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Virginia Politics
Posted at 01:08 PM ET, 06/22/2012

U-Va. Rector Helen Dragas: The political connections

In Virginia — like most places — politics is all about relationships. And here’s one of the most interesting ones we’ve seen lately.


University of Virginia Rector Helen E. Dragas talks about the decisions of the Board of Visitors after the board met in a closed meeting, Tuesday, June 19, 2012, to decide on an interim president in Charlottesville, Va. (Sabrina Schaeffer - Associated Press)
The husband of University of Virginia’s Rector Helen Dragas is a partner in a law firm with Vincent J. Mastracco, another member of the Board of Visitors.

Dragas, under fire for orchestrating the ouster of president Teresa Sullivan, kept Mastracco in the dark about the plans to remove the president until days before the June 10 announcement, according to former board members and a university official with knowledge of the situation but who was not authorized to speak publicly. (Check out our profile on Dragas.)

Dragas’s husband, Lewis Webb, works at Kaufman and Conoles, a medium-sized law firm based in Hampton Roads — the very same firm where Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) is a partner.

Yes, Virginia, it is a small world.

Here’s what Norment had to say about Dragas this week:

“She is a very astute, deliberate person who makes decisions on the facts in front of her. She’s not impulsive or reckless in her decisions,’’ Norment said. “She has a backbone of a steel rod. She is no shrinking violet.”

In Hampton Roads, Dragas, has been well known for her family’s business. A decade ago, Richmond took notice.

Former governor Mark Warner (D), now a U.S. senator, appointed Dragas to his transition team in 2001 and later appointed her to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, a crucial group that allocates funds for the state.

Former governor Tim Kaine (D) appointed Dragas to the U-Va. board in 2008 after other board members and those who carried sway with the governor lobbied him to appoint the savvy, well-known businesswoman, according to former board members. Her longtime mentor is former U-Va. Rector Jon Wynne, an influential figure in Richmond who has known Dragas since she was a child. Kaine also appointed her to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, the body that coordinates higher education in the state

Kaine, now a candidate for U.S. Senate, said in an interview Thursday that he appointed Dragas to the U-Va. board because she served well on previous boards.

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) made sure to remind reporters this week that Dragas is a Kaine appointee, and not one of his own. But McDonnell did appoint her in 2010 to serve on his jobs creation commission, headed by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R).

“I know her from my time in Virginia Beach as an incredibly competent and successful businesswoman who had an intense focus in the community and great advocacy for affordable housing,’’ he told reporters this week.

She has steered thousands of dollars to politicians in Virginia — $72,750 since 1999 from her and her companies, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit tracker of money in politics. She donated $6,000 to Kaine.

Dragas quickly moved up the chain of command at U-Va. She was almost immediately elected vice rector — a powerful post that automatically would maker rector after two years. She ran for the position against Glynn Key, the general counselor of one of General Electric’s divisions, and was easily elected by her peers on the board in a meeting.

Dragas became rector in 2011 — a cultural shift for a board mostly composed of older, wealthy white men that had never had a woman at the helm.

“She is one who has a well-earned reputation for following through on what she said she was going to do,’’ said Gary C. Byler, a Virginia Beach lawyer, a University of Virginia graduate and political activist who has known the Dragas family for decades. “It’s horribly unfortunate that she’s taking this beating. She’s getting vilified.’’

By  |  01:08 PM ET, 06/22/2012

 
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