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2017 Virginia Gubernatorial Election
In 2017, Virginians will vote to replace Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, who is limited to one term in office by Article V, Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution. All eyes will be on Virginia because it is one of only two states holding off-year statewide elections this year (the other is New Jersey), and because Virginia was the only hotly contested purple state to go for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
2017 Election Calendar
Primary Election, June 13, 2017
General Election, November 7, 2017
2017 Primary Election Results
The election results above were provided by the Virginia Department of Elections shortly before midnight on June 13th.
2017 Election Information
Register to Vote
Click here to register to vote or update your existing state voter registration information at the Virginia Department of Elections' website.
Click here to access the Virginia Absentee Ballot Application Form and Instructions.
In-Person Absentee Voting
As an alternative to voting by absentee ballot by mail, you can vote by in-person absentee voting at the City of Alexandria Office of Voter Registration and Elections, located 8 blocks from Watergate at 132 North Royal Street, Suite 100, Alexandria, Virginia 22314. If you cannot vote in person at the polling place on election day, in-person absentee voting at the local election office is the easiest and best option.
Election Day Voting Precinct
Our election day polling location is the Ladrey Senior Building, located three blocks from Watergate at 300 Wythe Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314, which will be open for voting from 6:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. on election days.
A link will be provided in this space when a specimen 2017 general election ballot for Alexandrians becomes available.
2017 Polling Data
"[S]hort-term swings in candidate preference are caused mainly if not exclusively by variability in partisan response rates. Even small changes in response rates among Democrats and Republicans can produce sizable shifts in candidate support, given the very low overall response rates in most polls. In our view, it is much more fruitful to focus on the electoral fundamentals and fixed elements of politics that predetermine most votes, especially partisanship, demographics, and strong forces shaping the political landscape. Polarization in this hyper-partisan era means that practically nine of 10 voters are committed, and the unknown is whether they can be motivated to cast a ballot."
Good to know, but statewide polls tend to provide ballpark guidance on the final allocation of electoral votes in the run-up to elections, and help identify changes (direction and scope) in local voter sentiment over time. Moreover, political parties, candidates, pundits and even folks like Mr. Sabato rely on solid polling data, which affects their and our attitudes, conclusions and behavior from time to time.
Warning: The accuracy of much of the state polling leading up to the Virginia primary election on June 13, 2017 was quite WRONG, WRONG, sadly WRONG. This follows the incomparably inaccurate polling that took place during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Interesting Articles on 2017 Election
[Former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich urges GOP to thwart newly engaged [and enraged] Democrats by backing [Ed] Gillespie in Va, Washington Post, February 28, 2017.
Perriello campaigns where congressional Republicans won't hold town halls, Washington Post, February 24, 2017 (this article discusses many aspects of the 2017 election for both major political parties).
2017 General Election Candidates for Governor
Democrat Ralph Northam
Current Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam is the Virginia Democratic Party's nominee for Governor in the 2017 general election. He defeated former U.S. Congressman Tom Perriello in the Democrats' primary election held on June 13th (see the primary election results in the chart to the left).
As early as February 2015, Mr. Northam made it known that he was running to succeed incumbent Governor Terry McAuliffe. He was the only declared Democratic candidate for two years until Mr. Perriello entered the race on January 5, 2017. Mr. Northam is a pediatric neurologist, a U.S. Army veteran, and a former state senator from Virginia's 6th Senatorial District, which includes parts of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore. Here is a link to Mr. Northam's campaign website.
Republican Ed Gillespie
Political strategist Ed Gillespie is the Virginia Republican Party's nominee for Governor in the 2017 general election. He defeated current Chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors Corey Stewart and current state senator Frank Wagner in the GOP's primary election held on June 13th (see the primary election results in the chart to the left).
Mr. Gillespie announced that he is seeking the Virginia governorship on October 2, 2015. He served as a senior White House counselor to former U.S. President George W. Bush and is a former chairman of both the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Viginia.
