If you ever doubted that money outweighs principles in contemporary politics, then the case of Richmond campaign consultant Boyd Marcus should permanently erase such ambiguity in your mind.
Marcus, a prominent figure in Virginia politics for two decades, made headlines in August when he abandoned a lifetime of supporting Republicans to endorse Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor.
McAuliffe’s team and Marcus trumpeted the conversion as an important political sign that mainstream Republicans were rejecting the tea party conservatism espoused by GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli II.
Instead, we learned Thursday, the primary motive was entirely mercenary. An e-mail was made public showing that 16 days before announcing he was backing McAuliffe, Marcus had offered to work for Cuccinelli if the Republican agreed to pay him “something in the range of $75,000 -$100,000.”
In other words, Marcus was perfectly willing to work for Cuccinelli — whose politics he then spent the rest of the campaign decrying — if the price were right.
When Cuccinelli’s campaign turned him down, Marcus followed the greenbacks. His firm received $40,000 in consulting fees from the McAuliffe campaign in four payments from September to November, according to Virginia disclosure statements.
Those events alone are enough to disillusion even the jaded. But the story has another chapter.
It seems that the $40,000 was only a down payment for Marcus’s turnabout.
McAuliffe has created the first controversy of his new administration by appointing Marcus to a well-paid position as a member of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
The ABC post is one of the state’s most lucrative patronage slots, having paid an annual salary in the past of between $124,000 and $136,000. Republicans are enraged that a governor claiming to stand for bipartisanship is rewarding a man whom the GOP considers a traitor.
“It’s clearly a political payoff, for a big favor that he did for then-candidate McAuliffe,” Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said. He is House deputy majority leader and chairman of the committee that will vet Marcus before the General Assembly decides whether to confirm him.
Marcus did not respond to phone calls and e-mails requesting comment. McAuliffe pushed back against the criticism in an interview Friday, telling the Associated Press, “Am I not supposed to appoint Republicans who, you know, honestly had the courage to step out and endorse me?”
The governor said Marcus was “well qualified” for the ABC position. He dismissed the matter as “little political petty whatever.”
That’s a tin-eared response, for two reasons. First, one of McAuliffe’s principal challenges as governor is to overcome his image as a political wheeler-dealer from years of work as a campaign fundraiser and partisan operator.
Also, he’s pledged to set a new ethical tone in Richmond after the gifts scandal that embroiled former governor Bob McDonnell (R).
The Marcus controversy “confirms the worst perceptions that people have about politics, in both high and low places, which is that individual people are getting something personally from it, and there are all these deals being cut, and there are all these backs being scratched,” said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va.
“The incident is also bad because it’s a bridge between the McDonnell scandal and the McAuliffe administration,” Kidd said. “This is exactly the kind of story that the McAuliffe people don’t want.”
Although it was disclosed in August that Marcus was taking a paid position with the McAuliffe campaign, he said then that he changed sides because the Democratic candidate impressed him.
In digs at Cuccinelli’s extremism, Marcus said on Aug. 20 that McAuliffe was “the clear choice for mainstream conservatives” and someone who would “put the practical needs of our people ahead of political ideology.”
In the Aug. 4 e-mail offering his services to Cuccinelli, however, Marcus had written that he could “assist in outreach to the business community and segments of the [Republican] party that are not yet supporting the campaign.” The e-mail was addressed to Cuccinelli’s former strategist, Chris LaCivita, who disclosed it.
The fate of Marcus’s nomination in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates will depend partly on whether there’s any evidence that Marcus was promised the ABC job as a condition for endorsing McAuliffe. The governor denied there was a quid pro quo, but Gilbert said the delegates will be examining that closely.
Regardless of whether Marcus gets to keep his job, his maneuvering last year led George Klosko, professor of political theory at the University of Virginia, to draw a lesson: “ ‘Ethical consultant’ is probably an oxymoron.”
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.