Home Virginia Politics Why Real Reformers Want a Virginia Special Ethics Session

Why Real Reformers Want a Virginia Special Ethics Session


(Note: Paul actually wrote about this back in April here on Blue Virginia (“Gift Wrapped: VA Dems Should Call for Special Session to Fix, Expand Rule”). He was, foolishly, ignored.   – promoted by lowkell)

by Paul Goldman

If Democrats really want Ethics Reform, they are making a huge mistake. Governor McDonnell’s repeated rejection of a call for a Special Ethics Session points out the self evident: he isn’t a real reformer on ethics. Surprise? Hardly. Last April, in this space, I laid out the case for a Special Session, saying why Democrats risked making a huge mistake by failing to seize the reform opportunity of a lifetime in Virginia. Of course the special interests, McDonnell and the like don’t want real reform: of course they promise “next year.” And mark my words: “Next year” they will appoint a blue ribbon commission to “study” it so no mistakes are made. Tim Kaine and I learned the hard way how that works [see below].

But first, let me point out – given the current political climate – that unlike others I have

a proven record of real success in reforming the perks/privileges of politicians, not like my critics who have derided my call for a Special Session. There are no saints in politics, myself included. But there are real reformers. Back in the late 1990’s, I became the first citizen to ever force any state legislative body anywhere in America to give up an illegal pay raise and reform their “sweetheart” pension and pay plan. On my own “nickel” as they say, I filed a suit against Democratic Speaker Tom Moss and GA leaders, the case eventually going to the Supreme Court of Virginia. I got the Republican AG at the time – Mark Earley – and former GOP Party Chair Pat McSweeney to join me. Pat and I held a press conference, threatening to sue everyone if Earley didn’t use his power to block an unconstitutional pay raise and stop the pay/pension rip-off of the taxpayers. The GA was using office expenses to pad their base pay for pension calculations among other abuses that were outlawed in other pension plans except those for legislators!

True, who else but Pat and I would actually read the fine print of the friggin’ pension laws. Earley blinked: and played Roberto Duran, agreeing to sue if the GA didn’t back down. Furious at me (’til this day, since they said I cost them $10 million collectively), Moss and the GA backed down: they rescinded the pay raise, first time ever, and promised to clean up their pay and pension scheme [which they half did since I was still suing on other stuff.

The real irony: Even though I had a big win thanks to Earley, the kid here decided to go for the whole taco and take his case to the Supreme Court anyway, hoping to win more reforms. But the Court, in the seminal opinion on citizen suits in Virginia, rejected the rule, and other state cases cited. Instead, they declared that in Virginia, citizens had no standing to bring such challenges, even if they were right on state constitutional law grounds. The merits didn’t matter one way or another: without standing, you never get to the merits. The case is Goldman v Sidle, I think (it has been a while) but that is close enough for legal work. Win some, lose some. But never give up.

Bottom line: You can win real ethics reform if you seize the moment. The Richmond Times Dispatch endorsed my efforts, and Earley read that stuff. Also, in those days, the RTD editorial page actually had some influence on GOP hopefuls for Governor. So I gambled that Earley would help.

Fast Forward To Today: McDonnell’s weakness on ethics and his desperate need to do something allows Democrats to force him into a Special Session, even though he doesn’t want to do it, nor do the House of Delegate Republicans running for re-election this year. But based on all the texts and emails I have gotten in the last 24 hours, Democrats are telling me this: “Paul, like it or not, Ken Cuccinelli has now called for a Special Session on Ethics. Why should Democrats help him get that?”

My response: This is NOT about Cuccinelli or anyone…it is about DOING THE RIGHT THING FOR VIRGINIA. Why? Let me explain, and it shows you why being bipartisan is so hard.


1. If you hold a Special Session during the campaign, Speaker Howell can not let his posse be seen as weaker on Ethics than the Democrats. He can’t afford to give Democrats that issue this fall. But next year, safely elected, Republicans can blink, they can put the issue into a “blue ribbon” study, and kill it by waiting for the reform fever to pass. CASE STUDY THAT TAUGHT ME THIS LESSON. Back in the 1990’s, Tim Kaine tried to get African-Americans (and whites too, of course, but the issue really played out in the African-American community) their right to elect the Mayor in Richmond. This required a Charter Change, meaning it had to pass the General Assembly.However, the city’s top African-American legislators didn’t want to give people the right to vote. They liked the status quo, which let the City Council choose the Mayor, since they controlled the Council or thought they did. So even though the public wanted it, and had voted for it, the GA killed it.

