Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Republicans take some of the fun out of 2012

 The fact that Newt Gingrich is leading the polls in the Virginia Republican Primary but didn't gather enough signatures to get on the ballot sort of sums up his presidential campaign so far in a nutshell.

But Gingrich wasn't the only candidate who failed to make the ballot. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose campaign thus far had seemed to be deficient in brainpower, charisma and debating skills, but not in money or organizational expertise, also failed to turn in enough signatures to qualify.

Michele Bachmann, John Huntsman and Rick Santorum didn't bother to turn in any signatures. Not much of a surprise for the latter two. They've just been hanging around. Neither has gotten a bump as the Republican's "flavor of the month" to be the Not-Mitt Romney candidate. Hell, even Donald Trump got a bump and he never got in.

In fact, only Romney and septuagenarian Libertarian Ron Paul made the ballot. The first is the definition of the smooth, well organized, Establishment Republican. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling heads his campaign in Virginia and there wasn't much chance he wouldn't get the necessary signatures. The second is a cult figure who has never won much besides straw polls, but his Paulistas can managed a signature gathering campaign.

While Gingrich and, to a lesser extent, Perry and Bachmann have been whining about how tough Virginia's ballot access laws are -- they require 10,000 signatures, including 400 from each of the state's 11 congressional districts -- the fact is everyone knew what the rules were from the jump.

And how hard can it be? In 2008 Democratic candidates like Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich, neither of whom were exactly at the crest of a rising tide, made it onto Virginia's ballot.

They had help though. The Democratic Party of Virginia gathered signatures for all of the candidates at various events. The Republican Party of Virginia didn't make that kind of effort this year. They aren't required to, of course, but it might have helped.

Republican incompetency has taken a good deal of fun out of what could have been a very exciting year in politics here.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Things we learned from last week's election

It's so much easier to wax profound over an election once it's over.

For honesty's sake, I think I'm on record at various places online predicting that the Republicans would take control of the Senate, 21-19, that Del. Robin Abbott would win a squeaker in the 93rd House District and that Sen. John Miller would beat Republican Mickey Chohany in the 1st District -- and unlike some other people in my newsroom, I expected that 1st District race to be close.

It was and Miller won. Abbott lost a squeaker to Republican Mike Watson instead of winning one. In a higher turn out year, like a gubernatorial election, she probably would have won. And Republicans only forged a tie in the Senate at 20-20, although they are going to use Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's tie-breaking vote to act like they are in the majority. More on that later.

So what did we learn from the 2011 election?

A few things:

1. It's possible to hold an election where nobody wins.
Obviously the Democrats didn't win, they're down to 32 seats in the House of Delegates and lost the majority in the Senate, their last hold on power at the state level. But you can' t really say the Republicans won. They didn't capture a majority in the Senate, although they were widely expected to. In the weeks leading up to the election I heard and read Republicans predicting that they'd take 25 or 26 seats. There was a Tea Party group set up called "Beyond 21." But they didn't even get to 21.  In fact, of the 24 Senate races contested between the two parties (some of those contests being token opposition), Democrats won 16 and Republicans won only 8. Republicans were able to forge a tie in the Senate because they knocked off two incumbents, without any of their own incumbents being threatened, and because they won two open seats. But it's hard to say they won in the Senate when they lost 2/3 of the contested races.

2. Democrats in the House are in big trouble. For a long time.
While Democrats held their own or better in the Senate, the House races, which got far less attention, were a debacle. They're left with 32 seats. In contested House races, Republicans won 21-6-1 (Del. Lacey Putney, I-Bedford, the longest serving member of the House in history beat both a Democrat and a Republican to win re-election).  It's scandalous that only 28 out of 100 House seats were contested between the parties and, again, some of those were token challenges. Democrats in the House suffered from a huge failure by the leadership, amplified by the Republican redistricting plan. They failed in recruitment so badly that no Republican incumbent member of the House was seriously challenged for re-election. Former House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong paid the prices for the "defense only" strategy. He lost. So did the other two targeted Democratic incumbents, Abbott and Del. Bill Barlow (D-64th). You can't win playing defense. It allowed the Republicans to take money they would otherwise have had to spend on incumbents and use it to win challenge and open seats. In the normal course of events, because Virginia is not a 68% Republican state, you'd expect the Democrats to start winning those seats back at the rate of 2-4 per election cycle. Problem is, that still leaves them in the minority when the next redistricting comes around and Republicans get to draw them back to square one. The best chance for a majority in the House Democrats have for the next 30 years is a Democratic landslide for governor. That hasn't happened in more than 25 years. After 30 years, demographic trends might give Democrats the majority back despite themselves.

