Home Virginia Politics Is Virginia a “Tin Horn Dictatorship?”

Is Virginia a “Tin Horn Dictatorship?”


I’ve been meaning to write about this for a couple days now, but have been finding it difficult to motivate myself. Perhaps it’s just that I’m feeling a bit burned out right now, with this seemingly endless governor’s race from hell and the 24/7 lies/nastiness/idiocy from Ken Cuccinelli. At times, it’s truly enough to make me want to turn off my TV (which I rarely watch anyway, but the other night during the Nats game, I saw Cuccinelli’s absurd attack ad against Terry McAuliffe three times – ugh!), radio, and internet connection. It also could be that the subject of DJ Rippert’s comment at Bacon’s Rebellion is so…I dunno, depressing? Is Virginia a “tin horn dictatorship?” Are we at the point where we’re seriously even asking that question?

Well, yes. We are. Let’s face it, this state’s political system is one of legalized corruption, pretty much from top to bottom. It really hit me a couple years ago, when Virginia Uranium – a company that, no matter what you think of it, most  certainly stands to gain or lose a LOT based on actions (or inaction) by the Virginia General Assembly – unabashedly, and more to the point legally, offered to fly any and all members of the Virginia General Assembly to France, at a cost of $10k per legislator, to inspect a closed uranium mining operation hang out at Parisian cafes for three (free) days. At the time, I checked into ethics laws in other states to see whether this type of thing would be kosher there. The bottom line: in many (most?) other states, this trip would be blatantly illegal. In many others it would be less-than-blatantly illegal, but certainly unethical. Here in the Old Dominion? It’s of course wildly unethical by any standard of good government, but it’s also 100% legal. And that, my friends, is FUBAR.

Now, fast forward to 2013, and we’ve got a potential indictment against Governor McDonnell for Blagojevich-level corruption involving lavish gifts to the McDonnells by slimeball/grifter Jonnie Williams, owner of the comically absurd company known as “Star Scientific” (among other things, this outfit made celebrity “tobacco candy”). As if that’s not bad enough, there’s also the whole Governor’s Mansion/Chef scandal, in which “Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell repeatedly used state assets for personal and political purposes, including directing state employees to work at private and political events, according to new allegations from McDonnell’s former chef.”

Oh, and as an added bonus, the guy running to succeed McDonnell as governor, Ken Cuccinelli, is also up to his neck in the chef/mansion scandal, while taking gifts – including a lavish Thanksgiving dinner, $7k in dietary supplements, etc. – from their mutual friend Jonnie Williams. Plus, Cuccinelli also bought stock in Williams’ comically absurd company, “Star Scientific.”

So alright, you say, the state’s Governor and Attorney General are both corrupt as sin, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the entire state is a “tin horn dictatorship,” right? Perhaps not, but here’s the problem: this situation is not an aberration, nor is it limited to a couple of bad actors (in this case, McDonnell and Cuccinelli — both clearly – in a moral, if not legal, sense – corrupt). Instead, it’s systemic and pervasive — essentially legalized corruption, in which corporations and wealthy individuals get to run amok, wine and dine (and fly to Paris, treat to a Homestead weekend, etc.) our legislators, give unlimited campaign donations to them (even if – ESPECIALLY if – those legislators are in positions to help or hurt the corporate/wealthy individual bottom line), etc, etc.

Of course, there’s a thin veneer of respectability and even “democracy” laid on top of this stinking cesspool. But that doesn’t make it any better, simply more insidious and difficult to root out. As DJ Rippert puts it over at Bacon’s Rebellion, “Instead of a single ‘strong man’ or ‘strong woman’ we have an inbred cadre of state legislators and crony capitalists operating in a symbiotic effort to loot the commonwealth.” Not with bags of cash in the freezer, perhaps, but instead with boatloads of 100% legal “gifts” and contributions (as long as you “disclose” them – what a joke; as if that’s a sufficient “check and balance” in the system!)

Making matters even worse, that “cadre of state legislators” are paid almost nothing, have almost no staff resources, are in Richmond for just a few weeks each year (not nearly enough time to master one or two complicated issues, let alone dozens or hundreds of ’em), and yet are expected to legislate on any and every issue affecting the Commonwealth.

Given that these are part-time legislators with barely any resources to independently scrutinize/analyze legislation, guess who’s really in charge of making the laws in our fine Commonwealth? That’s right, the corporations, wealthy individuals, and lobbyists who represent their interests (plus groups they put together, like ALEC), are deliriously happy to fill the vacuum. And into that vacuum they rush, writing and promoting legislation that advances their selfish interests while screwing the rest of us over.

So why would any sane individual want to be a member of the Virginia General Assembly? The following paragraphs by DJ Rippert are classic, and well worth quoting:

Being a politician in Virginia is a lot more lucrative that the salary you draw from the state. There are countless big companies looking for favors who will fund your jet setting lifestyle. There are plenty of crony capitalists around to give you a taste of the high life. Drop a hint to your friendly Dominion lobbyist that you are a Redskins fan. Bada-bing, you’re watching the next game from a suite.

