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Editorial: Virginia Democrats should agree to a special session. Here's why.

Editorial: Virginia Democrats should agree to a special session. Here's why.

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Adrianne Bennett email

Adrianne Bennett, then the chairwoman of the Virginia Parole Board, emailed an administrative assistant to say "I will release anyone you say to release!" It was unclear what criteria Bennett used in making her decisions, which the Office of the State Inspector General said in an unreleased report violate board policy because there was no recommendation from a parole officer.

Hey, look who wants a special session now!

Republicans in the House of Delegates — who thought the Virginia General Assembly’s most recent special sessions were a waste of time — want the legislature reconvened to deal with the latest revelations in the parole board scandal.

You know, that juicy audiotape of the meeting that Gov. Ralph Northam’s top staff had with the inspector general who was investigating irregularities in how the parole board was releasing prisoners — those irregularities being violations of both law and policy.

Reporters Mark Bowes and Patrick Wilson of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who obtained a copy of this audiotape, write that the recording “conflicts with the governor’s previous account that his team did not intimidate [the inspector general] and his staff.”

This may not even be the most scandalous part of the scandal. That would be the emails obtained by a Richmond television station, WTVR, in which the board chair at the time emailed an employee to say “I will release anyone you say to release.”

The employee responded that she felt “drunk with power,” to which the board chair replied “Wave that wand of power, and let’s cut them loose. There needs to be a silver lining to all this! Give me more!!!” Virginia has a ceremonial mace that’s displayed in the House chamber whenever it’s in session. Now we apparently have a wand of power, as well. Who knew?

For Republicans to call for a special session so the legislature can investigate all this is a clever political ploy. They know quite well the Democrats who control the General Assembly have no intention of convening a special session to investigate a Democratic administration. Here’s the thing, though: Democrats should suck it up and convene such a special session as a matter of self-preservation.

Here’s why: This parole board scandal is a cancer that needs to be removed, the sooner the better, as far as Democrats are concerned. They should think of a special session as a kind of political chemotherapy, an unpleasant but necessary way to purge this scandal from their system.

Democrats are acting as if this scandal doesn’t matter. And maybe it doesn’t matter to the party activists they hear from most. But it will matter come this fall when Democrats will be running to retain their hold on the state’s top three offices and the House of Delegates.

General election voters are likely to take a much dimmer view of all this than Democratic Party activists.

Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, may be absolutely right when he said during the audiotaped meeting that Vincent Martin — the most controversial prisoner released — may indeed have had “a sterling record while he was incarcerated,” the kind of record that really does merit parole.

But what voters are going to hear — because Republicans will tell them this over and over — is that the parole board released a cop killer and broke both state law and internal policy in doing so (because the parole board didn’t notify the proper officials when it was supposed to).

Political campaigns are not the best venue for processing nuance.

Republicans needed just one Willie Horton in 1988 to make a mockery of Michael Dukakis’ otherwise pretty impressive tenure as governor Massachusetts. (A lot of the high-tech growth that today makes Boston a global tech capital got started under Dukakis.)

Virginia Republicans now have nine potential Willie Hortons — that’s how many convicted murderers the parole board has released. Granted, none have killed people while out on release the way the actual Willie Horton did but, like we said, political campaigns are not the best venue for processing nuance.

Republicans could run ads featuring a “killer of the week” — but they’d have to start before Labor Day to get them in all before the election. That’s how bad this could be for Democrats.

And that doesn’t even take into account the email about “Wave that wand of power, and let’s cut them loose.” That’s a line that’s made for parody. Remember the actress who played “Lady Luck” in the early days of the Virginia Lottery?

Republicans are probably right now auditioning contenders for a parole board ad with a modern-day (and not nearly so sympathetic) Lady Luck waving her “wand of power” over state government.

Democrats can laugh that off now but this is potentially the type of issue that could cost them the governorship — and their majority in the House. That’s how potentially serious this is.

Democrats are acting as if they’re bulletproof. Maybe they are. Maybe the state’s demographics have changed so much — and the state’s suburban voters have realigned so much — that it doesn’t matter.

Maybe the weakest Democratic nominee for governor can defeat the strongest Republican nominee for governor. We’ll see.

But maybe there are lots of voters, particularly in those suburbs, who might agree with abolishing the death penalty, legalizing marijuana, removing Confederate monuments, expanding ballot access and the other things Democrats have done over the past two years — but still aren’t so keen on the parole board releasing convicted killers, and breaking the law in the process.

In the back of their minds, House Democrats seem to realize they might be vulnerable; they didn’t want a reenactment clause in the marijuana legalization bill, apparently because they feared if they lost their majority, a new Republican majority wouldn’t reenact the bill. The parole board scandal is the type of issue that could make that Republican majority happen.

Yes, if Democrats called a special session, Republicans would benefit in the short term. But Democrats would benefit in the long term if they can figure out a way to make this all go away — if only in the sense that they wouldn’t suffer as much political blowback.

Republicans are the ones who benefit the most from this scandal lingering and so far this has played out exactly the way all scandals before it have — a steady drip-drip of revelations, none of which are flattering to Democrats. Do Democrats really want to go into the fall campaign like that?

Maybe Democrats think there’s no good solution here other than for time to put all this in the past. Maybe they’d rather contend with the occasional unexpected bombshell than face the headline “Democrats vote down Republican call for investigation,” which are apparently the only two options they can conceive.

In that case, they’re betting on the unknown over the known, which is an unusual bet to make in politics.

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