You have to wonder if Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is wishing he’d just had an old-fashioned extramarital affair. The media and public are used to those—even a little bored by them these days.
But misusing one’s office for the personal enrichment of self and family? That still merits attention, especially with much of the nation, including the good people of Virginia, grappling with a sluggish economy. So it is that McDonnell—whose economic focus, conservative-yet-non-flamboyantly-terrifying persona, and weatherproof hair had him being touted as a possible national player—now finds himself less a political role model than a cautionary tale, as multiple investigators parse his habitual cadging to see if he technically broke the law. (This is harder to determine than you might imagine in Virginia, where officials are held to lower ethical standards than Charlie Sheen.) Meanwhile, state Republicans are increasingly anxious about November, as scandal spillover begins to sully McDonnell’s aspiring successor, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, whose coattails down-ballot candidates were looking to ride. “I don’t think this is helpful,” says former Virginia representative Tom Davis, sighing.
To recap: in March of last year, a disgruntled chef booted from the governor’s mansion informed authorities that a $15,000 catering tab for the June 2011 wedding of McDonnell’s daughter Cailin had been paid for by a rich political donor named Jonnie R. Williams Sr. The probing commenced, and soon it came to light that Williams had made several such displays of gubernatorial devotion, including underwriting a $15,000 shopping spree at Bergdorf’s for the governor’s wife, Maureen, and buying, at Maureen’s behest, a $6,500 Rolex for her to give her hubby.
Not that the relationship was one-sided: three days before Cailin’s wedding, Williams flew Maureen to Florida (on his jet, of course) so she could rave to investors about a dietary supplement, Antablock, sold by Williams’s company, Star Scientific. Later that summer, Maureen arranged for Williams to tout Antablock at a luncheon at the governor’s mansion attended by her husband and a bevy of area health-care providers. In a separate incident, Williams reportedly was given a sit-down with top state health officials, though no one has yet clarified whether that meeting was set up at the behest of the first lady’s office or her husband’s.
Politics being the classy field it is, some of the governor’s defenders have been whispering (sotto voce, of course) that this whole mess is Maureen’s fault. She has caviar tastes, goes the narrative, and her indulgent hubby simply wasn’t paying close enough attention to her snazzy new wardrobe, upscale gifts, and posh wedding planning. Poor love-blind Bob. This line of nonsense was blown all to hell last week with revelations of Williams’s grander, more direct cash investments in the McDonnell clan. Williams, for whatever reason, gave Maureen a cool $50,000 in May 2011. More disappointing for the throw-Maureen-under-the-bus crowd, he also plopped $70,000 into a real-estate venture co-owned by the governor and his sister, who also happens to be named Maureen. The governor, you see, was one of the unfortunate many hit by the housing bust. The three rental properties he and his sister own, two at the beach and one in the mountains, fared poorly post-bubble. Super-generous of Williams to lend a hand, right? Yet Williams’ gift/loan/whatever apparently made so little impression on McDonnell that he flat-out forgot to report it as required by law. Williams, meanwhile, ponied up $10,000 for the nuptials of another McDonnell daughter, Jeanine, this May. Mustn’t play favorites, you know.
(Adding a penny-ante pathos to this garish spectacle, two weeks ago McDonnell wrote taxpayers a personal check for $2,290.55 as reimbursement for food and household goods that three of his kids took from the governor’s mansion to stock their dorm rooms from 2010 to 2013. So in addition to learning all about their first family’s favorite sugar daddy, voters are getting an itemized account of how many Boost energy drinks, Hot Pockets, and jugs of liquid Tide they’ve bought the younger McDonnells in recent years.)
Virginians have thus far been pretty tolerant of their first family’s desire to live large. (Up through last week’s revelations, polls showed that McDonnell was still a pretty popular guy.) And why not? Politicians like nice stuff too, and who’s to say how much love is too much love from a close, personal donor?
Indeed, all of this hullabaloo might well have been shrugged off as the poor judgment of one grabby but term-limited politician, were it not for the resulting discovery that Jonnie Williams had another good friend in Richmond: Ken Cuccinelli.
Yep. Turns out Virginia’s AG has enjoyed Williams’s largesse as well. Admittedly, his gifts were nowhere near as nice as McDonnell’s. The monetary value of Williams’s gifts to Cucinelli has been estimated at a comparatively measly $18,000, some $5,000 of which the AG initially failed to disclose. Still, it’s the thought that counts, right? And one can only presume that Cuccinelli and Williams’s friendship will become that much closer if the AG gets promoted to governor. Further cementing the friendship, Cuccinelli has bought several thousand shares of Star Scientific since 2010, the reporting of which he has, at times, been a bit lax about. But, hey, he’s a busy guy. Who has time to worry about complying with all those legal niceties?
Thus far, most of the heat has fallen on McDonnell’s entanglements with Williams. But the bigger question for the GOP is how far the ripples will be felt. “This may harm Ken,” says Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, a former state senator (and wife of Tom Davis). “It may color people’s perspective of him.”
Having the current and aspiring Republican governors caught up in an ethics tangle could prove particularly helpful to Democratic nominee Terry McAullife, whose sketchy behavior at the Democratic National Committee back in the Clinton era was something Republicans were eager to remind voters about. “There’s no question that Cuccinelli’s people have saved some bombs to drop on McAuliffe in the fall,” says Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “What does this do? It neutralizes those. Instead of McAuliffe being the corrupt candidate, at worst he’ll say, ‘See, we’re both corrupt.’”
“Exactly!” fumes Tom Davis when asked about this dynamic. “This was our best issue.” But now, he says, the Jonnie Williams mess threatens not just to defuse but to trump the McAuliffe ethics card. “This is fresher.”
“Both campaigns are going to shoot at the other quite significantly,” predicts Devolites Davis. “By November, voters are going to feel so badly about both of them because of this that there will be low voter turnout. They’ll be so turned off they wind up not voting.”
Ordinarily, low voter turnout in Virginia helps the Republicans, whose base tends to be more motivated than the Democrats—especially when a Democrat holds the White House. Plus, contends Devolites Davis, state House districts are so small that they turn on personal relationships rather than larger trends. Even so, word around the state is that Republican legislators are verrrry nervous that the fallout could get bad enough to throw some seats into the Democratic column.
Maybe, says Sabato. “In this polarized era, partisan ID really matters, especially in a low-turnout election.” That said, “The more unpopular McDonnell becomes, the more difficult it’s going to be for Cuccinelli to win.”
And that, by extension, could make life tougher for the party’s other two statewide contenders, nominees for lieutenant governor and attorney general, whose fortunes tend to rise or fall with the top of the ticket.
Unless, of course, McDonnell manages to change the subject by revealing an inappropriate Twitter threesome with Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer.