Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s final year in office should have been a victory lap, an opportunity to tout everything from record budget surpluses to a significant reduction in homelessness. Instead, as the clock ticks down on McDonnell’s tenure, he is feeling the weight of an ongoing investigation into his relationship with a wealthy donor who gave McDonnell gifts and loans.
“I’ve been in public office in 37 years, since I was a lieutenant in the Army back in 1976. I’ve been in elected office for 22 years. I have given my heart and soul in public service to the people of Virginia for the past eight years in particular in statewide office,” McDonnell said in a recent interview. “Never in my life have I been accused of any kind of impropriety. I’ve always tried to keep high standards.
“And so this has been both a heartbreaking and humbling period of time for me and for my family. But what I can control is how I react to things and what I can control is how to make Virginia a better state.”
McDonnell is the subject of state and federal investigations into his relationship with Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who gave the governor and his family more than $160,000 in gifts and loans. McDonnell has repaid the loans early, and with interest, and he maintains he didn’t provide any favors to Williams or his nutritional supplement company, Star Scientific.
In an interview at the Republican Governors Association meeting, the last he attended as a governor, held in Phoenix in late November, McDonnell said he had worked to “make some amends” for his actions.
“I understand there’s been some undermining of the public trust, and as a result of that, that is something I’ve tried to address,” he said. “I obviously would like this to be cleared up as soon as possible.”
He declined to elaborate on the state of the ongoing investigation. “It’s nothing I can really talk about right now. I’m hoping it will all be resolved in the very near future,” he said.
McDonnell, who still has a few weeks left before he surrenders the governor’s mansion to Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D), is reluctant to talk about the legacy he leaves (“The ‘L’ word used to be liberal. Now it’s legacy,” he joked). But he is beginning to confront the end of his term; on Tuesday, he unveiled his official portrait, and said he is focused on running a smooth transition.
But he pointed to a wide range of successes, from a bipartisan transportation package to record budget surpluses. Homelessness has declined 17 percent during his administration, and McDonnell has restored voting rights to more ex-convicts than any other governor in Virginia’s history. The state’s rainy day fund, which stood at $427 million in fiscal year 2010, is more than double that, $863 million, in fiscal year 2013.
“We have been the un-Washington. We have governed as what I’ve called a results-oriented conservative. I’ve stuck to my conservative guns, but we’ve actually solved problems,” McDonnell said.
A former chairman of the RGA who was once on Mitt Romney’s vice presidential short list, McDonnell says he wants to stay involved in the national conversation. He refused to say where he will end up after leaving office in mid-January.
Some Republicans blame McDonnell’s ethics problems for McAuliffe’s win last month. Others blamed Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), who fully embraced his social conservative platform during the campaign.
McDonnell, who initially supported Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) for the nomination, said Bolling would have had advantages that Cuccinelli did not.
“I supported Bill four years ago,” McDonnell said. “I think he would have done an overall better job raising the resources in Virginia because he had long-standing relationships with the business community, and that’s one of the areas where Ken didn’t do as well on.”
Bolling dropped his bid after Virginia Republicans voted to nominate their candidate by convention, which put more control in the hands of conservative activists. Bolling would have had a better shot at the GOP nomination in a primary. And, McDonnell said, that’s how the party should nominate its candidates in the future.
“Primaries build your list. They add more people to your cause, and they arguably create the most electable candidate. We need to be a party that grows and expands and reaches out, not preaches to the choir. So obviously it’s better to have 3-400,000 people vote for your nominee than 8,000,” he said.
He added a defense of the convention, almost as an afterthought: “Conventions [are] cheaper, activists get a bigger say, and you want to make sure your core activists stay active.”