t destroy his credibility, along with Mr. Bolling, et. al, then what does? Moreover, he will need the House of Delegates to tell the people that they, too, don’t much care what their constituents think.

Right now, Senate Democrats want to take it upon themselves to be seen as killing the bill if need be at a short Special Session. This gives McDonnell maximum ability to spin the outcome in his favor, blaming Democrats for being pro-government, anti-business, pro-tax and anti-transportation. Sure, Democrats get to have their own counter-headline, but in the end, it is still the typical He Said, She Said yada, yada, yada.

It could wind-up a win for McDonnell depending on the spin.

Instead, Democrats should take the pro-people side, and force the Governor and his party to choose. If McDonnell, Bolling, et. al are afraid to trust the people, then make sure as many Virginians as possible know it.

  • Dan Sullivan

    no matter how badly the McDonnell crew stumbles, the DPVA remains motionless and mute. Here is exactly the opportunity they require. Let’s see if they move at all.

  • Now who is going to put McDonnell on record?  Who is going to ask him if he would support a referendum?  Maybe Mark Plotkin on “Ask the Governor?”

  • The Richmonder

    As usual, Goldman offers a gimmick instead of a plan.  

    There are good and sufficient reasons for not putting things up to referendums.  California is essentially ruled by its badly flawed system of propositions which allow politicians to duck the hard choices they are supposed to make as legislators in a republican, representative form of government.

  • Rick_Sincere

    The photo you use to accompany this article was taken by me and was published with a copyright notice.

    I do not mind so much that you used it, but I am disappointed that (a) you used it without attribution and (b) you failed to request my permission to use it.

    I took that photo in Arlington County on July 24 and used it for an article I posted on Examiner.com on August 5.  (The article’s URL is http://www.examiner.com/libert… ).

    Please either remove the photograph or add a line of attribution as it appears on my original article:

    Photo: (c) 2010, Rick Sincere. All rights reserved.

    — Rick Sincere

  • Peter 2010

    The biggest problem with Governor McDonnell’s ABC privatization plan isn’t whether it should be put to a referendum or how much revenue it would generate. The biggest problem is that there are so many other more important public policy issues on which Virginia should be focusing. Examples: the pitiful state of its public mental health services, the twenty-year record of disinvestment in its public colleges and universities, the failure to develop a robust system of public support for pre-school education in the early years of life, the woeful underinvestment in its transportation network (which privatizing its ABC stores will not even begin to solve). Every hour devoted to debating the details of ABC privatization is a diversion away from these far more important issues facing our Commonwealth.

  • NotJohnSMosby

    Why?  Because the ABC is a very complex issue that, to be honest, most voters are clueless about.  Republicans clearly want them privatized, so their pitch is the very simple “no more government liquor stores”.  Dems have to respond with “but it creates a large profit each year that won’t be replaced with any blah blah blah”.

    From an economics perspective, privatizing the stores would be idiotic.  From a common-man’s perspective, not understanding the budget issue, it sounds like a good idea.  It’s another example of “no car tax”.  Most people don’t understand/care what the backside consequences are, they just don’t like paying a tax on their car.  Thus, they swallowed the lure in 1997 hook, line and sinker.  With the ABC store debate, I believe the same thing would happen and privatization would be voted in.

  • Goldmanusa

        I was surprised to read where a serious strategy for getting the Democrats the Governor’s Mansion again in 2013, after we just lost in the greatest GOP sweep in history would be considered a gimmick. Having had the good fortune to have laid out successful strategies in a fair number of statewide campaigns, the success in such an endeavor requires a lot of serious thought, a good deal of back and forth to get it just right, and as a general rule disagreements among folks even at the end. There is seldom a perfect strategy, much less perfect implementation. In the end, it is a matter of judgment, politics is an art, not a science.

         Thus, my article, and thanks to Lowell for publishing it, was aimed at trying to go over the politics, to get a discussion going on the future, to focus people on the fact that often times winning several years in the future is set in motion several years prior to the actual election.

