Governor Terry ‘Mad Dog’ McAuliffe exits stage left

McAuliffe’s tumultuous term as governor will end in January. What’s next for the kinetic pol?

Virginia Democratic governor elect McAuliffe smiles at victory rally in Virginia
Reuters / Gary Cameron – stock.adobe.com

No one has ever seemed to enjoy being governor of Virginia—or any state—as much as Terry McAuliffe. At policy forums and cocktail parties, legislative receptions and political rallies, the guy is a one-man festival. He radiates a kind of nonstop energy that almost defies explanation. Put him in a room full of senior citizens, and he flirts with the ladies. Stick him on a policy panel, and he trash talks other states. Crack seven of his ribs in a safari accident, and he pushes through the pain to deliver one of the best speeches he’s made during his time in office.

“I can tell you as a physician, there is nothing out there that is more painful,” says Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist who hopes to succeed McAuliffe when he steps down next year. “And he actually gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard, the State of the Commonwealth in front of all of Virginia, with seven fractured ribs that he had done just several days before. So he’s a hard worker.”

The real question for McAuliffe is this: What’s next? Virginia is the only state in the country that imposes one-term limitation on its governors. Sure they can come back at some future point and seek a non-consecutive term, but that’s happened only once in the long history of the commonwealth. And it’s difficult to imagine McAuliffe trying to circle back around to a job that he’s already done before. Take a look at his trajectory in business or politics, and one thing is clear—something else is on the agenda for the future. And many people are speculating that might be a run for the White House in 2020.

“I want to do something where I can help people and fight for people,” says McAuliffe when asked about a potential presidential run. “At the end of the day, elected office should be about leaning in and helping people. And if there’s an opportunity for me, something in the future, I’ll do it.”

By the time he leaves office, McAuliffe will be leaving behind a legacy of accomplishments and failures that may end up setting the groundwork for the hustings of New Hampshire and Iowa. His firm rejection of white supremacists in Charlottesville serves as a foil to an incumbent president who declared some “very fine people” were among the torch-wielding crowd chanting Nazi slogans.

Perhaps the biggest victory for the governor has been a string of economic development successes, persuading companies large and small to move their headquarters to Virginia or invest in the commonwealth. It’s a strength Republicans are already trying to turn into a weakness.

“We have tended to put a lot of focus on what I call whale hunting, trying to get a Fortune 100 company to move lock, stock and barrel to move their headquarters here,” said Republican candidate for governor Ed Gillespie during a press gaggle after a debate in McLean. “But that can’t be the singular focus of our economic development agenda and vision. We’ve got to make it easier to open a new business and expand an existing one.”

During his time as governor, McAuliffe has gained a reputation as someone who will do almost anything to attract business to the commonwealth. He once ate a plate of fried cicadas in China to land a deal with a Chinese paper manufacturer. Perhaps more infamously, he installed a kegerator in the Executive Mansion to attract a brewer. It worked, and McAuliffe has attracted several breweries from other states, including Green Flash, Ballast Point and Deschutes. During McAuliffe’s time in office, the number of active breweries in Virginia has tripled.

“We don’t agree on a lot of issues, but I commend him on his support and efforts in economic development,” says former Republican Gov. George Allen. “I think it’s good that he’s for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which will get natural gas from the source in West Virginia and Pennsylvania to make sure our electricity prices are more affordable and competitive.”

Perhaps the most disappointing and frustrating part of McAuliffe’s time in office has been his inability to deliver on a central campaign promise, expanding Medicaid to almost half a million people who live in poverty or with disabilities. Virginia taxpayers are already paying for those services, but because Republicans in the General Assembly have consistently blocked the governor’s efforts. So all that money collected from Virginia taxpayers goes to fund health care for Medicaid recipients in Ohio and Massachusetts.

“The biggest failure I’ve had, not for want of trying, was I wasn’t able to get Medicaid expansion done,” says the governor. “That’s $8 billion we’ve forfeited, and 400,000 individuals did not get health care even though we paid for them. I tried hard, but they just would not do it.”

Terence Richard McAuliffe was born into a politically connected family in Syracuse, New York, the youngest of four brothers in a large Irish Catholic family. His father was longtime treasurer of the Onondaga County Democratic Party, teaching his son about raising money and electing candidates. As a child, his nickname was Mad Dog because he found himself in so many fistfights. In his 2007 autobiography What a Party! My Life Among Democrats: Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators, and Other Wild Animals, McAuliffe recalls that his brothers would often put him into physical confrontations with boys who were older and larger as a form of entertainment. They knew he would never back down, even if that meant taking a pummeling.

