Will Secret McDonnell Toll Deal Revive Anti-establishment Democratic Politics for 2013?

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    by Paul Goldman

    Will the deal between Governor McDonnell and private investors imposing huge commuter tolls to finance a controversial transportation project in Tidewater – reporters have been rebuffed in efforts to get a look at all the relevant financial and other details of the project – decide the 2013 gubernatorial election?

    The deal has now been inked by both the state and the private parties. Heavyweight lawyer Pat McSweeney, who has sued and beaten the Commonwealth numerous times on big cases, told the Virginian Pilot his clients are still going to sue to block the project. The Pilot says it has been rebuffed in getting all the details relevant to the deal. Certain aspects have indeed been kept from the public, so there is a secrecy element to the debate.  

    How should we view the politics of the situation relative to 2013?

    A GOOD BET: When all the financial and other facts are known, the odds favor that a strong case against the deal can be made by a good candidate with a competent campaign team.

    Why? Governor McDonnell needed to make this deal happen given his campaign promises in 2009. Thus, all the leverage for the deal was held by the private parties. So we can assume they pressed their advantage and got the kind of deal that will be vulnerable to the age-old political axiom, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

    MEANING: As long as there is one glaring “sweetheart” part of the deal, in terms of public perception, the anti-case can be made all the way to the November 2013 election day. Gubernatorial elections are relatively low turnout affairs as compared to presidential year turnout. The pro-deal vote will be centered among Republicans, who tend to vote in relatively greater numbers in GOV years due to their demographics.

    Moreover, there is never a pro-deal vote enthusiasm for these things: the energy is always on the there anti-side of the debate.

    POTENTIAL POLITICAL FALLOUT: This will be the first time in years that a Democrat, or more precisely an anti-establishment Democrat, could actually have a real issue in Tidewater.

    While the area has changed over the years, it was the home for famed Virginia populist Henry Howell, who lead the charge to defeat the segregationist Byrd Machine in the 1960’s and its remnants in the 1970’s.

    The anti-deal politics is thus likely to play well in Tidewater with the right candidate and campaign.

    WHY ONLY AN ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT CANDIDATE BENEFITS: Lt. Governor Bolling will have to be all-in with McDonnell. He will get the bulk of the pro-deal campaign contributions from those who believe the deal is in their personal economic interests. This will be a substantial sum. He will defend the deal to the end.

    AG Cuccinelli would normally be opposed to this deal in my view. There will be a strong anti-deal element in the GOP among Tea Party and Ron Paul type voters. However, as AG, Cuccinelli will have to defend the deal in court against the legal challenges from Pat McSweeney, who headed up the AG’s transition committee I believe. They are both top flight lawyers, so if they are going to be arguing against each other in court, McDonnell might want to impose a toll to get in to see them, as it would raise a fair amount of money. I wouldn’t bet against either one, although a tie does go to the AG (Pat has the burden here). The point being: Cuccinelli may be boxed in on the issue unless he is prepared to do the unusual — refuse to defend the law, and outsource the thing to a private firm. I doubt that.

    THUS: The road looks clear for a Democrat to side with the working people of Tidewater, who will not like some of these details, the tolls being only part of the narrative.  

    What will Terry do? As the pro-business Democrat, he might be boxed in like Cuccinelli. The big business community in Tidewater is very supportive of this deal. Indeed, they will probably spin things this way: If you are opposed to this deal, you are anti-business. I don’t think Terry wants to risk any of that at this point. So he is not likely to challenge the deal, except perhaps at the margins. He might fool me, but the odds say he will not draw any anti-establishment line in the sand on this.

    That leaves Chap Petersen, assuming he is interested in running for Governor. Based on the record, Chap has always fancied himself as a populist champion of the people.

    But is he? Talk is cheap as they say. The thing that I always admired about Henry Howell was his willingness  to fight for issues when he wasn’t a candidate for anything. That is to say: Henry was the real thing, he was there all the time, not just when needing your vote on election day.

    For example, Terry and many in the Democratic Party establishment are uniting, if you believe the rumors, to push through a change to eliminate the 2013 primaries and re-impose the old Convention process that the party first used a generation or so ago. Henry would have publicly fought that move as a matter of populist principle, in that it would take away the voting rights of most of the people (turnout in a primary is hugely greater than in a convention process). Chap hasn’t said a word about this subject.

    Henry went to court to overturn the Poll Tax, reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. That takes time and money. Henry challenged the anti-black, anti-women, anti-Catholic, and anti-Jewish nature of the old Byrd Machine in the GA and in talks around the state. He was the real deal.

    In that regard, the Tidewater Toll Deal, along with the elimination of the primary, may have a certain litmus test quality to them in terms of what remains of the anti-establishment politics in the VA Democratic Party.