3. 2011 was not 2010, so there's no reason to suppose that 2012 will be.
Republicans were predicting bigger gains than they got because they were fighting the last war. They were expecting the kind of Tea Party-fueled wave election that swept Republicans back into power in the House of Representatives last year. It didn't happen. One reason may have been that the Republicans in Congress have managed to damage the brand. While 2010's results were largely blamed on the unpopularity of President Barack Obama, the Republican House of Representatives is currently less popular than Obama. That suggests that Tea Party wave may have lost its momentum. So does current polling for the U.S. Senate race in Virginia in 2012, which shows former Gov. Tim Kaine, one of the president's staunchest allies, tied with former governor and Senator George Allen.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Ten things that are plucking my last nerve

On Facebook, I usually call this "Things I Hate." But I'll try to confine myself to political topics here and we'll just say these are things that are on my nerves, as the 2011 campaign rushes to a close and the 2012 presidential election kicks into gear.

1. The assertion, generally by Republicans, that a requirement to bring photo ID to the polls has something to do with curbing "voter fraud."  One candidate even said in debate the other night that voter fraud was on the rise in Virginia. When asked to provide an example he, of course, could not. Look, you don't steal an election where the votes are cast, you steal it where the votes are counted. Anybody who gave this issue about ten seconds of thought would realize you can't fix an election by voting fake voters. It's too cumbersome, requires too many people to be in on the scheme. It's a silly idea. We've had three presidential elections in this country that might have been stolen -- 1880, 1960 and 2000. If they were, they were all stolen after the polls closed. So, when Republicans get serious about voting machines with computer software that can't be easily hacked and paper trails to allow an accurate recount, I'll believe they care about "voter fraud." Until then, they're just trying to suppress the vote.

2. Stupid campaign charges. I've got to call out Sen. John Miller's campaign on this one. Miller (D-1st), who's been accused of having a conflict of interest for taking a job with a local aviation company after voting for a bill that gave them a tax break, accused his Republican opponent Mickey Chohany of having a bigger conflict. The issue? That Chohany twice voted for street improvements on the street where his restaurant is located. Look, I've been in that business, I understand "Deny, deny and make counter accusations," but make them sensible. The street improvements were included in packages of citywide street projects that were recommended by the city administration, not Chohany. It's like saying a City Council member has a conflict because he votes to repave every street in the city, including the one he lives one. For the record, the allegation against Miller is more serious. I don't think it rises to the Phil Hamilton level of a violation of the conflict of interest laws that needs to be prosecuted. There's no evidence of quid pro quo. At the same time, it looks bad and -- if in my opinion -- he shouldn't have done it.

3. Republican presidential debates. The only person more exhausted than I am by the multitude of debates is apparently Rick Perry. I might join him in his resolve to ignore some of them. Of course that won't have the consequences for me that it will for him. If you can't win a debate against Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, you aren't going to stand much of a chance against Barack Obama.

4. The way some people who cheered on the Tea Party rallies last year, mock the Occupy Wall Street rallies this year. And, I suppose, vice versa. Before the Tea Party got co-opted by the Republican Party, it expressed a lot of the same populist outrage that Occupy Wall Street does. In my view, this is a country long in need of a little healthy populist outrage. The nightmare of the powers-that-be is that the Occupy Wall Street folks and the Tea Partiers might realize that they're mad at some of the same people. That graphic going around the Internet isn't a total joke; there is an intersection of interest between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street around the too chummy relationship between government and business.

5. Michele Bachmann. Voice like a razor blade, crazy eyes and crazier ideas. Come back, Sarah Palin, all is forgiven.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

The end of Republicans as we have known them?

Former Williamsburg City Councilman Mickey Chohany is facing off against incumbent Democratic Senator John Miller for the 1st District seat in this fall's elections.

There are a lot of things you can say about Chohany as a candidate. Based on recent debate performances, you might say he's not ready for prime time. You might say he's a stalking horse for Sen. Tommy Norment (R-3rd) and that if he's elected Norment will effectively have two votes in the Senate. (Although if we were going to give a Republican senator two votes, I'd argue that Norment -- who at least understands the importance of governance -- isn't a bad choice. I'd rather he had two votes than Sen. Steve Newman.).

But the odd thing that some people are saying about Chohany is that he's RINO (Republican In Name Only).

I'm not sure on what basis anybody is saying this. Is it guilt by association because he's an ally of Norment, who has also been called a RINO?

