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November 7, 2013

Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe whipped out the notebook again, just as he had so many times on the campaign trail, when he studiously jotted down nuggets from every business and community college he toured.

This time, the spiral-bound pad came out over lunch with Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who hosted McAuliffe at the Executive Mansion on Thursday, two days after the Democrat edged out Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) in the governor’s race.

“I did fill up many, many pages today in my notebook,” McAuliffe said, pulling it out of the back pocket of his dark business suit after lunch. “I got a new one out for today, and it’s already half filled up.”

The hour-long lunch was just one way that McAuliffe, who has never held elective office, was moving to get up to speed on the vast bureaucracy he will oversee as Virginia’s 72nd governor. It also was an opportunity for McDonnell, sidelined by an ethics scandal for most of the campaign, to reemerge as a pragmatic leader with a useful role to play.

The outgoing governor pledged to do everything he can to make McAuliffe’s transition into the office as smooth as possible. McDonnell said his agency heads and cabinet members have handed over flash drives containing transition plans to Paul J. Reagan, McAuliffe’s transition director, who since the election has met twice with McDonnell’s chief of staff, Martin Kent.

“The campaign’s over,” McDonnell told about 20 reporters gathered in the mansion foyer to hear from both men after the private lunch. “It’s time to govern. Terry wants to do that. He’s going to be a serious, policy-oriented governor. He wants to be effective. That’s why he’s come over here just two days after the election to pick my brain.”

As McAuliffe and McDonnell projected an image of bipartisanship, the governor-elect’s Republican outreach efforts were seen as clumsy in some corners of Capitol Square.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) bristled when Reagan called his office asking to set up a meeting between the speaker and McAuliffe because he did so Monday — the day before the election. Howell said he thought that was presumptuous. The speaker did return the call, but waited until Wednesday to do so.

“I’ve been talking with Paul,” Howell said Thursday. “We’re trying to find a time that will be convenient for both of us.”

McAuliffe told reporters that he’d reached out to “many Republicans” since the election, reporting that he’d had a “lovely conversation” with at least two of them: former governor James S. Gilmore III and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City).

His lunch with McDonnell took place in the 200-year-old mansion’s breakfast nook, where the two sat alone to talk governing over sliced Asian beef with ginger-onion sauce, white rice and sesame broccoli.

McDonnell said taking in all McAuliffe will need to know as governor will feel like “drinking from a fire hose,” the governor-elect reported later.

During the campaign, Cuccinelli had mocked McAuliffe for his inexperience with state government, saying the Democrat would need “on-the-job training” if elected. But McDonnell, who served 18 years as a state delegate and attorney general before taking office four years ago, said that’s true for any incoming governor.

“This is an immensely complex operation — 110,000 employees, $85 billion we spend every [other] year, 130-some agencies,” McDonnell said. “There’s no way to master everything. You cannot be a micromanager — I tried like heck.”

The comment about micromanaging — McDonnell is known for reading nearly every bill that comes out of the General Assembly — prompted a knowing chuckle from Kent, who along with a handful of senior staff members joined the media in the mansion foyer.

During the campaign, McAuliffe had a curious relationship with McDonnell, who has been consumed by a gifts scandal that is the subject of ongoing state and federal investigations.

Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. gave McDonnell and his family more than $160,000 in luxury gifts and money characterized as loans. McAuliffe played up the Star scandal during the race because it touched Cuccinelli, who had received $18,000 in gifts from Williams. The Democrat, despite a long history of controversial business and political dealings, promised to be a leader in ethics reform — starting with an executive order he has pledged to sign on his first day in office, capping the value of gifts to himself or his family at $100.

Yet McAuliffe also praised McDonnell during the race for working with Democrats to strike a $1.4 billion-a-year transportation funding compromise. While Cuccinelli decided not to campaign with his own party’s tainted governor, McAuliffe often invoked McDonnell’s name on the trail. The Democrat was even more complimentary of McDonnell on Thursday, calling him “a class act” and noting that first lady Maureen McDonnell had invited McAuliffe’s wife, Dorothy, to visit her at the mansion soon.

“He has done an absolutely magnificent job, he and his team, on our budget,” McAuliffe said. “Surpluses for four years in a row. And I hope as governor that I can emulate what Governor McDonnell has done.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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