In 2014, Mr. Gillespie nearly de-railed Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Warner's re-election efforts in a much-closer-than-expected contest. Mr. Warner, himself a former Governor of Virginia, received 1,073,667 (49.1%) of the votes cast in the 2014 general election, and Mr. Gillespie received 1,055,940 votes (48.3%), representing a difference of just 17,727 votes, or 8/10 of 1% of the total votes cast.
Although Mr. Gillespie was not born or raised in the state, he has lived in Northern Virginia for many years. According to the Washington Post, as of late summer 2016, Mr. Gillespie "has received endorsements from most of the Republicans in the state legislature." Here is a link to Mr. Gillespie's campaign website.
Libertarian Clifford Hyra
Patent attorney Cliff Hyra with the Symbus Law Group is the Libertarian Party's nominee for Governor in the 2017 general election. Apparently running unopposed, Mr. Hyra won his party's nomination at a special state convention held on May 6, 2017 at the Meadowdale Library in North Chesterfield, Virginia, following a pizza lunch sponsored by Americans for Prosperity.
Mr. Hyra has an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech and a law degree from George Mason University. According to his campaign webiste, Mr. Hyra supports lower taxes, fewer government regulations, greater school choice, de-criminalization of marijuana use and other victimless crimes (presumably other than prostitution), an end to civil asset forfeitures in criminal cases, and increased access to health care. He and his family live in Mechanicsville, located just outside of Richmond.
Recap of the 2017 Virginia Primary Election
Just 31 weeks after the 2016 Election, the Commonwealth of Virginia held Republican and Democratic primaries on June 13, 2017 to select the major party candidates for the gubernatorial general election to be held on November 7, 2017. Of concern, the pollsters got it terribly wrong once more. The Democratic race was supposedly very tight leading up to election according to the political polling, but was actually a blow-out at the voting booth. Similarly but in reverse, the Republican contest was wide open in the pre-election polls but turned into something of a nail-biter on election day.
Mr. Gillespie won the Republican Party nomination for Governor, having received nearly 44 percent of the votes cast. He won the endorsement of most mainstream Republicans with significant Virginia ties, raised copious amounts of out-of-state campaign contributions, ran as a pro-business conservative who promised to cut taxes, appealed to conservative Republicans, distanced himself from and avoided talking about President Donald Trump, milked his front-runner status, and drew considerable support from the D.C. suburbs, the Richmond metro area, and the coastal regions.
Mr. Stewart received almost 43 percent of the vote. In addition to being the current Chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, he was an unsuccessful candidate for Virginia Lieutenant Governor in 2013 running against Ralph Northam, and he served for a time as a Virginia state campaign co-chairman for Donald Trump's successful 2016 presidential campaign.
On October 11, 2016, the day after the second presidential debate in St. Louis, the Trump campaign fired Mr. Stewart for supporting a grass-roots protest rally against party leaders and "establishment pukes" held earlier in the day in front of the Republican National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. According to his published comments in the press, Mr. Stewart felt that certain folks within the national GOP were sabotaging Mr. Trump's campaign and spending campaign money raised in Virginia on down-ticket races in other states to the disadvantage of Virginia's Republicans. Shortly after the Trump campaign fired him, Mr. Stewart's arch-political nemesis, Ken Cuccinelli, removed him from the list of Virginia's 49 bound delegates to the GOP national convention.
In an October 15, 2016 article, the Washington Post theorized that Mr. Stewart's firing by the Trump campaign helped him to disengage from what he saw as Mr. Trump's losing effort for the presidency, and would ultimately help him with his long-planned gubernatorial campaign. With Reince Priebus, the fomer RNC chairman, now serving as President Trump's Chief of Staff, one has to question both Mr. Stewart's tactics and the Post's conclusions.
A Minnesota native, Mr. Stewart's signature issue is illegal immigration, which he strongly opposes. On August 25, 2016, the Washington Post published a profile on Mr. Stewart, calling him Donald Trump's "combative Mini-Me in Virginia." That's one of the nicer quotes from the story.
