By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
RICHMOND, Aug. 25 -- Virginia Republicans are trying to fend off an escalating scandal surrounding a powerful legislator by pressuring him to resign before he tarnishes the GOP ticket statewide and possibly costs his party a crucial seat in the divided legislature.
Party leaders, including gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell, are calling on Del. Phillip A. Hamilton to step down over a conflict-of-interest issue as they head into the November election, in which polls show all three GOP statewide candidates leading.
But Hamilton, a 21-year legislative veteran from Newport News and one of the most powerful members of the House of Delegates, refuses to resign and insists on running for reelection.
Gary C. Byler, chairman of the 2nd Congressional District Republican Committee in Hampton Roads, said that Hamilton deserves a chance to prove his innocence but that he could hurt a reenergized party looking to turn around recent losses. "It's a distraction to the state ticket," Byler said. "It's a little bit of a drag. It's something we would not like to have."
Democrats are hoping to taint Republicans with the whiff of possible corruption as they remind voters -- many of whom are anxious about the direction of the state, a new Washington Post poll shows -- that the General Assembly is partly run by Republicans.
Democratic attorney general candidate Stephen C. Shannon is criticizing his GOP rival, Ken Cuccinelli II, for being the only statewide candidate of either party to refuse to call for Hamilton's resignation.
All three Democrats running for statewide office -- gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds, lieutenant governor candidate Jody Wagner and Shannon -- have called for Hamilton to step down. McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling joined them late Monday.
Hamilton, who as a budget negotiator and vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is one of the few legislators who helps determine how billions in state money is spent, tried to get a job at Old Dominion University while securing money for the school.
Hamilton and ODU severed ties last week, after the school released documents showing that Hamilton had discussions about a job with the university at least five months before he submitted a budget amendment to fund the Center for Teacher Quality and Educational Leadership.
Hamilton has apologized but said the residents in his district should decide whether he should represent them. "The people of Newport News and James City deserve a representative whose first concern is their interest, and not one who follows the dictates of partisanship or convenience," he said in a statement.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) has asked his chamber's Ethics Advisory Panel to investigate Hamilton for a possible violation of state conflict of interest laws, but has not called for him to step down.
This year, Democrats hope to pick up the six seats they need to take control of the House for the first time in almost a decade -- which would give them a majority in both chambers.
"We have a shot at it,'' House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said.
But Republicans, who have lost 11 seats since 2003, have begun an aggressive campaign against at least half a dozen Democrat incumbents, many who represent districts won by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the presidential election last year.
This is the first time in modern history that different parties have had outright control of the House and Senate, and for two years it has left the General Assembly unable to agree on many major issues, including where to find much-needed money for roads and transit.
Whichever party has control of the General Assembly determines how to spend billions of taxpayer dollars and write laws on issues that include education, health care and crime. The Republican majority in the House has helped doom much of the policy agenda of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and his fellow Democrats, including proposals to raise taxes for roads and transit projects, require that sellers conduct background checks on buyers at gun shows, and change the way legislative and congressional boundaries are drawn.
Hamilton's seat was on the Democrats' targeted list of incumbents, but the scandal has raised expectations for a win.
Democrat Robin Abbott, a consumer protection lawyer running against Hamilton, campaigns on transportation, jobs and a new ethics plan that she said will empower ethics advisory panels and curb lobbyist influence. "The more I speak to voters, the more I realize that there is a strong hunger for change and a state government that works for all of us again," she said.
Peyton White, a longtime Republican activist from Newport News, predicts a Hamilton win because, she said, his constituents know that he researches each issue and does what's best for his district. "He isn't just taking partisan votes," she said.