Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s connections can pay off for business in Virginia

Influential friends range from the Clintons to Hollywood stars and the business elite

Martin J. Briley was heading overseas to drum up business for the state of Virginia, so Gov. Terry McAuliffe offered to hook him up with a friend in Mumbai. It was Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India.

Briley, head of the state’s economic development arm, had been trying for ages to get an audience with someone at Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited, a massive energy and communications conglomerate. McAuliffe (D) shot Ambani an e-mail, and within days the billionaire himself had agreed to a sit-down.

“He knows everybody, seemingly,” Briley, president of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, said of McAuliffe.

McAuliffe took office six months ago lacking any experience in state government but armed with an enormous network of contacts amassed over years as a political fundraiser, Democratic National Committee chairman, intimate friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton and international entrepreneur.

McAuliffe’s promises to bring his Rolodex and deal-making charms to Richmond were ridiculed by Republican foes, and indeed, his energetic courtship of the GOP-dominated House got him nowhere this year on his top legislative priority: expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

But McAuliffe’s legendary power to strike a deal seems as potent as ever in the arena of economic development, where he has been tapping a vast collection of old friends and associates.

From Washington to Hollywood to Doha to Beijing, McAuliffe has someone on speed dial. His is an eclectic collection of names and numbers, spanning the government bigwigs who are celebrities only to wonky Washingtonians to the bona fide glitterati that swirl around two of his dearest friends, the Clintons.

McAuliffe has called on both White House counterterrorism guru Richard Clarke and “10” bombshell Bo Derek in his bid to bring jobs and investment to the commonwealth. His connections have helped draw Air China service to Dulles International Airport, land a movie directed by Meg Ryan, lure Carnival Cruise Lines back to Norfolk and ship $20 million a year in chicken and turkey to China.

“The man has a Rolodex on a global scale,” said Todd Haymore, who as McAuliffe’s secretary of agriculture and forestry worked with him to get China to lift its seven-year ban on Virginia poultry.

China had imposed the ban in 2007 after turkeys at one Shenandoah Valley farm tested positive for avian flu. The state’s two previous governors and its congressional delegation had worked ever since to lift the ban, which cut Virginia poultry farmers off from one of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing markets.

McAuliffe built on those efforts by rallying old friends in the world of Democratic politics, where many feel a debt to the man Al Gore once proclaimed “the greatest fundraiser in the history of the universe.” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former Democratic governor of Iowa, met with McAuliffe and Haymore to discuss the ban. So did U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. McAuliffe and Haymore also held a conference call with Max Baucus last spring, just as the former Democratic senator from Montana was heading off to China to begin his new job as U.S. ambassador.

“We ended up having a call with him on a Sunday morning — the day before he left for China,” Haymore said. “The first five to 10 minutes were Governor McAuliffe and Ambassador Baucus just talking about some old times they shared, then they shifted to business. It’s just a great example, seeing how those personal relationships can translate into business discussions.”

About a month later, in May, China lifted the ban, a move that Haymore said could mean $20 million or more in annual exports.

It takes more than good contacts to seal a deal. Commerce Secretary Maurice Jones and others involved in economic development also credit the business instincts, persistence and unflagging salesmanship of a governor known for his boundless enthusiasm and limited need for sleep.

“For me, the big asset is his incredible grace when it comes to cultivating and maintaining relationships, and combining that with his years of experience in the business world,” Jones said.

McAuliffe’s biggest economic development coup to date, landing a $2 billion paper plant that will create 2,000 jobs in the Richmond suburbs, came down to his willingness to go the extra mile. Indeed, an extra 7,000 miles.

In the works for months before McAuliffe took office, the deal was on the verge of crumbling until the governor promised in June to visit the company’s headquarters — in China, McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said. McAuliffe tacked a trip to Shandong province onto a previously scheduled trade mission to London that concludes Thursday.

McAuliffe, due to arrive in London on Sunday, spent just three days in China. But that was long enough to demonstrate his dedication to the project — and to let Shandong Tranlin Paper Co. bask in the prestige of hosting a big-name governor with vast business and political connections.

Over a long and sometimes controversial career prior to winning his first elective office, McAuliffe was accused of mixing business and politics to enrich himself. Some Republicans see McAuliffe’s economic-development approach as an extension of that perceived “crony capitalism,” albeit one that benefits the state. They are particularly suspicious of deals involving China given McAuliffe’s history with the electric car company GreenTech. Federal investigators last year began probing the company’s use of the special investor visa program known as EB-5 to attract Chinese capital. Critics characterized the firm as a visa-for-sale scheme, something the company disputed.

“Some of the doors may have opened with foreign companies because of the affiliation with the Clintons,” said state Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover). “We appreciate the jobs and we’ll ride it as far as it goes. But if she [Hillary Clinton] decides not to run for president, the opening of doors might slam quickly.”

At least four governors attended a biotechnology convention in San Diego in June, trying to sell their states as the best place to do business. Only one — McAuliffe — got to introduce the keynote speaker, Hillary Clinton.

Before an audience of more than 3,000, McAuliffe’s introduction “gave us a great buzz out there for Virginia,” said Briley, the state’s economic development chief, who noted that a photo of McAuliffe and the former secretary of state appeared in the local paper the next day.

But just as important was how McAuliffe works to make his own connections, Briley said.

“The governor will hand his personal business card out to a client. ‘Any questions or concerns, you call me directly,’ ” Briley said. “That’s powerful for businesses that are going to risk large amounts of money for the first time outside their territory.”

There is an assertive, even impulsive side to McAuliffe’s economic outreach. He will cold-call old friends and foreign ministers at the slightest hint that there’s a deal to be had.

Almost on a whim last spring, McAuliffe rang up the foreign minister of Qatar. The governor had visited the tiny, oil-rich country during the Clinton presidency. And in 2012, GreenTech’s MyCar electric vehicle was showcased at the Qatar Sustainability Expo.

“A week ago Sunday, I hosted the foreign minister of Qatar because I heard that they were investing billions in infrastructure in the United States of America,” McAuliffe said in an April speech. “And I heard that he would be traveling to Washington to meet with the secretary of state. So I called him and said, ‘If you’re coming to the United States of America, you need to come to the real capital.’ ”

No deal with Qatar has been announced, but some of McAuliffe’s outreach has paid off more immediately.

In May, McAuliffe phoned Ryan after hearing she was planning to direct her first movie. He invited her to come to Virginia to consider shooting it here. She visited the next month and decided to shoot “Ithaca” in the Richmond-Petersburg area.

After bumping into Derek at the Kentucky Derby, McAuliffe encouraged her to shoot an upcoming TV crime series here. No decision has been made, but McAuliffe did get Derek to visit Virginia in May. She stayed overnight in the Executive Mansion, was treated to a reception in the garden there and met with state tourism and film officials.

McAuliffe was able to woo Clarke, a senior counterterrorism official for three successive presidents, to co-chair a commission meant to make the state a leader in the cybersecurity industry.

Even before McAuliffe was elected last fall, Carnival Cruise Lines announced that it would stop sailing from Norfolk. The cruise line had been calling on the port for more than a decade, and its departure left Norfolk without cruise service.

Norfolk Mayor Paul D. Fraim worked hard to persuade Carnival to come back. When he got close to a deal — one that would bring Carnival next year for several spring and fall cruises to Bermuda and the Bahamas — Fraim took McAuliffe up on an offer to phone a friend at the helm of Carnival.

“I said, ‘Governor, this would be a great time for you to make that call,’ ” Fraim said. “And he did, and he sealed the deal. It was just that simple.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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