Because, on the issues, Chohany seems to meet all the Republican litmus tests. He's pro-life, pro-gun and anti-tax. He's tried a straddle on gay rights, but it's the same straddle that Virginia Republicans, and voters, let Gov. Bob McDonnell get away with.

Are guns or abortion what got Chohany (or Norment) into politics? No. But that doesn't mean they aren't Republicans.

This stupidity has gone so far that some in the right-wing blogosphere are calling for a write-in campaign for Tricia Stall. In case you don't remember Ms. Stall, she's a right-wing Republican who took out another "RINO", Sen. Marty Williams in a primary in 2007 only to lose to Miller in the general election. She lost that election in a 1st District that was far more Republican than the current configuration. Tricia Stall not only has no chance to win as a write-in, she couldn't win if she was on the ballot. She couldn't come close. A vote for her is a vote for John Miller.

Chohany might win. More likely, given the nature of the district now, he won't  But at least he stands a chance.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Governor going after state employees ...again.

[Note:  Yes, I know I've been a little slack in updating the blog. Chalk it up to selling a house (sort of), buying a house, sloth, an earthquake, a hurricane and other writing projects. I promise to be more diligent. Until I'm not.]

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell announced this week that state employee retirement benefits might need to be cut, because the system has $18 billion in unfunded liabilities.

He's right about the unfunded liability. Over the next 75 years it does total $18 billion.

But that's not the state employees' fault.

McDonnell has done little to endear himself to state employees. Last year he pushed a measure to require them to pick up part of their own retirement costs.

That doesn't sound unreasonable on the face of it. Why shouldn't they pick up part of the cost? But the way McDonnell structured his proposal, it would have cut the take home pay of every state employee. The General Assembly intervened and gave state employees a pay raise sufficient to offset the retirement contribution. That was in line with the original deal which led to the state picking up the employees' contribution -- it was done in lieu of a raise.

The legislature showed much better common sense and a greater sense of justice than the governor on this issue.

It's odd that McDonnell, who doesn't have the reflexive anti-government instincts of a lot of Republicans -- former governors George Allen and Jim Gilmore for instance -- would be taking another swing at state employees.

Maybe McDonnell, recently chosen to lead the Republican Governor's Association, feels he need to do it to have some street cred with his peers. From Scott Walker in Wisconsin to Rick Scott in Florida to Chris Christie in New Jersey, it seems like wherever you have a new Republican governor these days, he's at war with his state employees.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Washington is psychotic

"You'll get mesmerized /By alibis/ And limbo dance in pairs/ Please lock that door/It don't make much sense/That common sense/Don't make no sense/No more"

John Prine
"Common Sense"

It's hard to believe that people we elected to represent us and who swore to act in the best interest of the United States and its citizens could have pushed the country to the brink of default just to make a political point.

But it's true.

With about ten days to go until the Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling, Washington has shown that it's gone from being dysfunctional to being psychotic.

Our capital and our government have been dysfunctional for a number of years due to the inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together on anything. That had negative effects on the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, but the cancer of partisanship has metastasized in Barack Obama's administration.

There's enough blame to go around for both sides. But in the debt ceiling debate, the Republicans are acting crazier than the Democrats.

While Obama has laid out plans that include up to $4.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next ten years, Republicans have turned them down flat. Why? Because, in addition to a lot of spending cuts that would trim programs that help lower and middle-income families, Obama has included tax increases on corporation and one the wealthiest Americans.

So have the "Gang of Six" in the Senate, which includes Virginia's Mark Warner.

But Republicans, who have clamored loudest about the deficit (which they discovered about the time Obama was sworn in), have said that deficit and debt reduction needs to be done with budget cuts only. Some of the cuts they advocate are sweeping and would change Medicare and Social Security, as we know them.

It's an example of just how unserious about deficit reduction they are. As recently as January they fought tooth and nail to retain the Bush era tax cuts, which contribute to the deficit.
This attitude led David Brooks, a mainstream Republican columnist, to say that Republicans aren't operating more like a normal political party.

He's got a point.

Republicans are now acting more like a religious cult than a political party. They've raised a "no tax increases ever" ideology to level of Gospel. It's the Church of Ronald Reagan, except that it's run by people who have made commandments out of a few of the dumbest things Reagan ever said and ignore what he actually did while in office.
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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Finding a way to govern again

I read a fascinating article in The Atlantic this week called "How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans."

It's written by Mickey Edwards a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma.

I think Edwards has articulated what many of us have come to suspect of the two parties, that they are more interested in vying with each other for political power than they are in actually doing what it takes to govern the county. A large part of what it takes is compromise. We don't see that out of members of Congress who are increasingly selected from one-party districts or by primary electorates who hold positions far to the left or right of the general public.

