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.