“Sixty parties in 60 days!” McAuliffe has declared, referring to the length of the assembly session.
To the discount hooch and Bud Light normally on tap at the mansion, the governor has added top-shelf liquor and microbrews at his own expense — a move made possible by his enormous personal wealth and made necessary by heightened scrutiny to mansion spending amid his predecessor’s gifts scandal. While appealing to the legislature’s more discriminating tipplers, McAuliffe has not forgotten the teetotalers: For them, he serves up daily breakfasts, picking up the private catering tab personally.
McAuliffe’s open invitation and open, upgraded bar are part of a broader effort to win over Republicans who knew the former Democratic National Committee chairman only through attack ads and media accounts.
Since his election, he has reached out to GOP legislators with daily phone calls and meetings. He even set up a date to go turkey hunting with a Republican from southern Virginia.
But his nonstop entertaining has created the most buzz, in part because it feeds into the narrative that McAuliffe is Virginia’s schmoozer-in-chief. Whether his effort works remains to be seen.
Tireless outreach has not spared the governor from rocky moments just four weeks into his term. Initially wooed by McAuliffe’s moderate Cabinet picks, members of the GOP have since lashed out against his aggressive push for Medicaid expansion and a politically toxic appointment to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Republicans leapt on the chance to embarrass the governor last week when he found himself caught between Japan, a powerful trading partner, and a campaign promise to Korean Americans.
At the very hour that 50 House Republicans had bellied up to McAuliffe’s bar Tuesday night, a news story hit that their leadership had criticized the governor’s governing style as too hands-off.
But Democrats and even lots of Republicans think the flurry of cocktail parties and breakfasts can only help the governor establish personal relationships that he lacks as a relative newcomer to Virginia politics. That’s especially true for someone trying to live down a larger-than-life reputation — as a best buddy to Bill and Hillary Clinton, former Democratic chairman, prolific fundraiser and sometimes-controversial businessman.
“It’s affording an opportunity for him to get to know legislators on a more personal basis in a smaller setting,” said Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City). “If you know someone — or at least you know they’ve got two kids, they’re on their sixth wife — you know the things to talk about and the things not to talk about. And I think in the long run, it will serve him more favorably because there will have been that personal interaction. And people will have developed their own sense of who he is.”
Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Louisa) spent an evening at the mansion sitting on a couch, chatting and joking with McAuliffe for part of the time.
“He’s got a sense of humor, nice fella,” Garrett said. “Everybody’s more charming after a few drinks.”
Garrett decided to abstain from the bar during his visit.
“I want to get my legs under me and figure out which end’s up before I start getting too comfortable,” he said. “I’m not a teetotaler, I’m just cautious.”
But he nevertheless noted that the drink options had been upgraded since the administration of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who had heavily promoted state wines.
“McDonnell had served exclusively Virginia wine and Virginia liquor, and we have some fine wine and liquor in Virginia, but there’s some finer options, to some tastes, to be found in places like Kentucky, and Tennessee, and California, and Australia and Chile,” Garrett said. “And one of the things [McAuliffe] pointed out is, while he would carry on the proud tradition of serving Virginia spirits, he was not closed to the idea of serving libations from France and, you know, elsewhere.”
While every governor hosts mansion receptions for delegates and senators, McAuliffe has put out the welcome mat with unprecedented frequency and gusto. With his wife and children staying in Northern Virginia through the end of the school year, McAuliffe is fond of saying he’s all alone in that big mansion, so legislators should just “ring the doorbell” if they want to stop by for a drink.
Rank-and-file legislators got one, maybe two invitations a year to the mansion under the last two governors, though Mark R. Warner (D) famously plied them with food. Now, the invites come so frequently that senators and delegates can’t find time for them all. The administration is rethinking the daily 7:30 a.m. breakfasts because at that hour, most lawmakers are tied up in committee meetings.
The evening receptions start at 5:30 and generally last about an hour. After that, McAuliffe usually heads off to three or four receptions hosted by other organizations.
McAuliffe has a reputation as a party animal; he appeared on national television years ago hoisting a bottle of Bacardi and titled his autobiography “What a Party!” During the campaign, he infamously said he would govern by tapping his background as an Irish Catholic who likes to drink.
But McAuliffe imbibes only lightly at his own receptions, spokesman Brian Coy said.
“This is fellowship for him,” Coy said. “This is way more about relationship-building than standing around drinking. . . . He thinks he can be a more effective governor if he has strong relationships with members of the General Assembly.”
McAuliffe and his critics invoked his entertaining this week in the midst of Republican complaints that the governor has been too short on policy specifics.
“I’ve never seen anyone so slow to get started” on legislation, House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) had said in an interview with The Washington Post. “There seems to be an event over there every night. I’m not sure I’ve seen much else going on.”
Coy held up the gatherings as proof that the governor had provided Republicans with plenty of face time to raise issues directly with him.
“If the Speaker and the General Assembly are struggling with how best to approach any additional issues, there have been ample opportunities to seek the Governor’s counsel over the phone, at meetings or at nightly bipartisan receptions at the Executive Mansion,” Coy said in an e-mail.
That gave the state GOP an opening: “Governing by happy hour,” Republicans called it in tweets and a mass e-mail sent Wednesday.
“This is like frat house governor,” said Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William). “Clearly he’s trying to be friendly, but I’ll watch my wallet over there.”
The backlash didn’t stop McAuliffe from holding another reception that night, seeking common ground in the liquid delights of a restocked executive mansion bar.