Virginia Republicans have a lot of things going against them in this year’s election.
The state’s demographic changes — which have inflated the electoral clout of the state’s suburbs, particularly Northern Virginia — do not necessarily work against them but the realignment of suburban voters sure does. As recently as 2009, the Republican candidate for governor (Bob McDonnell that year) was able to eke out nearly 51% in Fairfax County and rolled up 59% in Prince William County and 61% in Loudoun County. Now all those localities are reliably Democratic. In 2013, the Republican vote share in those counties fell to 36% in Fairfax, 44% in Prince William and 45% in Loudoun. By 2017, the Republican share was down to 31% in Fairfax, 38% in Prince William and 39.5% in Loudoun. Last November, Donald Trump managed just 28% in Fairfax, 36% in Prince William and 36.5% in Loudoun. As the ghost told Hamlet: “What a falling-off was there!” Let’s say this again and again until everyone understands it: No Republican is ever going to win a statewide election in Virginia until the party figures out how to turn around those trends in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
And then there’s specter of Trump still hovering over Republicans — like that ghost of Hamlet’s father, if you’re still feeling Shakespearean. That’s not helpful in a state that twice voted against Trump.
Despite all these handicaps, there’s one overriding reason why a Republican just might win the governorship this fall: The Virginia Parole Board.
Democrats are doing a very good job creating — and then ignoring — a scandal that has the potential to not just bring about a change in party in the governor’s mansion but also endanger the Democratic majority in the House of Delegates as well.
Maybe none of this will happen. Maybe the Republican nominee will wind up too far right of Virginia’s new mainstream. Maybe the suburbs have realigned so much that it doesn’t matter who the Republican nominee is — or the Democratic nominee, for that matter. But is that a risk Democrats really want to take? They sure seem to be taking it now.
Let’s recap the particulars: Last summer it became known that the Virginia Parole Board — an agency under Democratic control, with Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea as one of its members — granted early release to Vincent Martin, who was sentenced to life in prison for killing a Richmond police officer in 1979. Northam’s own inspector general found that in the process the parole board violated both its own regulations and the law. This is what’s known in politics as “not good.”
More specifically, the inspector general found that the board did not notify the Richmond commonwealth’s attorney the way it was supposed to do. He further found that the parole board did not “endeavor diligently” — the legal requirement — to notify the victim’s family. Moreover, he found that the parole board did not allow the victim’s family, once it learned of the upcoming parole, to meet with the parole board in accordance with the board’s own policies.
Because the parole board’s actions are mostly secret, we don’t know Lea’s role. However, that report singled out the board’s chair at the time, Adrianne Bennett: “Several VPB employees stated that Virginia Code and VPB policies and procedures regarding proper victim notification were not always followed under Bennett’s tenure as Chair. The employees stated that Bennett was vocal about not wanting to contact victims and particularly not in the [Martin] case due to the expectation of opposition because the victim was a police officer. One employee stated that Bennett instructed the VPB Victim Services Unit that if the victim of a crime was deceased (as in the [Martin] case), no further victim notification research needed to be performed.” However, the law is quite clear that crime victims also include the family of someone who was murdered.
That alone is egregious enough but since then things have only gotten worse. Last week, the state’s main investigator filed a whistleblower lawsuit, alleging that Northam’s staff had threatened her job and that the office of Attorney General Mark Herring had sanitized the report on the Martin case. Northam’s chief of state says the investigator was biased. Maybe so, don’t know. But now comes even more. Over the weekend, Mark Bowes and Patrick Wilson of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that inspector general found violations of state law and policy in at least eight other parole decisions: “The nine cases show a pattern of violations that center on releasing inmates without first giving proper notice to state prosecutors or the family members of the victims, who are allowed to provide input on the impact an inmate’s release may have on them or the community before they are granted parole.”
In one case, the board chair — Bennett — told staffers not to notify a victim’s family that the killer had been denied parole in March 2020 because the board had changed its mind and was going to release him in April 2020. Never mind the details; the headline “Emails show former parole board chair turned off notifications to murder victim’s grandmother” is pretty damning.
Northam has called for an investigation, but Democrats are far too complacent about this for their own political good. The danger for them: Those suburban voters we talked about may be quite fine with all the social justice measures the Democratic-controlled General Assembly has passed — but may still not been too happy to hear about cop killers getting released early. Or a bunch of killers getting released early, and without the law being followed. Remember how George H.W. Bush used the case of Willie Horton with such devastating ease against Michael Dukakis back in 1988? Democrats here have just given Republicans nine Willie Hortons — the only difference being that these released killers haven’t killed anyone else. Yet. The right Republican — that is to say, not Amanda Chase, who is thoroughly unelectable on a statewide ticket — can use this to drive a shiv right into the heart of any Democratic candidate.
And get this: The former parole board chair is now a judge in Virginia Beach, which means every Democratic legislator who cast a pro forma vote for her is now vulnerable to an attack about the parole board. That may not be fair — they can argue they didn’t know these things when they voted for her — but politics is rarely fair. Democrats are doing very little to inoculate themselves against what’s coming, so they will have only themselves to blame when it does.
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