The nation's eyes might be on Cleveland this week (unless they're looking for a Snorlax). But in Virginia all eyes are on the state Supreme Court, where an issue that may have just as big an effect on elections is being heard this week: felon voter rights.

A quick recap: 34 states in the nation bar convicted felons from voting, even once they've served their sentences. Virginia has allowed felon rights to be restored by the Governor, but essentially on a case-by-case basis. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that he would restore rights to over 200,000 felons with one sweeping executive order. Republicans have sued to stop this order, and force the Governor to go back to individual restorations. The Virginia Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week, although the final decision may not be issued for some time.

I spoke last night with WRIC-Richmond reporter Mark Tenia about the case, noting that there could be important implications for this November's election. Virginia is a battleground state that both Republicans and Democrats feel is winnable in recent Presidential elections, and even a small number of votes might make a difference.

How many votes are we talking about? The 200,000 number is thrown around a lot, but not all of those people will vote. The demographics of convicted felons -- largely poor and minority -- indicates that most will vote Democratic, but also tells us that an even greater percentage won't vote at all. The Economist suggested that as few as 30,000 might actually come out to the polls in November - in a state that Obama won by 150,000 votes in 2012.

Still, Democrats won all three top offices in the last statewide election, and the state went to Obama in the last two Presidential years. Even back in 2012, a UVA study noted that demographic changes, particularly the growth in the more diverse (and Democratic) NoVA-DC suburbs, are turning Virginia into a more solidly "blue" state. As a result, Republicans may be feeling some desperation to slow down the blue tide, which may be at least partially fueling the current lawsuit.

In the court of public opinion, McAuliffe probably still has the upper hand. As conservative blogger Jim Hoeft noted, the Republicans' lawsuit enables Democrats to portray them as "obstructionist, out of touch, fearful, racist and bent on disenfranchising voters." That may not scare away the Republican base in the age of Trump, but it won't win over those diverse NoVA voters.

Still, the Governor has good reason to be concerned. The fact that the Virginia Supreme Court even decided to hear this case at all is not a good sign. In general, judges are wary of interfering with the electoral process; in order to hear this case, the VA Supremes had to schedule a special session for the first time in 23 years. Clearly they wanted to issue a decision before this fall's election.

While I'm no mind-reader, this suggests at least two avenues of thinking. On the one hand, perhaps they were concerned that the Governor's order, being contested in the media, would cause Virginians to question the validity of this fall's election results. Since their role is to settle constitutional questions, the Court thought it best to step in and review the order and settle the matter.

The second option, more worrying for the Governor, is that some Justices find the Republican's arguments about constitutional overreach appealing. The legal consensus seems to be on the Governor's side. But the Court leans Republican and conservative, and we've seen justices throw impartiality out the window before.

Whatever decision the court makes, it's unlikely -- although not impossible -- that the Virginia vote this fall will be close enough for the felon rights issue to make a difference. The bigger impact may be in future elections, all across the country. There's a hidden war going on over voting, as Republicans and Democrats try to shape the electorate in ways favorable to themselves. Republicans have been winning this war in recent decades, especially with the drawing of district lines and voter ID laws designed to limit the size of the electorate (and not to combat the supposedly widespread scourge of voter fraud, as Republicans often claim).

McAuliffe's voter rights initiative is one of the first salvos in a possible Democratic counter-attack. Felon rights restoration offers a chance for Democrats to make the argument for inclusion, widening participation, and ending functionally racist (and, sometimes, deliberately racist) policies that disproportionately affect poor and minority voters. They'll start making that argument this week in front of the Virginia Supreme Court.

AuthorRichard Meagher

There were clear winners this week in the Supreme Court's decision in the Bob McDonnell case, with the former Virginia Governor obviously enjoying the biggest victory. McDonnell's 2014 conviction for corruption was vacated by the Court, so he will stay out of jail -- for now. Next a court will have to decide whether there is enough evidence for a re-trial; even if they think there is, federal prosecutors have to weigh the costs and risks of a new trial against the Supreme Court's new, more restrictive standard for corruption.

