Saturday, August 10, 2013

Ken Cuccinelli's special session blunder


On Monday, August 5, 2013, Virginia's Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli took the extraordinary step of calling on embattled Governor Bob McDonnell to call a special session of the Virginia General Assembly in order to deal with ethics. It is difficult to imagine a greater blunder.

Ken Cuccinelli has demonstrated that he isn't a very skilled politician. Cuccinelli lunges at what he believes is the immediate quick fix for his political needs of the moment without thinking about the long range consequences for others, or even for himself.

Last year, Cuccinelli decided he didn't want to face Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling in a full, free, and fair Republican primary election in June of this year. So he and the Tea Party dominated Republican Party of Virginia leadership changed the rules and decided to have a closed convention instead of an open primary. Instead of hundreds of thousands of Virginians voting to decide who the GOP's nominee for governor would be, Cuccinelli engineered his own nomination by a tiny number of delegates in a closed convention.

This maneuver solved a short term problem for Cuccinelli--how to get nominated without having to win a primary--but it created a nightmare for the rest of the Republican Party of Virginia. Instead of Bolling conceding on election night after losing the primary and pledging to support the voters' choice, Bolling and many of his supporters have declined to support Cuccinelli, who after all did steal the nomination with a cheap trick instead of winning it fair and square. From the very beginning then Cuccinelli's nomination has borne a taint of fast dealings behind closed doors.

Having arranged for his own nomination, Cuccinelli then did something strange; he feigned complete disinterest in who would be chosen to be his running mates. In the case of the attorney general nomination, this did not present much of a problem; there were only two candidates and the nomination was decided on the first ballot, going to State Senator Mark Obenshain--a very, very extreme conservative, but reasonably presentable candidate.

The problem arose in the Lieutenant Governor's race as no fewer than seven candidates presented themselves for consideration. After a series of ballots involving all sorts of betrayals and embitterment, the RPV convention settled on Bishop E.W. Jackson, Sr., probably as flawed a candidate as could ever be imagined. At the time, it apparently never occurred to Cuccinelli to throw his support and endorsement behind a more viable candidate for lieutenant governor. Jackson has been an impressive drag on the GOP ticket ever since.

Fast forward to this week and Cuccinelli's call for a special session to deal with ethics. In making this request, Ken Cuccinelli was looking for a quick fix to his own ethics problem: a series of gifts from Star Scientific's CEO Jonnie Williams totaling about $18,000, not all of which was reported as it should have been. In addition, Cuccinelli held a block of Star Scientific stock which Cuccinelli held and did not report during a period time when Star Scientific had a million dollar tax dispute before Cuccinelli's office. Cuccinelli's conflict of interest with Star Scientific was so great he had to withdraw from providing legal advice to Governor Bob McDonnell in connection with McDonnel own "Giftgate" scandal with Star Scientific, costing Virginia's taxpayers more than $50,000 a month in legal fees.

Cuccinelli wants all of this to go away. His answer? A special session of the Virginia General Assembly. In Cuccinelli's short-sighted view, this is an ideal solution. Governor McDonnell calls the 140 members of the General Assembly together and in a few weeks' time, a new tough ethics bill is passed and signed into law by Governor McDonnell. Reform is achieved and Cuccinelli can claim credit because the special session was his idea. Cuccinelli becomes the "Reform Guy," instead of the guy who came in second in "Giftgate."

What Cuccinelli didn't see is how his plan would never be accepted by his own party. Cuccinelli doesn't even seem to have coordinated his call for a special session with Governor McDonnell or the Republican leadership in the General Assembly. Both Governor McDonnell and Republican House leadership quickly responded to Cuccinelli in the negative. Why?

Well, for starters, Cuccinelli's quick fix would completely screw up Bob McDonnell's new strategy for dealing with "Giftgate." After months of stonewalling and denials, McDonnell got a new team of advisors and a new three-part strategy: 1) apologize; 2) give everything back; and 3) get out of town as much as possible: go on vacation, go to Afghanistan, and then go on tour around the state and hope everyone just forgets about you.

Cuccinelli's quick fix special session plan would require Bob McDonnell to come back to Richmond and wait around while the General Assembly debated ethics reform just across his lawn. And make no mistake, a special session on ethics reform would be all about Bob McDonnell all the time--every hearing, every committee meeting, every debate would center on what Bob McDonnell did or didn't do. No way Bob McDonnell is signing on for that--no way.

Of course, if enough legislators were willing, they could call themselves into a special session, but the Republican leadership in the House of Delegates aren't interested. House Speaker Bill Howell, House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, and other senior Republican legislators aren't interested in Ken Cuccinelli's quick fix, and can you blame them? Ken Cuccinelli wants them to stop what they're doing, suspend their campaigns for re-election, stop fundraising (remember Ken, you can't fundraise while the General Assembly is in session), and come to Richmond for a couple of weeks to pull Ken Cuccinelli's ass out of the fire. All so Ken Cuccinelli doesn't have to reimburse Jonnie Williams for $18,000 in gifts. A special session of the General Assembly would cost at least $50,000 a day!

A special session would be a trap for House Republicans. Once in Richmond they couldn't go home again until they passed real ethics reforms. What if Senate Democrats decided to slow things down? House Republicans would be stuck in Richmond, unable to campaign or fundraise while their Democratic challengers were free to do both, all the while mocking the Republican incumbents for their inability to pass real reform.

And has Cuccinelli also forgotten that he would have to stop fundraising while the General Assembly was in session? Terry McAuliffe would be free to campaign, fundraise, and talk about Cuccinelli's $50,000 a day special session. If Republicans tried to end the special session before real reform was passed, Democrats could skewer them as the party that failed to pass ethics reform--a potential disaster for the GOP just before statewide elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and the House of Delegates. Is Ken Cuccinelli crazy enough to have believed that the Republican House leadership would walk into such a trap?

Bob McDonnell and the Republican House leadership have made certain that there will be no special session on ethics, and in rejecting Cuccinelli's call for one they have hung him out to dry. Ken Cuccinelli still has an ethics cloud hanging over his head, and now he looks like he is completely out of touch with his own party's leadership. All of this because Ken Cuccinelli won't cough up $18,000 to reimburse Jonnie Williams for the gifts he gave Cuccinelli.

No, Ken Cuccinelli is not a very skilled politician. He rode into office on Bob McDonnell's coattails in 2009. Thanks to "Giftgate," Bob McDonnell no longer has any coattails to offer. As for his running mates, well he's trying his best to avoid E.W. Jackson, and it won't be long before Mark Obenshain will start trying to put some distance between himself and Cuccinelli. Ken Cuccinelli has driven the Republican Party of Virginia off a cliff . . . for $18,000.

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