Va.’s new Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe maneuvers to cast GOP as ‘party of no’

Robert McCartney
Columnist January 11

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s emphasis on bipartisanship in his inaugural address Saturday had the convenient, partisan effect of giving him the upper hand, at least temporarily, over his Republican adversaries in Richmond.

The speech, not soaring but smartly written, included more than a dozen appeals to finding “common ground” or otherwise setting politics aside for the greater good. It reinforced the message sent with McAuliffe’s selection of a moderate, diverse Cabinet, in which he retained his Republican predecessor’s secretaries of health, agriculture and finance.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

In addition, McAuliffe (D) adopted the shrewd strategy of using noncontroversial, mainstream arguments to push for liberal measures. For him, expanding Medicaid and guaranteeing equal rights for gays aren’t ideological causes. They’re necessary to attract business and create jobs.

The net result is to create headaches for the Virginia GOP. If McAuliffe can avoid overreaching, then the Republicans would risk being labeled obstructionists if they resist his agenda.

The GOP can easily block him if it chooses, because it enjoys a large majority in the House of Delegates. But gridlock would surely alienate Virginia voters, who don’t want Richmond to resemble Washington.

“We definitely understand we don’t want to be the ‘party of no,’ ” said a Republican legislative source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because relations with the new governor are delicate.

In that sense, McAuliffe has been remarkably quick to seize an advantage, at least stylistically. Who would have thought a former Democratic National Committee chairman with no experience in Richmond would need only a few weeks to lay claim to standing for “the Virginia Way” of civility and bipartisanship?

Of course, as McAuliffe acknowledged in his 16-minute address in front of a rain-drenched Capitol, the test of his commitment to common ground will be actions rather than words.

We’ll get a fuller sense of his plans Monday, when he lays out his policy proposals in detail to the General Assembly. Still, looking at three main issues likely to dominate the session, McAuliffe starts with advantages on each.

Areas of ‘common ground’

Everybody seems to agree that the two parties will agree this session on tightening state ethics laws and improving mental-health services.

I’m skeptical that legislators of either party will be willing to close all the loopholes that permit lobbyists and other special interests to try to win their favor, such as with free vacation trips. Still, the Democrats have an edge here because the issue arose owing to the scandal over gifts to former governor Bob McDonnell (R) and his family.

The Democrats also have the No. 1 advocate for mental-health reforms in Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath). He suffered a horrible personal tragedy when he was stabbed by his mentally disturbed son, who then committed suicide.

Medicaid expansion

The GOP is determined to draw the line against accepting about $2 billion a year in federal money under President Obama’s health-care law to extend insurance to about 400,000 low-income Virginians.

McAuliffe is equally determined to push the issue, partly because it was a core promise of his campaign. He has told associates that this position is “in the marrow of my bones,” and added, “You don’t always win, but you sure better fight.”

Although Obama’s health reforms are generally unpopular now, the governor has powerful allies. The state’s chambers of commerce and hospitals favor Medicaid expansion, because they don’t want to turn away money there for the asking.

McAuliffe was careful in the inaugural to back Medicaid expansion as a plus for economic development, saying twice it would help create jobs.

“I thought that was a well-crafted speech in which he essentially tied a number of progressive ideals to sort of the conservative traditions of Virginia,” Richmond political commentator Bob Holsworth said.

Social issues

A major mystery now is how much energy McAuliffe will commit to seeking advances for immigrants, gay equality and women’s reproductive rights. He hinted in the speech that he’d be pushing on all those fronts, but how far will he go?

For instance, would he support bills advanced by Northern Virginia Democrats to grant in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants? Would he use administrative powers to roll back building restrictions on abortion clinics?

Either move would risk alienating social conservatives in the GOP. But public sentiment in Virginia has been moving in McAuliffe’s direction on such issues, and the Republican legislative leadership would prefer to avoid stirring up interest in some of them.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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