There are plenty of other winners, though, including the Governor's wife, Maureen, who will likely now win an appeal of her own corruption sentence. The decision could also make it harder for prosecutors in corruption cases up North, as New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez faces charges and former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver appeals his own conviction.

In general, any public official who was worried about ethics reform, particularly in Virginia, has to feel like a winner after the decision. The Associated Press ran an adorable report this week that claimed that "the gift scandal that led to federal charges against [McDonnell] reshaped Virginia's political culture." It's a cute idea, but wrong. Yes, many legislators are no longer blatantly accepting gifts from constituents, but as one Daily Beast headline put it, the decision "could open up a new golden age of political pay-to-play."

Still, there's one more, less heralded winner in this week's Court decision, with big consequences for next year's statewide elections: the Virginia Republican Party.

Bob McDonnell was once a rising star on the national scene, and the nominal head of his state party apparatus. After the corruption scandal broke, he instead became the albatross around the Republicans' neck. Their 2013 candidate for Governor, then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, was a polarizing candidate to begin with. But the McDonnell scandal neutralized any talk of his opponent, Terry McAuliffe, and ties to the Clintons and fundraising scandals. Instead, it was the GOP that was the party of corruption.

And you can be sure this would be an issue in 2017 as well. With their last sitting Governor in jail, Ed Gillespie or Rob Wittman -- or, God help us, Corey Stewart -- would have to defend themselves and their party from Democratic attack ads that suggested they were just like McDonnell. (All three candidates have been remarkably quiet this week, at least on social media.)

Now that threat is likely gone. Top Republicans like House Speaker William Howell (McDonnell was "vindicated") and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment ("the Court has unambiguously determined that his conviction was unjust") are practically crowing about what a stand-up guy Bob McDonnell is. 

From the beginning, McDonnell's attorneys had claimed that the charges against him were, in part at least, politically motivated. (Virginia Tech's Bob Denton even said the Court's decision confirmed that the case was a "federal witch hunt.") Assuming charges are dropped, now Republicans can tell that same story: McDonnell just made some mistakes, but was the victim of an overreaching federal government. In the age of Trump, that can be a convincing tale for skeptical Republican voters.

McDonnell remains popular in his home base of Virginia Beach, so we might even see a political comeback for him some day. But GOP officials in Virginia are just happy not to have him in an orange jumpsuit when they try to take back the Governor's mansion next year.

AuthorRichard Meagher

The dust has only just cleared from last week's tremendous upset in the Virginia 2nd. Scott Taylor's defeat of Congressman Randy Forbes in the Republican Congressional primary all but assures Taylor the seat, and sends Forbes home.

Some analysts were comparing Forbes' loss to Eric Cantor's historic defeat two years ago, with the Washington Times referring to an "insurgent wave" that included the national Sanders and Trump campaigns. But there are some big differences between these national trends, and even Cantor's loss to Dave Brat in VA, and what happened to Forbes last week.

First, Cantor's defeat was emblematic of significant fault lines in the Republican Party in a way that Forbes' loss is not. Cantor represented Beltway Republicanism at a time when Tea Party forces were becoming stronger in the Party. Thanks to a number of trends, including the financial crisis, the Republican grassroots were moving from a largely Christian evangelical movement towards a more economics-oriented, anti-establishment fury. Republican leadership continues to have trouble adjusting to this shift (as every interview with Paul Ryan makes clear).

Still, even Cantor's defeat shows that national trends are filtered through local conditions for Congressional races; it's still the district that matters most. And Cantor had clearly lost touch with the particular Republicans in his district, making Dave Brat's victory easy to explain, at least in hindsight. Brat (full disclosure: a former colleague of mine at Randolph-Macon College) worked a tireless campaign, appearing at many local events, going door-to-door, and using targeted voting data.

