Politics & Policy

What the Warner Scandal Reveals About the Democrats

Straight outta Tazewell! Why a rinky-dink rural outrage has become, literally, a federal case.

A tiny scandal over the early retirement of a Virginia state senator is blowing up for Democratic senator Mark Warner — not because the case is of national importance (it isn’t) or even because it’s critically important to Virginians (it isn’t), but because it gives a rare look at the Democratic establishment’s insistence on local, county, and state conformity with a national agenda nobody likes.

Monday night’s Senate debate had barely gotten underway when Republican challenger Ed Gillespie seized on recent news that Warner involved himself in negotiations over the resignation of popular Democratic state senator Phil Puckett. Puckett left office in June, citing unnamed family health reasons as well as the need to clear the way for his daughter’s confirmation as a judge on one of Virginia’s 32 juvenile and domestic-relations district courts. Martha Puckett Ketron had been filling a seat in the state’s 29th judicial district  – which includes the district courts of Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, and Puckett’s own home of Tazewell — but was reportedly ineligible for full confirmation as long as Phil Puckett continued to serve in the state senate, which imposes anti-nepotism rules.

Puckett’s early retirement, however, was a stone in the shoe of Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe, whose plan to expand Medicaid in the state as part of Obamacare implementation hinged on having enough Democratic votes in Richmond. In fact, the brouhaha over Puckett’s resignation initially focused on Republican lawmakers who may have held out the prospect of a job on the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission for the retiring Puckett, a moderate Democrat whose family has deep roots in southwestern Virginia and who managed to hold his seat for many years in a heavily Republican district.

More recently, however, it has come to light that the Democrats engaged in far more eager, though ultimately less successful, arm-twisting. In early October, the Washington Post reported that McAuliffe chief of staff Paul Reagan had pitched Puckett on a sky’s-the-limit range of patronage positions that could be made available for his daughter if Puckett stayed on.

“We would be very eager to accommodate her if, if that would be helpful in keeping you in the Senate,” Reagan said in a voicemail to Puckett. “We, we would basically do anything.”

Last week, Puckett’s son Joseph revealed that Warner too had gotten involved in the negotiations, calling to feel him out about his father’s plans and suggest that Martha Ketron might obtain either a spot on the federal judiciary or a private-sector gig provided Puckett not retire. And earlier this week it turned out McAuliffe himself left a poison voicemail on Puckett’s answering machine after all the Democrats’ blandishments failed.

Gillespie took the opportunity Monday to slam Warner in the debate. The senator’s response was unimpressive.

Gillespie is not a great candidate and there is little risk that Warner will lose the election. But he did pinch Warner in a classic prosecutorial gotcha: noting in his rebuttal that Warner denied having “offered” Ketron a job before anybody accused him. (We’ll know America is living out the true meaning of its creed when an incumbent senator can plead the Fifth during a debate and still get reelected.)

While covering this story in June, this reporter found a high level of fondness for Puckett among voters in Tazewell and the surrounding area. (“I hate to see him resign, because he’s so good for us,” a volunteer at the Tazewell Historical Society said at the time.) But the retired politician’s skill at cutting a deal seems to leave a lot to be desired. After a federal judgeship, a corporate sinecure, and “anything” were all on the table, Martha Ketron is right back where she started — awaiting confirmation of her district court seat. Puckett himself came up empty-handed as well; he has no post-retirement position lined up at all.

The negotiations over Puckett’s departure are scandalous not because they’re anything new but because they are as ancient as the American republic. This is old-school horse trading, and if it’s any worse than it used to be (not a sure bet) that is not because people are more corrupt but because every year government at all levels has more goodies to give away. The very fact that the Old Dominion maintains an entity with the comically boondogglish title “Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission” should be evidence that Virginia is no longer a state that George Mason, Patrick Henry, or Thomas Jefferson would recognize.

While patronage is a bipartisan tradition, top-to-bottom pressure over such a minor legislative event is classic behavior by a party that has been in power for a long time. It’s understandable that McAuliffe would be interested in Puckett’s career move, because dealing with state legislatures is what governors do. But how are the minutiae of local politicking in one of Virginia’s remotest regions of interest to Warner, a United States senator who presumably has more important things to occupy his time? In offering a federal judicial position, Warner was likely referring to using his powers of persuasion on the person who actually appoints federal judges — President Obama. Yet even if McAuliffe were able to jam new taxpayer commitments for Medicaid through the state senate, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 would not become a winning 2014 or 2016 issue for the president’s party, in Virginia or any other state. Is it really that important to the Democrats to salvage such a small item of value from the wreckage of Obamacare?

True to the make-a-federal-case-of-everything spirit of the Obama era, Puckettgate is the subject of an FBI probe, and Monday’s debate moderator Bill Fitzgerald, a CBS anchorman in Richmond, made sure to point out that “Republicans face similar accusations in this very case.” Warner’s campaign Wednesday stonewalled the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin about what contact the senator has had with the investigation so far. If he were charged with anything, tragedy would truly turn to comedy. The Puckett affair comes from humble beginnings, and I expect it will stay humble. But it is a signature scandal of our time, both because the politics are so intense and because the stakes are so small.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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