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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Virginia Myths and More

In the race for governor, Democrats tout a false legend on prisons, and tell only part of the story on the Republican candidate's record.


One thing for certain in the race for Virginia’s governorship is that Bob McDonnell is the GOP nominee. As for the Democrats, three candidates are still vying for the nomination. That means plenty of battles on the airwaves. And a few of the Democrats’ ads don’t pass the fact-checking test:

  • In one TV ad, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, repeats a well-worn (but wrong) claim, saying that “we use the failure rates of third-graders to help predict how many prison spots Virginia will need.” The state Criminal Sentencing Commission told us that’s simply not true.
  • In another ad, a political action committee called Common Sense Virginia, backed by the Democratic Governors Association, criticizes the GOP candidate – already. It says McDonnell “voted against health benefits for unemployed textile workers” but fails to note that the then-state legislator backed a competing measure to give the same amount of money to several economically depressed areas of the state.
  • The Democratic PAC’s TV spot also says McDonnell “voted against help for older unemployed workers.” It’s true that he voted against a House bill that would have boosted unemployment benefits for workers also receiving Social Security. But, less than a month later, he voted in favor of the final bill, which passed unanimously.


As gubernatorial races go, Virginia’s is one to watch – especially for those of us in the fact-checking business. The GOP eyes this as an opportunity to reclaim the state after Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine’s term. The Republicans have already named their candidate, Bob McDonnell, the former attorney general in Virginia and a past state representative. Meanwhile, three Democrats are campaigning for their party’s nomination – former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds and former Del. Brian Moran face off in a June 9 primary. We take a look at two Democratic ads that don’t quite ring true.

Urban Legends Die Hard

McAuliffe highlights “his ideas for getting all Virginia’s children on a path to success” in a TV ad that was launched May 26 in Norfolk, Roanoke and Richmond. Unfortunately, the ad also highlights a false claim that, while repeated by many, still isn’t true.

 McAuliffe for Governor Ad: “Right Here”

McAuliffe: Imagine if your entire future was determined by what you did in the third grade. Sometimes it is. I’m Terry McAuliffe. Did you know we use the failure rate of third graders to help predict how many prison spots Virginia will need in 15 years? Pre-K now, or prison beds later. The choice is up to us. As Governor, I’ll invest in early education, reduce class sizes, and increase teacher pay because the future of our children and our commonwealth start right here.

In the ad McAuliffe asks, “Did you know we use the failure rates of third-graders to help predict how many prison spots Virginia will need in 15 years,” adding, “Pre-K now, or prison beds later. The choice is up to us.”

But Meredith Farrar-Owens, deputy director of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, says that the claim is not accurate, at least not for Virginia. She told FactCheck.org in an e-mail:

Farrar-Owens: The state examines a variety of trends, particularly arrest and conviction trends, to gain to a better understanding of what’s happening in the prison and jail populations. The prison forecast does not use third-grade failure rates or any other educational statistics. Moreover, the state uses six-year forecasts, not 15-year forecasts. That is because the period of time from identifying the need for prison space to opening a facility is typically five to six years.

As backup for the ad, the McAuliffe campaign provided a list of individuals, including fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidate Moran, making the same claim. This bit of political lore has been a popular sound bite, gaining credibility each time a prominent official repeats it. But it’s still bunk. The McAuliffe camp also points to a 2008 press release from U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott citing Jerrauld Jones, a Norfolk Circuit Court judge, who made the same remark; and a 2006 report from Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services comparing crime rates of localities within the state.

The 2006 report, titled “Violent Crime and Socioeconomic Stressors: The Accumulation of Risk Factors in Nine Virginia Localities,” included a chart listing “Third Graders Failing English SOL” as a socioeconomic factor for violent crime risk. However, third graders failing the English Standards of Learning test was just one of several factors, including teen pregnancy, poverty, children of single mothers, lead poisoning and childhood abuse, that the report found contribute to a person committing a violent offense. The report found that “the more risk factors an individual child is exposed to, the greater the likelihood that the child will become a violent offender.” More to the point, the report says nothing about predicting prison capacity.