Edwards notes that when Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House she said her job was to elect more Democrats and that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the most important thing that Republicans could do with their increased numbers after 2010 was to insure the defeat of Barack Obama in 2012.

Really? The county is involved in three (and counting) wars, the unemployment rate is north of 9% and the most important thing the parties have to do is score political points off each other?

As Edwards notes, campaigning has become perpetual in Congress, at the expense of governing.

He worries that Congress has virtually ceased to function as an independent branch of government. The members of Congress in the party that holds the presidency have become almost an auxiliary part of the executive branch and the other party the reflexive opposition to the executive.

Which should concern everyone, liberal, conservative or moderate.

While both parties are fond at times of saying that this or that branch or department of government has overstepped "its Constitutional bounds," the parties themselves are well beyond their Constitutional roles.

Because the Constitution gives them no role.

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Now that Bin Laden in dead, what's next?

Nearly every American hailed the news late Sunday evening that American Special Forces had killed Osama Bin Laden in a raid on his safe house in Pakistan.

Democrats, Republicans, Tea Parties, Greens, independents, we were all brought together in a way that we really haven't been since 9/11 itself.

That excludes a few, who in the tradition of 9/11 "truthers" and "birthers," decided that the Osama had not really been killed and that it was all an elaborate political hoax. I dub this new crop of morons "deathers." I'm sure we'll hear a lot from them in the next couple of years.

For those of us grounded in reality, the question becomes, what's next? What effect does justice finally catching up with the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have on the world?

Well, from a crass political perspective it probably makes it more likely that President Barack Obama is re-elected in 2012. The odds had been leaning that way anyway, given the lack of a popular challenger on the Republican side. Even Republicans don’t seem enamored with their likely candidates.

With Obama having corrected the largest failing of both his and his predecessor's administrations, he'll see a surge in his poll numbers. However, military success doesn't always lead to re-election. If it did, the first President Bush would have been re-elected in the wake of Desert Storm.

The details of Bin Laden's capture -- he was found in a more than $1 million compound in a wealthy suburb of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad that  U.S. sources described it as an area where numerous retired Pakistani military officers lived -- are troubling. The compound was built in 2005, apparently to house Bin Laden.

Those facts make it almost unthinkable that the Pakistani government, which has taken billions of dollars in U.S. "anti-terrorism" assistance and was officially our "ally" in the war on terror, knew where he was hiding and didn't tell us.

That suggests the need for, at the least, a re-thinking of our relationship with Pakistan. That re-thinking may have begun when we didn't inform them of the operation against Bin Laden until it was over.

In a larger sense, the end of Osama Bin Laden could well mean it's time to re-think our entire Afghanistan deployment.

It may even be time to question if the era of the "War on Terror" is over.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Senate slugfest looms

With former Gov. Tim Kaine announcing last week that he plans to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Jim Webb in 2012, a potential slobberknocker of a U.S. Senate race is shaping up. One that could decide partisan control of the Senate.

Kaine isn't a lock for the Democratic nomination -- yet. Third District Congressmen Bobby Scott has said he'll announce in June or July if he's interested in the seat. A Kaine/Scott Democratic primary would likely be closely fought. But I'd be surprised to see Scott enter the race now that Kaine is in. He doesn't  have a lot to gain and he'd be giving up a pretty safe House seat.

So, the smart money is on Kaine as the Democratic nominee.

The same is true of former Gov. and Sen. George Allen, the man Webb beat in 2006, on the Republican side.

Allen does have opposition for the nomination. Tea Party activist Jamie Radtke has announced, as  have two even lesser known candidates. Rumor has conservative gadfly Del. Bob Marshall, who lost a bid for the Senate nomination in 2008, and anti-illegal immigration activist Prince William Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, eyeing the race. A trial balloon for Rep. Rob Wittman (R-1st) went up a few weeks ago, but garnered little attention.

While polling a year away from the primary date doesn't mean all that much, Allen easily leads all announced or rumored candidates now. That's not surprising. As the star of Virginia Republicans resurgence in the 1990s, he has far higher name recognition than his opponents.

You'd have to think the nomination is Allen's to lose. But then, he lost an election in 2006 that was his to lose.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Please split up my 'community of interest'

It's redistricting time.

The General Assembly meets next month to draw the new lines for the state's 11 Congressional districts, 100 House of Delegates district and 40 State Senate districts.

