by Paul Goldman
Governor McDonnell had a chance to turn his Star Scientific lemon into lemonade. How? By calling for a special session of the Virginia General Assembly to enact new, tough laws on gift reporting and other activities for public official, candidates, their families, and business associates. It all could been done in time for the November elections. Instead, McDonnell jetted to China, where they don’t have any financial disclosure laws since they don’t have any elections, at least not those where the public actually gets to vote.
For McD, this is continued bad politics and governing from His Excellency. On the flip side, it’s a great opening for Democrats, especially since Ken Cuccinelli is also caught up in this Star Scientific mess.
Under the VA Constitution, the governor can call a special session, or two-thirds of the members in the House and Senate can jointly call for one. Here is a very basic legislative/PR strategy for winning this issue this year. This will produce a steady stream of stories, all good, all aimed at fixing a real problem in real time.
1. Democratic leaders in the Senate and House hold a press conference and ask the governor to call a Special Session. Do it respectfully; the public isn’t interested in a big “Your Momma” thing, this is about honest governing. We can assume Governor McDonnell will not agree, although he should say yes. He might, instead, punt the ball to the GOP leadership in the GA.
2. After giving the other side sufficient time to act – no more than a week – the Democrats in the GA dramatically announce they will all meet in Richmond. Pick a day.
3. The Dems meet and sign two petitions, each the same, each calling for a special session as required by the VA constitution.
4. The next day, a delegation of Democrats personally delivers a copy of the petition to both Speaker Howell and Senate Majority Leader Norment (and better yet to LG Bolling, who should be an ally on this due to his recent political conversion to “independent Republican” status).
5. We can assume Howell and Norment will not agree. So after say a week, the Democrats hold another press conference to present the legislation – easy to draft – they want to pass. It should include new, tough disclosure rules for broader range of public officials, candidates and their families, and business associates including some outright bans. It should include new rules on how and when an AG can recuse his office from a matter. This is a point the Democrats have missed so far; they have not read the law close enough as regards the Star Scientific matter. It should include new rules on using the Governor’s Mansion, the governor’s image to hawk commercial products, etc. You get the drift.
6. Assuming the Governor will not act, the Democrats should all agree to voluntary extra disclosure, etc., calling on GOP candidates to do the same.
This is merely a first-cut draft of a PR strategy for the early phase of this election year. There will be more openings as the campaign moves on. As a general rule, voters are not normally much interested in these “process” matters. But this is the unusual moment given the massive PR on the Star Scientific matter due to the governor making a huge PR blunder. When these kinds of things break, once you see the press digging in, then you’ve got to get out ahead of it.
The actual initial story was manageable for His Excellency since McDonnell has a clean image. I had expected him to agree the rules needed changing, admit he probably should have handled it differently, do something pro-active. Surely didn’t figure he would hide behind the loophole, daring the media to dig deeper. I tried that once, and it didn’t work so well. Live and learn.
Because of how he played it – trying to talk around it – McDonnell not only made it far worse for him, he also has created a dynamic where the public will reward those who ACT, not just TALK, about the matter. In that regard, the AG played it far smarter than the governor. But as I point out above, if you read the law carefully, there is a very technical reason why the AG insists on his having no conflict. It is not just a political thing, but a legal one as well. Cuccinelli did better than McD, but read the law and you decide.
Democrats should therefore go into ACTION JACKSON mode here. It is all upside from here for Dems if they play it right. There are probably a dozen good story days here, that’s a lot between now and election day.
As I say: McDonnell has made a huge mistake. He has let the story get way out in front of him. He is in a lose-lose posture on it if all he can do is call for action after he is gone from the Mansion. Big Mistake. Given Star’s apparent other troubles, this all bad for McD. He has the bully pulpit right now as governor; he had best use it, because he will soon enough lose it.
If only to cut off the GOP’s line of retreat, Democrats need to call for a special session. That’s win-win: if the GOP agrees, then Dems will get credit for the legislation passed. If the GOP balks, then Dems get to campaign on the high road this year. Either way, they win. Hey, if Michigan had had a few more of these easy dunk shots, they might be NCAA B-Ball champs instead of chumps.