Oct. 08--VIRGINIA BEACH -- State Sen. Frank Wagner has enjoyed many a dinner, golf outing and all-expenses-paid trip courtesy of lobbyists during his 24 years in the General Assembly.
Gary McCollum, his Democratic challenger in the Nov. 3 election for the 7th District, is clobbering him for it in a new TV ad and news release Wednesday calling Wagner the top gift recipient in the Senate.
"Wanna go to Turkey? Wanna go to France? All you have to do is run for state Senate -- if you're Frank Wagner," a narrator says in the ad while peppy music plays and unflattering photos of Wagner appear.
The ad singles out Wagner's trip in 2005 to the U.S. Open golf tournament, "resort vacations and exotic trips around the world."
Lawmakers who have taken trips have argued there was a legislative purpose; Republican Del. Glenn Davis of Virginia Beach said earlier this year that a Dominion Virginia Power-funded trip to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., helped him learn about energy from an expert, for example.
But the General Assembly felt enough public pressure following the gifts scandal of former Gov. Bob McDonnell that they passed reform legislation two years in a row designed to stop themselves from going on trips or accepting valuable gifts from lobbyists. Wagner backed the changes both years.
A law that goes into effect in January says lawmakers will be limited to accepting $100 annually in gifts unless they receive approval for travel from a new ethics advisory council.
The race between Wagner and McCollum is the most expensive in the state, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe's political action committee is actively involved as Democrats try to retake the Senate. The GOP holds a 21-19 edge.
Among Wagner's gift disclosures, Virginia Uranium paid for Wagner and other lawmakers to go to France to tour a uranium mining project in 2010, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Virginia Uranium also sent him to Canada in 2011. The American Turkish Friendship Association paid for a trip to Turkey in 2012. And he flew to Norway in 2008 on the dime of HBW Resources, a company that consults on a variety of policy issues.
Other leading providers of gifts and trips to Wagner have been Dominion Virginia Power and the Virginia Auto Dealers Association.
Is he indeed the top gift recipient in the Senate?
There are several ways to calculate that, but in an analysis of Virginia Public Access Project data, Wagner is edged out by Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment.
In a news release Wednesday, McCollum pledged he would not accept gifts from lobbyists.
"We need to rebuild the public's trust in Richmond, to do that we must hold our legislators accountable," he said in the statement. "We need leaders in Richmond who will serve their constituents rather than their own self-interest."
Wagner's campaign counterattacked. Republicans have slammed McCollum for erroneously claiming to be "currently" a major in the Army Reserve even though he was discharged in 2001. They've also said he should report payments this year from Cox Communications, where he previously was a senior executive, as campaign donations because he wasn't working.
McCollum recently declined to be interviewed for a story about his military record and would not allow The Virginian-Pilot to review more than 100 pages of his personnel records.
"Gary's refusal to discuss anything about his military record or Cox is ridiculous and I have never seen a candidate hide behind his staff while they start throwing elbows like this and expect to just roll past those issues," Wagner said in a statement.
Quentin Kidd, professor of political science at Christopher Newport University, said McCollum's attack is smart politically.
Democrats have been shy this year about attacking Republicans on ethics issues, he said. One reason: neither side is clean, he said. They both have accepted gifts and trips. Second, Republicans in the legislature have distanced themselves from acts that got McDonnell convicted of crimes, he said.
But McCollum, under steady partisan attack over a military error Kidd calls a "stupid mistake," is looking for a way to overcome it and give voters an impression of Wagner that's as negative as what they may have of him.
"It's only doable if you've got the money to do it," Kidd said. "And McCollum does."
Patrick Wilson, 804-697-1564, firstname.lastname@example.org
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