“He’s never been one [to] shy away from a fight, whether that’s in business or politics or life,” says Dorothy McAuliffe, the governor’s wife, who was being courted by some Northern Virginia Democrats to run against incumbent Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock. “I never heard that story about Mad Dog until the book came out, but it certainly rang true.”

McAuliffe came to Washington to attend Catholic University, where he served as a paid intern in the office of Democratic Rep. James Hanley—responding to constituents’ letters and researching legislation two days a week in the Cannon House Office Building. After he graduated college, a housemate introduced him to people in the Jimmy Carter re-election campaign. Somehow he landed a gig as the campaign finance director at the age of 22, fresh out of college and so boyish he bought a pair of nonprescription glasses to make himself look older and more professional.

“There is even a caricature on the wall at the Palm Restaurant in Washington showing me in those glasses in 1980,” McAuliffe wrote in his autobiography. “I still take a look sometimes when I’m there just to give myself a good laugh.”

Carter lost that campaign, of course, and McAuliffe eventually landed a job at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He enrolled in law school at Georgetown, started an investment business and launched a lobbying practice. But he was never far from politics, particularly presidential politics. In 1988, he became finance chairman for Rep. Dick Gephardt’s 1988 run for president. That campaign fizzled, but McAuliffe’s big break was just around the corner—Bill and Hillary Clinton would become close friends who benefited from McAuliffe’s never-ending ability to raise money for election campaigns, the 1997 inauguration celebration, a legal defense fund, the millennium festivities and the presidential library.

“Terry’s more wired than your local electric plant,” Hillary Clinton told guests at a 1990s-era fundraising dinner.

At the end of the Clinton administration, McAuliffe became chairman of the Democratic National Committee. It was a time when the party was desperate to raise a massive amount of money for the 2000 Democratic National Convention, and party leaders knew that McAuliffe would be able to deliver the goods. They were right. During his tenure as chairman, McAuliffe raised almost $600 million for the party. By the time he left in 2005, the party was debt-free for the first time in its history. But that may not have been the most important thing McAuliffe did as party chairman. He also took a major interest in Virginia politics, announcing at a Northern Virginia press conference the party would be pumping $5 million into Tim Kaine’s 2005 campaign for governor in an attempt to show the South was viable for Democrats.

“I personally handed Tim a check for $2.5 million on the spot,” McAuliffe wrote in his book. “I left money in the bank for the next chairman, whoever he or she was, to hand over the remaining $2.5 million, since the election would occur during his or her tenure.”

By 2009, McAuliffe was ready to launch a campaign for governor. But he had two opponents who had been toiling in the vineyard of Virginia politics for decades: Del. Brian Moran of Alexandria and state Sen. Creigh Deeds of Charlottesville. Moran started the campaign as the front-runner, but then McAuliffe started gaining traction. Moran responded by launching a television ad that accused McAuliffe of “insider deals” and a radio spot that noted his involvement with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign to question his loyalty to President Obama. A never-ending series of “Pinocchio Reports” were sent to journalists pointing out every questionable statement that ever came out of his mouth.

“When you engage in a primary battle, and rather than arguing about policy positions you argue about other factors, it’s unpleasant. It was unpleasant for me,” says Moran. “I’ve tried to put it behind me and out of my mind, frankly. It wasn’t some of my better moments.”

Moran and McAuliffe went after each other viciously as the primary approached, allowing Deeds to rise above the fray and secure the nomination. He eventually lost to Bob McDonnell, and McAuliffe set his sights on the future. Working behind the scenes, McAuliffe used the connections he made in his unsuccessful run for governor to lay the groundwork for a run in 2013. He did such a masterful job working the party that he had no competition in the primary, allowing him to focus all his attention and money at defeating Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in the fall.

“I had never met him before he ran for governor, which is pretty astonishing given the fact he lived in Northern Virginia and how long I was in politics and engaged with the community up where I live,” says Cuccinelli. “He wasn’t, and yet he got elected governor.”

McAuliffe didn’t wait long after the inauguration to start taking action. Within hours he unleashed a series of executive orders. One banned gifts worth more than $100 to members of his administration, a reaction to the corruption scandal that plagued the McDonnell administration. Another order prohibited discrimination against state employees for sexual orientation and gender identity, a move widely celebrated among Democrats. He also made a personal move that surprised many, calling on his former rival Brian Moran to take one of the most important positions in the Cabinet, secretary of public safety and homeland security.