    MY ANALYSIS: Chap lost his dad recently, and those of us who have suffered that feel deeply for Chap — it is a terrible blow, on all levels, and it stays with you forever. But at some time in the near future, Chap will be ready to think about politics again. When he does, it seems to me that circumstances have conspired to force him to decide his future in politics.

    As a practical matter, Terry doesn’t fit the anti-establishment mold. This is simply not his politics.

    The Howell populist mold is no longer viable. It is over. But the Wilder-type populist mold in terms of 1989 is still doable (the 1985 version was strictly a period piece, it’s gone forever).

    I am not sure a populist can defeat a non-populist inside the Democratic Party in 2013 the way it did in 1977 for Howell or the 1980s with Wilder. But as in 1977, those who think the establishment candidate has a huge, undefeatable edge are simply mistaken. It is far more complicated than that.

    MY CONCLUSION: Populist politics are fueled by what are seen as back-room deals by what Henry Howell called the “Big Boys” which benefits them at the expense of the average person. Notice I said “seen” — it is a perception thing, as politics often comes to be.

    The Toll Deal is the biggest political event in a long time in terms of potential general election politics. A move to get rid of the primary and replace it with a convention is the biggest political event in terms of intra-party stuff since the last time it was done.

    Those kinds of things fueled Howell’s rise, indeed the rise of the anti-Byrd Democrats who took over the party in the 1970s.

    This is the first time since Wilder challenged the party establishment that the politics lines up favoring the anti-establishment side of the debate.

    Howell fell short due to several missteps. Wilder proved far more adept at the game, reaching legendary status. Between them, they had the two closest Governor’s races in state history. Populists don’t have a lot of margin for error.  

    Virginia anti-establishment politics has been waiting for some new events to allow it to be redefined and more relevant in the 21st century.

    Its time may have finally come. We shall see shortly.

    • FreeDem

      Tidewater is in a seriously risky position right now. It’s struggled to attract and retain high-skilled college educated youth. There’s little that’s hip or cool about Tidewater when compared to other metropolitan areas in Virginia (Northern Virginia, obviously, but also Charlottesville and even Richmond). It’s workforce looks more like the Rust Belt than the rest of the East Coast. The region’s over-reliance on the military is a drawback in the face of likely continued government austerity, and the tourism industry is also in for a tough time long term with continued deleveraging and stagnating growth.

      You can argue that at least McDonnell and the Republicans have something that resembles a strategy. Break the transportation gridlock and leverage the region’s advantages in manufacturing and exports. You can even make an argument that the Republicans have a vested interest in not building a real 21st century workforce and economy in Tidewater given how those regions trend Democratic. The Republicans want to favor traditionally Republican constituencies, from agriculture to rural extractive industries (coal, fracking, uranium), and now some manufacturing, given the success of Republicans with white working class voters absent the progressive infrastructure of unions (Right to work!).

      The problem for the Democrats is that the push for paying for transportation infrastructure through the gas tax is even more unpopular than tolls. Democrats can’t push for increased transportation investment through raiding the general fund, protecting education funding is about the only thing you can count on Virginia Democrats to campaign on these days. Our party does not have a viable solution right now.

    • Teddy Goodson

      is not a genuine populist? and that, therefore, any conversion on his part to that role would be neither succesful nor long-lasting?… or, that this “pose” might be exactly what the mood of the times requires?… or, exactly what? Meanwhile, back at the ranch: Is there any other Democrat in the mix for consideration in your scenario?

    • FreeDem

      As I’ve said many times, I don’t believe Warner and his inner circle believe in allowing populist anti-establishment candidates. I think you’re right that Terry will be afraid to oppose the deal because it he doesn’t want to be seen as anti-business, and I think that perception extends to a number of other heavy hitters in the party. Terry’s concerns may also be that if he were to take the anti-deal position, it could increase the pressure on Warner to jump in and run. Or back another pro-business/pro-deal establishment Democrat in the primary, whoever they may be.

      Anyone considering running as the anti-establishment candidate in the Democratic Party also faces the concern that running such a campaign could push Warner into backing Terry, or again deciding to run himself because he believes Terry is too weak to dispatch the anti-establishment candidate in the primary.

      About a year ago, the biggest concern for both the Terry and the Warner camps was a Perriello gubernatorial bid that would force Terry to push hard to the left on cultural issues (guns, choice) in order to defeat the naturally more economically progressive Perriello. Terry might end up looking too liberal for the general election in that case. That possibility seems over, and the development of the Republican war on women means that the Democratic nominee might feel more comfortable with a more liberal public persona on choice.

      It’s hard for someone to just pick up the anti-establishment narrative preparing to run for 2013. Without a strong power base in the party, doing so risks trigger a strong backlash from the party’s own establishment. There aren’t figures like Wilder in the party anymore, folks with their own constituencies that could hurt the establishment if they didn’t fight fair.  