Cantor's loss was certainly a huge upset, but the fact that he was the House Majority Leader made his loss seem even more seismic than it might actually have been. Yes, Brat rode an anti-establishment wave; but if Eric Cantor had run even a halfway-credible campaign, he probably would have won. Pundits want to place historic upsets in a bigger context, but sometimes it's just the little, local things that bring the big guys down. For example, House Speaker Tom Foley lost his re-election bid in 1994, but most saw the loss as related to his opposition to term limits in his home state, not national issues.

Randy Forbes is also clearly not the victim of anti-establishment fervor; he was not particularly disliked by grassroots Republicans. Instead, he became the unfortunate victim of extraordinary obstacles resulting from the redrawing of district lines in Virginia. Forbes, like most incumbents, would have been fine in his old 4th district, averaging 60% majorities in his last 4 elections.  But the uncertainly caused by the new district lines convinced him to try running in the 2nd, hoping that his years of support for the area's defense industry would earn him votes. It was pretty clear that voters didn't buy his argument, but it was an argument made under very unusual circumstances.

There is one final area where Forbes is similar to Cantor; they both "went negative," and it backfired on them. Two years ago, Cantor infamously tried to paint his opponent as a "liberal college professor." To paraphrase a famous debate quote: I served with Dave Brat. I knew Dave Brat. Dave Brat is no liberal. The idea was ludicrous to everyone else who knew Brat, including the voters he met in the district; the resulting backlash in the district played into the Brat campaign's narrative of Cantor as dishonest and out of touch.

Forbes similarly used negative attack ads, including promoting dubious claims of FEC violations by his opponent and even cropping old Facebook photos of Taylor. In one mailer, Forbes tried to claim that Taylor was "convicted in at least four different courts across the country." Politifact pointed out that these were all traffic violations, and while Taylor doesn't seem like the safest driver, his court record doesn't suggest the rampant criminality of which Forbes accused him. Taylor used these incidents to help promote his version of Forbes as a dishonest carpetbagger, and apparently voters found that story more compelling than Forbes'.

And so now Virginia's Congressional delegation will add yet another noob, replacing a 16-year representative with important committee positions that helped deliver jobs and money to the state. If Rob Wittman's run for Governor works out as well as he plans, then by 2017 there may be as many as NINE (out of 11) Virginia reps with single-digit years of experience in the House. As I've noted before, this may not be the best news for a state dependent on federal dollars for so much of its economic health.

AuthorRichard Meagher

Everyone, it seems, is running for Mayor of Richmond. A second candidate's forum held Tuesday night featured 11 (!) of the 17 (!!!) declared candidates. (A local neighborhood website offers -- with tongue firmly in cheek and terrific pix by a local cartoonist known as "RVA Coffee Stain" -- a great guide to this glut of hopefuls.)

Still, this month should show us who is serious about running. Petition signatures are due next week, and this past Monday was the first important campaign fundraising report deadline. We're already getting a sense of what resources might be available for the candidates.

I talked to Mark Tenia of WRIC-8 on Tuesday night about the biggest news from these initial filings: former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney's dramatic lead in fundraising, with over $300,000 in donations already. As I told Mark, it's clear that Stoney's connections give him access to donors that other candidates can't even dream of, including $5k combined from the Governor and his wife. (The essential Virginia Public Access Project offers searchable versions of the finance reports for many candidates, including Stoney.)

Just to provide a sense of how much of an advantage this is for Stoney, one of his biggest rivals, City Council President Michelle Mosby, only managed to raise $5,000. Her fellow Council member Jon Baliles got to $17k, and former Councilman Bruce Tyler only $7k.

Still, money is not everything. Stoney is largely an outsider to city politics, with his power base in state government. (Both governments are located in Richmond, of course, but Broad Street between the capitol buildings and City Hall might as well be a moat.) Mosby and Baliles may have a smaller base, but that base, importantly, is one of the city's nine council districts, which gives them important connections to local neighborhood groups and institutions. Mosby in particular will vie with Stoney for support of the city's Democratic machine, in part by supporting the Mayor (or at least not bashing him while everyone else does).