Mr. Stewart is a known political provocateur who stakes out controversial positions to generate media attention and publicity. During the campaign, he asserted that he is more Trump than Trump, said he wanted to preserve all Confederate monuments and symbols in the state, vowed to crack-down on both illegal immigrants and sanctuary cities, ran as an anti-establishment outsider even though he is a perennial office-seeker, benefited from low turnout among Republican primary voters, and drew broad support throughout the state. Shortly after the election, Mr. Stewart announced that in 2018 he may seek the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Tim Kaine. Here is a link to Mr. Stewart's campaign website.
Mr. Wagner took just shy of 14 percent of the vote, He grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Navy veteran. He has served in the Virginia General Assembly for 25 years in the House of Delegates, representing Virginia Beach and Chespeake in Virginia's 21st House District, and 15 years in the Senate, representing Virginia Beach and a small portion of Norfolk in Virginia's 7th Senatorial District. From 1996 until 2015, Mr. Wagner owned Davis Boat Works, a commercial and military boat building and repair business founded in 1958 and based in Newport News.
Mr. Wagner announced that he was running for governor on August 29, 2016. According to The Virginian-Pilot, which broke the news, Mr. Wagner made his decision after the Virginia Republican Party decided to hold a state-run primary election rather than a party-run primary convention in 2017. The newspaper, which is based in Norfolk and is the state's largest daily, explains: "Insiders consider a state GOP convention beneficial to more conservative candidates. But a primary opens up voting to anyone, and backers of the primary included people weary of losing statewide offices. Democrats in Virginia currently hold all five of them."
Mr. Wagner ran as a middle-of-the-road establishment insider, appealed to moderates, and focused on the economy and creating jobs particularly in the economically struggling southern and southwestern regions of the state. At the end of the day, he was seemingly a candidate out of time. Here is a link to Mr. Wagner's campaign website.
Mr. Northam won the Democratic Party nomination for Governor, having received nearly 56 percent of the vote. He ran as a moderate establishment Democrat, won the endorsement of practically every Democratic politician with significant Virginia ties, raised significant amounts of in-state campaign contributions, received widespread support from the African-American community, used the state Democratic Party machinery to encourage lots of mainstream Democratic voters and moderate-Republican cross-over voters to suppport him, drew tremendous support from the population-dense eastern-most third of the state from Washington, D.C. to Virginia Beach and from the coast inland to Richmond. He also found support in the extreme southwest corner of the state. In his campaign ads, he called President Donald Trump a “narcissistic maniac” and pledged to lead the resistance to the President’s policies in Virginia.
Mr. Perriello received 44 percent of the vote. He is a former one-term U.S. Congressman (2009-11) from the Charlottsville area. Spanning more than 10,000 square miles, the 5th Congressional District is Virginia's largest -- it is geographically larger than six states. The mostly rural and largely conservative district stretches in a wide north-south line to the west of Richmond's suburbs, and includes the towns of Charlottesville to the north and Danville to the south. The district's first congressman was James Madison, who later became America's fourth President.
After he lost his re-election bid, he served as President' Barrack Obama's Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa. In that role, he helped to arrange a deal that allowed for the first peaceful transfer of power in the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the end of 2016.
Even though Mr. Perriello opposes gun controls and abortions, the Yale-educated former human rights attorney positioned himself as a more progressive alternative to the centrist Mr. Northam. During the primary campaign, Mr. Perriello won the endorsements of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA), raised significant amounts of out-of-state campaign contributions, supported a $15 minimum wage and debt-free community college for all, controversially opposed the construction of two natural gas pipelines that Dominion Energy wanted to build across Virginia, and drew support from the geographic middle part of the state. At the end of the day, he could not convince enough new, younger and middle class voters to come out to vote for him.
Mr. Perriello currently resides in Old Town. Here is a link to Mr. Perriello's campaign website.
