Gov. McDonnell finishes fast-paced tour of Virginia focusing on accomplishments, not gift scandal

August 15, 2013

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Something dark and menacing hovered over Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, yet he seemed not to notice.

The Republican had traveled to the Virginia Museum of Natural History here, in this long-depressed town near the North Carolina border, to host a thank-you dinner Monday for 300 state employees. He was so busy praising their public service, reminding them of the 2 percent raise he’d delivered, plying them with pulled pork, slaw and beans, he hardly glanced at the Allosaurus skeleton reigning over the grand exhibit hall.

Nor did he make any mention of the gifts scandal that loomed over his final year in office, leading him, in a roundabout way, to Martinsville and across Virginia in a seven-day, 22-stop tour that wrapped up Thursday in Leesburg.

McDonnell has spent the last week on a 1,500-mile charm offensive, barnstorming Virginia more like a candidate for governor in the final dash to Election Day than a departing chief executive in the sunset of his term. By boat and plane, helicopter and SUV, from the Kentucky border to the Eastern Shore, McDonnell crisscrossed a state that he has confessed to shaming. Critics called it his “apology tour,” but there were no more “I’m sorries” for the lavish gifts and $120,000 in loans he and his family accepted from a Virginia businessman.

The governor spent his time highlighting his administration’s accomplishments, never bringing up the gifts or related state and federal investigations now underway. He spoke of the scandal only in response to reporters’ questions.

Timeline: Star Scientific and Gov. McDonnell

Virginia’s outgoing governor typically takes a victory lap around the state. But the scope and intensity of McDonnell’s jaunt set this tour apart, say political observers, who contend he was trying to shift the spotlight.

Launched five months into the controversy, the trip reflects a strategic shift by McDonnell’s new legal team to stop hunkering down and start aggressively presenting him as a chief executive busy with the business of governing. With stops in places that the administration has helped, the tour seemed designed to convey the message scrawled on one of the homemade signs that greeted him along the way: “Virginia still loves Bob McDonnell.”

McDonnell has taken statewide tours every year he’s been governor, but the size and pace of those trips did not match this year’s. His 2012 tour came closest, with 15 stops over six days. In 2011, he hit seven places and later paid a separate, three-day visit to Southwest Virginia. In 2010, he made eight stops over a month.

“I love getting out on the road,” McDonnell told reporters in Lynchburg, where he had snipped a red ribbon to open an academy focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics as part of his “This Commonwealth Opportunity” tour. “It’s something we do every year.”

But this time, McDonnell was traveling across a state to which he had recently apologized. In a written statement last month, he said he was “deeply sorry for the embarrassment” that he and his family had brought on Virginia for accepting gifts and loans from Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

McDonnell and first lady Maureen McDonnell had promoted Williams’s nutritional supplement around the time he picked up the $15,000 catering tab at their daughter’s wedding, The Washington Post first reported in late March. McDonnell said he did not have to disclose the gift because it was given to his daughter, not him. State officeholders are allowed to accept gifts of unlimited value so long as they disclose any worth more than $50. Gifts to immediate family members do not have to be reported.

Williams also provided an undisclosed $6,500 Rolex watch for the governor, a $15,000 Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree for the first lady, a $10,000 engagement gift to another daughter, and $120,000 in loans to the governor and first lady. McDonnell has said he provided no state favors to Williams or Star Scientific in return for the gifts, which he has since given back.

The idea that the just-concluded tour was an attempt to distract from all that was “absolutely wrong,” McDonnell told reporters Thursday after a forum on education reform in an Alexandria high school.

McDonnell set out to remind Virginians of all stripes — from fiddlers in rural Galax to Intuit employees in Fredericksburg — all that he has done for them. He talked about signing a landmark transportation-funding deal and K-12 reform; promoting job growth and economic development; selling record numbers of Virginia agriculture products overseas; pushing for the restoration of felon voting rights; and shoring up the state’s pension system and rainy day fund. Before the scandal broke, he was one of the nation’s most popular governors, one often mentioned last year as a vice presidential contender. He had been mulling a bid for president in 2016.

At a Virginia Department of Transportation office in Lynchburg, McDonnell talked about the economic boost that will come from $1.4 billion in annual transportation funding. Hand casually stuck in one pocket, a map of the long-sought Odd Fellows Road Interchange off to one side, he assured VDOT employees, Liberty University officials and state legislators that it will be a boon.

“It’s jobs building the projects, mostly Virginia jobs,” he said. “But it also gives us a great opportunity to tell the Virginia story in a better way. ‘Look, we fixed the infrastructure problem. Our bond rating’s secure. We’ve got the ability to move goods and people a lot better. So come to Virginia.’ ”

Wherever he went, those assembled seemed grateful. At a precision machining center at Danville Community College, he was introduced as the “71st governor of Virginia.” If the phrase — notoriously inscribed on the Rolex — brought the scandal to mind for anyone, no one showed it. The crowd gave him a standing ovation at the start and end of his remarks.

“The governor has worked tirelessly for the commonwealth, and we’ve seen huge results,” said Jon Wehner, co-owner of Chatham Vineyards in Machipongo, which the governor visited Wednesday.

Wehner credited the administration with helping him get his wines on the shelves at Whole Foods and Ellwood Thompson’s, a Richmond natural grocery store. As for the scandal, he said he hasn’t given it much thought.

At the start of the Martinsville thank-you dinner, Virginia Employment Commission employee Silvester Howell expressed mixed feelings about the governor. As someone who tries to help people find work, he thought McDonnell has done a lot to bring jobs to a region devastated by the loss of textile and furniture industries. Yet as someone who had also spent 30 years as a procurement officer, Howell said he’d always lived by strict gift rules and thought everyone should.

Before the event wrapped up, Howell had shaken McDonnell’s hand and bent his ear about the challenges the region still faces. The 52-year-old Democrat had been won over.

“He promised to send me a lapel pin,” he said.

Looking tan and thin — McDonnell says he is down 20 pounds from exercise and giving up alcohol and sweets for Lent — the governor was jocular and charming. To the crowd that rose to its feet for him at an afternoon event, he joked: “You needed that after-lunch exercise.”

“Hope you got the check I got you. You earned it,” he told state employees, referring to end-of-year bonuses.

After events wrapped up, McDonnell gathered briefly with reporters, who sometimes questioned him about gifts or his relationship with Williams. A photographer asked about the black cowboy boots McDonnell sported with his gray business suit. The Lucchese footwear was a post-election gift from Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), the governor said.

“Were they disclosed, governor?” a Richmond columnist asked.

“They were, actually,” McDonnell said calmly.

Three days into the tour, the (Charlottesville) Daily Progress became the first newspaper in the state to call for McDonnell’s resignation. The governor also made news by telling a reporter aboard his plane that he had, as promised, returned all of Williams’s gifts. That topic continued to churn for a day afterward, as a McDonnell spokesman declined to specify what had been given back.

Gary C. Byler, a Virginia Beach GOP operative and longtime friend of McDonnell’s, said the tour was an ordinary wrap-up to a successful governorship.

“It certainly was not in response to the recent unpleasantness,” Byler said. “It was basically planned since Inauguration Day.”

Michael Alison Chandler and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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