Va.’s Bolling gets high marks for polite touch

March 16, 2012

A bill to eliminate teacher tenure was on the rocks, and in a fiery plea for passage, Sen. Mark D. Obenshain kept gesturing toward opponents in the Senate gallery.

Another senator rose to ask whether the “constant references” to observers were appropriate. The man charged with deciding that matter — and scores of others this year in Virginia’s evenly divided Senate — replied swiftly and deftly.

“I will not say it’s appropriate,” said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R). “However, it does not violate a rule.”

That was as close as the genial lieutenant governor ever came to smacking someone down this General Assembly session, and it was enough to prompt Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) to apologize. Bolling decided many highly partisan issues over the 60 days — he cast a record 28 tie-breaking votes, far surpassing the previous record of 12 and the 19 he racked up over his first six years as lieutenant governor — but still managed to preside over Richmond’s upper chamber with an air of collegiality and civility.

His style could not be more different than that of his Republican rival for governor, Ken Cuccinelli II, the in-your-face attorney general who has gone after the federal government, climate scientists and colleges with policies against gay discrimination. But in his own, mild-mannered way, Bolling helped Republicans take charge of the Senate and pass conservative legislation that had eluded them for years.

With tie-breakers nearly every other day, on average, Bolling decided the fate of some of the most hotly contested issues of the session — ones near and dear to the conservative GOP base he’ll need to beat Cuccinelli in the June 2013 primary. He tipped the balance on bills and amendments related to voter ID , ultrasound-before-abortion, property rights, school vouchers, right-to-work laws and — perhaps most important of all — the organization of the Senate.

“I think he was able to burnish his conservative credentials,” said former lieutenant governor John Hager, who tuned in to Senate proceedings on television. “I thought it was very smooth and very fair and honest, and when he voted, there was not a lot of fanfare. He went right to it and did it without any extra emotion or anything else. He just handled his business.”

Even Democrats who say Bolling helped Republicans pull off a power grab, who bitterly opposed bills he nudged over the finish line, say his high-profile stint as tie-breaker will help him battle Cuccinelli.

“You’re running against somebody who thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old and flat, you can’t be too conservative,” said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “I don’t think he cast any votes there that would get him in trouble with the so-called Republican base. There could be some argument about the general election.”

That is not to say that Bolling won over everyone with his consequential but low-key turn atop the dais, particularly at a time when the GOP base seems to crave firebrands.

“In the past two years, it has become clear that Virginia and the rest of the country are suffering from a lack of firm, principled conservative leaders . . . men and women not just willing to talk about our principles but to stick their necks out and lead on tough issues,’’ Teiro Cuccinelli, the attorney general’s wife, said in a recent letter to supporters. “Personally I’m very tired of elected officials who want to make everybody happy and avoid ruffling any feathers at all costs. By avoiding all controversy, they actually don’t accomplish anything of substance. These types of politicians are not leaders.”

Asked to comment on Bolling’s performance, Cuccinelli responded through his political director, Noah W. Wall, who said: “We’re glad the Lt. Governor is there to break the ties.”

Mark Daugherty of Augusta County, chairman of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation, praised Bolling for votes in favor of strengthening state right-to-work laws, making it harder for government to seize property by eminent domain, and (on a bill that ultimately died) subjecting participants in a welfare-to-work program to drug testing.

Daugherty took issue with one vote — to provide tax credits for school vouchers — only because he thought the measure did not go far enough.

Donald Blake, president of the Virginia Christian Alliance, also gave Bolling high marks on his votes. But Blake wished Bolling had spoken out for some antiabortion measures that he never had the chance to vote on and that ultimately died, including the so-called personhood bill that would have given rights to a fertilized egg. Cuccinelli was the featured speaker at a Feb. 15 rally in support of the bill. Bolling was invited but did not attend.

“I will say a number of the pro-family people were disappointed that Lieutenant Governor Bolling did not come out front on some issues,” said Blake, who with two other activists met with Bolling privately to lobby him on personhood. “Even after the meeting, we didn’t know where he stood. He didn’t express a position on it. He said he’d have to see what came out” of committee.

A former Hanover County supervisor and senator, Bolling has “always positioned himself as a pro-life, pro-family conservative” — but one who was, like Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, primarily focused on economic development and jobs, said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist.

“He always had this pragmatic strain, probably related to his time in local government, the getting-things-done part of government,” Holsworth said. “He has an accommodating style. He doesn’t draw those lines. ‘We can disagree without being disagreeable.’ ”

That hardly means it’s been all kumbaya between Bolling and Democrats, who took him to court in a failed bid to block him from voting on Senate organization. Democrats contended that he lacked authority to vote on such matters. Bolling disagreed and, on the very first day, broke three ties, allowing the GOP to revamp Senate rules and stack crucial committees with Republicans.

The Democrats’ take on his organizational votes never softened. As the session came to a close March 10, they were still insisting that the Senate takeover had been improper and were pushing for more committee power. That precipitated a budget standoff that will force a March 21 special session.

But it could have been worse, Holsworth said. Before the session began, Bolling issued a written statement conceding that his voting power was limited. He asserted his right to vote on Senate organization but acknowledged that he lacked authority to weigh in on some other matters, including the budget and judicial appointments.

“I think he really helped himself with a lot of insiders with what people thought was a very thoughtful, sensitive statement about the lieutenant governor’s powers,” Holsworth said. “He didn’t have to do that, but he put it out there. Personally, I think he deserves quite a bit of credit for the way he handled a very difficult situation from the outset by setting out the principles by which he was going to operate.”

In an interview in his Capitol Square office last week, Bolling agreed that the statement took the will-he-or-won’t-he drama out of his votes.

“I think that helped let some of the tension out of the room because they knew up front I was going to try to be fair and wasn’t going to try to overreach in my power and authority,” he said.

Democrats convinced that Bolling did overstep his bounds nevertheless had no gripes about how — day in, day out — he wielded his gavel.

“I can’t complain about his presiding over the Senate, other than sustaining very partisan issues,” Saslaw said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to tell you he unfairly presided over the Senate.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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