As Maureen McDonnell was growing into her public role, she sometimes lashed out at her staff behind closed doors, according to a volunteer who collaborates with the first lady on mansion projects, a former mansion employee and a state employee familiar with mansion operations.
Not satisfied with how a maid had cleaned her bathroom one day in 2011, the first lady got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the marble floor with bleach. She did this in her underwear to avoid getting bleach on her clothes. Then, according to four people close to the situation, she summoned two mansion staff members — professionals, not housekeepers — and directed them to strip down and scrub.
The staff members immediately complained to colleagues, the people said anonymously to maintain their relationship with the administration. Scarbrough, Maureen McDonnell’s spokeswoman, declined to comment.
The former mansion employee and four people who work with current and former staffers alleged that she had screamed at employees, called and sent text messages to them in the middle of the night for minor matters, such as a lost household item, and pushed them to pursue extravagant plans, such as her ultimately aborted effort to install a $400,000 Georgian-revival fireplace in the federal-style mansion dining room over the objections of architectural advisers. She has reduced maids and a state trooper to tears, the people said.
But some who know Maureen McDonnell outside the mansion find her utterly lacking in pretension. The Rev. Wayne Ball sees that in the way she and the governor worship on Sundays — and where: tiny St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Church Hill, a gentrifying but still scruffy part of Richmond. “They just come up the side aisle, come and take their seats in the pew, not making an entrance,” Ball said. “If she wanted to make a show, we’ve got the cathedral.”
Maureen McDonnell doesn’t easily take no for an answer, and some say that has been good for the mansion.
“Absolutely tops” is how Cessie Howell, wife of House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), described the first lady’s stewardship of the 200-year-old house. She praised her for finding a way to refinish badly worn floors, even after being told they were so thin from repeated sandings that nothing could be done.
But some staff members have complained that Maureen McDonnell sometimes has moved ahead with projects without thinking them through.
She led an effort to have portraits painted of every living first lady without lining up a place to hang them, for instance. A year after they were unveiled with great fanfare, the paintings have yet to find a permanent home.
Some volunteers involved with overseeing the privately funded portraits have dismissed them as a vanity project. Tom Camden, until recently curator of the state art collection, was not critical of the portraits but acknowledged that Maureen McDonnell had asked for several changes to hers.
“I understand how Mrs. McDonnell thought,” he said. “And I think she wanted her best image, whether it was necessarily historically accurate or not.”
Fredrick Kunkle and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.