Republican Denver Riggleman (Suspended Campaign)
On December 28, 2016, the Washington Post reported that Denver Riggleman -- a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer and National Security Agency contractor, and co-owner since 2014 of a craft distillery in Afton, Virginia located about 20 miles west of Charlottesville -- registered a candidate committee with the Virginia Board of Elections, allowing him to raise funds to support a possible run for governor. A month later, on January 21, 2017, the Washington Post said that Mr. Riggleman was running as a populist against both major political parties. His signature campaign issue attacks Dominion Virginia Power for making nearly $4 million in state political contributions over the last decade. Here is a link to Mr. Riggleman's campaign website. On March 16, 2017, Mr. Riggleman suspended his campaign, citing "business considerations, resource shortages, and family health issues."
Republican Rob Wittman (Withdrew Candidacy)
On December 12, 2015, Republican U.S. Congressman Rob Wittman announced that he was preparing to run for the Virginia governor's office in 2017. Mr. Wittman, an environmental health specialist, has represented Virginia's 1st Congressional District since he won a 2007 special election to replace his predecessor, Jo Ann Davis, who died in office. Prior to his election to Congress, Mr. Wittman served as Field Director for the Virginia Health Department’s Division of Shellfish Sanitation.
Mr. Wittman's district spans 16 counties stretching from the southwestern exburbs of Washington, D.C. (Manassas, Dale City, Stafford, Fredericksburg) southeast towards Hampton Roads. This district is sometimes referred to as "America's First District" because it includes the "Historic Triangle" comprised of Jamestown (the first permanent English settlement in the New World), Williamsburg (the first capital of the Virginia Colony) and Yorktown (one of Virginia's eight original shires and the place where British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to American General George Washington effectively ending the Revolutionary War).
On December 8, 2016, just a few days shy of the one-year anniversary of his original campaign announcement, Mr. Wittman announced that he was withdrawing from the gubernatorial race.
Republican Ken Cuccinelli (Pre-emptive No)
On April 30, 2016, Ken Cuccinelli announced that he was not running for Virginia governor in 2017. Mr. Cuccinelli was state attorney general under former Republican Governor Robert McDonnell, previously represented the residents of Virginia's 37th Senatorial District (includes parts of Fairfax County) in the Virginia General Assembly, and unsuccessfully ran for governor against Mr. McAuliffe in 2013. In that election, Mr. McAuliffe received 1,069,789 (47.75%) of the votes cast, Mr. Cuccinelli received 1,013,354 votes (45.23%), and Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis received 146,084 votes (6.52%). Only 56,435 votes, or 2.5% of the total votes cast, separated Mr. Cuccinelli from Mr. McAuliffe.
More recently, Mr. Cuccinelli served as Virginia campaign director and an active national campaign surrogate for Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, a U.S. Senator from Texas. In the past year, published news reports have speculated that Mr. Cuccinelli might be nominated to serve as U.S. Attorney General or a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in a Cruz administration.
In advance of this year's Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Mr. Cuccinelli led a block of social-conservative delegates demanding major changes to the GOP's rules, including moving toward closed primary elections and reducing the power of the national party in favor of "grassroots" Republicans. Prior to his public announcement, many Republicans believed that Mr. Cuccinelli might make another run for the state's highest elected office. Some say he may also seek to replace U.S. Senator Tim Kaine in 2018 (see 2018 Election page of this website).
Recent Virginia Gubernatorial Elections
In recent years, the Virginia governor's office has cycled somewhat regularly between the Democratic and Republican parties. Indeed, since 1970 when the Republican Party broke the Democratic Party's 84-year grip on the governorship, the Republicans and Democrats have each held the state's top office six times in a political pattern that is hard to ignore -- three Republican governors (Holton, Godwin, Dalton), followed by three Democratic governors (Robb, Baliles, Wilder), followed by two Republican governors (Allen, Gilmore), followed by two Democratic governors (Warner, Kaine), followed by a single Republican Governor (McDonnell), followed most recently by a Democratic governor (McAuliffe). It would not be surprising if a Republican won next year's gubernatorial election.
On August 27, 2016, the State Central Committee of the Republican Party of Virginia meeting in Richmond, Virginia decided by a 41-40 vote to hold a primary election in 2017 to select the party's nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and state attorney general. This decision was a jaw-dropping surprise because divided state GOP leaders forged a strained compromise in June 2015 to the contrary -- the party decided to pick its 2016 presidential nominee in a primary and its 2017 nominees for the state's three constitutional offices via a convention. Not surprisingly, the party's sudden about-turn was not well-received by grass-roots activists.
