The Big Guy and the Little Guy in Virginia

In Richard Wolffe’s new book about Obama’s reelection campaign, The Message: The Reselling of President Obama, he quotes David Axelrod on what he was hearing in focus groups in early 2011:

“When you hear people talk, you feel two things,” he said at the outset of his campaign. “When you think about the average middle-class American, what they feel is that above them they see people getting bailouts. Below them they see people getting handouts. And they feel that they are on their own. They feel they are working hard and they’re not getting a fair shake, and other people aren’t doing their fair share.”

This is not a new theme in American politics; a few pages earlier, Wolffe quotes Clinton’s convention speech in 1992: “Those who play by the rules and keep the faith have gotten the shaft, and those who cut corners and cut deals have been rewarded.”

It’s a resonant theme, and it’s unlikely that it’s any less powerful today than it was in 2011 or 1992 — the percentage of Americans in the workforce, 63.2 percent, is the lowest in 35 years. About 75 percent of the 1 million new jobs created this year are part-time. Wages have barely budged in the past five years. Meanwhile, corporate profits are up 42 percent from 2007, and the stock market has spent much of the year at new highs.

Times remain hard for a lot of people, and there are still plenty of vivid stories of greed, selfishness, arrogance, and unethical behavior at the highest levels:  “Too big to fail” banks that are bigger than before the crash. Bernie Madoff. The gobs of taxpayer money that went to Solyndra. Jesse Jackson Jr. spending his campaign money on expensive gifts for himself. The General Services Administration spending oodles on fancy conferences in Las Vegas. Tina Brown’s charity spending most of its money on parties. Finally, there’s Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, throwing away his political future for a bunch of expensive gifts from Jonnie Williams, the CEO of a nutritional supplement maker.

Here in Virginia, the site of the only competitive statewide race in 2013, there’s an extreme contrast between the two choices . . . and yet the polls suggest Virginians are about to choose the rich guy whose whole career has been built on connecting wealthy donors to politicians over the candidate who’s spent a good chunk of his life fighting for the littlest of guys.

Ken Cuccinelli can make a strong case that he’s done more for the “little guy” in this state and this country than Terry McAuliffe will ever do.

You don’t get a lot of credit for hiring a guy wrongfully convicted of rape to do clerical work in your office, to help him get back on his feet.

You don’t get a lot of credit for working in food banks and working with groups providing mental-health treatment for Richmond’s homeless, and then donating $100,000 to the group.

You don’t get a lot of credit for leading a protest and forcing the University of Virginia to hire a full-time coordinator to prevent and address sexual assault on campus. In fact, decades later, your opponent will run ads suggesting you hate women.

You don’t get a lot of credit for taking on your largest donor, Dominion Virginia Power, in court and limiting their ability to raise rates for consumers.

Cuccinelli is the “little guy” in this race. For the past eight years, Ken Cuccinelli has earned between $134,000 and $264,000 before taxes. That may seem like a lot, and it is a lot, to most people . . . but remember Cuccinelli has seven kids, and sends his older children to Catholic school.  (The Cuccinellis home-school their children through sixth grade.) He drives a minivan.

By contrast, McAuliffe earned $8.2 million in 2011, $1.8 million in 2010, and $6.5 million in 2009. His 7,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom, seven-and-a-half-bathroom house in McLean was purchased in 1992 for $1.1 million ($3.3 million today). He’s made his money through his own businesses and investments, when not serving as finance chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, finance chairman for the Dick Gephardt for President 1988 campaign, national finance chairman and then national co-chairman of the Clinton-Gore campaign, and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

As the New York Times noted, McAuliffe “usually conducted business at restaurants like the Palm and the Oval Room,” and he has his own regular table at Georgetown’s Café Milano. (Apparently in 2008, McAuliffe caused a scene at The Palm, declaring “at the top of his lungs: ‘No one does porn like me.’” ) In his autobiography, he declared, “Let me tell you, it’s a lot easier to raise money for a governor. They have all kinds of business to hand out, road contracts, construction jobs, you name it.”

Look, fellow Virginians, I understand the reticence about Cuccinelli. I doubt he or his campaign will be offended if I declare the man is not a whirling dervish of raw political charisma. He’s Joe Friday. If you needed a lawyer, you would want Ken Cuccinelli. If you wanted a fun neighbor down the street who would invite you to raucous parties with famous people, you would want Terry McAuliffe.

That, in a nutshell, is what drove Democratic strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders to announce he’ll be voting for Cuccinelli.

“I just can’t sit here anymore and watch this coin-operated government continue. Wouldn’t I be a hypocrite if I came to Richmond last year and jumped on Eric Cantor for it and then came back and supported Terry McAuliffe?”

Saunders said he and Cuccinelli agree “on matters of economic fairness” and share concerns about the middle class.

“I’ve just got to vote for my people,” rural people and urban people, Saunders said. “Our part of Virginia looks like Sherman went through it and didn’t burn anything. It’s due to these corporatist Washington policies.”

The choice doesn’t get much clearer, Virginia. 

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