But as I've been saying all along, this is Stoney's race to lose. Other candidates may be able to rely on local resources. But in a citywide race where very few candidates are known outside of small constituencies, money can get your name out there: on signs, direct mailers, and even television ads. TV can be expensive and even wildly inefficient, since so many viewers are outside city limits; still, Stoney's immense fundraising advantage may make such a strategy viable - a bazooka compared to every other candidate's popgun.

One other name to keep an eye on: former Venture Richmond Director Jack Berry. Mosby may be seeking the support of Richmond's black power structure, but Berry is connected to the city's white power structure. According to VPAP, he raised a nice $160k, which would be fantastic if not for Stoney raising twice that amount. Since Berry filed paper reports, VPAP does not have information on specific donations to his campaign. But I'll bet his list is a who's who of powerful West Enders and RVA downtowners. If anyone can give Stoney a run for his literal money, it's Berry.

The VPAP reporting information sheds some early light on important city council races as well. In particular:

  • In the city's 2nd Council District, real estate developer Charlie Diradour has a big jump on funding vs. current Richmond School Board member Kim Gray, with $10k vs. just $250 for Gray. Diradour's donor list includes some powerful friends. (State Senator Scott Surovell is on the list, for example).
  • Donald Moss, who is challenging longtime incumbent Ellen Robertson in the 6th, reported a promising $12k in donations. Although $5k came from one CarMax systems analyst, he has over 100 small donations as well. Moss, a seemingly tireless Democratic activist, is making school funding a big part of his pitch; he may be drawing support from the #SupportOurSchools network, who are not big on incumbent city leadership right now.
  • In my own 4th district, Council staffer Tim Grimes appears to have access to his retiring boss Kathy Graziano's fundraising network, generating $5k to his opponent's $6k. That opponent, School Board member Kristen Larson, has been working with local lobbyists and fundraisers for some time. (This may sound sinister, but south side Hills and Heights neighborhoods are full of lobbyists. Some of my best friends...) These initial filings suggest a competitive race here -- but hopefully not a negative one, as both candidates are popular in these parts.

One final note: the Richmond First Club, a longstanding civic association of wealthy elites, is hosting its own mayoral forum on Wednesday, and only invited Baliles, Berry, Stoney, Tyler, and former House Delegate Joe Morrissey. (According to the RTD, they invited Mosby but she was unable to attend.) These are candidates that the club said "substantially completed requirements to qualify for the ballot by June 3," but we can read that to mean "these are the ones we think might actually win." So that's our first short list of viable candidates.

AuthorRichard Meagher

The big news this week: CNN reported that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is under federal investigation! The issue is campaign contributions he may have received from a mysterious Chinese billionaire, Weng Wenilang!! Not another governor investigated, moans the Richmond Times Dispatch in an editorial - "this is something Virginia does not need" !!!!

In case the mounting exclamation points weren't a clue, let me be clear: this is not a story, at least not in the way it seems.

The key thing to notice here is CNN's sources for the story. Was it federal investigators conducting the investigation? Was it a spokesman for the Department of Justice? Actually, it was "U.S. officials briefed on the probe." That could be anyone - or, as Karoli Kuns at Crooks and Liars points out, it could just be the staffers of a Republican Congressman.

Is there an investigation? Sure, probably. But there are investigations going on at the DOJ all the time. Just because an FBI agent is reviewing something doesn't make it a crime. (As the RTD editorial grudgingly admitted, "Investigations are not convictions.") These investigations often go nowhere, and there's no indication that McAuliffe has done anything wrong or that the feds are moving forward with anything.

By contrast, Fox reported in February that the investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server reportedly involved DOJ attorneys, which suggests a more "mature" investigation. And even THAT case will not likely lead to any indictment, no matter how much Republicans wish upon a star.

And it is Hillary Clinton that's the real story here. CNN's breathless report takes us back to the 1990s, when campaign finance concerns about China and the White House were the subject of multiple Congressional investigations. It's not likely a coincidence that this story broke the same week that Trump decided to bring up Vince Foster. CNN itself noted that Trump's entire campaign strategy seems to be "back to the 90s."

