A tale of two Virginia governors: Jim Gilmore, the anti-McDonnell

Joanne Butler Contributor
Font Size:

As the story of Bob and Maureen McDonnell unfolds, I’ve been thinking about another former Virginia governor: Jim Gilmore. Full disclosure: Gilmore appointed me to the board of a small Virginia public college – not because I was a big donor, but because of my campaign work and resume. Gilmore came from a very modest background (his father was a grocery store meat cutter and later store manager), but he and his wife, Roxane had no obsessions about being glamorous. They seemed perfectly at ease in being middle-class folks.

After Gilmore’s term was over, I was invited to his home for an appointee reunion. Yes, their house in suburban Richmond was large, but not overly so, and certainly not on a scale with the huge houses I had seen in McLean and in northwest DC. It was furnished very nicely but not expensively. There was an upright piano in the living room that had a collection of old family photos on the top – clearly this was a home, not a trophy house.

And the contrast between Maureen McDonnell and Roxane Gilmore is sharp. Like her husband, Roxane came from a modest background – her father was a highway road inspector, but a man with a great love of learning and books. She went on to receive an M.A. in classics from the University of Virginia (no surprise for a woman who was learning Latin at age 10). She became a lecturer at Randolph-Macon, a private college in the outer Richmond suburbs, a job she continued to do while she was the First Lady of Virginia.

Her choice to continue her day job was a bit of a shock for some – she was the first First Lady in the history of the commonwealth to do so.

University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, that indefatigable commenter on the Virginia political scene, described Roxane as the first to have a “completely independent identity” from her husband the governor. He also said she was a professional woman who didn’t care about the social scene.

Further, Sabato described the Gilmores this way: “They could care less whether they are invited to the right parties, whether the Richmond social set includes them. Until Jim became attorney general or even governor, they just weren’t part of the ‘in’ crowd.”

Or as the French would say, the Gilmores were bien dans sa peau – comfortable in their own skin.

Meanwhile, some on the left view the McDonnells’ problems as an example of (surprise!) income inequality. Baloney!

The Gilmores’ example indicates that Bob and Maureen were struggling with something much deeper. These people were definitely not comfortable in their own skin.

I’m an economist, not a psychologist, so I’ll leave it to others to opine on the reasons why the McDonnells threw away a once-successful political career through political favoritism, and now find themselves under indictment. Then again, as my wise Polish grandmother would have said, ‘they got caught pissing in the soup.’