Lines in the Sand 

Virginia’s new Democratic leadership takes on job discrimination, gay marriage and ethics reform — and bipartisanship fizzles.

click to enlarge Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring celebrate at their inauguration party earlier this month.

Scott Elmquist

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring celebrate at their inauguration party earlier this month.

The era of bipartisanship that Gov. Terry McAuliffe pushed at his inauguration has evaporated. That spells big trouble for serious ethics reform now that former Gov. Bob McDonnell has been indicted on corruption charges.

In the last week, McAuliffe angered Republicans by appointing former GOP operative Boyd Marcus to a lucrative Alcoholic Beverage Control board position in what they view as a patronage payoff for helping McAuliffe with his campaign. Republicans also are complaining that the governor, not even three weeks into his term, is focusing too much on socially divisive issues such as gun rights and abortion while failing on promises to push jobs creation.

The biggest issue involves gay marriage. New Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring said last week he won't defend Virginia's ban on gay marriage. Social conservative legislators take that as a challenge to the state's constitution. A draft impeachment proposal backed by the tea party is circulating in the House of Delegates. "He is refusing to do his job as attorney general," says Judson Phillips, a Midlothian-based tea party member.

While the olive leaf withers, a clash is quickly emerging between McAuliffe and the House of Delegates, which is pushing a weak ethics reform bill. McAuliffe has partly sidestepped the General Assembly by issuing an executive order pushing tougher rules on state employees. Among them is limiting gifts to state employees to a value of $100.

 The key question is whether Virginia will set up a state ethics commission, something used by more than 40 other states to oversee elected and other public officials.

The House bill proposed by House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, would ban officials and family members from accepting gifts worth more than $250. An early version of the bill applied only to lobbyists but delegates have been discussing a revised version that would impose the limit on anyone having business before the state. An ethics commission would function only in an advisory form, with no subpoena power or real investigative powers. But McAuliffe wants an ethics commission with teeth and has set aside $100,000 to create one.   

Therein lies the rub. "There's no way you will have the General Assembly agree to be overseen by an ethical authority [in the form of an] appointed commission," says Bob Holsworth, a Richmond political analyst.

Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, puts the chances of such a commission at "less than 50-50."

McAuliffe doesn't have the power to establish any such commission with authority over the legislature without its approval.

Last Friday, outside the federal courtroom where the McDonnells pleaded not guilty to corruption charges, House Speaker William Howell, a close McDonnell friend, waited uneasily in a corridor. He told Style Weekly that there will be ethics reform, but asked if the Republican version of a bill to create an ethics commission would include subpoena power, Howell gave a defiant look and said: "No."

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