This year we've had an appetizer, since the governor's commission on redistricting (which only has advisory status), college students participating in a redistricting contest, and the incumbent members of Congress have given us sneak peeks at maps they like.

To no one's surprise, the plan the congressmen came up with protects all 11 incumbents, which requires at least two egregious gerrymanders: the continuation of the snake-like 3rd District which winds its way down I-64 in search of African-American voters, and a new "Gerry-mander" in the 11th to give Rep. Gerry Connolly a more Democratic district than the one he almost lost last November.

The other maps are more interesting because they try to create compact, contiguous districts without regard for politics and try to keep "communities of interest" intact. (That's not something the congressmen care about, they created a 5th District that includes Danville and parts of Loudoun County).

That was one of the governor's charges to his commission. It also echoes the major concern I've always heard expressed by local government leaders, and by voters, in the previous rounds of redistricting. "I just hope they don't split up my city/county."

That concern is very important to people. But I've never understood why.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Not a bad year, all things considered

The 2011 regular session of the Virginia General Assembly is in the books.

Compared to recent years, I'd say the legislature did pretty well.

Sure, they took an extra day to get the budget worked out, but that happens more often than not these days. And it's not really partisan gridlock that causes the problem, because the General Assembly had longer budget standoffs when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate.

Of course one reason this session looks better is that state revenues exceeded forecasts, meaning not only that we didn't have to have another round of big budget cuts but that legislature was actually able to restore some cuts made last year, particularly in the area of public education. Things always run smoother in Richmond when there's more money to spread around.

The final budget seemed to be a pretty fair compromise between the positions of the Senate and the House.  The Senate managed to minimize the amount of the general fund money spent on transportation, an issue the Senate has been adamant about under both Republican and Democratic leadership. The House won on putting more money in the state's Rainy Day Fund.

The House also prevailed on one of the biggest issues of the session, state employees contributions to the Virginia Retirement System.

 Gov. Bob McDonnell had proposed that employees begin picking up a 5% contribution that had previously been paid by the state, in exchange for a 3% raise.

The Senate proposed to ignore McDonnell and continue the status quo. The House chose instead to go along with the 5% employee contribution but to couple it with a 5% raise to hold state employees harmless.

Actually, it doesn't hold them quite harmless. Due to higher taxes, state employees will still see a small decrease in their take home pay. It would have taken about a 5.2% salary increase to hold them totally harmless. But, in return for that small decrease in take home pay, state employees will see higher retirement benefits, which are figured on their highest three years of compensation.

That fact makes one wonder if  any progress has been made toward McDonnell's stated purpose in making the VRS changes - to address a shortfall in the pension fund. More money will go into the fund in the short term due to this year's change, but higher benefits will have to be paid out on the back end.

How does that affect what we're told is a $17 billion shortfall in VRS? Well, there are a couple of things to remember about that. What you seldom hear mentioned when the VRS shortfall is discussed is that it's a shortfall over the next 80 years, which is how far into the future VRS figures its liabilities.  The other thing to remember is that the shortfall was not caused by state employees not paying their share of the contribution. It was caused by past governors and legislatures deciding in tough economic times not to make the full payment required to keep the system fully funded -- as McDonnell and the General Assembly did last year by shorting the pension more than $600 million -- and by bad recent returns on VRS's investment portfolio.

While the investment returns will likely average out in the long run, the state's elected officials should probably stop looking at the pension fund as a piggy bank to raid when they need money. That's part of what sent Jimmy Hoffa to prison. We might consider a constitutional amendment that would require the correct payment is made. In years when we have extra funds, the General Assembly probably should consider paying back past shortfalls, with interest.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Still crazy after all these years?

It's said that the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

I don't want to call the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives crazy, but if the shoe fits...

There's a fairly good chance that we're headed for another government shut down in the next few weeks. Like the one in 1995, it will be precipitated by the Republican House unwilling to compromise and negotiate with a Democratic president over the budget.

The 1995 fiasco blunted the momentum of 1994's GOP "revolution,” put then President Bill Clinton on the comeback trail and guaranteed that he'd be re-elected fairly easily in 1996. Although some Republicans are quick to say that Clinton was responsible for that government shut down, it's a fact that Republicans took the blame.

They'll take the blame this time too. One reason for that is that so many of them are willing to go on the cable and network chat shows and appear to be salivating at the prospect of shutting down the government.

Since Barack Obama is already better situated, in terms of job approval ratings, than Clinton was in early 1995 and because Republicans have no clear favorite to rally around for 2012, Obama's re-election chances will greatly improve if Republicans force a show down.