The campaign’s backup also included a 2006 New York Times op-ed by literacy expert Marjorie Gillis and a 2007 article by Sara Mead for the New America Foundation. Gillis wrote that “[s]ome states even estimate future prison populations based on third-grade reading scores.” Mead said that “at least four states are known to use third-grade test scores to predict how many prison beds they’ll need years later.” Mead attributed the claim to the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice. And we found a report on the center’s Web site that stated: “In fact, at least one state uses reading achievement levels of students in the third grade as a basis for projecting the number of future prison beds needed.” But neither Gillis, Mead nor the center’s report mentioned Virginia specifically.

Plus, the director of the center, Peter E. Leone, doesn’t know where that assertion comes from. Leone told The Washington Post that the claim, while “catchy,” is “totally bogus.” The Post article quotes several officials saying that this is something of an urban legend.

Despite the evidence that the conventional claim isn’t true, McAuliffe campaign Communications Director Delacey Skinner told the Post it was still valid: “We feel comfortable using third-grade reading scores as a way of communicating, in shorthand, the importance of education in predictions of long-term social behavior, including predictions about crime rates, which are then used to determine the number of prison beds that we are constructing.”

Going on the Offensive

While the Dems battle it out, a political action committee backed by the Democratic Governors Association is targeting the Republican candidate, Bob McDonnell, the former state attorney general. Common Sense Virginia’s latest television ad, airing in Northern Virginia, Richmond, Roanoke and Norfolk on a six-figure buy, criticizes McDonnell’s use of the tag line “ready to be a jobs governor.” The Democratic PAC claims that his motto runs counter to his record. But the ad leaves out plenty of context.

 Common Sense Virginia Ad: “Jobs Governor”

Announcer: Bob McDonnell’s running ads claiming he’d be a jobs governor. Oh really?

It’s Bob McDonnell who just led the fight against Virginia taking federal unemployment funds. Now our tax dollars are going to other states.

It’s the same Bob McDonnell who in the legislature voted against health benefits for unemployed textile workers …and voted against help for older unemployed workers.

Bob McDonnell … a jobs governor?

You gotta to be kidding.

Woman: Common Sense Virginia sponsored this ad.

The ad says that McDonnell “just led the fight against Virginia taking federal unemployment funds.” It’s true that he opposed accepting $125.5 million in stimulus bill money to be used to expand unemployment benefits in the state. But it’s worth noting that he cited economic concerns as his reasoning.Nearly all Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly voted against accepting the funds, which came with a requirement that the state change its unemployment laws to broaden eligibility. The change would have given benefits to certain part-time workers for the first time. After that vote, McDonnell wrote a letter to the Virginia congressional delegation, urging them to modify the stimulus law so that the state could accept the money without reworking its laws.

A McDonnell spokesman told reporters that the candidate objected to the change in state law because it could in the future be a drag on the economy and lead to an increase in taxes for businesses or individuals. The spokesman told the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “This one-time federal funding will run out, and taxpayers and business owners will have to cover it.” The McDonnell campaign also told us that accepting the unemployment money would amount to “forcing businesses to pay for additional benefits long after the federal well ran dry.” Republicans in other states, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, have similarly opposed the unemployment funds.

Clarification, July 15: The required change to Virginia unemployment rules would have given part-time workers seeking only part-time work unemployment benefits for the first time. We have modified the text above to say that “certain” part-time workers would be affected. See our Wire post for more information.

Legislative Record

The ad goes on to say that McDonnell “voted against health benefits for unemployed textile workers.” But it could also be said that McDonnell voted for giving grants to areas of the state with high unemployment.

Here’s the full story: In 2000, when McDonnell was a state legislator, he joined Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore in opposing the assembly’s plan for a $7 million extension of health benefits for thousands of textile workers who had lost their jobs after the Tultex company went bankrupt. Instead, Gilmore, who called the budget amendment a “narrow approach,” proposed using that money for grants to areas of Virginia that were suffering economically. That would include the area where the textile plants were, but localities would decide how specifically to use the funds for either economic development or direct help for workers. The assembly rejected Gilmore’s idea, but McDonnell was one of 44 in the state House to vote in favor of it. Gilmore later vetoed the health benefits measure.

