New Tidewater Poll Stuns McDonnell, Gives Dems Big 2013 Opening


    by Paul Goldman

    No surprise to Blue Virginia readers: a new poll released today by the Virginian Pilot shows a growing public backlash against the McDonnell Toll Deal, in part I believe due to the failure to make all the details public. This has been the leading space discussing the developing politics on this stuff, and how “His Veepness” made a big mistake keeping some of the details secretive, it is losing political gamble. Pat McSweeney is going to sue, the man is a top flight lawyer, he will be entitled to all the relevant facts, need I say more?

    To be fair, the poll shows the biggest bloc of voters against any kind of toll or tax: like that is news?

    But at the same time, it shows what anyone with any public sense should know instinctively, the idea the Governor and Republicans are pushing – folks would rather pay huge tolls than any level of new or additional taxation – is not true, where do they find consultants to give such bad advice?

    The polls says the public seems to have warmed to the regional transportation tax idea. Whether this is true or not, at least to the level in the poll, is an open question. Why do I say that? Let’s review the history.


    GUV candidate Mark Warner proposed a regional referendum on such a tax in 2001. Yours truly wrote the final draft of the campaign platform which included a promise to allow – it would take state legislation – such a referendum but only in NOVA. As a practical political matter, the thought behind the referendum promise was more electoral politics than Tranny policy. By calling for a referendum, you said this: I am tired of waiting for Richmond to act, why can’t NOVA take control of its own destiny?

    This is one reason I believe it had such good support during the campaign. It was thus more anti-Richmond than pro-tax. That at least was my read.

    Then when Warner took office, a group out of Tidewater, led by Senator Marty Williams, started to pressure the Governor/others to add to the NOVA referendum bill a separate one for a regional transportation referendum in Tidewater. We had this big meeting in the Governor’s office, in the conference room, wall to wall folks, 30 people maybe, maybe more.

    Billy Thomas and myself – the odd couple really in many ways – were the only two begging the Governor not to do the referendums that year, urging him to wait, we didn’t think the public was ready, surely not for the Tidewater referendum. Even though the polls said NOVA folks were willing to support a regional Tranny tax, we had our doubts. We figured let him run stuff for a year, get some cred, then do the tax referendum. The GA folks would be on the ballot too. So we knew it would be a hard sell. But we figured better to wait.  

    Governor Warner listened to us, and declined to go our way, saying he had made a campaign promise. The rest in the room agreed.  I understood, it was in the platform, a clear promise.

    Not long after, Senator Saslaw talked to me and said flatly: A NOVA sales tax referendum for transportation alone would never pass. He said it had to be hybrid, Tranny/education or it was dead.

    I told him the campaign promise was only for transportation. He understood. But said it would never pass. He said it with 100% certainty. No way.

    Then at some point in the future the movement for also doing the Tidewater regional referendum picked up speed. Governor Warner decided to give the those pushing it his support, and the General Assembly moved in that direction.

    The business leaders in Tidewater soon released a poll showing public support. I wrote an article – which got me into some trouble – saying the poll was fundamentally flawed and criticized the Pilot for not exposing this obvious fact. That is to say: Those pushing the Tidewater tax referendum had knowingly given credence to a bad poll, this was proven beyond any doubt.

    It didn’t stop the movement. Saslaw tried again for a hybrid in NOVA, but got no where. Those of us who thought the Tidewater referendum was doomed – and would set back stuff a decade – tried but couldn’t influence the outcome.

    The Tidewater folks hired their own crew to do their referendum. It was a disaster, they got crushed.

    Warner asked Judy Ford and myself to do the College bond thing. It had some potential trouble but Judy is one smart cookie as they say: and that was a done deal quickly.

    They asked me to help out also on the NOVA referendum, so I went to a few focus groups, one that sticks in my mind was in Prince William I think.

    After watching it, I told the Governor: It’s dead, nothing you can do, and it wasn’t really the tax itself that was the problem. It was a question of whether people thought their area would get its fair share of the new money. Warner had some really smart folks doing the mail and other things trying to explain it. But you could tell it was in the DOA position meaning: if you have to explain and prove that folks are getting a fair share, it’s dead. That’s reality. It actually got more votes than those of us who have fascinated about this stuff thought. I thought folks did a good job against impossible odds.

    Saslaw was right: without an education component, it never stood a chance in part because not only where the outer burbs not happy with it, the folks in the inner beltway who prefer mass transit didn’t want to pay for new roads.

    My take: Warner was too early by a factor of 10 years. He had a good idea, but in politics, timing is mostly everything. Tidewater was a good decade away from being ready to confront the issue. NOVA was there but the politics didn’t quite shape up.


    The secretive Toll Road Deal has finally got the folks in Tidewater to the next level of political awareness. They are having sticker shock on the tolls, the way this is also happening in NOVA too.

    MY TAKE:

    Senate Democrats, led by whomever wants to run for statewide office next year, should use the budget situation to press for allowing Tidewater to have another referendum on a regional transportation tax.  Suddenly, all those who have criticized me over the years for pushing referendums at certain times are no longer accusing me and others of trying to turn Virginia into California, always a silly argument.

    Historically, referendums have helped at times: we did one on horse racing, the Lottery, and the original Harry Byrd transportation approach geared to user fees. You do them on bond issues and to amend the Constitution.

    Sometimes it is necessary just as Warner’s referendum in 2002 was a good policy approach, the public has to be directly engaged at times, that’s reality.

    Sales tax have a regressive nature for sure: but so do user fees. There is no perfect solution.

    So why not let the people have a direct say, it’s their area, they are the bosses so to speak, why not let them have a say?

    I don’t know if the Pilot Poll is correct. But I do know that isn’t the most relevant inquiry:

    Rather, the issue is that the public is against this secretive Toll Road Deal and wants a chance to kill it before it becomes a yoke around their neck for the next 58 years!!

    Governor McDonnell and the GOP backers of this Toll Deal have misread the politics: they are in a no-win position as they were with the ABC privatization.

    For the good of the people, Democrats need to demand that the Governor accept a referendum this November as part of the budget deal.

    This will be a huge win for the Democrats, and for the people of Tidewater. If NOVA wants one too, then fine, let the people decide: even a statewide referendum on a gas tax restricted to maintenance only should be considered.


    If McDonnell and the GOP reject the referendum, then they own the Toll Deal: and Democrats can win big with it next year. If the Governor does the smart thing and allows the referendum, then that’s a big win for the Democrats. Plus there is now a chance to have a real discussion about the state’s future needs.

    It is no-loser for the Democrats and the people. Losing the referendum didn’t hurt Warner because people felt he was trying to solve a problem.

    There is no perfect answer here, just a growing problem. The prospect of super tolls for 58 years has forced people to take off the rose colored glasses. I don’t see how Terry loses, or Chap, or Herring or anyone really by trusting the people, giving voters a chance to be heard here.

    It is only an advisory referendum, we don’t have binding ones under VA law.

    So it isn’t California!!!!

    This is a great opportunity due to a McDonnell misread. So let’s turn his lemon into some VA lemonade.  


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