          My analysis of the politics of the referendum could be mistaken, so I would welcome those who can refine, or refute it, this is the way to get to the right politics going forward.


          McDonnell believes he wins if Senate Democrats kill his plan no matter how right they are to do it.

           This is a risk we Dems can not afford to take. If it is as badly flawed a policy as I think it is, then I have confidence the public will see it my way. If they want it, then that’s their choice.

            But if Senate DEMS kill it, the McDonnell spin team might very well spin it against us, they were brilliant doing it in 2009.

           As to the use of referendums.

           First of all, every Democratic Governor in the modern age has used referendums. Robb, Baliles and Wilder, all supported referendums as a pre-condition to having a State Lottery and horse race betting. Warner supported a regional referendum in Tidewater even though, as I reminded him at the time, this was not part of the 2001 campaign platform specifically, a NOVA referendum was the focus, moreover there was clear evidence it would be defeated. But believe it was the best option at the time and so he made a judgment, to his credit in my view. Kaine supported him in that.

            In Richmond in 2003, the only way we could get the General Assembly to eliminate a failing form of government was through an advisory referendum. Historically, referendums are the reason we eventually got the people the right to elect their Senators and indeed referendums were considered a big reform in the progressive era, helping to overcome the special interests who were lording it over the average person.

            Let’s remember: In Virginia, we only have advisory referendums, it is not like California, or those  other states where the public has the right to directly create laws.

             Moreover, it has only been used sparingly, the Lottery and Horse referenda were over 20 years ago.

             BOTTOM LINE: The liquor issue is one of the very few in Virginia over the state’s history that has been consistently a referendum issue, a position backed by every single Governor, GA, and local officials since 1914 until now.

             It seems to me a little unfair, if not more so, to dismiss all these people over all these years from all parts of the state as having been seduced by a “gimmick”,  of being afraid to make decisions.

             I give them more credit. Rather, the liquor issue, like gambling, is one of these matters in a state like Virginia where despite 4 generations of change, it is one of those culture aspects which seem best to allow the public to address directly before enacting new laws.

             Again, the referendum here is advisory only, so the GA still makes the decision, it is not like California.

              Moreover, in this particular instance, the politics of the referendum work out great for both the people and the Democrats, not so good for the GOP establishment bent on not giving the people a referendum for the first time in 86 years.

              McDonnell is the one pushing this bad idea, so why not make him go all-in?

              So one can call my strategy a “gimmick” if they want, or whatever: but as the saying goes, a rose by another other name is still a rose.  

    • Dan Sullivan

      As Goldman points out, there is a lot of history here. And the individual who suggested this merits such a vote is now doing the duck and run.

      But the really sorry part is that only Senator Saslaw has asked a question. Ward Armstrong is AWOL. Not a whimper from Deeds.

    • Elaine in Roanoke

      That’s absolute nonsense to state that every referendum is always a cop-out. Changes in the laws to sell alcohol in this state have a long history of being put to a referendum. Are you saying that giving the people a chance to say whether or not they want to follow the lead of other states that have privatized and seen increases in sales, drastic expansion of outlets, etc. is somehow undemocratic??

      Heck, Alabama had such a lousy experience with their legislators “making the hard decision” to privatize that the citizens demanded a return to state stores.

  • vaambition


    DPVA had nothing to do with winning the Senate in 2007 and they will have nothing to do with the 2011 cycle. The Senate will draw its lines and Democrats will prevail.  Now what Goldman’s plan may do is give us a path to victory in 2013.  A lot more needs to happen..but his could be a brick in the yellow brick road back to the mansion

  • vaambition

    I dont know why anyone thinks that the Senate will be lost next year.  The P&E Dems are pretty smart gals and guys.  They have sharp pencils and plenty of erasers.  They are going to draw lines that will protect and grow the majority.  I could understand someone’s concern in 2015 or 2019.  Populations shift and anything can happen.  But 2011…look for Saslaw and the gang to be running the show in the Senate