Virginia’s Bill Bolling leaves public office, plans to stay in public life


Outgoing Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling addresses the Virginia Senate as the General Assembly reconvenes at the capitol on Wednesday in Richmond. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling is about to trade three jobs for one.

On Saturday, the Republican wraps up eight years as Virginia’s lieutenant governor, a part-time gig that pays just $36,000 a year. For the past four years, he has also served as Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s chief jobs creation officer, a job that pays zip. He’s made ends meet by doing insurance work on the side.

Bolling, 56, will become a full-time executive with his longtime insurance firm, RCM&D.

It is not the job he initially set his sights on. Bolling had hoped to succeed McDonnell as governor, but Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II outmaneuvered him to win the GOP nomination. Cuccinelli went on to narrowly lose the general election to Democratic Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, Bolling said he is looking forward to taking on broader responsibilities at the insurance firm. But the former Hanover County supervisor and state senator, who spent 22 years in elective office, said he plans to stay engaged in public life.

He did not rule out a future run for office, though he has no immediate plans to do so. He will continue leading a political action committee, the Virginia Mainstream Project, which is intended to help steer the GOP from what he calls “extreme candidates.”

A good way to start, he said, would be choosing party nominees by statewide primary rather than party conventions, which tend to be dominated by party stalwarts.

“We’ve got to stop having these conventions, heavens,” he said. “If there’s one thing, it is never, ever have another convention. . . . These conventions, they’re great for the most strident voices in the party, but very often they result in the nomination of candidates who don’t have the ability to connect with the broader electorate.”

Bolling dropped out of the race for the party nomination after Cuccinelli’s tea party supporters scrapped an agreed-upon primary for a closed party convention. Bolling not only declined to endorse Cuccinelli but publicly mulled a potential independent bid, angering many party members. He ultimately decided against the run, saying he was dissuaded by the challenge of raising money, his emotional bond with the GOP and his desire to back away from an ugly political climate.

“I’m going to miss being a part of the process of setting policy. And I’m going to miss a lot of the people, members and state employees,” he said. “I won’t miss the politics as much. . . . It’s a lot tougher than when I got started.”

Bolling spoke in a Capitol Square office cleared of nearly everything, save for a life-sized cut-out of himself. He will leave it there with a note to his successor, Lt. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D): “Just a little something to remember me by,” it reads. It was signed, “Bill,” with a smiley face beside it.

Bolling has always had the image of a happy conservative. His voting record was long in line with Cuccinelli’s on social issues. But Bolling had a more easygoing, affable manner than the combative attorney general, who made a national name for himself with legal battles against “Obamacare,” a university climate scientist and colleges that included gays in their anti-discrimination policies.

His term as lieutenant governor was more consequential than most occupants of the post, which former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) once dismissed the job as “a rather vacuous position.” (The comment came back to haunt Wilder years later when he ran for the position, but he won anyway.) .

That was partly because McDonnell made him a member of his Cabinet — a first for a lieutenant governor — and partly because Bolling presided over the Senate at a time when the chamber was evenly split. As lieutenant governor, he had the power to decide tie votes, and he cast a record number of them.

Looking back on his time in office, Bolling said he was most proud of work he did as a senator to establish a children’s health-care program and to protect natural resources. As chief jobs creation officer, he said he had helped the administration close 1,350 economic development deals and create 175,000 net new jobs.

He said the toughest days on the job were in the aftermath of the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, in which the shooter and 32 students and staff died. Then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) was overseas when the shooting took place. And while he quickly returned, Bolling stood in for the governor as the crisis erupted, meeting with families of the victims.

“That was the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” he said, tearing up at the memory. “I don’t care how long you’re around, you can’t be prepared.”

When he finally returned home, his wife, Jean Ann, met him at the door.

“I can’t cry anymore,” he told her.

A much brighter memory involved a visit by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II to Richmond in 2007. Bolling, the son of a coal miner, still marvels at his brush with royalty.

“A little boy who grew up in a mobile home in the Appalachian coal fields got to have dinner with the queen of England,” he said. “That was a lot of fun.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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