Applying My 8 Criteria to the 8th CD Candidates: Don Beyer

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

This past Saturday, I listed my 8 criteria for choosing the Democratic nominee in the 8th CD race. How do these criteria apply to specific candidates? Let's start with former Virginia Lt. Governor and wealthy, Northern Virginia car dealer Don Beyer, since he's apparently going to be the best financed - and in part for that reason, possibly the favorite - in this race. 1. The next Representative from the 8th CD should be a strong, rock-solid progressive. I've been looking into Beyer's record, and from what I've found so far, it's a mixed bag on this front. The main issue seems to be repeated charges, including by Democrats, that Beyer tends to be a political opportunist rather than someone with strong, progressive principles. For instance, an October 1997 article in the Washington Post quoted "G.C. Morse, a longtime Democratic activist who was a speech writer for Gerald L. Baliles when he was governor," as arguing that Beyer "has just pulled the flag out of the ground a few too many times." The article adds:
During his two terms as lieutenant governor and a leader of Virginia Democrats, [Beyer] has been reluctant to get out front on highly visible issues. When he did, it was often a decision made at the last minute, requiring Beyer to reverse what he stood for. And more often than not, he came out the loser.
Another friend of Beyer's, none other than Jim Moran, expressed frustration that Beyer apparently didn't "follow his own compass" on his gubernatorial race tax-cut plan (which came in response to Jim "No Car Tax" Gilmore picking up support off of his irresponsible pandering), but instead went with something that "sounds more like a consultant’s" idea, and which was "reactive" to boot. Meanwhile, another 1997 Washington Post article quoted Beyer's "longtime friend" Harris Miller (gack!) defending Beyer's flip-flop on taxes in the '97 campaign ("After Beyer began his campaign by raising the possibility of a tax increase to finance more spending on education and transportation, he instead proposed what he believes the people want: a plan that amounts to a cut in the car tax"), with Miller essentially arguing that Beyer did what he felt he had to do to get elected against Jim "No Car Tax" Gilmore. Of course, we know how that one turned out for Beyer...he lost. Badly. Beyer was also excoriated by editorial boards for his "cop-out on the food tax" and for a proposal to eliminate "corporate income taxes on small businesses," which was simply "inviting a brainless tax-cut bidding war with Attorney General Jim Gilmore" (Roanoke Times; 4/11/97). Ouch. For its part, the Washington Post (7/25/97) criticized Beyer for engaging in what it called a "tax-cut derby, with first Mr. Gilmore and now Mr. Beyer trumpeting financially risky plans to redo or undo the personal property tax on most cars and trucks...tantalizing voters with tax-cut talk that overlooks the damage these plans could do to Virginia's budget and to the economic growth that each plan is conditioned on." On other progressive issues, it seems to be the same story. For instance, this 10/97 Post article talks about Beyer's flip-flop on abolishing parole: Beyer was at first "skeptical of the idea, citing the cost of building more prisons," but then "saw the political danger" and totally changed positions, announcing "that he not only wanted to eliminate parole but also wanted to make the change retroactive, wiping out the possibility of early release for 7,500 inmates." The Post article adds: "The legal community quickly dismissed his plan as unconstitutional. Within two weeks, the General Assembly had adopted Allen's plan. Beyer's switch in positions yielded only an embarrassing defeat." The same article also noted that Beyer had first "criticized a Republican call for charter schools, semi-public schools that receive money from the government but operate independently of the local public school system," but "later Beyer said he backs them." Also from that article:
The first time he ran for lieutenant governor, Beyer said he supported a law requiring that parents be notified before teenage girls have abortions. But on three occasions when Republicans tried to enact such a requirement, he used his power as president of the Senate to rule that the amendments were not germane to the legislation being debated, killing the effort for the moment.
