Bob McDonnell trusts Virginians. He believes they’re a fair people, and that’s largely why he isn’t fretting over his legacy as the 71st governor of Virginia.
In an interview one month before his four-year term concludes, the Republican governor touched on the successes of his tenure, what’s next and some “judgments” he wish he’d made differently in relation to the not-yet-over Star Scientific scandal.
“This has been a personally difficult and, in some respects, heartbreaking period of time for me and my family,” McDonnell said of the controversy. “I think much of the information has been inaccurate, but at the same time I understand that some of the decisions I made undermined people’s view of me.”
Federal investigators continue to probe the relationship between McDonnell, his wife and Jonnie Williams, a political donor, businessman and former CEO of supplement manufacturer Star Scientific.
The scandal, which centers around whether Williams’ company was awarded preferential treatment from the governor and the state, has tainted the reputation of McDonnell, a former rising star of the Republican party and one-time contender for a vice presidential nomination.
McDonnell maintained during the interview that he broke no laws, and he doesn’t feel the Star Scientific issue was a detriment to his effectiveness in office, he said.
Reviewing highlights of the McDonnell administration, there are lists of indisputable triumphs: Forbes.com named Virginia the best state in the U.S. for business in 2013; there have been four consecutive years of a budget surplus; homelessness is down 16 percent; McDonnell helped secure new state transportation funding for the first time in a quarter century, a monumental task; and more than 170,000 net new jobs have been created.
Arguably McDonnell’s proudest achievement is turning $6 billion worth of budget shortfalls from when he entered office into $2 billion worth of surpluses – the largest cumulative total by any administration in the history of Virginia, according to the governor’s office.
“Ultimately, I think the people of Virginia are very fair,” said McDonnell. “They look at the totality of your accomplishments and the totality of your service and make the decision about what this officeholder and this administration has done for me and my family … and ‘is Virginia in better shape than it was four years ago?’ and I think the answer to that is yes.”
Unfortunately for McDonnell, that question, for many Virginians, has become secondary to the Star Scientific controversy.
Two columns by Jennifer Rubin, a conservative writer for the Washington Post, exhibit in glaring fashion the onerous year for the 59-year-old McDonnell.
In May, Rubin praised McDonnell’s governing style, writing in the Post: “McDonnell’s legacy is not merely center-right compromise. Rather it is one of bold strokes, a willingness to defy national gainsayers. He has been someone who worries less about the party orthodoxy than the expansion of prosperity and opportunity in his state.”
Three months later, Rubin said McDonnell should resign.
“Whatever the feds’ decision, it would behoove McDonnell to consider resigning,” Rubin noted in August. “His effectiveness as governor is over. His behavior doesn’t warrant his continued presence in the executive mansion. This is, by supporters’ and opponents’ admission, a stunning and tragic end to an otherwise very successful governorship.”
Still, McDonnell has endured, his term lasting to the end, and he’s going full speed ahead until his final day in office.
In mid-December the governor released his final biennial budget (the commonwealth operates on two-year spending plans), something he hopes will help shore up a reputation as a productive and compassionate conservative.
McDonnell’s latest spending proposal calls for $38 million in additional funding for mental health care, allocates $183 million more in higher education funding and directs more than $582 million in increased funding for K-12 and Pre-K education.
Sitting in his third-floor office in the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond, McDonnell would not rule out a future bid for public office, but he welcomed some down time, away from politics.
“I never rule anything out because I’m a man of faith, and I never know what God has in store for me. Twenty years ago I never thought I’d ever run for an office, and here I am with the highest office in Virginia,” he said.
McDonnell estimated he averaged 14-hour workdays during his time as governor. He said sleep is the first thing he’s looking forward to after leaving office, along with reading the “stack of about 25 books” sitting on his nightstand.
And then there’s family. All five of Bob and Maureen McDonnell’s children live in Virginia.
“I need to go visit them,” McDonnell, a devout Catholic, said, “and tell them to start having grandchildren so I’ve got something to do in my old age.”