For Virginia Republicans, the choice between holding a primary and a convention is often outcome-determinative since conventions consistently attract overwhelming numbers of strongly committed conservatives, and primaries are open to all eligible voters, including independents and voters from other political parties (Virginia does not register voters by party affiliation). Indeed, state conventions sometimes discourage GOP moderates from even running for office. This is a problem in a state that is becoming less red (Republican) and more blue (Democratic) with each passing election (see 2016 Election page of this website). Many party officials recognize that the GOP has not won a statewide office since Robert McDonnell triumphed in the 2009 gubernatorial election, and this change is largely intended to produce nominees who can attract broader electoral support across the commonwealth.
The Governors of Virginia
The following chart lists the 72 appointed and elected (numbered) and 9 acting (blank) governors of Virginia since it became an independent commonwealth in 1776, together with their respective political party affiliations.
1. Patrick Henry (Nos. 1 & 6), the first governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, served for three consecutive one-year terms from 1776-79, the maximum number allowed under the state's first constitution ratified in 1776, and then re-appointed after a 5-year hiatus for two additional one-year terms from 1784-86. He is the Founding Father best remembered for his "Give me liberty, or give me death" speech in 1775 to the Second Virginia Convention at St. John's Church in Richmond.
2. Edmund Jennings Randolph (No. 7), who served from 1786-88, was the first governor appointed to office after Virginia became a state. He also served as the first U.S. Attorney General and the second U.S. Secretary of State after Thomas Jefferson (No. 2). Beverley Randolph (No. 8), who served from 1788-91, was the first governor appointed after Virginia ratified the U.S. Constitution.
3. John Floyd (No. 25), a Democrat who served from 1830-34, was the first governor appointed under Virginia's Constitution of 1830, which limited governors to a single four-year term for the first time.
4. Joseph Johnson (No. 32), a Democrat who served from 1852-56, was the first popularly elected governor and the first governor elected under Virginia's Constitution of 1851. Prior to his election, governors were chosen by the Virginia General Assembly.
5. William Cameron (No. 39), who served from 1882-86, was the only governor from the Readjuster Party, a bi-racial coalition formed in Virginia during the late 1870s following reconstruction. This short-lived party sought to readjust the state's heavy debt load, repeal the poll tax that suppressed voting by blacks and poor whites, and increase state funding for schools and other public facilities.
6. Doug Wilder (No. 66), a Democrat who served from 1990-94, was Virginia's first and only African-American governor and the only racial or ethnic minority elected to that office.
7. Tim Kaine (No. 70), a Democrat who served from 2006-10, was Virginia's first Catholic governor. He is a former chair of the Democratic National Committee (for President Barack Obama) and currently represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate along with Mark Warner (No. 69), a Democrat who served as governor from 2002-06. Mr. Kaine is also the Democratic Party's 2016 vice presidential nominee and, if elected, will become the second Catholic Vice President after the incumbent, Joe Biden. To win his Senate seat in 2012, Mr. Kaine defeated George Allen (No. 67), a Republican who served as governor from 1994-98. Mr. Kaine's wife, Anne Holton, is the daughter of A. Linwood Holton, Jr. (No. 61), a progressive Republican who served as governor from 1970-74. Up until Mr. Kaine's selection as Hillary Clinton's vice presidential running mate, Ms. Holton served as Virginia Secretary of Education for the current governor, Terry McAuliffe (No. 72).
8. Bob McDonnell (No. 71), a Republican who served from 2010-14, is the first Virginia governor to be indicted for a felony arising from misconduct while in office. He was convicted following a federal trial, but his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 27, 2016. A summary of this case is provided below.
9. The incumbent, Terry McAuliffe (No. 72), is another former chair of the Democratic National Committee (for President Bill Clinton). He helmed past presidential campaigns for both Bill Clinton (in 1996) and Hillary Clinton (in 2008). Mr. McAuliffe is currently under investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice's public integrity unit for accepting illegal contributions in his 2013 gubernatorial campaign. He is the incoming 2016-17 Chair of the National Governors Association.
