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Predators, scavengers and Virginia politics

Published 8:51pm Saturday, August 2, 2014

This hasn’t been a great summer for small, furry animals in my Suffolk neighborhood.

Our yard has long been a haven for squirrels, rabbits and various other cute creatures for as many of our 35 years here as I can remember. But during the past couple of weeks, predators have moved into the neighborhood, and the toll has been a big one.

We’ve been amazed to watch a juvenile Cooper’s hawk learn to hunt in the back yard while its parent stands watch and calls out warnings from nearby. The young hawk is already very good at what it does, and any surviving little squirrels and bunnies have learned to move quickly across the open spaces and dive for cover into the bushes when they hear the screech of the swooping predator.

The good news is the hawks seem to have displaced the vultures that have roosted high in the trees around our little corner of Sleepy Lake for the past few years. One can’t really blame predators or scavengers for doing what they do. Nonetheless, vultures are disgusting, noxious creatures.

Kind of like some politicians.

As I’ve thought this week about the predators and scavengers making their homes in our neighborhood in recent years, it occurs to me there are some parallels to the trial of our former governor and his wife in Richmond on corruption charges.

Clearly the predator in this case is Jonnie Williams, the smooth-talking former CEO of Star Scientific, who — depending on which story we are to believe — either saw an opportunity to use the political influence of Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen to advance the interests of his company or swooped in to pick off a helpless woman in the throes of marital collapse.

Williams has displayed his predatory instincts by negotiating a deal whereby he is protected from prosecution for any of his potential wrongdoing in exchange for testifying against the former First Couple of Virginia. Predators have an instinct for self preservation.

Maureen McDonnell might well be the unsuspecting prey in this scenario. According to defense attorneys, she just wanted to experience the best life had to offer, even if it meant living beyond the McDonnell’s upper-middle class means by accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from the man with whom they now claim she was infatuated.

But there’s no way her husband can make a legitimate claim of naiveté. Bob McDonnell — he of the perfectly coifed hair and thousand-watt smile — was a smooth political operator long before he occupied the governor’s mansion, and seemingly every new revelation about the machinations of his administration proves just how adept he was at taking advantage of situations to advance his own cause.

McDonnell singlehandedly broke the Public Private Partnership Transportation Act by using it to push through two huge, unpopular and expensive projects — the Midtown Tunnel expansion between Norfolk and Portsmouth and the Route 460 replacement between Suffolk and Petersburg. As he aspired to national political office, the former governor saw those two projects and a transportation package that included historic tax increases as projects that would seal his legacy as someone who got things done. His actions ensured, however, that the Act would be gutted by future legislatures.

Maybe that makes him, after all, another hawk in this extended metaphor, instead of a vulture.

Either way, the people of Virginia went about their business for four years of the McDonnell administration, unaware of the danger that lurked above. But the neighborhood has changed now, and we’ll now be carefully watching the skies for both hawks and vultures.

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