He delivered the 2010 Republican response to the State of the Union Address. He became chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2011 and was widely mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick just over a year ago. Even on the day he was passed over in favor of Rep. Paul Ryan, McDonnell introduced Mitt Romney at a Norfolk naval museum and basked in the Republican candidate’s public praise.
“What a great governor you have,” Romney told cheering Virginians. “What a terrific man and a terrific leader. Way to go.”
That was then.
McDonnell, 59, leaves office in January under the cloud of a federal investigation that has overshadowed his accomplishments, risks tarnishing his legacy and perhaps has crippled beyond repair a once-promising political future.
He hasn’t ruled out a return to politics — though his options seem limited. He told The Associated Press in a recent interview that he would remain engaged in “compassionate conservative” policies he values, including perhaps homelessness or prisoners’ rights, but wouldn’t disclose specifics.
The governor’s seat has opened the door to higher office since Thomas Jefferson held it from 1779 to 1781. McDonnell’s two immediate predecessors — Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner — are now U.S. senators. Even so, McDonnell said he has no interest in the Senate and has never thought seriously about the White House. He brushed aside questions about whether an investigation into his relationship with a donor had derailed his political career, saying he’s never looked beyond his current position.
“The thought of doing something beyond being governor of Virginia is something the press mentioned and other people mentioned, but until I finished this office, I really wasn’t going to engage seriously in thinking what else could that be,” said McDonnell, a former legislator, state attorney general and retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel.
Like all Virginia governors, he’s barred from seeking a consecutive term. After being governor, he said, “There really aren’t a whole lot of offices that excite you.”
McDonnell’s departure comes as federal prosecutors investigate whether he and wife Maureen gave special treatment to Star Scientific Inc., a dietary supplement-maker whose chief executive helped cover catering costs for their daughter’s wedding and gave the first couple other gifts, including a Rolex watch for the governor.
McDonnell apologized in July and said he had returned more than $120,000 in loans, as well as other gifts. He repeated in the interview that he had done nothing illegal on Star Scientific’s behalf but said he’d do “things differently today than choices I made a couple of years ago.”
“This has been a difficult year,” he said. “In 37 years (of service), never has anyone ever even insinuated that I have done anything improper in my professional life.”
A Justice Department spokesman and a spokesman for McDonnell’s legal team declined to comment on the investigation, which surprised many in the state.
“If you said Bob McDonnell, the first words out of my mouth would be Boy Scout, Eagle Scout, just beyond reproach,” said Democratic state Sen. Chap Petersen, who served alongside McDonnell in the House of Delegates. “You just could not imagine him getting caught up in something like that.”
As governor, McDonnell has actively lobbied for select policy initiatives — for instance, delivering detailed PowerPoint presentations at town-hall meetings in support of an unsuccessful effort to privatize state-owned liquor states — and engaged directly with lawmakers on issues, including transportation, he’s prioritized. But he’s also invited staffers and subordinates to collaborate on strategy and to help sort out specifics of implementing big-picture goals, said former state Education Secretary Laura Fornash.
Whatever the investigation’s outcome, the scandal represents a precipitous fall for a highly visible Republican governor whose centrist appeal in a critical swing state made him a key Romney spokesman. Though he took office with nearly 59 percent of the vote, exit polling conducted at this year’s election for AP and television networks show that a slight majority of Virginians — 52 percent — approve of his job performance, while 41 percent disapprove.
As McDonnell ends his term, many remain mindful of the scandal.
“I think the overall performance was good, but he pulled the rug out from under him by any involvement in the Star (Scientific) business,” Eric Willis, 86, of Lake Ridge, Va., said this month.
Elected at the dawn of the tea party era, McDonnell modeled himself as a social conservative — a Roman Catholic, he is anti-abortion— but also a job-creating consensus-builder. Once in office, he grappled with weighing his own bipartisan outreach efforts against the platform of his party conservative’s wing.
He leaned heavily on Democratic support in securing approval for an $880-million-per-year bill to overhaul Virginia’s transportation system. It was a signature accomplishment in a traffic-clogged state fixated on infrastructure, though it dismayed some Republicans with its tax increases.
McDonnell said he’s especially proud of his fiscal management, including four consecutive budget surpluses and a near-quadrupling of Virginia’s rainy-day fund, and of education changes that tightened high school graduation standards and established a grading system for schools. He also attracted attention for efforts to restore civil rights to nonviolent felons who’ve done their time.
“People perceived him as a capable, mainstream, competent governor. He did a good job. That’s going to be the assessment of his administration — and what a damn shame about this scandal,” said George Mason University political scientist Mark Rozell.
But there were missteps along the way.
In 2010, he publicly apologized after omitting mention of slavery in declaring April “Confederate History Month” in Virginia, later amending the proclamation to denounce slavery and calling the oversight an “error of haste, not of heart.”
And he initially offered support for legislation that would have mandated vaginally invasive ultrasound exams for women seeking abortions but withdrew his backing amid national ridicule and signed into law a much-revised version.
“That disaster brought back the Democratic party of Virginia. It was down, it was out, it allowed the Democrats to mobilize its base, particularly women voters,” said James Madison University political scientist Robert Roberts.
But the biggest drama of the administration was the Star Scientific investigation.
It unfolded in the final year of his term, around the same time as a separate politically embarrassing case involving a former executive mansion chef who was accused of embezzlement and, in turn, accused McDonnell’s children of taking mansion food and supplies for personal use. The governor later reimbursed the state.
The fallout seeped into the general election, with McDonnell playing a low-key role in support of Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Asked why he hadn’t been more visible, McDonnell replied, “That’s a question for the candidate.”
McDonnell said he believed Virginians recognized the decision to return the gifts as a sign of repentance, but more broadly, that the scandal underscored the need to amend ethics laws generally rated as among America’s weakest. He said he expected to present proposals during his final days in office.
“I wouldn’t want anybody else to go through some of the things that I’ve been through, where people have insinuated things that I think are flat wrong,” he said.
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