The odd things is, Republicans seemed to recognize this oncoming train, but still failed to get out of the way.

After winning control of the House last November Republicans, including new Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-7th), said they'd learned from the mistakes Republicans made the last time they were in the majority. Cantor, in particular, said he didn't believe the Republicans had won a mandate for their philosophy, but instead had benefited from an electorate unhappy with the Democrats.

He said that the voters would be watching the GOP with a wary eye. All indications are that Cantor was right.

He and other Republican leaders swore that, once in office, their first priority would be job creation and getting the economy turned around.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Goodbye Jimmy, we hardly knew ye

Senator Jim Webb announced Wednesday that he won't seek a second term in 2012.

The announcement wasn't much of a surprise. He only raised $12,000 in campaign contributions in the fourth quarter of 2010 and he'd seemed for months to be vacillating on the decision to run or not run.

I'm going to miss him.

I always like Webb because he never quite fit the mold of your typical modern politician.

Unlike the guy he beat in 2006, George Allen, or his Democratic colleague from Virginia, Mark Warner, Webb was never the glib, smiling, backslapping type who generally prospers in retail politics.

Webb has the hard eyes of a former Marine combat veteran, a face like a clenched fist and the temper that so often accompanies the red hair he inherited from the Scot-Irish ancestors he's so proud of.

(I'm married to a redhead. Trust me on this.)

He's not himself a fool and doesn't suffer fools gladly.

And, unlike most of our current crop of political "leaders," Webb has never found it necessary to check which way the political winds are blowing before deciding what he thinks about an issue. Once he decides, he's not shy about saying just what he thinks.

He's as blunt as a hammer.

A former Republican, Webb managed to tick off members of both parties on an equal opportunity basis.

But, despite that, he managed to put up a pretty solid record of accomplishment for a first-term senator.

He was the primary author of a new G.I. Bill that was a more significant legislative accomplishment than Allen managed in six years in the seat or that Democrat Chuck Robb saw in the 12 years before that.

Webb's political views were more complex than party labels can encompass.

Economically, Webb was a populist, understanding that over the last 30 years this country has undergone a great redistribution of wealth from the bottom up, and that the top 20% of American earners were doing well at the expense of the bottom 80%. He worried about the disappearance of the middle class.

Webb was a warrior who campaigned against what he thought of as foolish war in Iraq.

He also came out for prison reform, hardly a  politically popular cause, noting the disconnect between the cradle of liberty having one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world.

He upset Democrats by calling for a re-thinking of affirmative action programs, which he believed had outlived their usefulness and grown to favor groups who'd never experienced systematic discrimination. He suggested that class, rather than race or ethnic background, might be a more suitable basis for such programs.

Webb seemed to enjoy being a U.S. Senator more than he enjoyed running for office. I suspect that it was the prospect of another campaign that led him to bow out of private life. Running for office in the United States is essentially a phony endeavor. And, whatever else was said about Jim Webb, no one ever accused him of being a phony.

His withdrawal from the arena will likely have a huge effect, not only on the Democratic race to succeed him, but the contest for the Republican nomination as well.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Where McDonnell's ABC plan went wrong

Governor Bob McDonnell' s much-discussed, often-changed, plan to privatize the state's ABC stores and get the Commonwealth out of the liquor business is likely dead for the year.

Del. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), chairman of the House General Laws Committee has said he'll use his chairman's discretion not to bring the bill up in committee. The Senate had previously said it wouldn't take up the bill until it passed the House.

That's really too bad. The state should get out of the liquor business. I was writing about it before McDonnell brought it up as an issue in the 2009 gubernatorial campaign.

But the governor and his staff made just about every mistake they could in rolling out a plan.

The first mistake, made back during the campaign, was linking privatization with funding the state's highway needs. There's no logical nexus between alcohol sales and road funding.

The amount of money that the plan would raise, even under the governor's most optimistic scenario, is fairly trivial compared to the state's unmet highway needs. It also created opposition to the plan among people who weren't necessarily against ABC privatization, but wanted to see the state pursue a more rational course -- such as a gas tax increase -- to fund highway improvements.

Given that a gas tax increase wasn't in the works, McDonnell is better served by his latest transportation plan, which is to borrow $3 to $4 billion. That's more than has been accomplished for transportation under the last six governors.

The second, and perhaps most critical mistake, the governor made was to let the people most likely to buy the stores essentially write his plan. The plan was crafted by a senior McDonnell aide in conjunction with lobbyists representing beer and wine wholesalers, convenience stores and large retailers like Walmart.

That was critical because it led to choices that made McDonnell's plan less saleable politically and less beneficial to the taxpayers.