“I was extremely impressed with his intellect,” says Moran, who accepted the gig after meeting with McAuliffe in his Rosslyn transition office. “I don’t think people give him credit for that because he’s so gregarious. I think people probably underestimate his intellect and how he’s able to grasp issues that he doesn’t necessarily have a background in.”

At the top of McAuliffe’s agenda was delivering on that campaign promise to expand Medicaid. There was only one problem—expanding health insurance to people who live in poverty or with disabilities was part of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature achievement. Republicans in Richmond wanted nothing to do with it. The last glimmer of hope for expanding Medicaid faded when Democratic state Sen. Phil Pickett of Russell County unexpectedly resigned and Democrats lost their razor-thin control of the upper chamber. Democrats charged corruption, arguing Republicans offered a judgeship for Pickett’s daughter and a job for him on the GOP-controlled tobacco commission. Federal investigators declined to bring charges, and McAuliffe faced a hostile General Assembly. “He hasn’t been able to really get a great deal of any program through the Republican legislature,” says former Gov. Jim Gilmore. “While he’s tried to set a liberal tone, he hasn’t really been able to deliver on a liberal program.”

The other major source of conflict between the Democratic governor and the Republican legislature involves voting—specifically who gets to vote and how. In early 2016, McAuliffe signed an executive order restoring voting rights to 200,000 former felons. Critics said that flew in the face of the state Constitution, which stipulates no “person” convicted of a felony can vote unless “his” civil rights have been restored. The Supreme Court of Virginia eventually overruled the governor, who set out to restore the rights of as many former felons as possible.

“I applaud the governor for his desire to put more people back on the voting rolls,” says former Gov. Bob McDonnell, who explored a similar executive order but concluded it wasn’t constitutional. “I just think the process probably should have been different, and I think that’s what he’s doing now. He’s going to restore more voting rights than anyone in history.”

One unexpected area where the governor and the General Assembly were able to strike a deal was on guns. After Attorney General Mark Herring declared that Virginia would no longer recognize concealed carry permits from 25 states, McAuliffe found himself with an unexpected bit of political leverage. Republicans were eager to overturn the attorney general’s order. Democrats were eager to get new gun restrictions for people convicted of domestic violence and voluntary background checks at gun shows. Ultimately the two sides struck a deal.

“I think we could have gotten more if we pressed really hard,” said state Sen. Scott Surovell of Fairfax County at the time. “But the governor made his decision that he thought was the best deal he could get, and that’s what we’re stuck with.”

In his eagerness to promote Virginia, the governor can sometimes be a bit braggadocious. For example, he was at a policy forum in Washington earlier this year on mental health—a topic that remains controversial in Virginia after state Sen. Creigh Deeds’ son killed himself after slashing his father in the face. The problem was again in the spotlight after a man with mental illness starved in a Hampton Roads jail after stealing $5 worth of snacks. During his last assembly session, McAuliffe pressed the legislature to fund mental health assessments for inmates who raised red flags. Lawmakers rejected that idea, mainly because of the $4.2 million cost to pay for the mental health professionals. So McAuliffe set out to cobble together a program to train deputies on screening inmates.

“If there’s someone with a mental illness, you’re not going to a jail anymore in Virginia—and just putting them in a cell and just leaving them there with no treatment,” the governor said during a forum hosted by The Hill at the Newseum. “So I’m very proud we were able to get that done.”

McAuliffe may have been a little overzealous here. People with mental illnesses still show up at jails. And although the administration has a goal of training sheriff’s deputies to conduct uniform screening of inmates, no money was ever appropriated to make that happen. And even as McAuliffe steps down, mental health screening is not conducted in a systematic way at many Virginia jails. But the governor can count some success on this front. Since Deeds’ son died, Virginia has added about 300 psychiatric beds. And this year, the General Assembly provided new funding for people experiencing a mental health crisis to get same-day service.

“I feel good about where we are, but I don’t feel that good,” says Deeds. “There’s still urgency to achieve more, until we get to the point where we are a national leader. And I think we can be there.”

Now as McAuliffe prepares to leave the Executive Mansion and embark on the next chapter of his life, whatever that may be, the boy once known as Mad Dog is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

“I’ve had the same speed since I was born,” says McAuliffe. “When I was born I was six weeks premature. I was pronounced dead three times. At some point all of a sudden, I started talking and yelling. And I haven’t stopped fighting since then.”

(November 2017)

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