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McDonnell’s final year in office marred by gifts scandal

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AP Photo/Steve Helber

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was once mentioned as a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016.

His approval ratings were once on an upward trajectory.

His private life was once private. 

That was before his apology last summer for the embarrassment that his actions, and those of his family, had caused the commonwealth.

That was before the onset of federal and state investigations into more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from an executive — Star Scientific’s CEO Jonnie Williams Sr. — who wanted his anti-inflammatory supplement offered on the state health plan. (The request was denied.)

That was before Maureen McDonnell, wife of the governor, was on track to become the most controversial first lady in modern Virginia history, amid stories of a $15,000 New York shopping trip and a $6,500 Rolex watch for her husband, paid for by Williams.

The governor maintains that Star received no special treatment or state grants. He no longer wears the watch, and he says he has repaid the loans and returned most of the tangible gifts that he and his family had received from Williams, including $15,000 in catering for one daughter’s wedding and $10,000 to help pay for another’s. It is not clear whether the reimbursements include more recent revelations made by The Washington Post, including a weekend trip to Cape Cod and golf outings for his sons and staff.

In the twilight of his four-year term as governor, McDonnell has become a chew toy for the news media. For a time, every day brought new revelations of gifts and loans.

Amid the ongoing crisis, McDonnell took a tour of the state in August to celebrate the accomplishments of his administration.

Those accomplishments include:

  • Guiding approval of the first comprehensive transportation-funding plan in 27 years through a highly divided legislature.
  • Achieving four consecutive state budget surpluses.
  • Selling a record amount of Virginia’s agricultural products to overseas markets.
  • Working to restore the voting rights of felons.

Journalists who followed him on the tour observed that he seemed to have lost weight and seemed wearier than before.

Calls for McDonnell’s resignation have come from a few Democratic legislators, a few Republican pundits such as blogger Jennifer Rubin and broadcaster John Fredericks and from some publications, such as The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk.

McDonnell has insisted that he will serve out his term, even though his approval ratings in polls have dropped steeply.

In October 2011 a poll by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found that 62 percent approved of the way he was handling his job.  By July 2013, only 46 percent approved.

At best, McDonnell’s future is clouded.

Of course, some politicians have overcome what once appeared to be career-ending scandals.

But Larry Sabato, the authoritative University of Virginia political scientist, is pessimistic about McDonnell’s chances.

He cut to the chase in a tweet over the summer:

“McDonnell’s political career is over. Finis. That’s no longer in dispute.”

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