First was price. While the interests that wanted into the liquor business set a nice price for themselves, they set one that wasn't necessarily in the best interests of the taxpayer.

Essentially, they set the price for Virginia's entire liquor business, which generates about $650 million in gross sales, at $550 million.

From a business point of view, and certainly from the point of view of the state's taxpayers, who own that asset, this made no sense. Soon after it was announced, two GOP businessmen on the Peninsula, both supporters of McDonnell for governor, called me and complained that he was "selling off all the state's assets just to keep from raising taxes."

Both said the real fair prices for the state's alcohol business was several times what McDonnell was asking.

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Monday, January 31, 2011

What a sweet guy

I got a press release from Del. John O'Bannon (R-Henrico) Friday.

He was pretty proud of himself.

He'd asked for and gotten an opinion from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli that two of Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposed amendments to the budget were unconstitutional.

That's pretty unusual, because everybody involved -- O'Bannon, Cuccinelli and McDonnell -- are Republicans. Usually that's not the kind of thing a delegate, or an attorney general, would do to a governor of his or her own party.

What was O'Bannon's objection?

Was it money for the Governor's Opportunity Fund, which provides corporate welfare to attract businesses here. These are deals on which the state usually gets the short end, since there is no enforcement if the businesses actually bring the jobs and the economic activity they've promised?


Was it breaking the agreement that the state made years ago with public employees, requiring them to pick up more of their own pension costs in return for a raise that would see them lose "only" 2% from their take-home pay?


Was it issuing between $3 billion and $4 billion in new debt to pay for highway contruction?


What O'Bannon wanted stopped were two amendments, each for $500,000, for Operation Smile and the Federation of Food Banks.

Operation Smile is a worldwide charity that provides medical volunteers to treat facial deformities -- like cleft palates -- in poor children.

The food bank group is pretty self explanatory. The money was to buy food that would be distributed to needy Virginians.

So what Del. O'Bannon found objectionable in the state's $70 billion-plus budget was giving deformed children a better appearance and outlook, and feeding hungry Virginians.

That's certainly the way to win friends and influence people and disabuse anyone of that old notion that the Republican Party doesn't have any compassion.

What a sweet guy, that O'Bannon. And he's a doctor.

I'm sure he has a great bedside manner.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Thank God for cable

 I don't find myself in agreement with George Will often, unless the bow-tied curmudgeon is writing about baseball.

Will has an ongoing, and I'd guess premature since  he's had it for 20 years or more, case of grumpy oldmanism.

Most Will columns can be summed up succinctly as "Hey, you kids get off my lawn!"

But on Sunday's "This Week" on ABC, he was on the money about the waste of time that the State of the Union Address has become.

I think Will is right that the State of the Union is almost never a great speech.

That's true even for presidents, like Obama, Clinton and Reagan who can give a speech. When the president is a poor speaker, like George W. Bush or Carter or Ford, the address is just interminable.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Okay, NOW can we get down to business?

The House of Representatives just got through wasting time debating the repeal of last year's health care reform bill. To no great surprise, the repeal bill passed the GOP-controlled House, 245-189, with every Republican and three Democrats voting to repeal it.

The debate and vote were largely symbolic.

Democrats control the Senate. Even if they did not, President Barack Obama would veto any repeal of "Obamacare."

So Republicans were just engaging in political grandstanding and pandering, they knew they weren't actually accomplishing anything.

And that's okay, because very few people really want to repeal health care reform, including (shhh, keep this under your hat) the Republicans who just made such a show of trying to do so.

Polling on the issue has been shifting. A Gallup poll in early January found 46% in favor of repealing the law and 40% against. An Associated Press-GfK poll last week finds only 25% favoring repeal and only 30% against the health care reform law. Finally, an NBC-Wall Street Journal polls split the difference, with 39% opposing health care reform and 39% supporting it, and 46% opposing repeal while 45% favored it.

I don't doubt there are about  a third of the voters who are strongly for repealing health care reform. That's the hardcore Tea Party "we're-against-anything-Obama-does" crowd.

There's no question the GOP majority in the House owes them a debt. They turned out in disproportionate numbers in November's election and fueled a Republican landslide.

Hopefully. now that we've got the symbolic repeal out of the way, Congress can get down to doing the people's business.

Because, let's be honest here, everybody knows we need health care reform -- including Republicans.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

One Bad Bill

With the General Assembly in session again, easy targets for the political commentator abound.

I usually do a story for the Gazette on silly bills filed each year. I'll get to that soon.

But a bill that's not so much silly as just bad has captured my attention.

