- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2011

If any quality has defined Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s first 16 months in office, it could be his pragmatism.

After spending a campaign defending socially conservative views that some feared might alienate independent voters and failing to win General Assembly support on two of his major initiatives, the Republican governor nevertheless has scored notable bipartisan victories and emerged by some accounts as Virginia’s most popular statewide political figure.

Results of a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday show that 55 percent of respondents approve of the job Mr. McDonnell is doing, compared with 26 percent who don’t, as he approaches the midway point of his term. That is one of the highest approval ratings for any governor in the country.

The results appear to show that after 14 years as one of the House of Delegates’ most fiscally conservative members, Mr. McDonnell’s across-the-aisle approach and emphasis on issues such as job creation has paid dividends.

“He hasn’t been as ideologically potent as he was as a delegate, but I don’t think he’s tried to be,” said Bob Gibson, executive director of the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. “He’s largely confined his initiatives to what is possible.”

In Mr. McDonnell’s first year, he focused on passing $50 million in economic incentives that included more than doubling the Governor’s Opportunity Fund - a program that provides cash grants to companies that create jobs in Virginia. The legislature approved the package. This year, it was a $4 billion transportation plan and more spending on economic incentives.

Mr. McDonnell has made some moves that Democrats opposed, like cutting funding for public broadcasting and adopting for Virginia the federal language used to restrict public money for abortions - only in circumstances of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in danger. He also signed a bill this year requiring clinics that offer first-trimester abortions to be regulated as hospitals, which opponents said could shut down as many as 17 of the state’s 21 clinics.

But the governor has largely downplayed reminders of his fiscal and social conservatism against more broadly supported initiatives.

“He hasn’t been taking on a lot of straw men and he hasn’t taken on any highly controversial initiatives,” Mr. Gibson said.

Democrats and Republicans alike spoke favorably about his relationship with legislators after the General Assembly approved this year’s budget unanimously, the first time that has happened in at least 50 years.

A poll by The Washington Post last month placed Mr. McDonnell’s approval rating even higher than the Quinnipiac poll, at 62 percent, compared with 26 percent who disapproved. That figure exceeded the poll’s approval ratings for Sen. Mark R. Warner, long Virginia’s most popular political figure, who scored 61 percent.

Mr. McDonnell, frequently mentioned among possible 2012 vice-presidential candidates, attributed his popularity in that poll to his administration’s efforts “to cut down the rhetoric, focus on problem-solving, bringing Democrats and Republicans together to solve problems and get results.”

In the Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday, 57 percent of respondents said they like Mr. McDonnell personally, compared with 16 percent who said they did not. Despite the high approval and likability numbers, fewer than half of respondents, 48 percent, support Mr. McDonnell’s policies, compared with 33 percent who don’t.

Although 40 percent said they approved of the 2012 budget, 50 percent expressed approval with how Mr. McDonnell conducted himself during the budget-making process.

The poll of 1,434 registered voters was conducted from June 21-27, with a 2.6 percent margin of error.

It also showed that Mr. McDonnell has won strong support from independents, who said they approve of him 59 percent to 24 percent. Republicans gave him 77 percent to 11 percent approval.

Democrats disapprove of the governor’s performance 42 percent to 33 percent.

Mr. McDonnell’s pragmatic approach has had setbacks, but those, too, have seemed to come from both sides of the aisle.

He spent much of last fall pushing to end Virginia’s 76-year monopoly on liquor stores in a privatization attempt that fizzled as lawmakers from his own party said the plan would cut too much annual state revenue. They continued to reject the plan even after the governor scaled it back to include privatizing only retailers and not wholesalers.

Senate Democrats thwarted his effort to effectively cut state employee salaries by 2 percent by requiring all to contribute to the pension fund - instead of just those hired after July 1, 2010.

The governor also established two bipartisan commissions: one to streamline and cut down on state government and the other to assist in redrawing the boundary lines of state legislature and congressional districts. The first was mildly successful; the second, not at all.

Mr. McDonnell’s bipartisan redistricting commission, formed with much fanfare, accomplished next to nothing. Members issued recommendations for how to redraw the state’s 100 House seats, 40 Senate seats and 11 congressional seats, but they never submitted a map. Caught up in their own disputes over the process, legislators largely ignored the commission.

The reform commission, which met throughout last summer and fall, has had some modest success.

As his first act in office, just before the start of the legislative session, Mr. McDonnell tapped Republican legislators - and a few Democrats - to patron bills containing its recommendations.

His to-do list included two big-ticket items: effectively cutting state employee salaries by 2 percent by combining a 3 percent raise with a 5 percent contribution to the state pension fund, and combining several oversight agencies into one central inspector general. Legislators rejected the first measure, voting instead to pair the 5 percent pension contribution with a 5 percent raise.

They did accept the second measure to create a central inspector general, along with 18 smaller reforms - things like requiring state agencies to post invitations to bid online and allowing them to save money by sending less certified mail.

The group will continue meeting this summer, said Delegate Robert H. Brink, Arlington Democrat and commission member. He spoke proudly of creating the inspector general office and didn’t offer any criticisms of the commission’s work.

“I think this is a very, very important step both in terms of cutting down fraud, waste and abuse and maintaining public confidence in government operations,” Mr. Brink said.

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