FAST FORWARD TO 2004: In that year, the Goldman-authored Charter Change Amendment to give folks the right to vote for their Mayor in Richmond came to the General Assembly. But I had been slicker than Tim, gaming the system better. Also, my reform legislation had the backing of former Governor Wilder (I had written it for his commission), LG Tim Kaine and we had the GOP legislators on board (a necessity since a Charter Change takes a super majority to pass). The African-American lawmakers, led by Delegate Jones and Senator Marsh, objected, tried to kill it. But in the end, they relented. Jones is now Mayor, admitting the Elected Mayor reform saved Richmond from a corrupt system (of course, it is being re-corrupted but that is another story).

BOTTOM LINE: Timing is everything with the GA. A Special Session this August or September, with the voters ready to vote in November, WILL GET THE BEST REFORM. You wait until the pressure is off, you let the special interests play their power games during the regular 2014 Session, and the GA will do far less.

2. Cuccinelli’s support is a GOOD THING if you are a REAL REFORMER. My not-so-smart phone is full of texts and emails saying Cuccinelli is faking, he is just using this as a ploy. My response: That is so childish. Dr. King had it right: When a thing is right, the time is always right. Let’s assume Cuccinelli isn’t sincere, that he is just seizing a political opportunity. My response: You don’t think some Democrats are doing the same thing in refusing to back reform now, willing to sacrifice real reform on the theory they can get more votes by keeping the mess alive through November? “Man up” for gosh sakes. This is how politics works: YOU KEEP YOU EYE ON WHAT THE PEOPLE NEED AND YOU MAKE IT HAPPEN AS BEST YOU CAN. If Democrats keep up this “holier than thou” attitude on reform, they could actually lose a sure win this November. Mark my words.

3. Dr. King said that when a thing is right, the time is always right. Okay, I just said this before. But his wisdom is worth double anyone else in Virginia today, at least.

4. The election is not about Cuccinelli, but about Virginians. That means it isn’t about McAuliffe either, or anyone else running statewide. GET WITH THIS MINDSET OR LOSE. The reason I was the first to predict a Dem sweep this year is simple: I believe the substance of the issues is all in favor of the Dems right now, because Cuccinelli’s campaign has been incompetent in that regard. Whether sincere or not – I don’t judge, I follow Dr. King’s rule of focusing on the issue not the personality – Cuccinelli’s support makes it harder for McDonnell to stonewall if Democrats join the call for a Special Session on Ethics.

5. How, exactly, does it hurt Democrats this year to be able to take credit for forcing Bill Howell and his Republicans to fix up the Ethics laws before the election? Someone will have to explain that one to me.

Bottom line #1: Anyone who has had any success in politics knows INSTINCTIVELY that you are going to have to force politicians to give up their perks and privileges. They only do it under DURESS, which to them is the threat of suffering a political problem with the voters. None of the special interest groups want ethics reform now do they? This would reduce their leverage!

Bottom line #2: Bob McDonnell has proven himself to be the anti-Ethics guy. So of course he doesn’t want a Special Session. He wants to make proposals to the applause of Bill Howell, who will appoint a blue ribbon commission to study stuff “because we need to get this right.”  Right. If you want real reform, then you do it when the GOP – and frankly some Democrats – can’t refuse: that is, right now.

I learned that working Tim Kaine on my Mayor’s law. I learned that when I was the only white guy willing to help Wilder. Everyone loves to claim this or that TODAY. But back then, you couldn’t find any reformers. Sometimes you try and fail, other times you try and win. But this is true no matter what: A united Democratic call for a Special Session is a NO LOSER FOR THE DEMOCRATS.

So what if Cuccinelli called for it yesterday? The public wants change: why risk allowing him to be seen as more willing to do the right thing? Cuccinelli has his ethics issues to be sure. But if Democrats think it is just a one-way street this year, then go out and talk to real voters like some of us do. You might be surprised. Humility is far better political strategy than misplaced arrogance.    

As Dr. King wisely pointed out, truth crushed to earth will rise. The voters are speaking through the polls. Whether they are right or wrong about the candidates doesn’t matter in the end, if this is what the voters think. As they say: on election Day, the voters are never wrong, even if they are.

Doing the right thing might not always be the winning strategy. But when it comes to what the voters want to hear, it is never a losing strategy.


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