Sen. Steve Martin (R-Chesterfield) has introduced S.B. 812 which would amend the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to, essentially, make the identities of public employees secret.

Like Batman and Captain America, state and local government employees do many good deeds. Unlike the Caped Crusader or the Sentinel of Liberty, they don't really need the veil of anonymity.

What Martin's bill specifically does is require that lists of job positions, salaries and benefits of public employees, exclude the names of the employees.

The bill is a reaction to a story in The Richmond Times-Dispatch last year listed those state employees who made over $50,000, along with their departments and job titles.

A lot of state employees weren't too happy that their names and salaries were in the newspaper (Full disclosure: my wife is a state employee and it didn't make our day either).

But it's unavoidable. Like the price you paid for your house -- another thing readers are often irate to see in the paper -- it's public information.

It's understandable that Martin would introduce the bill. His suburban Richmond district contains a lot of state employees. He's frankly said that he submitted the bill at the request of contituents.

Which doesn't mean it's still not a really bad idea.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Time for another round of kick the can?

The General Assembly goes back into session Wednesday.

So it's time for our elected representatives to start putting off until tomorrow what they could be doing today.

They'll be ably assisted by Gov. Bob McDonnell.

It's easy to tell the governor is a former legislator, because his administration has been busy pushing important decisions down the road.

Last year the governor and the legislature conspired to balance the budget by withholding the state's payment to the Virginia Retirement System. That payment is due to be paid back, with 7.5% interest, over ten years. Those payments will start in 2013. Guess who leaves office that year?

After passing up a chance last year to push his reluctant allies in the House to do something about bi-partisan redistricting in time to matter for this year's redrawing of the state's congressional and legislative districts, the governor appointed an advisory panel the other day. Their input, which legislators aren't under any requirement to pay attention to, might have some impact on redistricting. In 2021.

The fact is McDonnell never favored bi-partisan redistricting. He was a consistent vote against it when he was in the House. But his half measure this year allows him to say he's fulfilled a campaign promise, without having any effect on the partisan gerrymander that House Republicans have planned.

The governor's transportation plan, while admirable in some ways, gives the administration another opportunity to kick the can down the road. And they've jumped at it.

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Monday, January 3, 2011

Choppy seas ahead - The 2011 General Assembly

"Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride."
                                                                   Bette Davis
                                                                    "All About Eve"

The late Ms. Davis would have enjoyed the upcoming session of the General Assembly.

Because 2011 promises to be a turbulent year in the legislature.

Since this is a redistricting year, there was little chance 2011 would be a placid year on Capitol Square.

But the national rise of the Tea Party, including its Virginia darling, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, has assured the year will feature pitched partisan warfare on other topics as well.

On redistricting we're on uncharted ground. For the first time, the state's Congressional and legislative districts will be redrawn with one party controlling the  House and the other controlling the Senate. There's no telling where that could lead.

Congressional redistricting shouldn't be too hard. Incumbents usually hammer something out between themselves and hand it to the General Assembly. In any case, Republicans won so many seats this year (8 of 11), that it would be impossible to protect them all in redistricting. The 2nd and 4th District may become somewhat more Republican by shedding African-American voters to the 3rd. Other than that, the status quo will probably prevail.

It's when they redraw their own districts legislators have the potential to become an unruly mob.

Many are predicting the gentlemen's agreement that prevailed in the past, the House doesn't meddle in the Senate's plan and vice versa, will be maintained. I'm not so sure. Neither Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (R-Springfield) nor House Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford) and new House Majority Leader Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) have sounded very conciliatory lately. Saslaw and Cox, in particular, have reputations for hard-nosed partisanship.

House Democrats, whose paltry numbers leave them helpless in the face of the Republican majority, may appeal to Saslaw as their only chance to get anything resembling a fair redistricting. In 1991, their first opportunity to draw a new map, House Republicans showed they'd learned their lessons from more than  century in the minority. They drew what is arguably the most devastating partisan map in the  history of Virginia redistricting. They managed to effectively decapitate the Democratic leadership in the House and draw a map that let them keep the majority for the entire decade.

Republican Senators, who had a smaller majority to start with, were more merciful. They picked the one Democrat they wanted to get rid of  -- Northern Virginia's Leslie Byrne -- and were satisfied. Perhaps as a consequence, they lost their Senate majority in 2007.

Even if Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House reach some understanding on redistricting -- which would be amazing since they haven't managed to so so on highway funding or electing judges -- will Gov. Bob McDonnell manage to restrain the temptation to kibitz? His predecessors didn't.

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