THE BLOG
06/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Real McDonnell Agenda?

Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia is now on his third climb-down from a far-right policy position that made very little obvious sense to take in the first place. After all, doesn't it behoove someone who wins with a slogan of "Bob for Jobs" to figure out the best way to deliver on that promise? As far as I can tell, there are no gains in employment to be had by rescinding gay rights, acknowledging Confederate history, or making sure it's even harder for felons to get their voting rights back.

At first I thought he assumed the addition of 300,000 former offenders to the voting rolls could turn the state permanently blue, and that was his motivation for making re-enfranchisement harder. But in proposing the writing of an essay for inmates who wish to regain their voting rights, McDonnell wasn't trying to deny all felons the right to vote -- just black ones.

White inmates are about as right-wing as they come -- I know, I was in prison with them. They've been largely raised by fundamentalist Christian mothers or grandmothers who made liberal use of the belt or the hairbrush. These guys don't question the psychology of crime and punishment -- one inmate told me the way he disciplined his girlfriend's kids was to threaten them with beating their mother if they didn't behave. Unsurprisingly, they fetishize guns and the military: these men who wouldn't stop at a red light on the outside are slavishly hierarchical in prison. From the pool of those who get off drugs and stay out of jail, Republicans couldn't find better candidates to be future foot-soldiers in the Christian right.

Oddly enough, the profile of the black inmates is not terribly different in terms of single parents and a heavy-duty relationship to oppressive religious thinking. How many times did a guy who'd probably broken every commandment wag his finger at me for my "unnatural" violation of Leviticus? But unquestionably, if a former black inmate requested to have his voting rights restored, he'd be more likely to vote Democratic. Any hope that trend might have been altered was pretty much kissed goodbye when McDonnell managed to omit slavery as a cause of the Civil War.

So now you have a relatively straightforward process established under former Governor Tim Kaine in which ex-felons simply fill out an application to get their voting rights restored. Under the proposal McDonnell was forced to back off from, nonviolent offenders would have been required "to write a letter to him explaining the circumstances of their arrest; their efforts to get a job, seek an education and participate in church and community activities; and why they believe their rights should be restored."

From church affiliation alone, (an anti-constitutional query if there ever was one), it would have been fairly easy to deduce the race of the applicant in the course of reading such an essay. Is it really hard to imagine the overwhelming approval of white applications over black ones? Far more insidious is the fact that most blacks wouldn't even have applied -- for all the supposed mistrust of government on the tea party right, African-American men are far more wary of it. You won't see many dark faces at the gun rights rally scheduled on the 19th on the Virginia side of the border with D.C., but I'll bet you there'll be some white felons violating the law that says they're not permitted to own guns. This kerfuffle has also alerted them that they can go ahead and get their voting rights back. I wonder if that wasn't the intention all along. In a nouveau purple state like Virginia, elections can be tipped by just a few thousand voters.

I would like to see a sympathetic publisher call McDonnell's bluff. What an interesting anthology it would make to put together first-person Virginian accounts documenting how often poverty in this country is punished by incarceration. Hell, maybe it could be sold by gay students at historically black colleges during Confederacy Commemoration Month. Too bad McDonnell probably wouldn't appreciate the irony.

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