Bob Gibson – a former Virginia political reporter, radio host, head of the Sorensen Institute and now Senior Researcher at the Academy for Civic Renewal at UVA – is an often-quoted and well-respected commentator on Virginia politics. That’s why I was so surprised listening to him talk earlier today (on the Kojo Nnamdi Show) about the “Virginia Way,” the aftermath of the Bob McDonnell case, and Virginia governmental ethics (or lack thereof) more generally. With that, here’s what Gibson had to say, followed by my thoughts in bold.
- “There were people in both parties in Virginia who thought that the federal prosecution [of Bob McDonnell] was sort of an unfair add-on to state laws that were so lax that he clearly hadn’t violated any state law, and his violation of the federal statute seemed to be putting other politicians in jeopardy, because many politicians take gifts and many do routine favors for the people who give them gifts.” (This is, to put it mildly, an odd way of putting things — an “unfair add-on to state laws that were so lax?” Well yeah, that’s kind of the whole point; Virginia’s campaign finance and “ethics laws” are a complete joke, anything goes basically – with lobbyists crawling all over the General Assembly and corporations literally writing their own legislation, while giving reams of $$$ to legislators who are busy passing laws that directly impact those lobbyists and corporations. So, clearly, the federal case wasn’t an “add on” to state laws, nor was it unfair; this was the whole ballgame in terms of the McDonnells’ getting tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts from a businessman who wanted them to take and/or encourage governmental actions that would help his company!)
- “Well, I think the public’s reaction and the legislator’s reaction has been fairly similar; there’s been a great deal of sympathy for McDonnell, who was a likable 14-year delegate, Attorney General and Governor. People on both sides of the aisle liked him. They didn’t see him as an outlier, they saw him as somebody who accept[ed] too many gifts and they were too lavish and it was tawdry looking as the Supreme Court acknowledged, but they need to draw new lines to make it clearer what is in bounds and what is out of bounds.” (Actually, according to recent polling: ” two-thirds of Virginia adults surveyed said [McDonnell] should not seek elected office again. Even 60 percent of Republicans said they would like to see him remain in private life. A plurality of Virginians said they thought that the Supreme Court was wrong to overturn the verdict.” So…no, the public was most certainly did NOT have a “fairly similar” reaction as legislators regarding Bob McDonnell, nor was there a “great deal of sympathy” for McDonnell among the Virginia public from what I can tell. As for “people on both sides of the aisle” not seeing McDonnell as an “outlier,” I’m sure there were some – Tommy Norment, Bill Howell, Dick Saslaw, and others who’d love to see the corrupt system we’ve got stay that way forever – who didn’t see the McDonnell case as an “outlier.” However, others certainly condemned McDonnell and called for stronger ethics laws in response to this scandal. So…not sure what Gibson’s saying here exactly.)
- “[The Virginia Way] is a funny name…assumes that the state politics are cleaner than most other states, that public officials are more civic minded, and that doesn’t work in as well in an era when the public doesn’t trust politicians…It’s meant few if any limits on gifts. It’s meant few if any limits on the size of political contributions. And that is changing now, especially as our politics in Virginia is becoming more nationalized, we’re becoming more like the rest of the nation…So it’s clear that new lines have to be drawn, and the legislature is a little slow in drawing those lines, they’re very cautious about it and timid about it, really, but they are drawing lines and the ‘Virginia Way’ is changing, we’re becoming more like other states.” (OK, now this is just ridiculous – the supposed “Virginia Way” isn’t working these days because “the public doesn’t trust politicians,” as if THAT’s the problem – the public not trusting these crooks??? In fact, the public doesn’t trust Virginia politicians because the public knows very well that said politicians are bought-and-paid-for by wealthy, powerful interests like Dominion Power, and that the politicians care about those wealthy, powerful interests far more than they care about the public. As for the situation supposedly changing, in fact there HAVE been a few tweaks to Virginia’s ethics laws, but overall the system of “legalized corruption,” as Del. Mark Levine and others have correctly called it, remains firmly in place. If legislators were serious, they’d put in place strong ethics laws with serious penalties, a strong ethics council with teeth, a ban on contributions by entities with business before the General Assembly, a ban on lobbying or contributions by state-protected monopolies like Dominion Power, etc. But they have no intention of doing any of that. So..no, the General Assembly isn’t “a little slow” in drafting tougher ethics laws, they are outright resistant to doing so, with people like Tommy Norment, Bill Howell and Dick Saslaw utterly contemptuous of the very IDEA that we even NEED ethics laws!)
- “Well, Virginia is not New Jersey and we’re not Maryland and we’re not Illinois, and we don’t have the record of corruption that some other states have, which is perhaps why our laws are so lax – there hasn’t been the emergency to respond to until this McDonnell case. I can recall only two instances in my 20-some years of covering the General Assembly in Richmond where state legislators were convicted of ethics violations…The McDonnell thing was a surprise because it was a federal conviction; there hadn’t been any state law violation that anybody had pointed to. So, the Virginia Way is changing because we’re no longer the cleanest and seen as the cleanest.” (Actually, Virginia is at least as corrupt – “legally corrupt” perhaps, but still corrupt as s*** – as any other state; I have no idea where Gibson gets the idea that we’re not as bad as Maryland or whatever, other than some antiquated, romantic vision of ol’ Virginny. And yes, we do have a VERY long record of corruption, if you consider – as I do – allowing wealthy powerful interests to “capture” our legislature, regulatory agencies, etc. So, sure, Gibson can only recall two instances in 20+ years where any of these guys have been caught, prosecuted and actually convicted of ethics violations. But not only does that NOT prove the system’s been working, it proves the exact opposite! And no, the Virginia Way isn’t changing – if it even IS changing, which is debatable – “because we’re not longer the cleanest,” because we never WERE the cleanest, that’s just completely absurd.)
Other than all that, a fine analysis of Virginia’s ethics and the so-called “Virginia Way.” LOL