As Charlie Pierce points out in Esquire, the McAuliffe "investigation" presents yet another opportunity to drag Clinton's name down. The CNN story mentioned that McAuliffe's role as a board member of the Clinton Global Initiative was part of the investigation. Pierce notes:

This is the classic Whitewater technique for what we can call a "foundational leak." You claim to be investigating something unrelated to either Clinton, but you make sure the name "Clinton" is in there somewhere. Smoke, fire, you know.

And so now McAuliffe now has to deny that this campaign issue has anything to do with Hillary - which becomes the headline on A legal "expert" shows up on FoxNews to explain how this probe is almost certainly connected to Clinton, and this expert's appearance gets reported in other conservative media as a confirmation. (And let's not get started on how this issue is being "reported" on Twitter.)

McAuliffe may not be the best Governor ever, but unlike his predecessor, he is not going to be indicted, at least not over these campaign contributions. Instead, this story is much more about his powerful friend (and, possibly, future employer) who just happens to be running for President.

But the PR damage has been done: we have another Clinton scandal, 90s style. The Richmond Times Dispatch was right about one thing: this is not what Virginians need.

AuthorRichard Meagher

Being Governor isn't always a picnic. While the Governor's office is obviously the most high-profile political position in a state, Governors in most states are actually much less powerful than the legislature.

Quick history lesson: Federalists like Alexander Hamilton argued for a strong executive in the national government after seeing how badly a weak executive worked under the our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. The "anti-federalists," including VA patriot Patrick Henry, opposed the new constitution in part because it gave too much power to the President; their experience with executives -- colonial governors and the King who appointed them -- wasn't great. While the anti-feds obviously lost their fight when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, state constitutions reflected their distrust of executive power, and still favor the legislature in most states today.

In Virginia, the Governor's office has an even bigger impediment; we are the only state in the union that bars incumbents from running for a second term. State legislatures don't have a lot of incentive to work with someone who's guaranteed to be gone after only four years. (Of course, a Governor can run again after being out of office, but we haven't seen that since the 1960s. And who wants a has-been in office? Besides California, that is?)

With all this stacked against him, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has one additional problem: a Republican majority in the state legislature. McAullife's Democrats failed to take back the State Senate in last year's elections. Even then, the GOP holds a 66-seat super-majority in the House of Delegates, having controlled the chamber since 2000.

So if you are a Governor of a state with so much against you, how do you govern?  McAuliffe, after some early stumbles, seems to have figured it out. In the last few months, he's demonstrated how to remain relevant by identifying the powers he DOES have and using them shrewdly and publicly. For example:

  • The Governor's recent move to restore voting rights for convicted felons made a big splash, and rightfully so. It was bold, clever, and probably constitutional, no matter what the GOP says. McAuliffe's move might have been helpful to Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign, but it also showed Democrats in all 50 states how to fight back in the ongoing war over voter rights, which the GOP has been dominating for several election cycles.
  • This week, the Governor is heading to Boston and Canada for another round of trade promotion meetings. McAuliffe has made this kind of thing his trademark, wandering the globe from Cuba to India, and even claiming to be the most-traveled Governor in America. It's hard to know how much credit to give to McAuliffe for any deals he might bring back - they're often speculative, or may have happened without his promotional work. (Republicans, naturally, are skeptical.) But his travels enable to the Governor to tell a clear story about what he's been doing -- and, really, the story he always planned on telling even before he won office -- as the guy who brings jobs to the state. (The same story he can tell to a Clinton transition team looking for a Secretary of Commerce or U.S. Trade Representative, by the way.)
  • The Governor may be less powerful than his counterpart at the national level, but McAuliffe has one very important similarity to the President: he can veto legislation that he doesn't like. And McAuliffe has used that power extensively. His 32 vetoes this year was the most in VA in two decades.