But don’t lose that office! All of the perks of being a politician go away if you ever leave politics.

If you want to preserve the lifestyle, you must continue to hand out the political favors in return for big campaign contributions. God knows, nothing crushes the competition like a big war chest. And make sure you get into a gerrymandered district. The only thing better than money is to set up political boundaries dominated by your political friends. Keep the off-year elections! The last thing you need is a high rate of voter turnout. Make sure Virginia remains the most difficult state for getting onto the ballot. You certainly don’t need some independent challenging you.

But most of all – for God’s sake – do NOT agree to a special session of the General Assembly to discuss ethics directly ahead of an election. God forbid. The political pressure might actually require that the session do something concrete about lax ethics laws. And then what? Live your life like an average Virginian without all expense paid first class trips to Paris and tickets to NHL playoff games? Perish the thought.

So, is Virginia a “tin horn dictatorship?” Or do you prefer “Third-World despotism?” Whatever it is, it most certainly ain’t pretty, it most certainly ain’t progressive (in the early 20th century Progressive movement sense), and it most certainly ain’t the type of government (or governance) any of us should expect (demand!) as Americans.

P.S. I should also emphasize that we should have a special session of our General Assembly on ethics reform IMMEDIATELY, not next year when McDonnell (and hopefully Cuckoo) are gone and things have quieted down. NOW, when the public is paying at least SOME attention. Oh wait, I almost forgot – that is EXACTLY when our legislators LEAST want to hold such a session, because then they might be pressured to actually enact real reforms, not just window dressing as they’ll do in 2014 (if they even do that!).

P.P.S. To put it mildly, I disagree with my friend Paul Goldman that the McDonnells shouldn’t be indicted. To the contrary, our laws should be changed so that anyone who engages in the type of crap we’ve seen the past few months does the “perp walk,” and possibly shares a jail cell with Rod Blagojevich.

  • the Joint Budget Committee, aka “the folks who take lots of money and gifts from the rich people and corporations in Virginia.”

  • GBrandon

    The Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership has been around since 1993.  They claim their goals are to . . .

    prepare the Commonwealth’s emerging leaders for public service as candidates for office, government officials and citizen activists in the affairs of their communities, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the nation. This is accomplished through educational programs designed around ethics, public policy, and practical politics.

    Trust?  Civility?  Respect?  

    Through a variety of programs-for high school and college leaders to first-time political candidates and influential business and community leaders-the Sorensen Institute has established itself as a powerful and effective force for restoring public confidence in our political system. Former Governor Mark Warner has commented that, “This organization is incredibly important. Sorensen has become the model of successful bipartisan leadership training for the nation.”

    It appears the Sorensen Institute is hardly living up to its ideals.  Or, maybe its graduates are just “checking the ethics box” so they can get on with what passes for governing in the Commonwealth.

  • Elaine in Roanoke

    The tradition of pretending we have some sort of “pure” government, above the “dirty politics” of the rest of the states, goes back generations. The old Byrd machine left us with superfluous office holders on the local level whose real purpose was to deliver votes to the machine. The most egregious was the office of sheriff, a man who invariably controlled local politics.

    Annual elections, and even having May elections for municipalities and November annually for the rest, helped keep voter turnout low and the machine in control.

    The so-called “citizen legislators” have free rein to steal with impunity. They even can use campaign funds for personal use as long as they say that expenditures are for a “campaign event.” So, if Maureen McDonnell wanted to use her husband’s PAC money for that New York shopping spree, all she had to say was that she needed the items for some sort of political event. Disgusting…

    The one ray of hope I see is that McDonnell and Cuccinelli are so grossly corrupt that people will finally wake up. However, I have no delusions that they will. After all, the modern attention span is about 30 seconds…

  • GBrandon

    With one of the shortest legislative sessions in the Union (30 calendar days in odd years; 60 calendar days in even years), Virginia’s citizen legislators hardly have time to consider all of the bills introduced at the beginning of each session.  Legislators don’t have the time to line-up co-patrons.  Caucauses don’t have time to develop messaging and strategy.  Citizens don’t have much time to offer testimony.  Block voting is rampant.  

  • glennbear

    From one of his old newsletters, obviously there is no weighing of the emotional costs of GOP/ALEC legislation used in the VA General Assembly :

    ” Each year thousands of bills are offered for consideration.  I would generally be happy to introduce no bills and simply spend my time trying to stop bad bills. That is never the case however.  We, the legislators, are the doors for the public to use to change the law when they believe a change needs to occur.  If I agree with them, I will take their proposal to Richmond. Therefore, there are always bills to shepherd through the process.  Seldom do I become emotionally attached.”

    So we ignore the emotional and personal costs of legislation and just look at how much money (aka bribery) is generated. My gut feeling is that “bad bills” are those which would adversely affect corporate cronies or benefit progressive ideals.