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A Gubernatorial Kidnapping Plot, Voter Registration Woes, the State Budget, and a Senatorial Debate: Political Analysis for Friday, October 16, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Schapiro with a microphone between the two.

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins VPM News Director Craig Carper for this week's political analysis. Topics include a potential plot to kidnap Governor Ralph Northam, a cut internet cable that led to an outage of the voter registration website on the final day of registration, the completion of the two-year budget, and the debate between Democratic Senator Mark Warner and his Republican opponent, Daniel Gade.

Craig Carper:  From VPM News in Richmond, I'm Craig Carper.  Joining me now from the Richmond Times-Dispatch is political columnist and VPM’s political analyst, Jeff Schapiro.  Jeff, good morning.

Jeff Schapiro:  Good morning, Craig. 

Carper:  Governor Ralph Northam emerged this week from lockdown for the coronavirus, but his first public appearance after two weeks isn't as much about that as it was a possible plot to kidnap the governor.

Schapiro:  Yes, remember Northam and his wife, Pam, tested positive for COVID, apparently picking it up from a member of the executive management staff.  We caught occasional glimpses of the governor.  These online videos usually shot by the first lady.  I think one or two may have even included a cameo by the Northam’s black lab, Pearl.  Now on Tuesday, Northam was scheduled to meet with reporters.  The idea was to update everyone on the state's response to the pandemic, but that was quickly upstaged.  Now, first by the crash of the Board of Elections online voter registration site, and we'll get to that.  But second, the testimony in Michigan that morning by an FBI agent that as another element of this broader scheme by far-right extremists to take out Michigan's governor, Gretchen Whitmer, was kidnapping Virginia's governor.  Now you know, Whitmer and Northam have a lot in common, and it's not just that they're Democrats.  You know, both have been hardliners on controlling the coronavirus.  Remember Whitmer's restrictions led to protests at the Michigan Capitol in Lansing by heavily-armed critics of the governor, and there are photographs of some of the suspects in this plot against her apparently showing up at those protests as well.  And remember, there's been a lot of pushback in Virginia from the right over Northam’s tough line on the pandemic and his outspokenness on gun control and some of the new restrictions that we've been seeing in Virginia, where there have been two mass shootings since 2006, getting in the craw of gun rights conservatives.  So, Northam didn't have a lot to say about this supposed kidnapping plan.  He did have tough words, however, for Donald Trump.  Northam says that the president’s not so subtle remarks about firearms rights, these dog whistle statements about race, encourage people to consider and attempt to carry out extreme acts, including violence.  And these episodes, and that includes that deadly moment in Charlottesville in 2017, bring into very sharp focus how Virginia has changed.  This is a suburban-dominated state where distaste for Trump has led to three straight years of Democratic gains.  And this kidnapping scheme will only engender sympathy for Northam in particular and perhaps Democrats in general.

Carper:  And Jeff, this week voter registration drove into overtime by two days because the Board of Elections online site crashed when a major internet line accidentally was severed during a dig in Chesterfield.

Schapiro:  This was part of a broader failure of IT services across state government.  It included, for instance, the Virginia Employment Commission and its capacity to pump out jobless pay.  Those checks are being delayed because of this outage earlier this week.  As for voter registration, Tuesday would have been the last day to sign up and be eligible to cast a vote on November 3rd.  Long story short, several voter groups had to sue the state.  This was all quite friendly, and a federal judge, John Gibney, had to direct the state to extend the deadline two days to midnight Thursday.  Now the lawsuit was necessary because the governor does not have the authority under law to order an extension of the filing deadline for new voters.  Now it's a pretty good guess that someone will probably propose legislation to give the governor that power, because this is not the first time that we've seen this system crash requiring an extension.  It happened back in 2016.  And while this was apparently an accident caused by someone operating a backhoe, it calls attention to Virginia's highly centralized IT system.  It was envisioned as a very businesslike way to control costs and ensure quality, but there's been ample evidence to the contrary.  Of course, it included breaking off that big management agreement with Northrop Grumman.

Carper:  And Jeff, House and Senate negotiators have agreed on a fix for the Virginia budget, which has been thrown out of whack by $2.7 billion because of the pandemic.  But it'll be November before all is said and done on a budget balancing plan.

Schapiro:  It’s hard to believe that the legislature has been at work longer than a regular session of the General Assembly.  In even-numbered years, that's 60 days.  But this on again-off again special session has dragged from August and will drag into November for several reasons.  Among them, and we've talked about this before, the restored Democratic majority couldn't really agree on a game plan, formal and informal.  The Republicans killed the procedural resolution in early days, and that would have handled the rules of the road, the topics and the timetable for the legislature.  And of course, after the George Floyd unrest, the Democrats wanted to take up more than the budget and a response to the pandemic.  Suddenly police reform was on the agenda, and House and Senate Democrats had some very different ideas about addressing that.  As for the budget, the compromise includes $1,500 bonuses for state workers and local employees who are paid by the state.  But it assumes those revenues are there, and we saw a fairly encouraging revenue report this week from the Northam administration.  And unrelated to all this is a one-time $1,500 payment ordered by the governor for home health care workers, who've been, you know, on the front lines during the pandemic.  These are dollars from that federal COVID relief program.  Back to the budget - there is more money for mental health, restorative funding for early childhood education programs.  Colleges and universities are going to get about $80 million to control tuition increases.  The budget, this fixed budget, does not rely on funds from the emergency account, the “rainy day” fund.  Northam had been firm on that. He was worried that the legislature, helping itself to those dollars, would endanger the state's highest possible AAA rating.  Now, and we've talked about this in recent weeks, the hang-up between the House and the Senate over money for redistricting reform and the guardrails for all that brought talks to a standstill.  All that stuff has been pulled out of the compromised budget.  It appears the governor will be sending language to the legislature on that, along with other gubernatorial revisions.  And this is why the session is being pushed into November.

Carper:  Jeff finally, Democrat Mark Warner, heavily favored for a third term in the U.S. Senate, and his Republican opponent, Dan Gade, met in their third and final debate this week, and it was pretty much like the first two.

Schapiro:  Warner and Gade, as they did in debates one and two staked out very different positions on healthcare.  It was the primary topic in this final debate, and that had something to do with the sponsor, the Virginia wing of the AARP.  Healthcare is a huge issue with seniors and with Obamacare very much in the sights of the Trump administration and that fight going on over a new Supreme Court justice, who Republicans want to seat before the court hears the latest challenge to the ACA.  Democrats are talking a lot about preserving protections for preexisting conditions.  Warner is all in on that.  Gade says he's for such protections, but of course, the problem for Republicans is that they haven't really offered an alternative to Obamacare.  This is clearly an issue on which Republicans are playing defense, and it showed in the Warner-Gade debate on Tuesday night.

Carper:  Alright, thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Jeff, we will talk again next week.

Schapiro:  Stay safe.