10. To date, no woman has been elected governor or lieutenant governor of Virginia. However, Mary Sue Terry served as state attorney general from 1986-93 under Democratic Governors Gerald Baliles (No. 65) and Doug Wilder (No. 66). The attorney general is the third-highest statewide elected office in Virginia. In 1993, Ms. Terry, a Democrat, ran unsuccessfully for governor against Republican George Allen (No. 67), who served from 1994-98. Mr. Allen also represented Virginia in the U.S. Senate from 2001-07 -- he defeated two-term incumbent Chuck Robb (No. 64) in the 2000 general election and was in turn defeated in back-to-back general elections by former U.S. Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb in 2006 (who chose not to run for re-election after a single term) and by incumbent Tim Kaine (No. 70) in 2012.
11. There have been nine acting governors in Virginia's history, including three military governors who served in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War (two Republicans followed by a Democrat). The last of the three military governors, Gilbert Carlton Walker (No. 36), was later elected into office.
12. Three Virginia governors -- Thomas Jefferson (No. 2), James Monroe (No. 16) and John Tyler (No. 23) also served as President of the United States (3rd, 5th and 10th Presidents, respectively).
13. Three Virginia governors -- Thomas Jefferson (No. 2), Thomas Nelson, Jr. (No. 4) and Benjamin Harrison V (No. 5) -- signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. Virginia resident George Washington (1st President) did not sign the Declaration of Independence because he was in New York preparing to defend the city against the British. Patrick Henry (No. 1) did not sign the Declaration of Independence because he was not a member of the Second Continental Congress. Four other Virginians signed the Declaration of Independence -- George Wythe, Carter Braxton, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee. The latter two were brothers and distant cousins of both Beverley Randolph (No. 8) and Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee III (No. 9), a Federalist who served from 1791-94. Light-Horse Harry was the father of General Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War.
14. Two descendants of Benjamin Harrison V (No. 5), who served from 1781-84, became President of the United States -- his son William Henry Harrison (9th President) and his great-grandson Benjamin Harrison (23rd President). This was an earlier version of the Kennedys and the Bushes. William Henry Harrison has the distinction of delivering the longest inaugural address and having the shortest presidential term in American history. The two records are linked -- he died on his 32nd day in office due to complications from pneumonia. It was very cold and wet on the day of his inauguration, and he rode to the U.S. Capitol on horseback and delivered his extended remarks outdoors without wearing a coat or hat. His death resulted in John Tyler (No. 23) assuming the Presidency in 1841, which is 175 years ago. Mr. Tyler was the last Virginian to serve as either President or Vice President of the U.S. The election of Tim Kaine (No. 70) to the vice presidency in November would reset this historical note.
Throughout 2016, the 2016 Headlines page of this website followed the legal travails of former Virginia Republican Governor Robert McDonnell, and his wife, Maureen, who federal prosecutors had indicted on public corruption charges for accepting improper gifts and loans from a Virginia businessman during Mr. McDonnell's time in office.
As this webpage has become a repository of information relating to Virginia's past, present and future governors, those news updates on Mr. McDonnell have been consolidated here for convenience of reference to those who might be interested. Except for the note immediately below, you are reading these posts as they were written at the time.
An Prefatory Note on Federalism and Degenerate Political Gifting
As many of you know from your high school civics lessons, under the United States Constitution, America maintains a federalist form of government. That is to say, there is a central federal government based in Washington, D.C. and 50 co-equal and co-powerful state governments. On certain matters, the federal government has and exercises exclusive power and authority throughout the country, on most other matters the state governments have and exercise exclusive power and authority within their respective boundaries, and on some matters there is overlap between the federal and state governments which must share power and authority.
As it relates to citizens such as Mr. and Mrs. McDonnell, who are accused of committing serious crimes, their actions may, depending on what they actually did, be prosecuted as a federal crime, a state crime or both. What you need to know here is that what the McDonnells are accused of doing -- accepting undeniably obscene amounts of money in the form of gifts, loans and favors from someone who wanted their official help and influence -- did not violate any applicable Virginia state law at the time.
