A New Book Examines the Virginia Way

virginia-politicsby Peter Galuszka

Over the past several years, Virginia has seen plenty of high drama and low politics.

There was the tawdry corruption trial of former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen. At the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, the school’s popular president, was temporarily ousted in a mysterious coup. Everywhere were unlimited amounts of political money, revolving doors and public benefits for rich individuals and companies.

Taken together, the events might be a tipping point for the Old Dominion, ending, or at least reining in, the so-called “Virginia Way” of lax ethics rules and the assumption that players are honest gentlepeople.

An excellent summation of how and why the stars have so aligned can be found in a new book, “Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century, The Price of Power,” by Jeff Thomas (The History Press).Thomas, a Duke University engineering graduate who worked in non-profits in the District, lays out in painstaking detail how largely unregulated money donations have led to an extraordinary web of conflicts of interest. This paradigm has been going on for years and has been largely unquestioned, until now.

Drawn largely from the work of Virginia journalists and political analysts, Thomas finds that:

Thomas Farrell, the head of the power utility Dominion Resources, set up his young son Peter, an “amateur thespian,” to get the Republican nomination to be a delegate from Henrico County. Later, the Farrells used their clout to get more than $1 million in state aid for a Civil War movie they wrote and produced and in which Peter Farrell acted.

Sinecures abound. After he left the state senate in 2013, Henry Marsh, 80, became a part-time board member of the Alcoholic Beverage Control at a salary of $122,000. Del. Bob Brink 66, became a deputy commissioner for aging for $110,000 a year. Del. Algie Howell, 76, got a parole board seat worth $122,455 a year.

McGuireWoods, one of the state’s most prominent and wealthiest law and lobbying outfits, got more than $4.6 million in help from Richmond, otherwise crippled by a 25 percent poverty rate and crumbling school buildings, to build a new headquarters downtown.

The Washington Redskins, the fifth richest team in the National Football League, got $11 million from Richmond to build a summer training camp that the Redskins use only three weeks a year.

The state created a fund, with money from Virginia’s share of a huge health settlement with four large tobacco companies, to help Tobacco Road counties. One of its directors ended up in prison with a 10-year sentence for fraud and self-dealing. Still, the tobacco fund has paid money for new factories in the southern and western parts of the state that haven’t created anywhere close to the number of jobs advertised.

Exhibit A, of course, is the McDonnell case. The couple accepted more than $177,000 in cash, gifts, loans and vacations from vitamin supplement salesman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. The Supreme Court vacated the governor’s convictions, and he and his wife are now free. But their six-week-long trial in 2015 revealed extraordinary conflicts and hubris in the Executive Mansion.

Since then, the state has applied some cosmetic limits on accepting gifts. But donations can run sky high as long as they are reported. Even gift-giving still has plenty of loopholes, provided the giver is a “personal friend.” Travel funded by corporations is okay, too.

Thomas, a native Richmonder, has done Virginia residents a valuable service with his book. The depth of his research is impressive although the text is overly chopped up, making it a more difficult read.

In sum, he writes: “The Virginia Way cannot change as long as politicians’ self-conceptions hinge on their own righteousness, for if there can be no fall, there can be no catharsis.”

This review first appeared in the Washington Post’s “All Opinions Are Local” section.

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7 responses to “A New Book Examines the Virginia Way

  1. What’s amazing to me is how few Virginians seem able to see the systematic corruption in the state. It’s so blatant.

  2. You should read the book. Basically, it’s a dissertation-length treatment of the argument you’ve been making for years. I’m about 25% of the way through. While young Mr. Thomas argues one side of the case without presenting opposing viewpoints — one could fairly call the book a diatribe or harangue — the encyclopedic accumulation of detail is compelling.

  3. The fact the author was an engineer I am considering this book, and it would sit nicely next to The Political State of New Jersey on my shelf.

  4. Uh, oh, I just reached the section where Thomas writes about the rate-freeze deal Dominion cut with the General Assembly in 2015 in response to the Clean Power Plan. He gets a lot of stuff garbled. It’s clear that he doesn’t fully understand the complex issues he’s writing about. That’s fine — I didn’t fully understand the issues when I first started writing about them, and I’m still going up the learning curve, but when you entitle the section “Public Lies for Private Gains” — insinuating that Dominion lied — you’d better get your facts and context straight.

  5. Am puzzled over what the “other side” is as Jim refers to? Is he implying that paying bribes, legal or illegal, is OK? Is the free and easy Web of money in Virginia is OK? Are these the “other sides?”

    • Most of us can agree that there’s too much money in politics. But we don’t agree what to do about it. Curtailing the ability of people to give money to election campaigns limits their right of free speech. Curtailing the ability of people to lobby limits their right to petition government. Addressing the problem of “too much money in politics” creates problems of its own. We have to make trade-offs, and some of those trade-offs involve constitutional rights. It’s not simple.

      So far in my reading, Thomas has been content to depict all issues in black and white.

  6. (I haven’t started to read the book yet but surely will.)

    If The Virginia Way had a definition it was “civility” on the surface, and even a ways below the surface, but in exchange, no formal controls, no formal restraints, just the bounds of “gentlemanly behavior” (which some cynically ignored behind the scenes). There was the notion that “good people” (even politicians might be good people) were men of honor who could be trusted, taken at their word, without all the folderol of ex parte constraints and “sunshine” rules. The ultimate enforcement (as at the University) was exclusion, ostracism, removal from the Club of all honorable men. No formal honor committee was necessary for Richmond’s leadership to render its collective judgment — notwithstanding names of disparagement and jealousy like ‘the imperial clown show’ from mere mortals observing all this from the outside.

    Has anything changed? Well, the existence of more than a few successful Virginia politicians who openly flout The Way these days suggests it has; but maybe that “systematic corruption” was there all along. Indeed, maybe it still perseveres. I look forward to reading what Mr. Thomas has to say.

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