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POLITICS: PennAve

The rise and fall of Bob McDonnell

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Virginia,Corruption,PennAve,Bob McDonnell,Justice Department

This story was first published Jan. 3, 2014, two weeks before former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were indicted on charges related to the acceptance of illegal gifts. McDonnell has since left office, and new Gov. Terry McAuliffe was inaugurated Jan. 11. 

The sidelight to the 2012 presidential election was the pageant of rising Republican stars jockeying for the torch in the next go-round. Few had a better resume than Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

He was on the shortlist of names presidential nominee Mitt Romney considered for running mate. When Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was tapped instead, McDonnell was on the shortlist for a Cabinet post.

He was given a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, where GOP hopefuls auditioned for a chance to run in 2016. He was expected to make that short list, too.

No one could have imagined that he would also end up on the Justice Department's shortlist of allegedly corrupt public officials. McDonnell now faces the likelihood of a grand jury indictment and, as the seconds tick down on his term in office, he is forced to weigh his legal future instead of his political future.

Federal prosecutors reportedly will ask a grand jury to indict McDonnell and wife Maureen early in 2014 for accepting thousands of dollars in gifts from Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams, former CEO of dietary supplement maker Star Scientific. The Justice Department could have acted sooner, according to the Washington Post, but McDonnell's legal team asked the feds to at least hold off until after he leaves office on Jan. 11, sparing him the stigma of being the first sitting governor in state history to be indicted.

Even if McDonnell survives the federal probe and avoids prison, his legacy is badly tarnished. At worst, the gift scandal that engulfed the governor’s mansion involved accepting payments in return for favors; at best, it was an ethically suspect relationship with a politically connected businessman. McDonnell has admitted accepting a $14,000 check from Williams to help pay for his daughter’s wedding. He also took more than $100,000 in loans for his real estate business while Maureen — who has been described in Richmond circles as the instigator of the questionable relationship — allegedly went on New York shopping sprees on Williams’ dime.

His legal team would not comment, but McDonnell, who spent the past four years bashing the business-as-usual political culture of Washington from his perch across the Potomac River, insists Williams received no benefits from the state in return. However, some reports say the McDonnells helped sell a Star Scientific supplement, even using the governor’s mansion to promote it.

It's a stunning reversal for McDonnell, who after four years in office boasts one of the most accomplished governorships in the country. He funded a fledgling retirement system, fixed a broken transportation bank, put more money into education, and oversaw an improving state economy and an unemployment rate that dropped from 7.4 to 5.6 percent.

“By nearly any measure, Virginia is a stronger state due to the work of the governor and the administration,” McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said. “At the end of the day, the governor ran as ‘Bob’s for Jobs,’ and he’s delivered.”

But in the waning days of his administration, no one is talking about that.

“It’s an unfortunate thing because people forget all of the stuff this guy has done,” said Rep. Dave Albo, a Northern Virginia Republican close to McDonnell. “I’ve been here 21 years, and he has been the most consequential governor the entire time I’ve been in office. Everything he’s touched has been gold except for this gift thing.”

Beyond a spoiled legacy, the “gift thing” brings to an end a once-bright future -- a huge blow not only to McDonnell but to Republicans. As the GOP learned after a miserable showing in Virginia's gubernatorial contest in November (one not helped by McDonnell's looming scandal), it's not easy to appeal to the base and still capture the suburban moderates needed to win on election night.

McDonnell could and did. He passed one of the largest tax increases in state history but maintained his image as a fiscal conservative. He strengthened anti-abortion measures, made it more difficult for gays to adopt children and eliminated the state's only gun restrictions, and still came out ahead with independents in polls.

On top of that, he had a military background, clean-cut good looks, a Boy Scout’s image for probity and, thanks to a year as leader of the Republican Governors Association, face time with every major party donor.

“The truth is his political career is over,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. “This is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. McDonnell could’ve had it all. He would’ve been able to go into future elections with bipartisan accomplishments and support of the religious right without being as scary as some other conservatives.”

McDonnell’s friends say he realizes he made mistakes. And the weight of the legal and political fallout has visibly affected him. He’s leaner. His slicked-back hair looks whiter. Instead of the ambitious agenda that defined the first three and a half years of his term, he has spent the last six months trying to salvage his reputation. His press shop sent out a 52-page book of accomplishments just before the news broke of the looming indictment.

“This has taken a massive massive toll on him personally,” one ally and Republican Party insider said. “And he knows it’s a lot of wasted opportunity."

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