After McDonnell trial, voters should ask more about candidates’ spouses

FILE - This May 5, 2011 file photo provided by the office of the Governor of Virginia shows Jonnie Williams left, and Maureen McDonnell, wife of then Gov. Bob McDonnell, during a reception for a NASCAR race at the Executive Mansion in Richmond, Va. Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife were indicted Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, on corruption charges after a monthslong federal investigation into gifts the Republican received from Williams. (AP Photo/Office of the Governor of Virginia, Michele White, File)

WASHINGTON – Virginia voters might not know the first lady’s name, but they do expect her not to embarrass the governor or the state and to stay mostly out of the limelight.

After all, in Virginia, the first lady has no official duties and receives no pay for her work. But former first lady Maureen McDonnell and her role leading up to corruption charges against both herself and her husband, former Gov. Bob McDonnell, could change all that.

The McDonnells were convicted in federal court of accepting more than $177,000 in gifts and loans from businessman Jonnie Williams, who was trying to curry favor with the governor to support his company’s main product, a tobacco-derived supplement called Anatabloc. After three days of deliberation, jurors handed down 11 guilty counts to McDonnell and nine to his wife Thursday. The former first couple of Virginia could face decades in prison.

Voters should ask more about candidates’ wives, or their husbands, in future races, and the role they would play, says the League of Women Voters President Anne Sterling.

Although Virginians don’t directly vote for the first spouse, she or he comes as part of a package along with the governor.

“First spouse can be a hard role, because it’s not defined by statute like the governor’s role.  And the first spouse may — or may not — have growing children to parent … may or may not feel comfortable in the spotlight,” Sterling wrote in an email to WTOP. “The lack of role definition can add to the difficulty — or provide room for the imagination.”

Until now, the role was also shaped by “expectations left over from the past,” she says.

Bucking Tradition

A lack of women politicians and deeply rooted political traditions have helped define the minimal role of the first lady, says Toni-Michelle Travis, a George Mason University professor who studies women and race in politics with an emphasis on Virginia.

For voters in many parts of the state, those traditions mean a wife is expected to stand by and support her husband, not necessarily to be his equal, she says.

“I think voters expect a low-key role, not a very visible role particularly,” she says.

Although most Virginia women work, there is still no expectation that women would have a career, and those views are transferred to the first lady, Travis says.

But she believes future first spouses will have their own careers and continue on with that work even though they live in the Executive Mansion, much like Roxane Gilmore did when she was Virginia’s first lady from 1998 to 2002.

Gilmore was known as the first, first lady to continue to work off Capitol Square during her husband’s term at the state’s helm. She taught at Randolph-Macon College.

The current first lady Dorothy McAuliffe, who has a law degree from Georgetown and is a mother of five, has set an agenda focused on expanding access to nutritious food, especially for students, and to make the state a welcoming place for military families. She is also working with the governor to help the state pivot away from its heavy reliance on military and defense spending, governor’s spokesman Brian Coy says.

Coy calls McAuliffe’s policy goals “aggressive.”

McAuliffe has been a regular presence since her husband took office. She attended his recent address to the House and Senate money committees and an agriculture announcement in Weyers Cave. The governor also appointed the first lady to his new children’s cabinet.

A request to interview Dorothy McAuliffe was declined.

While Bob McDonnell focused on his political career, Maureen McDonnell, once a Redskins cheerleader, was left to raise the family’s five children. She also sold nutritional supplements on the side, but her husband forced her to give up the work when he was elected governor, McDonnell testified in his trial.

Bob McDonnell said he didn’t think selling nutritional supplements was appropriate for the first lady of Virginia. The news devastated his wife, whose children testified was often lonely, sometimes depressed and barely spoke with her husband.

Maureen McDonnell contributed to her husband’s administration by focusing on the needs of military families and helping to support the growth of the Virginia wine industry.

She was frequently seen with her husband at public events, including the annual budget presentation and various bill signings. Often, they would be seen holding hands and smiling.

But those images of a happy, unified couple were stained by testimony that it was all for show and the couple’s marriage was in jeopardy. The McDonnells even considered couples counseling but decided against it for fear it would be made public.

Among the many gifts the McDonnells accepted were dresses and other items of clothing. Williams treated Maureen McDonnell to a $20,000 shopping spree in New York and offered to buy her an Oscar de la Renta inauguration gown, an offer that was ultimately declined.

Don’t Embarrass the Governor

Voters don’t care about what their first lady wears, and most first ladies have more important things to worry about than choosing the right dress, says Travis, the George Mason University professor.

And yet in Virginia, those old perceptions linger, including that voters want to see candidates surrounded by a smiling, vibrant family; their wives and children by their side. The first lady’s traditional role has been to support the governor, and her primary goal was to not embarrass him, says Harry Wilson, a political analyst at Roanoke College.

“In (the McDonnell) case, we’ve long since passed the point of embarrassment,” Wilson says.

But the state’s political traditions, which take their cues from past centuries, are slowly changing. And the conviction and trial of a former first lady has shed light on a quasi-governmental post that got little attention until now. Roanoke College’s Institute for Policy and Opinion Research hasn’t even polled about the first lady’s role despite the corruption trial.

“We’ve never really had to face the question of the first spouse,” says Wilson, who adds there will be more scrutiny of the role from now on and not just by voters, but by the governor’s staff as well.

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