Simply put, under Virginia law, there were no meaningful limits on what Virginia elected officials could accept from others while in office. This was an enduring legacy of the "good old boy" system that long prevailed in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Political graft, and that's truly what it is, was both commonplace and accepted . . . in the first half of the second decade of the 21st century.
In response to the McDonnells' embarassing excesses while occupying the Executive Mansion in Richmond, the rule in Virginia has since been changed. But at the time of these events, the McDonnells' bold thievery was not a crime under state law. Accordingly, there was no state criminal prosecution.
Most of the confusion and anger surrounding the federal prosecution of the McDonnells, by both the media reporting on the case and ordinary folks watching from a distance, stems from the fact that most people naturally believe that what the McDonnells did was simply not right and needed to be punished in some way. However, to repeat, what the McDonnells did, at the time they did it, was not unlawful under Virginia law. There was nothing that state prosecutors could do.
So it was left to federal prosecutors to bring criminal charges against the McDonnells under federal law. However, under federal law, it is not sufficient for the government to show that a public official accepted gobs of money from someone else, even if the amounts received are blindingly outrageous. Federal prosecutors must also show that a public official took or refrained from taking some official action, or exercised or refrained from exercising some official power, as a direct consequence of the money grab. This favor-for-a-favor is referred to formally as an "official act" and informally as a "quid pro quo."
Thus, the focus under federal law is not on the bounty received, or how vile it is to our natural sensibilities, but on what the government official did in return. That's what has been lost on many outside observers throughout the prosecution of this case, the McDonnells' convictions and sentencings, the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous decision to overturn of their convictions, and the aftermath.
The McDonnells morally debauched themselves the minute they took the gifts and loans. But this was not a crime committed by them. It is now under Virgnia law, but not under federal law as presently written. This is how federalism sometimes works, and it's not always satisfying. Those unhinged by it need to think about the folks they send to Richmond and Washington to represent them. Which is why this webpage and the 2017 Election, 2016 Election and 2015 Election webpages of this website were created.
January 16, 2010 to January 11, 2014
Robert McDonnell serves as the 71st governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. He leaves office under an ethical cloud as state and federal investigators probe his financial activities while in office.
September 4, 2014
After five weeks of trial and three days of deliberation, a federal jury found Mr. and Mrs. McDonnell guilty of multiple counts of public corruption -- that they sold access to the commonwealth's highest elected office and state government to businessman Jonnie Williams in exchange for a more lavish lifestyle than they could otherwise afford. Mr. McDonnell was a shooting star in the Republican party and considered a potential vice presidential running mate to former Massachusetts Governor and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. Mr. Williams was a purveyor of dubious dietary supplements, and, as reported by the Washington Post at the time, had a history of "making risky investments in unproven sciences and getting others to do the same."
At trial, prosecutors showed that the McDonnell family had accepted $177,000 in gifts and favors from Mr. Williams (which was legal in Virginia until 2016), that Mr. McDonnell had arranged a meeting between Mr. Williams and government employees to discuss a possible state-funded clinical study of Mr. Williams' product, and that Mr. McDonnell spoke with staff about Mr. Williams' business. Mr. McDonnell claimed that Mr. Williams was a "close family friend," and that he was merely promoting and facilitating business in the state, something that any governor would do, indeed be expected to do, as part of his duties. By the way, this "dear friend" accepted an immunity deal offered by prosecutors and testified against both McDonnells at their respective trials.
The case turns on whether Mr. McDonnell performed or promised to perform an "official act" for Mr. Williams or his company in exchange for something of value. The case is precedent-setting because of how broadly the term official act might be defined and then applied to other government officials. Do official acts include facilitating meetings or having discussions? Or must there be more, such as pressuring colleagues, holding public hearings, writing letters of support, or making recommendations to decision-makers? And does it matter that Mr. McDonnell ran for governor on a well-known platform of pursuing economic development and promoting local businesses in the state? Or that at no time did the state conduct a study of or endorse Mr. Williams' product, add Mr. Williams' supplement to Virginia's health plan, or finance or provide any other support to Mr. Williams' company?
