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Battle-scarred McDonnell at ‘pivot point’ of leadership

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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is looking to rebound from arguably his worst week since taking office after facing criticism on a wide range of issues both from outside and within his party.

The popular Republican governor, who emerged largely unscathed from a divisive General Assembly session dominated by social issues, was stung last week for his cautious response to the ongoing leadership crisis at the University of Virginia and for replacing a union-affiliated member of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board. The move has prompted legal action in state and federal courts.

Those events followed a string of setbacks in rapid succession in which the state Board of Health packed with McDonnell appointees effectively neutered restrictions that the governor championed on state abortion clinics, and Mr. McDonnell's party boldly defied his wishes by voting to hold a nominating convention instead of a primary for the 2013 statewide elections. The governor also drew fire from both Democratic and Republican legislators for his offer of grant incentives to keep the headquarters of the Washington Redskins in Northern Virginia.

Several of the developments, such as the UVa. situation, occurred independently of Mr. McDonnell, who was on a 10-day economic trade mission in Europe when the crisis unfolded in earnest. But analysts say the issues nevertheless threaten to reflect on his leadership.

"It's a brutal situation for him. It's brutal," said Paul Goldman, who served as an adviser to Govs. L. Douglas Wilder and Mark R. Warner, both Democrats. "The governorship is a position of leadership. And when the governor doesn't lead on issues ... things are going to spin out of control. And the governor's going to get blamed. It doesn't matter whether he likes it or not."

A chance for leadership

The troubling stretch for Mr. McDonnell began this month with the apparent ouster of the University of Virginia's president less than two years into her contract.

Teresa Sullivan announced her resignation on June 10, effective in August. Shortly afterward, reports emerged that the resignation had been forced by members of the prestigious school's governing board as the result of long-simmering disagreements over the university's mission and direction.

"Politics is about luck as much as anything else," said Quentin Kidd, director for the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. "Things happen. The UVa. situation - out of his control."

Mr. McDonnell responded to the crisis in a conference call from Sweden, saying the process should have been more transparent, but seemed largely to distance himself from the dispute. He said that beyond making appointments to the 16-member board of visitors, which is split evenly between his appointees and those chosen by his predecessor, Democrat Tim Kaine, that it was not the governor's job to micromanage the board or the university.

But in a decisive statement late Friday, Mr. McDonnell issued an ultimatum that if the governing board did not resolve the situation at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, he would ask for the resignations of all the board's members Wednesday.

Also within the governor's control is whether to reappoint the head of the board of visitors, Rector Helen E. Dragas, who was said to be behind Ms. Sullivan's departure. Ms. Dragas' term expires July 1.

"It's like a pivot point, perhaps, for him," Mr. Kidd said. "It would allow him to demonstrate some leadership in a way appropriate for the governor to demonstrate leadership."

His own making?

Other recent conflicts have more direct connections to Mr. McDonnell.

The governor has been locked in a battle for more than a year with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), the quasi-public entity overseeing construction of the $6 billion, 23-mile Dulles rail project.

The governor publicly opposed the regional authority's plan to give preferences to contractors who include union-friendly agreements on the second phase of the project and threatened to withhold Virginia's funding for the construction unless such agreements were removed.

Mr. McDonnell won the dispute June 6 when the authority's board voted to strike down the preferences. On June 14, the governor removed one of Virginia's representatives on the board, Dennis L. Martire, vice president of the Laborers' International Union of North America, in part citing a conflict of interest between his union ties and his support of the labor agreements.

Mr. Martire immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the move, and the authority has petitioned the Fairfax County Circuit Court to determine whether the seat is rightfully held by Mr. Martire or McLean technology entrepreneur Caren Merrick, whose appointment Mr. McDonnell announced June 15.

More shocking was a 7-4 vote by the state Board of Health on June 15 to exempt existing abortion clinics from strict new construction standards, part of a package of reforms that the board crafted in response to legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2011 and signed by Mr. McDonnell. The majority of the members on the 15-member board are Mr. McDonnell's appointees, and voted 12-1 in September to approve temporary regulations that accomplished much the same as the permanent ones.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican, said the revision to the regulations was beyond Mr. McDonnell's control and that the board acted outside its statutory authority.

"We're a part-time legislature, and the state is run by bureaucrats," he said. "He has no control once he appoints them. When they make a decision, the governor can only do something about it when it gets to his desk."

Mr. McDonnell will have the opportunity to look at the regulations again after the board submits them, as part of the executive review process.

Intraparty squabbles

The same day the Board of Health voted to alter the state's abortion clinic regulations, the newly constituted Republican Party of Virginia State Central Committee switched the GOP's nominating process for the 2013 elections from a primary to a convention.

The move was engineered by recently elected members. Because GOP conventions tend to draw more conservative representatives, the move is expected to give an advantage to Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II in a race against Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, whom Mr. McDonnell supports. The governor had argued against the switch, saying the question had been asked and answered last year when the party voted to have a primary.

"Now, he looks forward to a robust and vigorous nominating process that strengthens and builds the Republican Party in the state," McDonnell spokeswoman Taylor Thornley said.

The first vote was held too early for many, said Mark Lloyd, past chairman of the Virginia Federation of Tea Party Patriots.

"The tea party folks were furious with that," he said. "The perception of the tea party was that Republican establishment types were trying to ram the primary down our throats. That erased a whole pile of good will. It really did. This isn't just a one-time thing that popped up. This has been brewing."

House Republicans more openly criticized the governor June 18 for a recently announced deal that will give $6.4 million to the Redskins to keep their corporate headquarters in Loudoun County and move their summer training camp to Richmond. Mr. McDonnell's office has defended the deal, saying the money was necessary with other offers from the District and Maryland on the table, and the state will get a return on the investment many times over in the way of tax income and economic activity.

"The result is a major new investment in the commonwealth by the Redskins, the retention of the team's corporate headquarters and an additional commitment by the team to another region of the state as well," Ms. Thornley said. "This means more jobs and increased tax revenue for Virginia: a very positive outcome in this tough economy."

Skeptical lawmakers say that Virginia, with lower tax rates and a better business climate than the other proposed locations, was never in danger of losing the Redskins anyway.

"We've all been grumbling about it," said Mr. Albo, who added that when the governor's office approached lawmakers during the legislative session, he couldn't think of any delegates who were in favor of it. "I love the governor. There's no bigger fan than Dave Albo. Just choked the Redskins thing. But he's batting .900 with me."

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