McDonnell squeezes in a bit of national attention

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; B01

RICHMOND -- Virginia's new governor faces a crash course in the state's finances, a $4.2 billion budget shortfall and a long to-do list that includes unveiling his legislative priorities, hiring agency heads and learning his job.

But in the middle of his second week in office, Republican Robert F. McDonnell is taking some time away from his duties in Richmond to deliver the response to President Obama's State of the Union address, give a speech to Republican members of Congress about how he won his campaign and hobnob at the Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington.

Democrats, who have been urging McDonnell to provide more guidance on how to close the multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, question whether the diversions are wise given all that the state faces.

"My view is, this governor ought to be at home taking care of Virginia," said C. Richard Cranwell, a longtime legislator and now chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party. "It concerns me in this environment he is off to these other things that take him away from the job at hand."

McDonnell's activities and the Democratic criticism are a reversal from last year, when Republicans criticized then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) for also serving as his party's national leader. "I'll be a full-time governor," McDonnell said on more than occasion.

McDonnell described his opportunities to speak this week to national audiences as a privilege and said his appearances weren't taking away from his day job.

"I'm so focused on what I need to do here in Virginia," he said in an interview. "It'll take a little bit of time, but it's a tremendous honor to be able to speak for the Republican Party, particularly from the state perspective, about what we need to do from the state and federal level."

On Tuesday, McDonnell unveiled his first legislative proposal: a 20-bill package that he says will lead to more than $311 million in new revenue for the state over five years and the creation of more than 29,000 jobs over two years.

The package includes proposals to provide tax credits for movie production, to help veterans open businesses and to encourage energy research and economic development at universities.

Nonetheless, Democratic legislators say they are waiting for more recommendations.

"Thus far, the governor has provided zero direction on budget cuts or balancing the budget," said Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax). "We've got 140 people here, and we're all waiting for the governor to give us some direction."

Republican congressional leaders tapped McDonnell to deliver his party's response to the State of the Union after praising him as a new model of candidate, who could appeal to Democrats and independents by talking about jobs, the economy and other kitchen-table issues.

McDonnell will be the third Virginian to deliver the response in five years: Kaine gave it in 2006, just after he took office, and U.S. Sen. James Webb (D) delivered it in 2007.

U.S. House Republicans also booked McDonnell to speak at their annual retreat, titled "Winning Back America," this weekend in Baltimore. On Saturday night, he will be the guest of Fred Malek, a major Republican donor, at the Alfalfa Club dinner, an annual gathering of inside-the-Beltway elite usually attended by the president.

On Wednesday, McDonnell will stick to his previously scheduled events, including a speech to the Northern Virginia Technology Council and an appearance at the state Capitol for Brunswick Stew Day, but he is scheduled for a handful of national media interviews Thursday. When Kaine gave the State of the Union response four years ago, he had spent much of the day doing interviews with national media.

McDonnell's staff has spent more than a week writing his speech, searching for a venue to give the response and working out other details.

The speech, expected to be 10 to 15 minutes long, will include references to the economy, education and energy, and to McDonnell's philosophy of limited government.

"I was concerned about weighing into national issues, but they were obviously excited about these wins in New Jersey and Virginia and felt that I would be a good spokesman about the party. And if I could do a service in putting a positive, happy, pro-business face on the Republican Party, then I'm glad to be able to do it," McDonnell said.

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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