The McDonnell campaign told us he didn’t back the textile workers provision because it “would have played favorites among Virginia’s unemployed workers.”

Common Sense Virginia also criticizes McDonnell for a 2003 vote “against help for older unemployed workers.” That’s technically true, but it ignores the fact that McDonnell later voted in favor of helping such workers.

Here’s more on the against-it-before-he-was-for-it votes: State law had required a reduction in unemployment benefits for workers who also received Social Security or Railroad Retirement Act benefits. In other words, retirees who later returned to the workforce only to lose their jobs didn’t receive the full amount of unemployment benefits if they were also collecting Social Security. A bill in the House in early 2003 called for eliminating that reduction in benefits. But when the bill came up a vote, an amendment was introduced to eliminate only half of the reduction for such workers. McDonnell, and a majority of representatives, in a 58 – 30 vote, voted for that amendment. It could be argued that McDonnell, in that vote, didn’t vote against help for these workers, but voted for less help than some Democrats wanted.

When it came time in late January 2003 to vote on the final House bill (which, just like the amendment, called for eliminating half of the reduction in unemployment benefits), McDonnell, and eight other representatives, voted against it. So, in that vote, he did indeed come out “against help for older unemployed workers,” as the ad says. But the story of this piece of legislation doesn’t end there. A few weeks later, the bill, having gone to the Senate, came back to the House for final passage. McDonnell then voted for the measure, which passed unanimously.

The campaign told us that McDonnell “opposed eliminating an offset because if a retired worker were collecting Social Security or Railroad Retirement Act benefits, Virginia taxpayers and businesses should not be forced to foot the bill for full unemployment benefits based on the same job.” But, the campaign pointed out that “[u]ltimately … Bob supported increasing unemployment benefits” by the lesser amount as stated in the final bill.

In general, the claims made in the ad show that McDonnell’s positions have been less favorable to workers and more favorable to businesses than his Democratic competitors. (Both Moran and Deeds voted consistently for the bill for older unemployed workers, and Deeds, the only candidate still serving in the General Assembly, voted in favor of accepting the stimulus money for unemployment.) But we’ve often found ads that quote legislative records do so selectively, and this one is no exception.

– by Lori Robertson and D’Angelo Gore


Glod, Maria and Helderman, Rosalind. “In Politics, Fact, Fancy Can Blur in Keystroke.” Washington Post, 4 June 2009.

Blakley, Baron. “Violent Crime and Socioeconomic Stressors: The Accumulation of Risk Factors in Nine Virginia Localities.” Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, April 2006.

National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice. “Prevention: Home, Community, and School Connections,” accessed 4 June 2009.

United States House of Representatives. “Congressman Bobby Scott Hosts “Teen Summit On Violence” In An Effort to Promote The Youth Promise Act,” 28 March 2008.

Gillis, Marjorie. “Hire That Reading Czar.” New York Times, 24 Sept. 2006.

Mead, Sara. “Continuing the Investment: Top Notch Early Education Must Extend to Third Grade – and Beyond.” New American Foundation, November 2007.

Virginia General Assembly. HB 1431. Legislative database, 2003, accessed 2 June 2009.

Whitley, Tyler. “Democrats attack McDonnell, GOP on rejecting unemployment funds.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 10 April 2009.

McDonnell, Bob. Letter to Virginia’s Congressional Delegation. BobMcDonnell.com, 28 April 2009, accessed 4 June 2009.

Kumar, Anita. “McDonnell Opposes Unemployment Stimulus.” Washingtonpost.com, 8 April 2009, accessed 4 June 2009.

Virginia General Assembly. HB 30 Budget Bill vote. Legislative database, 19 April 2000, accessed 2 June 2009.

Stallsmith, Pamela. “Assembly Boosts Unemployed Textile Workers.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 20 April 2000.

Hardy, Michael. “Gilmore Vetoes Bill to Aid Workers.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 20 May 2000.

House Amends Bill on Jobless Benefits. Richmond Times-Dispatch, 29 Jan. 2003.