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Virginia Starts to Reopen, Testing Confusion, and the Return of Terry McAuliffe: Political Analysis for Friday, May 15, 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 via Zoom. Topics include the first steps in reopening Virginia, confusion over state coronavirus testing results, and a potential gubernatorial run from Terry McAuliffe. We've prepared a video and audio version of their conversation.


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

Jeff Schapiro:  Good morning, Craig.

Carper:  Jeff, Virginia begins to reopen today from the COVID-19 pandemic, but some cities and counties are waiting another two weeks because they're not convinced it's safe.  Notably Northern Virginia and Richmond will stay closed, but all of its surrounding counties are partially open for business.

Schapiro:  The incremental thaw of the state's frozen economy, all of this being done by Governor Northam, includes continued restrictions on gathering in public of more than 10 people at a time.  Restaurants would be required to operate at no more than 50% of capacity.  You can go to the barber; you can go to the hairdresser; you can get a manicure.  Face masks are recommended, not required, when going out, and there is still some confusion about what is permissible and what is not.  Some of the complaints, the loudest complaints, are coming from the tourist centers, such as Virginia Beach.  This is the home of one of the governor's advisors in pandemic relief, Bruce Thompson.  He's not happy that the oceanfront remains closed under the governor's order.  This is a killer for all those seaside businesses.  In an interview with The Washington Post, Thompson said he let the governor have it, his words to His Excellency where, “What the hell happened?” [laughing] The D.C. suburbs were the first localities to insist on an extension, at least two weeks, that would be Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William County, and the City of Alexandria.  But the Eastern Shore, Accomack County in particular, the governor's home county where he was born and raised, is asking for and has received a two-week extension.  Infection rates have been very high over there, because of those poultry plants and those seafood markets where a lot of people, many of them people of color, are working in tight quarters.  Now the city of Richmond is getting at least a two-week extension.  The mayor, Levar Stoney, has said he is not convinced that the worst has passed.  There is a racial component to this.  Richmond is a majority minority city, and there are many people of color who hold jobs deemed essential during the pandemic, grocery store employees, health care and sanitation workers among them.  There is some connection to the mayor's request and the opposition of the Legislative Black Caucus to the governor's dial back of restrictions.  In the caucus, one of its leaders, Lamont Bagby, is a very close ally of Mayor Stoney.  The caucus believes that those most vulnerable should Virginia reopen too quickly are minorities.  The caucus used some pretty tough language to make that point, saying black and brown people were “guinea pigs.”

Carper:  And a calamity of sorts over COVID testing by the state is throwing the Northam administration on the defensive.

Schapiro:  Last week my colleague, Mel Leonor, was first to report that Virginia was, my words, “kind of cooking the numbers” on testing for COVID by combining the results of two different types of exams.  So one of these tests is diagnostic; the other is less likely to pinpoint when an infection actually occurred.  And the effect of this is that Virginia appeared to be in better shape than it really is.  Never mind that the state remains 49th among the states in testing, this according to the Kaiser Foundation.  Earlier this week, The Atlantic picked up on this.  Lo and behold, hours after The Atlantic reprised Mel's story, the governor announced that the state would no longer combine the results of these different tests, that it would consider them separately.  Now progressive Democrats are in a snit over this, these somewhat dubious numbers, and what they might mean.  The governor, of course, doesn't need to get in a fight with members of his own party, and maybe he can get through this.  Earlier this week a poll by The Washington Post and Ipsos showed what the VCU poll showed last month, that nearly 80% of Virginians approved the way Northam is managing the pandemic.  Republicans clearly are not.  In the House, Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, who has been pounding the governor on the testing issue, now has some fresh ammunition with this testing kerfuffle.  He's even using a somewhat Trumpian touch.  He's referring to the governor as Dr. Northam.  It's clearly an attempt to suggest that Northam, though he is a physician, perhaps is not a very attentive one.

Carper:  And Jeff, it appears that Terry McAuliffe will indeed be back, likely running for his old job, governor, next year.

Schapiro:  Yes, Governor McAuliffe in an interview with your humble servant last Friday sent the strongest signal yet that he will seek a second term as governor.  There are at least six presumed candidates for the Democratic nomination.  Four of them, including McAuliffe, are from Northern Virginia.  It's a deep trove of votes and campaign cash.  And if there's anything that Terry McAuliffe does exceptionally well, it's raise money, and a lot of it with little effort.  Shortly after our interview, McAuliffe's PAC hoovered up a single contribution of $100,000 from a big investment guy by the name of Marc Kessler.  And those six figure donations are the sorts of things that McAuliffe picks up with ease.  That's got to be a concern for the other candidates.  None of whom really can match that.  Now that McAuliffe is a candidate may take some people by surprise, you know, the conventional wisdom all along had been that he would take a position in the White House if his friend, Joe Biden, is elected president.  But you know, McAuliffe likes executive power.  And the chance to wield it again, this time with a Democratic legislature after all that fighting with a Republican legislature, it must be enticing.  And clearly McAuliffe wants to be seen as a candidate for the times, a businessman who has the contacts to repair and expand a Virginia economy hammered by this pandemic.  Now, if McAuliffe is nominated and wins, it's a victory for the record books.  He would become only the second person twice elected governor of Virginia by a vote of the people.  First of course was Mills Godwin.  He was elected as a Democrat in 1965 and as a Republican in 1973.  And remember, Virginia is the only state in the nation that prohibits its governors from serving consecutive terms.

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

Schapiro:  Be safe.

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