On another topic, I'd point to the video above, from Beyer's talk Monday night at the Alexandria Democratic Committee, in which he touted his work on welfare reform (Beyer chaired Virginia’s Poverty and Welfare Reform Commission in 1994-1995, which developed Virginia's welfare reform legislation). One problem, from a progressive perspective, is that then-Governor George Allen "applauded the passage of his initiative saying 'Today we have sent a message that welfare in Virginia will no longer be a way of life, but a temporary means of assistance that will serve as a hand up to opportunity rather than a hand out to dependency.'" In addition, as this book writes, "the Beyer plan proposed ending welfare benefits after one year, along with a refusal to provide welfare to any children born to participants during the benefit period." Not good. And even more puzzling is why Beyer continues to tout Virginia's version of "ending welfare as we know it" in the 8th CD Democratic primary of 2014. I mean, does the Beyer camp see this issue as an appealing one for Democratic primary voters in the deep-blue 8th? If so, I'm scratching my head. Finally, I'd add that Beyer doesn't have much of a record on a whole host of issues. Bottom line: I'd give Beyer a low grade on this criterion, perhaps a C-/D+ (or lower) based on everything outlined above. 2. I want to see a tenacious, indefatigable FIGHTER for progressive values. See #1 above; I think that answers this question. 3. We need a Representative who will fight for the 8th CD. Presumably, Beyer would do a good job in this area. I have no particular basis to judge it, though. 4. We're going to be losing some big-time seniority and need to build it back up. This criterion argues for a relatively young person for this job, all else being equal. Beyer will be 64 in June, which isn't super old or anything, but also isn't young. 5. We want, need, and deserve a Representative who has the highest ethical standards and who makes us proud every day. The main thing I found on this front is a Washington Post article from August 1990, which reported:
An Arlington County jury cleared Virginia Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. and family members yesterday of allegations in a civil suit that the controller at his Falls Church car dealership was fired after she complained about accounting irregularities, including the transfer of money from the business to Beyer's 1989 political campaign. The controller, Wilma Pelletier-Baker of Fairfax, said she was fired in August 1989 from her $ 45,000-a-year job when she refused to follow the owners' instructions to violate state and federal tax laws. She asked for $1 million in compensatory damages and $ 5 million in punitive damages, claiming she suffered emotional distress and damage to her career. The suit was against Beyer, his brother, Michael, who shares ownership of the dealership, their father, Don Beyer Sr., and Don Beyer Motors Inc. "This woman is an honest human being who didn't like the fact that they were breaking the law," said Baker's attorney, Elaine C. Bredhoft, in her closing arguments Tuesday. "This woman has been destroyed in her career because of her honesty and her integrity." Among the allegations in the suit, Baker claimed that Don Beyer withdrew substantial sums of money from the business to finance his campaign expenses, without properly paying interest on the money or declaring it as income on tax returns. Baker also alleged that Beyer wrote a $ 100,000 check from his personal bank account to the firm, which he then cashed for his personal use. She alleged that bonuses were paid to employees of the firm without federal or state taxes being deducted, and that the company pension fund was mismanaged. The defense acknowledged that there were irregularities in the firm's accounting, and that employees of Don Beyer Motors were paid off the books. But Beyer's attorney argued that the firing of Pelletier-Baker was a result of her poor performance and an inability to get along with co-workers. "There is no question that Don Beyer improperly paid without withholding," said Norman West, Beyer's attorney. "What we do dispute is that anyone at any time told Wilma Baker she was being discharged because she wanted to comply with the law.">
I dunno, but it doesn't sound good to me when Beyer's own attorney acknowledged that his client had "improperly paid without withholding." 6. A superb, impressive track record of accomplishment over the years. Certainly, Beyer is accomplished, having been a successful businessman as well as Virginia LG and an ambassador in the Obama administration. In terms of "accomplishment," though, I'd mostly refer you back to item #1. 7. Obviously, we want someone who will do a great job on "constituent services." No particular reason to think that Beyer wouldn't do fine in this regard. 8. I want to see a "heavyweight" in this job -- someone who is a serious policy wonk, someone who really loves diving into the weeds of legislation, someone who can go toe-to-toe with Republicans and Tea Partiers (and conservative and/or corporate Democrats for that matter) in the battle of ideas. Certainly, Beyer's been involved in many issues over the years, but I'm not sure he comes across as a policy wonk along the lines of a Jim Moran or Tom Perriello. Overall: I'd give Beyer a very low grade on my criteria, maybe a C- or so (UPDATE 2/10: I was impressed with Beyer's speech at the Brigades, particularly that he prominently and forcefully talked about climate change in his stump speech, so I'm raising his grade a bit to a C/C+). Frankly, I'd say that we can do a lot better in the deep-blue, progressive 8th CD, than this.