RICHMOND — It’s a standard nugget in Terry McAuliffe’s stump speech, a tale of government procurement gone so bad that $800 taxpayer-funded chairs blocked the careers of 100 would-be nursing students.
Very little of it is true.
Here’s how the Democratic candidate for governor has been telling it:
McAuliffe met a college president who grumbled about having to buy campus furnishings from the state. Assembled by prisoners under a training program, the furniture is overpriced, with some chairs costing $800. If the school, Piedmont Virginia Community College, could buy from private stores instead, it could use the savings to enroll the 100 qualified nursing students it turns away each year.
Here are the facts:
Piedmont hasn’t turned away anything close to 100 applicants for nursing school. Even if it had, the college could not possibly squeeze the $400,000-a-year cost of instructing them out of its prison furniture purchases, which were below $100,000 last year. Piedmont is not even required to buy furniture from the state, though it must get a waiver to shop elsewhere.
As for the “$800 chairs,” McAuliffe’s campaign tried to back up that claim by providing information about a single $600 chair.
Whether McAuliffe or the college president, Frank Friedman, got the details wrong is unclear — and neither will say. Friedman declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed. McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin said only that the candidate never meant to suggest that furniture savings alone would solve the instructor shortage at public colleges across Virginia.
But the story fits a pattern of exaggerations and embellishments that have peppered McAuliffe’s public pronouncements over the years.
In his failed bid for his party’s gubernatorial nod four years ago, McAuliffe or his staff had to walk back comments about how many houses he had built and how many toilets he had personally inspected in a housing complex he owned. He claimed to have started five businesses in Northern Virginia; all turned out to be investment partnerships with no employees, registered to his McLean home.
And when he launched an electric car company in 2009, McAuliffe said it would create 900 jobs by the end of 2012 and 10,000 cars in 2013. Today, fewer than 100 workers produce about one car every two or three days, workers told The Washington Post.
Exaggerations are standard in politics, as candidates routinely puff up their accomplishments and press false attacks on opponents. Fact-checkers have bestowed numerous “Pinocchio” and “pants on fire” ratings on McAuliffe and his opponent, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R).
Yet McAuliffe’s tendency to stretch the truth stands out even by the standards of politicians. A self-described Irish storyteller, deemed a “peerless exaggerator” by the New York Times, McAuliffe cops to it on the first page of his autobiography, “What a Party!”
“My people came from County Cork,” he writes. “We love Guinness. We love St. Patrick’s Day. And we love blarney.”
Where some see snake-oil smarm, others see effusive — and effective — cheerleading. McAuliffe’s lay-it-on-thick salesmanship has helped him raise piles of political cash, rally Democratic troops and make himself rich.
“Bill Richardson is the greatest governor in the country today, maybe in the history of America,” McAuliffe declared to New Mexico’s then-governor in 2004, according to a Post report of a perambulation around the Democratic National Convention, where he seemed to call everyone he encountered “the greatest” this or that.
McAuliffe’s story about community colleges, furniture and nurses lacks that sort of grandiosity, and it is rooted in two real issues — state procurement rules and a shortage of nursing-school slots — that McAuliffe heard about on a January tour of Piedmont.
“Terry has visited all 23 community colleges, and a consistent theme that he’s heard from administrators is that there are inefficiencies like furniture purchasing mandates that are keeping much needed resources from being used to hire more teachers,” Schwerin, the McAuliffe spokesman, said in an e-mail. “No one’s saying a governor pushing furniture procurement reform will by itself solve the instructor shortage and get more nurses certified — but in a budget where every dollar matters — it’s certainly one part of the solution.”
But in prepared speeches and in off-the-cuff remarks, McAuliffe has made it sound like furniture alone is the fix.
“Frank Friedman at Piedmont Virginia Community College said that he has to turn away qualified nursing students every year, but that if we gave him some flexibility to buy furniture from local suppliers, he could hire a new professor and expand nursing slots,” he said in a September speech in Richmond.
“Frank Friedman . . . showed me a beautiful new classroom, and he said, ‘Terry, look at all the furniture I have in here,’ ” McAuliffe said at another event last month. “ ‘I had to buy it from the prison system. It’s part of a state requirement. . . . I had to pay more for it. If you gave me some autonomy at the community-college level, I could bring more efficiencies. I could save money. And those 100 qualified nursing students I’m turning away every year? I could get another professor in here or two if you gave me some autonomy, and I wouldn’t have to turn those nursing students away.’”
Sometimes, as in the Richmond speech, McAuliffe adds this: “I’ve heard about $800 chairs and desks that are 20 percent more expensive than the market rate.”
A call to Friedman’s office was returned by Piedmont spokeswoman Anita Showers. She said, “President Friedman has no further comment about any of it.”
During McAuliffe’s campus tour, someone at Piedmont complained about the price of state furniture. Separately, someone said the school had more qualified nursing applicants than it could enroll, according to two people who were present and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a politically touchy matter.
Apparently it was McAuliffe who later put the two things together, suggesting that there could be enough savings from furniture to accommodate an extra 100 students.
Jeffrey Kraus, spokesman for the Virginia Community College System, agreed with the concept that colleges could buy cheaper furniture and use the savings for instruction.
“In narrative form, this idea holds,” he said.
It’s in the details that the story breaks down.
First, colleges do not have to buy furniture from the state, though they must prove they can get the same item for less and get two state officials to sign off — a process Kraus called “a challenge.”
Second, Piedmont is not turning away 100 qualified nursing students a year. Showers said the number was 24 this year, 44 last. The most any Virginia community college turned away this year was about 40.
And finally, savings on furniture could not fund 100 nursing slots. The faculty cost alone would be at least $400,000 a year, since nursing accreditation standards require one instructor — minimum salary $40,061 — for every 10 students. Piedmont spent $99,802 on prison furniture last year.
As for the “$800 chairs,” McAuliffe’s campaign forwarded an e-mail from a Southside Virginia Community College dean, Chad Patton, confirming that he had told McAuliffe about a chair during a tour there. But Patton said the price was $600, not $800.
The chair was the Virginia prison system’s “Nightingale,” a swiveling, upholstered, ergonomic model. Patton said he objected to it because “a chair from Wal-Mart would have sufficed.”
Just as a tale about a $600 chair perhaps could have sufficed.