McAuliffe hits first bump in the road since taking office with liquor board appointment

Gov. Terry McAuliffe fired both members of the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board before getting replacements installed days later, creating a brief power vacuum that led to the dismissal of a criminal case brought by ABC agents.

McAuliffe (D) resolved the problem Wednesday with the appointment of two new commissioners — but in so doing, he set off howls from the GOP. One of the six-figure patronage jobs went to a longtime Republican strategist who crossed party lines during the campaign to endorse McAuliffe.

The episode was the first public bump in the road for McAuliffe, who stressed bipartisanship throughout the campaign and had drawn praise for his moderate Cabinet picks and outreach to GOP legislators.

The goodwill that suffused McAuliffe’s inauguration just four days earlier seemed to evaporate in an instant with the afternoon announcement that GOP operative Boyd Marcus, someone Republicans regard as a traitor to their party, had been appointed to the ABC Board.

Leaders in the GOP-dominated House pounced on the appointment as proof that McAuliffe, known as a wheeler-dealer in politics and business, was practicing blatantly transactional politics. They threatened to block the nomination, something rarely done to a Virginia governor’s appointments.

“It only took a few days and we have our first big political payoff for a big political favor,” said Deputy House Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah). “I don’t know who told the governor that was a safe bet, but the governor’s office may have wanted to think that over a little more thoroughly. . . . I think his confirmation is anything but sure.”

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said via e-mail: “I am disappointed the Governor would make a blatantly political appointment for such an important position. As with all appointments that are subject to General Assembly confirmation, we will review Mr. Marcus’ qualifications with care. In light of recent events and a rough transition at ABC, I think this appointment deserves additional scrutiny.”

Marcus did not respond to messages seeking comment. McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy declined to comment on the criticism.

McAuliffe staffers informed ABC Board Chairman J. Neal Insley and Commissioner Sandra Canada that they should clear out their desks by 5 p.m. Friday, the day before McAuliffe’s inauguration. Both had several months left on their five-year terms.

Incoming governors can and do regularly install their own people into such positions, which are considered plum political appointments because they pay more than $100,000 a year. But a new governor typically keeps at least one holdover for a few months to help the new members acclimate. The board, which oversees an agency that conducts more than 9,600 criminal investigations a year and inspects 7,300 licensed establishments, has three positions, but one had been vacant for the past year under McAuliffe’s predecessor, former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R).

McDonnell’s staff encouraged McAuliffe to retain at least one ABC commissioner temporarily, until replacements could be lined up, according to two people close to the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss an internal administration matter.

Coy questioned that account. “To the best of our knowledge, no such encouragement was made to us,” he said.

McAuliffe has repeatedly touted how closely he worked with McDonnell to pull off what he has called the smoothest transition in state history. Until now, McAuliffe has been widely praised for moderate Cabinet picks, including several holdovers from McDonnell’s administration, as part of his passionate courtship of the Republicans he will need to get anything through the General Assembly.

With the ABC Board entirely vacant, a Virginia Beach attorney argued successfully in court this week that charges against a bartender accused of serving an underage patron should be dismissed. Mike Joynes argued that under the code, the authority of ABC agents derives from the board and that without a board, they had no power. General District Court Judge Daniel Lahne agreed and dismissed the charge.

That case caused some legislators to question whether the ABC was authorized to perform other functions — including selling liquor in stores around the state.

“To my knowledge, all of the power in that public policy domain is vested in the board itself,” Gilbert said. “Whether they had any authority to do anything in that area is very unclear.”

Others said the authority to sell liquor or issue liquor licenses was never in doubt.

“This is like a tiny little blip on the radar screen,” said Susan Swecker, former ABC chairwoman under former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D), who stayed on for several months under McDonnell. “Daily business decisions were still being made.”

More lasting impact may be the partisan discord stirred up by the Marcus appointment — even though few doubt the ability of the nominee, a former chief of staff to governor James Gilmore, to execute the job.

“Let me be the first to offer my congratulations to Boyd Marcus on his appointment to the Virginia ABC Board,” state GOP Chairman Pat Mullins said. “It’s nice to know the exchange rate for 30 pieces of silver these days is about $122,000 per year plus benefits.”

The other nominee is Jeff Painter, who once served as ABC’s chief administrative officer.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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