Virginia state senator Phillip Puckett, who is being vilified by Democrats for giving up his seat in Richmond, has been an asset to the Democratic party through two decades, in a district that has grown steadily more Republican. By rounding on Puckett, the left wing of the national party may turn a legislative setback into a permanent loss.
“My daughter, who is an established attorney in Russell County, has been appointed by area judges to serve in a temporary capacity as a juvenile court judge,” Puckett, a Democrat who has represented the Virginia’s 38th district since 1998, said in his resignation announcement. “She cannot be confirmed into the position permanently as long as I serve in the General Assembly. My colleagues on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that she is fully qualified for the position. At this point in my life, I feel that I cannot allow my political career to hamper my daughter’s future and her desire to serve the families and children of our area on the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.”
“But [the general-assembly policy on appointments of family members] is not the sole reason for my resignation,” he wrote. “My family is dealing with several difficult issues that need our attention. These are private matters and I ask that you respect our privacy in working through them as a family.” The Washington Post reported that friends of Puckett said this was a reference to a family health problem. Observers of Virginia politics told National Review Online the same.
Yet Puckett has been turned into an Old Dominion Benedict Arnold by national media.
“GOP Straight Up Bribes Democratic Senator In Effort To Block Obamacare,” reported the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim and Ashley Alman. “Republicans offered to move Democratic state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett and his daughter into prestigious jobs in exchange for Puckett’s resignation,” Grim and Alman continued, “which will flip the chamber into Republican hands. Puckett officially accepted the offer on Monday, but then appeared to back away amid a public outcry.”
“I used to think Gov. Terry McAuliffe was the most venal politician among Virginia Democrats,” thought Jamelle Bouie of Slate. “But, I was wrong. That title goes to state Sen. Phillip Puckett, who resigned on Monday as part of a deal to give Republicans control of the state Senate, and thus a full veto on the Medicaid expansion.”
These claims are not accurate. There was no Republican “offer” of a job on the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission. Puckett was scheduled to interview for the position of deputy director Wednesday, but he removed himself from consideration Monday. Governor Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, both Democrats, have declined to criticize Puckett’s decision.
“I am deeply disappointed by this news and the uncertainty it creates at a time when 400,000 Virginians are waiting for access to quality health care, especially those in southwest Virginia,” McAuliffe said in a statement released Sunday night. “This situation is unacceptable, but the bipartisan majority in the Senate and I will continue to work hard to put Virginians first and find compromise on a budget that closes the coverage gap.”
The “bipartisan majority” was a reference to three Republican state senators who have proposed a Medicaid expansion compromise.
Although McAuliffe has been pushing hard for Medicaid expansion, his proposal is solidly blocked by the Virginia House of Delegates, where Republicans hold a supermajority. McAuliffe, a high-powered Democratic operative who took office in January, had been hoping to include the expansion as part of the state’s budget. But there is no indication that, even if the 20–20 major-party split in the state senate had remained in place (With Puckett’s resignation the GOP now holds a 20–19 majority.), such a budget could have passed the House of Delegates under any circumstances.
Puckett did not respond to National Review Online’s request for comment, but the Republican leader in the state senate lashed out at the Democrat’s new critics.
“The vilification of Phil Puckett ought to be an embarrassment to the people doing that,” Senator Tommy Norment says. “The Puckett family has been an integral part of southwest Virginia, they have left their imprint there, over many years. I have known Phil Puckett for many years. I have always found him to be a very honorable, forthright gentleman. He has been a tireless advocate for southwest Virginia. I do not have respect for these individuals who are so viciously attacking him. They are entirely uninformed about the circumstances of his retirement. I hope these people apologize. And I don’t think these political hacks and criticizers are going to make a dent in the esteem that the Puckett family has built up over many years. This is not a history-altering event, and it doesn’t require the attention that it has received.”
No election date has been set to fill the 38th district seat. Republican delegate Ben Chafin is expected to run for the seat. By alienating Puckett, the Democrats risk facing that race without the blessing of a Democratic politician who has a proven ability to hold a seat in a heavily Republican district. Republican candidate for governor Ken Cuccinelli beat McAuliffe 64 percent to 30 percent in the district last year. In 2012, the district went for Mitt Romney over President Obama by 67 percent to 31 percent, and Republicans have scored more than 60 percent in the 38th district in every statewide race since 2009.
One of Puckett’s own constituents reflected Norment’s kind words. “I could see why he’s resigning, but hate to see him resign, because he’s so good for us,” Janice Miller, a volunteer at the Tazewell Historical Society, told NRO.