McDonnell shows some successes in first legislative sessions

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has been hemmed in by budget constraints, legislators say.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has been hemmed in by budget constraints, legislators say. (Bob Brown/richmond Times-dispatch Via Ap)
By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010

RICHMOND -- Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell finished his first legislative session with modest victories in economic development and education -- limited goals set as the state continues to face a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.

The new Republican governor put off many of the ambitious pledges he made on the campaign trail last year, such as finding new funding for roads, creating 100,000 more degrees at state colleges and shifting more money to public school classrooms.

"I would have liked to maybe do a lot more," McDonnell said in an interview in his still-undecorated office on Capitol Square. "Honestly, when we came in here, we took a look at the budget and decided what we were going to be able to introduce this session. . . . There are some things that strategically . . . I didn't feel like I could realistically build consensus on. Those were going to have to wait."

As McDonnell looks forward, he has begun building a reputation for taking the same moderate, pragmatic approach that he took during his campaign.

He picked a team of top advisers who were for the most part not considered ideological. He concentrated his speeches and trips across the state on his top priorities during the campaign: jobs and the economy. He tried to make inroads with legislators, meeting nearly half of them face-to-face, inviting groups to the Executive Mansion and giving out his cellphone number to all 140.

And he steered clear of talking about social issues or taking a stand on them unless forced to do so. After Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) told public colleges that they could not legally prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the governor issued an executive directive telling state employees that they can be reprimanded or fired if they engage in such discrimination.

House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) described McDonnell in his first eight weeks in office as cautious to the point of being timid.

"He appears to be someone who has further national ambitions and is trying not to make a mistake," Armstrong said. "He's promised all these things. Where are they?"

McDonnell said he might call a pair of special sessions this year -- one on finding money for roads and transit, and another on saving money through efficiencies in government that could include privatizing state liquor stores and consolidating agencies -- but only if he can first build support for his proposals.

"I'm not going to put forth a half-baked proposal, have people complain and have it fail," he said.

Republicans said McDonnell was smart not to take on his ambitious agenda too fast. They said that President Obama got into trouble by doing just that and by getting mired in health insurance reform instead of focusing on the economy.

"I give the governor credit for not biting off more than he can chew," said Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester). Vogel said it would have been a mistake to try to ram through a transportation package when everyone was focused on carving $4 billion from the budget, cutting K-12 education funding and creating jobs. "That becomes background noise when you're about to lose your home," Vogel said.

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