September 4, 2014 (Continued from bottom left)
This case is bothersome for many because the McDonnells shamelessly took advantage of Mr. Williams' largesse, and in turn Mr. Williams sought to take advantage of the first couple's status and influence. But the limited measures undertaken by Mr. McDonnell on Mr. Williams' behalf are arguably actions that routinely and unremarkably occur at every level of government most every day. It's called constituent services. And while there may be ample evidence of guilty hearts, there may also be scant evidence of guilty hands.
Mr. McDonnell was senteced to two years in prison, and his wife was sentenced to one year and one day. They are both currently free on bond pending the outcome of their appeals.
Mr. McDonnell's conviction was upheld on July 10, 2015 by a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit based in Richmond, Virignia. On April 27, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court heared oral arguments in the case, its last of the year. It will be interesting to see how the 4-4 divided high court deals with this case and its implications for the nation's governing class. A decision is expected in late June.
June 27, 2016
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned the felony convictions of former Republican Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell for accepting $175,000 in gifts and loans from a constituent purportedly in exchange for the Governor's official help in advancing the constituent's business interests in the state. Until 2016, in response to this case, there were few if any limits under Virginia law on the type or size of gifts that state officials could lawfully accept.
Federal law prohibits gifts to government officials if they commit or agree to commit an "official act" in exchange for the gifts. To resolve this case, the court had to decide what types of action taken by a public official are "official acts" and what types of action are routine, everyday acts. The court ruled that official acts involve formal exercises of governmental power -- decisions or actions on specific and focused questions, matters, causes, suits, proceedings or controversies that are pending or may be brought before an official. These decisions or actions occur at the level of lawsuits before courts, determinations before agencies, or hearings before legislative committees.
In contrast, some of the things that Mr. McDonnell did, like taking phone calls, listening to requests, setting up meetings, referring matters to staff, speaking with other officials, hosting events and extending invitations, without more, would not constitute official acts.
What might be something more? Exerting pressure on another official, or giving advice to another official knowing or intending that the advice will form the basis for an official act by the other official. Those will get one into trouble.
This case called into question the ability of elected officials everywhere in Amercia to receive campaign contributions, meet donors for lunch, attend fundraisers, accept invitations to community functions . . . and then deliver robust constituent services of the type described above. This political quid pro quo is routine, widespread, expected and necessary for responsive government. So important is this concern that Chief Justice John Roberts went out of his way (what lawyers call "obiter dictum") to address it in his opinion:
And then, acknowledging the deplorable personal conduct underlying the case, Chief Justice Roberts continues:
The Supreme Court vacated, or invalidated, the Fourth Circuit's decision, and remanded, or returned, the case back to that intermediate appellate court for further proceedings consistent with the high court's opinion. The Supreme Court made the correct decision, based on law and not politcs.
On remand, the Fourth Circuit gave federal prosecutors until September 19, 2016 to decide whether to retry Mr. McDonnell or drop all charges against him. It has been apparent to most legal observers that the ultimate disposition of Mrs. McDonnell's case would turn on her husband's case.
September 2, 2016
Dana Boente, the 60th U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, a career federal prosecutor and 30-year veteran of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., formally recommended to Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney General, and other senior Justice Department officials that Mr. McDonnell be retried on public corruption charges. His office wanted another go at the former governor.
September 8, 2016
After "conferring" with their colleagues at the U.S. Department of Justice (which is a nice way of saying they were ordered to back off), federal prosecutors in Virginia formally informed the Fourth Circuit and announced to the public that they would not attempt to retry Mr. and Mrs. McDonnell on public corruption charges, and that all pending criminal indictments against the couple would be dropped.
Afterwards, the McDonnells issued numberous public comments affirming their innocence, stating they were vindicated at long last, and reasserting that nothing they did had been wrong. Out of jail, out of office, out of the fire, still out of bounds.
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