    • Goldmanusa

            Candidate McDonnell’s “solution” to the transportation problem was privitizing ABC board. How did that work out? Do the Republicans need a “solution” to health care before they can critize the President’s plan? Once there is a plan in place, whatever your better solution first requires the bad plan in place to be “gone” as they say. One can criticize a bad plan in politics without having to have the perfect solution. Indeed, who says MCD’s Toll Plan will work? It is just a plan on paper right now. Let’s see the details first, again I say there is likely to be a revelation or two. Let’s not jump to conclusions.

             As for Warner, et.al ganging up on say someone like Chap [I use the NOVA Senator only because he has indicated interest in running, I have never even talked to him] this is far trickier than people think. Warner risks a lot: Terry could lose, he could win small, then he could lose the general election, etc, etc. Warner is the smartest poll in the state, so when he makes his move, it will carry a lot of weight for sure.

             The guy is sharp. But he also is careful about his image. So getting into a lot of messy intra party fights is a bad risk vs reward, at least generally.  

             MOREOVER: Ganging up on Chap only makes the populist case! They ganged up on Howell and Wilder, didn’t work too well did it? It is far more compliciated in the real world, and Warner knows that. So does Terry: give these guys some credit, I do.

             As for anti-establishment politics power inside the parties, clearly it is running the GOP: otherwise, Bolling is a sure nominee, and Kenny C. is just so happy to able to run for re-election.

             As for the Democrats, Tim Kaine wasn’t the establishment choice in 2001, same for Big Mac, same for Leslie Byrne in 2005, and I would suggest Creigh in both 05 and 09.

             Earth to everyone: What power exactly does the DEM political establishment have?

             Warner, and Kaine after he wins, are in a separate category, they have strong party support. if they move together, it is big-time. But neither of them is as strong as Robb in 1985 – and he couldn’t stop Wilder although to be fair, he didn’t go “all in”. But he didn’t for one reason: the risk vs reward was not a good ratio.

              Now it is true, as one of the poster’s insightfully pointed out, both Howell and Wilder had strong bases inside the party. Now in Howell’s case, he had to build it during the 1960’s: it held as long as 1977, which was amazing really. In hindsight, he ran once too many times. But he was a great man for sure.

             As for Wilder, he too built it in the 1970’s. But he could have been easily derailed by the establishment in 1985: they didn’t know how to do it. By 1989, when they tried to get Mary Sue to challenge him, she knew it was a political suicide mission.

             Someone like Chap doesn’t have that base, that is absolutely true. But Howell and Wilder were far stronger than say Terry. This is not a knock on Terry, just the fact. He ran and lost in 2009. He has never won an election in Virginia. Those are facts uncomfortable as they may be. Warner lost his first time too, so it means nothing per se. Wilder and Howell had a real base. That has to be remembered.

             Moreover, the fight against a Convention is a different kind of political battle. There are lot of implications here, people have not thought all of them out, there are only a few of us who have been involved on the political, legal and social aspects of the thing.

            There are many sides to that battle if it ever gets engaged. Anyone who thinks the establishment has a slam dunk is kidding themselves.

             So as they say in horse racing: there are horses for courses.

             The fact is this: if the AG were out there challening the Toll Deal, he would be very strong inside the GOP and have a lot of potential Dem working class swing voters in 2013.

             Opposing the deal – again, you are going to be opposing it on the basis of it being a bad deal. Like MCD in 2009, your will have your own solution which may or may be doable should you win, But opposition will help a DEM make inroads inroads into the anti-tax, anti-toll, anti-crony capitalism posse in the GOP.

             True, we need to see what happens with the final budget deal too. But anyway it goes: there is a viable, potentially powerful anti-deal narrative that can work for the right Democrat.

             Besides, the anti-deal are more likely to be one-issue voters come 2013, the pro-deal folks will be on to something else. Or at least that is a real possibility.

             As for Warner deciding to run because the DEMS might nominate an anti-deal candidate, that isn’t going to happen: give the guy some credit.

             Generally speaking, politics often comes down to those who speak out against the establishment point of view, and those who decide to go along to get along.

             There is a plausible case to be made on both sides of the Toll Deal and the anti-Primary deal.

             But in terms of the future, the person likely to get the most benefitted over time is the one taking the anti-establishment side since that is where the vacuum is: and the first person who fills it gets to keep that constituency through several cycles even if they lose.

             If the pro-establishment candidate loses, that is it for him or her: no second chance.

             So Terry is all in: Chap gets to play for table stakes.

             What’s  not to like?

    • listlady

      sum up the “secret deal” for those of us in NoVa who aren’t well informed about Tidewater news?