It doesn't hurt that McAuliffe has a flair for the dramatic. His felon rights initiative was well-staged and a surprise to his GOP opponents. And, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted, his vetoes this year were very public:

McAuliffe seemed to relish the occasions, vetoing the so-called religious freedom bill during a live radio appearance and striking the abortion bill in front of cameras at the Richmond headquarters of the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood.

The general assumption is that McAuliffe will move to national government if Clinton wins this fall, letting Lt. Governor Ralph Northam get a head start on the top office in an election year. Assuming the makeup of the state legislature remains the same -- maybe not a safe bet with Trump heading the national ticket -- Northam will have to deal with the same limitations his predecessor has. But McAuliffe has already shown him what to do.

AuthorRichard Meagher

The state of Richmond Public Schools will play a key role in the city's elections this fall. The increasingly crowded field of mayoral candidates are already having to answer questions about school funding, with protesting crowds packing into City Council meetings to demand more for schools in next year's budget.  At least two sitting members of the School Board are running for Council in the fall as well.

The schools probably do need more money. But they might need good data even more. And there's another fight going on behind the scenes, with a legal battle between entrenched interests and an avowed crank, to force the schools to produce them.

John Butcher, a local activist and blogger who posts at the Cranky Taxpayer blog, has been complaining for years about mismanagement at RPS. He posts whatever data he can on his blog to try to analyze it for information about how the schools are performing.

Recently he stole an idea from a Loudon County activist: use a Freedom of Information Act request to demand SGP, or Student Growth Percentile scores. According to the Virginia Department of Ed, SGP scores try to measure a student's growth since the last time they were measured. Presumably, if a student has a bad SGP score this year, his or her teacher hasn't done very much to help them improve since last year.

Loudon's Brian Davison won a huge victory last month, when a Richmond Circuit Court compelled the county's schools district to release the SGP data, anonymized by teacher. Butcher has followed suit, but his request -- and Davison's -- is bringing new legal action from the teacher's union.

The Virginia Education Association has apparently filed a request for an injunction against Butcher, Davison, and the VA Dept. of Ed in an effort to block the SGP data. Their concern? According to the injunction petition, "Davison and Butcher have, and intend to, use VDOE's statistical data and reports to make prejudicial judgments about the evaluation, performance, success, or failure of individual teachers."

The union has a point. In an era where teachers have been unjustly blamed for failing schools -- and a whole lot more -- they're probably right to worry that teachers will take the fall for matters beyond their control. And test scores are surely an imperfect way to measure the impact of teachers, and creates all sorts of incentives to game the system. (Just ask Atlanta.)

Butcher is certainly guilty of placing too much emphasis on test scores. But he's right to ask whether the RPS is doing ANYTHING to evaluate its practices and teachers. At least Butcher is looking at whatever data is available and asking what's working and what's not. For instance, his data consistently shows that George Washington Carver Elementary outperforms its peers, by a lot. (See here for an example.) Why? What is Carver doing that's working? And why aren't other RPS schools stealing it?

My friend Craig Larson, a math professor at VCU, published an op-ed last year in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that called for better use of data in making decisions at RPS. Larson noted his frustration with RPS leadership:

I pointed out to a School Board member that Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden’s Academic Improvement Plan (AIP) did not appear to be based on any research. The superintendent’s office ultimately sent us both a list of bullet points and notes culled from various educational experts — but with no data or analysis.

There's a "big data" revolution going on in sports, finance, and just about everywhere else. Organizations are analyzing internal data to improve efficiency and best practices. Transparency and data sharing allows the public to crowdsource solutions for problems ranging from potholes to healthcare to art.

But RPS doesn't seem to be paying attention. If the schools and the teachers don't want to share the data they DO have, then they at least need to show that they're using data internally to make decisions, but there's no evidence of that.

Will next year's City Council, including newly empowered former School Board Members, demand data-driven practices? Will admired Superintendent Dana Bedden make it happen? Will the union stand in the way? The answers to these questions may be more important than any budget numbers in deciding the future of Richmond's schools.

AuthorRichard Meagher