Gov. McDonnell, GOP lawmakers split over liquor plan

By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 8:32 PM

RICHMOND - A split between Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and members of his party could derail the governor's ambitious plan to privatize the state's liquor system and recently led McDonnell's top political adviser to threaten the political future of Republican delegates, according to several state legislators.

In a conversation with Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), Phil Cox, who heads McDonnell's political action committee, called leaders in the GOP-controlled House of Delegates "spineless," and he warned that the governor might not support Republicans in next year's elections if they vote against the proposal, according to lawmakers who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to anger the governor.

McDonnell and his staff have grown frustrated that fellow Republicans have been unwilling to back a plan that was part of his gubernatorial campaign last year. And House Republicans have become annoyed that the administration expects them to fall in line behind a proposal many of them believe is flawed.

"What am I supposed to do? Lay down and die for the administration, and do whatever they say?'' said Del. Thomas D. Gear (R-Hampton), who chairs a key legislative subcommittee that will consider privatization. "I can't help it that they don't have a good plan. They will remember who their friends are? That's a two-way street."

Legislators and Republican staffers said they expect McDonnell to announce soon that he will call off plans for a special session in November to consider the plan and instead ask the General Assembly to consider the proposal during the annual session that opens in January. The measure would privatize the wholesale and retail distribution of distilled spirits to provide a one-time windfall of at least $458 million for transportation.

In an interview Wednesday, McDonnell said he counts many House leaders as good friends as well as legislative allies. "I have a great relationship with the House Republican caucus,'' said McDonnell, who met with the Republican caucus on Monday about a variety of issues, including the proposal. "There are times when we don't agree on everything. ...They need a little more time to look at what the issues are with ABC. I'm making a big change. It's going to take the legislators, frankly, a little more time to take a look at this."

But tensions have been rising over the liquor plan for weeks and boiled over in a recent call between Cox and Hugo, chairman of House Republican Caucus. Cox told Hugo that McDonnell was a popular governor who could raise millions of dollars to use against dissenting Republicans, said legislative sources familiar with the call.

Hugo responded by shooting off a sarcastic Sept. 30 e-mail to Cox; Martin Kent, McDonnell's chief of staff; Eric Finkbeiner, McDonnell's director of policy; and Mike Reynold, McDonnell's deputy director of policy.

"First, I appreciate the Administration candidly voicing their concerns about the 'weak leadership' in the House and requesting that the House members 'get some backbone,' " he wrote in the e-mail, obtained by The Washington Post. "As GOP Caucus Chairman, I have conveyed the Administration's 'weak leadership' concerns directly to the other leadership members and will inform the Caucus members of the Administration's request regarding spinal generation. Lastly, I will also issue a cautionary note to the Caucus reminding them that next year the Administration will 'remember their friends' during the election season."

In an interview, Cox said that he did not recall the e-mail and that he has conversations with legislators routinely and would not comment on them. "Why should I share private conversations with the media?'' he asked.

Hugo declined to comment on the phone call. He said that "conversations I have with the governor's staff are private.''

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said in an interview that most members of his 61-member caucus get along well with McDonnell, even though some may have specific problems with the proposal. "To suggest that there's a great wall between Bob McDonnell and the caucus, that's just not true,'' he said. "I don't think it's fair to say."

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