Home First meeting with Bob McDonnell

First meeting with Bob McDonnell


bob-mcdonnellI first met Bob McDonnell in 2003. I’d not yet heard of him when he was introduced to me at the grand opening of a local Republican election headquarters in Waynesboro that fall.

It was not a big event, to say the least. The 2003 election was an off-year election with only local House and State Senate races on the ballot. There were maybe 10 people at the kickoff event that I was covering for the then-new Augusta Free Press.

McDonnell was dressed like he was in New York for a high-level business meeting, which meant he stood out on that Saturday morning in sleepy Waynesboro.

That struck me, as did how he was introduced to me, as a candidate for the Republican attorney-general nomination.

That was for the upcoming 2005 election cycle. McDonnell dressed to the nines, drove across the state and was glad-handing 10 local Republicans in Waynesboro as part of his effort to win a nomination in two years.

I decided then and there that he was surely going to be the nominee, and this was in an era when Republicans always won the general election for attorney general, and Republican attorney generals were then automatically next in line to run for governor.

All of that came to me in about 10 minutes that Saturday morning. I couldn’t have foreseen Barack Obama winning Virginia on his way to the White House in 2008, Creigh Deeds beating Terry McAuliffe to open the door for McDonnell’s landslide win in 2009, McDonnell’s largely very successful turn as governor, the historic transportation funding compromise that had eluded his predecessors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and of course the hard fall from grace culminating this week in 11 felony convictions on corruption charges.

McDonnell was at once affable and Teflon, like Warner in that respect, glib and thus well-liked in the media, and able to deflect controversy as a result, like when Deeds tried to run him into the ground with a thesis that McDonnell had written as a grad student in the 1980s that blasted women, LGBTs and generally speaking anybody and everybody not a committed hard-core, social-conservative Republican as being the cause for perceived moral decay in modern society. But Bob’s for Jobs, he said, and he not only sidestepped controversy, but parried and thrusted Deeds into looking to be the extremist for making an issue of nothing, a grad-school thesis, for chrissakes.

It was this gift that turned into hubris that was the heart of McDonnell’s downfall. Just as he turned Deeds into the extremist in 2009, he’d turn federal prosecutors into overreaching partisans, not only beating the rap against the corruption charges, but using it as the basis for a political comeback, talking openly with reporters during breaks in his trial about his plans to run for governor in 2017, if he didn’t somehow end up on the national Republican Party ticket in 2016.

It was a classic misread for a guy who had made so many preternaturally wise good calls for so long, not only the decision to turn down a deal that would have had him plead guilty to a single count that wouldn’t have exposed him to jail time, but the series of acts that landed him in hot water in the first place. A career public servant, from his military service to his work as a prosector and legislator, McDonnell didn’t have the silver spoon in his mouth that some in politics do. His family’s fledgling real-estate business was more an anchor around his neck than it was a help, taking a hit from the recession that hit in late 2007, and forcing his hand once he got into the governor’s mansion in 2010.

Keeping up appearances, he sought the help of Jonnie Williams, the CEO of a pharmaceuticals company who also happened to think that one of his company’s newest products could benefit from being pitched to state agencies and public colleges and universities in Virginia. Using loans and then several showers of gifts to buy a friendship with the governor and his wife, Maureen, Williams got his foot in the door in the form of meetings with state and higher-education officials.

That the meetings went absolutely nowhere would ultimately not matter to the jury in the trial of the McDonnells, who also didn’t buy the unique defense that was built around the dysfunction that was the former First Couple’s marriage. The strategy was to sell the McDonnells as incapable of conspiring to sell the governor’s office to the highest bidder because they had grown apart, and anyway, what did Williams get for his loans and gifts?

It’s just starting to sink in for me that the jury actually brought back convictions, and that the McDonnells now face decades in prison. A much shorter sentence than the ultimate exposure is more realistic, but federal sentencing guidelines still suggest in the 10-years-each range. I’m expecting something closer to 18 months for Bob and maybe six to nine months for Maureen, but then what? Divorce seems inevitable, and Bob McDonnell, as a convicted felon, loses his law license and his state pension.

Maybe he shops writing a book about his rise and fall, but it’s not a guarantee that he gets enough of an advance to live out the rest of his years on, given the sorry state of the book industry today.

This is a guy who until about 3 p.m. yesterday was still thinking he could run for governor, for the Senate, maybe even for president. Now he has to look forward to prison and poverty in his senior years.

Part of me feels awful for the guy that I first met 11 years ago laying the groundwork for a run for attorney general that this is what happened as a result of that hard work and sacrifice. A bigger part of me feels awful that the same guy who worked so hard also put himself in the position to throw it all away for a relative pittance in the grander scheme of things.

– Column by Chris Graham



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