RICHMOND — Gov. Bob McDonnell’s final year in office began with triumph and is ending with trouble.
Just 10 months ago, Virginia’s Republican governor was riding high. The General Assembly passed the state’s most significant transportation funding package in more than a quarter century with bipartisan support, giving McDonnell what looked like a legacy-capping legislative victory.
But the glow from that victory faded, eclipsed by headlines about investigations of McDonnell’s relationship with a businessman who showered gifts and loans on the governor and his family.
The scandal effectively sidelined McDonnell in the race to choose his successor. Democrat Terry McAuliffe defeated Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, in the November election and will become Virginia’s 72nd governor on Jan. 11.
“It’s been a tough year,” McDonnell said during a Dec. 16 interview in his office.
Two days after the interview, The Washington Post reported that federal prosecutors were prepared to bring charges against McDonnell and his wife, but delayed a decision after an appeal by the couple’s attorneys. A final decision about pressing charges is not expected before Thursday, the Post reported.
McDonnell has maintained that he violated no laws and gave no special treatment to businessman Jonnie Williams Sr., the founder of Star Scientific Inc., who reportedly gave more than $165,000 in gifts and loans to McDonnell and his family.
Reviews by the governor’s chief of staff and state-appointed counsel concluded that Star Scientific “didn’t get any benefits, board appointments, money — not a nickel of state money — nothing from state government, other than a few meetings,” McDonnell said.
But, he added, “I’d certainly have done some things differently when it came to these gift issues.
“It’s why I returned all the tangible gifts; it’s why I repaid loans,” McDonnell said. “None of those things were wrong under the law. I know in my heart I haven’t done anything that’s wrong under the law. But I understand that it undermined trust people had in me, and I’ve never had people raise questions about my judgment. … So it was personally hurtful to me and my family.”
Even some of McDonnell’s toughest critics have been surprised by stories about the gifts scandal, and some long-time legislative allies remain steadfast in their support.
“The Bob that I worked with in the House of Delegates was always trying to make sure that everything was done according to the rules and regulations,” said U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, a fellow Republican who was the majority leader in the House of Delegates during McDonnell’s first year as governor. “The bottom line is he was a straight arrow. I don’t know a whole lot about what was going on, but I do know that Bob would have focused on policy sometimes to the exclusion of other things.”
When McDonnell appeared at a tribute dinner for retiring Del. Lacey Putney, I-Bedford, earlier this month, Putney addressed the issue in front of the entire audience.
“Right in the midst of it, I wrote a letter making it abundantly clear that this man had integrity that was unquestionable and no laws had been broken — I’m convinced they haven’t been,” Putney said.
McDonnell said media accounts of the gifts controversy, “as opposed to the multitude of bipartisan successes we’ve had, have certainly been a tough ride.”
“I’m a person of great faith,” McDonnell said in the interview. “I’ve got faith in God, faith in the justice system; I’ve got great faith in the people of Virginia. I think in time, hopefully that [the gifts scandal] will fade and people will just remember the things we got done.”
‘Solved some problems’
McDonnell’s staff has been busy promoting the governor’s legacy in the final weeks. Earlier this month, the governor’s office sent reporters a 52-page booklet highlighting the administration’s achievements, including job creation, pension reforms, increased higher education spending and a hard-won transportation funding plan.
“On the policy side, whether you agree with him or disagree with him on a particular issue, he accomplished a tremendous amount of things,” Griffith said.
McDonnell said he hopes future governors will sustain those achievements. McAuliffe has reappointed three of McDonnell’s cabinet secretaries and praised the outgoing governor for “his record of sound financial leadership.”
McDonnell acknowledged that he and McAuliffe have differences on Medicaid expansion, education and social issues. But, McDonnell said, he also believes his administration laid a foundation that sets up McAuliffe to succeed.
“I’ve told Terry we’ve solved some problems for him,” McDonnell said. “We’ve got the retirement system on track now. We’ve got transportation funding squared away for a generation. We’ve got new models for investment in higher education that are on track. Obviously, part of my interest in the transition is to convince him that a lot of the things that I have done, both administratively and in statute, are the right things and he should keep it going.”
The capstone of McDonnell’s term came this year, when the General Assembly passed legislation that will pump $3.5 billion into the state’s transportation system over the next five years and raise additional amounts for the congested regions of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
The law increased tax rates on retail and vehicle sales and replaced the state’s per-gallon gas tax with a sales tax levied on the wholesale price of fuel. The compromise had bipartisan support, though nearly half of the Republicans in the House and 12 of the 20 GOP senators voted against the bill that went to McDonnell’s desk.
“He was able to do what had not been done before, to corral members of his own party to cobble together a coalition that would be able to pass some meaningful legislation,” said Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, the chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
McDonnell said his administration had used every trick in the bag to find new money for roads before turning toward new taxes. He had the Virginia Department of Transportation audited and persuaded the General Assembly to accelerate the use of previously authorized debt during the first half of his term. But the state still needed a long-term plan.
“We’ve got the most congested place in the country in Northern Virginia,” McDonnell said. “We’ve got no plan to permanently get us out of this. We’ve got a gas tax that is consistently declining. And if I don’t make a sea change right now in the way we fund transportation, we’re going to have a hard time recruiting jobs and businesses and the quality of life of our people is going down. So I’m willing to spend political capital to get this done, and it worked.”
Looking for next role
Not all of McDonnell’s policy actions drew bipartisan praise. Virginia made national headlines in 2012 when the General Assembly passed legislation requiring women to submit to a mandatory abdominal ultrasound procedure before having an abortion. McDonnell didn’t lead the charge for the bill, but he signed it after getting legislators to amend it so that it would not require a more invasive procedure.
The bill got through both houses after Republicans gained enough Senate seats in the 2011 elections to seize working control of the chamber. McDonnell had admonished his party prior to the 2012 session not to “overreach” with their newly acquired power.
“I think, in that regard, he was all full of sound and fury signifying nothing when he’s talking about overreaching,” McEachin said.
McDonnell championed social conservative causes as a legislator, but insisted those issues did not preoccupy him as governor.
“No one doubted that I was a pro-life guy,” he said. “But, they also understood that my major focus was going to be on jobs and economic issues and kitchen table issues, and that’s what people overwhelmingly care about for them and their kids.”
McDonnell’s supporters said the governor lived up the “Bob’s for Jobs” slogan he adopted during his 2009 campaign.
“Bob clearly focused on the policy matter of running the commonwealth and trying to make the commonwealth one of the best states in the nation in which to do business, or to continue that trend, and to improve education, transportation,” Griffith said.
McDonnell’s push for education reforms also created friction, particularly this year when he pushed for a law that would allow a new statewide school board to take over local schools that repeatedly fail to meet performance benchmarks. The Virginia School Boards Association and Norfolk’s school board have filed a court challenge to the law.
“I hope nobody rolls over on that,” McDonnell said. “That’s an important constitutional question about what the state can do when it comes to education. I think we should win that case.”
McDonnell said during the interview that he plans to take time off before deciding what to do next.
“The things that I’m exploring are very different than what I’m doing now,” he said. “I’ve got a passion for education; I’ve got a passion for benevolent work.”
But McDonnell acknowledged “that there probably won’t be a job that I’ll have in the future will have this kind of challenge and this kind of reward.”
“It’s always bittersweet when you wind down a job that you consider the highest privilege of your life, which is being governor of Virginia,” he said.