The debate moderator announced his name and Terry McAuliffe bounded across the stage to his assigned lectern, smiling and nodding at the audience as his opponent, Ken Cuccinelli II, kept his head lowered, studying notes.
“Mr. McAuliffe,” said the moderator, Chuck Todd, “the stereotype of you is that you’re an operator — cheerleader — more than a legislator or governor . . .”
McAuliffe was no longer smiling.
“. . . that you don’t have the relevant experience to be governor,” Todd said, “and that you’re a man in a hurry, who’s willing to use political connections, sometimes in very high places, to take shortcuts.
McAuliffe’s jaw tightened, and for a moment he was silent.
“I’m a young man who, uh, grew up in Syracuse,” he began, even though, at 56 years old, and as Virginia’s Democratic candidate for governor, he was not so young anymore.
McAuliffe gazed at the audience, then turned toward the moderator and did what he has always done when faced with adversity: He stepped past it, apparently oblivious to its danger, and began the big sell, his words tumbling forth in a rush of enthusiasm.
“I started my first business when I was 14,” McAuliffe said, then referred to his involvement “in a number of businesses since that time,” including “chairman of a bank by the age of 30” and building “thousands of homes.”
As governor, he said, “I want to bring that business approach, that business experience.” Now came the chance to lash back: His Republican opponent, he said, had spent “most of his career on a social ideological agenda.”
“You cannot grow an economy by putting walls up around Virgin — ”
After 90 seconds and 298 words, the moderator cut him off. McAuliffe had answered the question while sidestepping its crux: that depiction of him as an operator? A cheerleader? A man in a hurry?
And now his time was up.
Four years after losing his first quest to become Virginia’s governor, his first campaign for public office, McAuliffe is back, invoking the breezy shorthand of a corporate CEO to tell voters he wants to “diversify” the economy, “create jobs” and take the commonwealth “to the next level.”
Yet McAuliffe’s reasons for seeking Virginia’s most powerful seat don’t answer larger questions looming over his candidacy: Why did he forsake his life as a master Democratic fundraiser and acclaimed political operative? Why does he want to preside over a state in which he has lived less than half his life?
What compelled McAuliffe, beginning in his 50s, to become a candidate for public office? Why, after suffering a humiliating defeat, is he back for more?
McAuliffe has always embodied an energetic mix of ambition and resilience, possessing a gale-force optimism that seems to allow him to tune out what he does not want to hear.
Dismiss him as a flamboyant, self-promoting huckster, as critics have; brand him a carpetbagger, influence peddler and liar; even trounce him at the polls. No matter. McAuliffe rolls on, virtually everything he says punctuated by a sunny exclamation point.
His friends see a natural progression for a man who grew up in Upstate New York accompanying his father to local Democratic Party events; campaigning for class president in high school and college; raising money for presidential candidates, growing close to President Bill Clinton, and becoming the leader of the Democratic National Committee. Running for governor, they say, is a logical next phase in his evolution.
“He’s just so intense, so focused on right now — he’s that way in business, campaigns, with President Clinton — that’s the secret to his success,” said Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser. Referring to the governor’s race, he said, “Then this presents itself and he leaps at it.”
Even during the 1990s, when he was at the apex of his fundraising prowess and Clinton was inviting him to play cards at the White House, McAuliffe flirted with new titles. There was talk of him becoming commerce secretary or ambassador to England. But always he went off to raise more money, manage the Democratic National Convention, lead the DNC, chair Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign — all of it casting him in roles that brought praise but also reinforced caricatures that he’s a freewheeling salesman, one who once showed up on national television in a Hawaiian shirt clutching a bottle of Bacardi Gold.
“I think he came to want to be characterized as other than a fundraiser,” said Harold Ickes, a former Clinton adviser and McAuliffe’s friend. “He had reached the top of the pinnacle and, in some sense, it wears on you.”
Another longtime friend said McAuliffe wanted a role more associated with the substance of governing, even as he has celebrated playfully hyperbolic descriptions of him as the greatest fundraiser in the “history of the universe,” as Al Gore called him.
“I’ve always thought of him as an exceptional salesman, but it kills him when he gets written up as a carnival barker,” said the friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he does not want to offend McAuliffe. “He’s trying to reach a certain level of credibility and respect that’s more than being able to raise money and tell a good joke.”
McAuliffe, in an interview, waved off the suggestion that he is seeking a new role to enhance his stature. Campaigning for public office, he said, has long been something he has considered, and he started four years ago because the opportunity and timing were right. “I think I can make a difference,” he said. “That excites me.”
The specific shape of McAuliffe’s ambition has always been a work in progress, as he navigated between politics and using his extensive fundraising contacts to help amass a sprawling investment portfolio. Many Democrats who have known McAuliffe for a long time expressed surprise when he ran in 2009.
“My reaction then was a little bit incredulous,” said Donald Fowler, a former DNC chairman for whom McAuliffe served as finance director in the mid-1990s. “I had never in my mind pictured Terry in that role. I never heard him even mention it in any shape, form or fashion. And I never heard anybody say, ‘I wonder why Terry doesn’t run.’ ”
One longtime friend who remembers McAuliffe envisioning himself as a candidate is Tony Coelho, a former congressman who hired McAuliffe in the 1980s at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He recalled that his young protégé’s “ambition was to someday run for governor.”
“We would tease him,” Coelho said. “A lot of people thought it far-fetched. Here’s a young guy — he doesn’t talk city council or Congress. His dream is to be governor.
“It was sort of like, ‘Oh. Okay.’ ”
Even in the Type-A climes of Washington, McAuliffe’s ambition distinguished him, especially when he was a young operative.
“That should be our motorcade,” he told friends when a presidential limousine passed by.
The doors to the gymnasium at Bishop Ludden High in Syracuse swung open, and here came the candidate for student body president, Terry McAuliffe, in a tie and jacket, riding in a golf cart with a police light on top, surrounded by buddies in sunglasses and trench coats to look like Secret Service agents.
“Hail to the Chief” blasted from the loudspeakers.
McAuliffe, a tall and gregarious 11th-grader, waved and smiled as the cheerleaders he enlisted threw candy to the crowd, which roared at his entrance and kept on roaring through his speech. The highlight was his gavel-pounding promise of “free keg parties” every Friday night on Hawk’s Hill adjoining the school.
“Everyone went crazy,” said Augie Pennacchia, who was in the gym that day. “That was Terry. He was always a politician.”
Jerry Wilcox, then a Bishop Ludden dean, recalled pulling the candidate aside when he came off the stage.
“Terence, let me give you a set of brains here,” Wilcox told McAuliffe. “You might want to tone back on the promises.”
McAuliffe won in a landslide.
The youngest of Jack and Millie McAuliffe’s four boys, Terry was born six weeks early, when his mother went into labor after being flung against a dashboard as a friend stopped short while driving to a Catholic retreat near Syracuse.
At the hospital, the doctor told Millie that her child wouldn’t survive birth.
“What a beautiful baby; too bad he’s dead,” she recalled saying when the doctor held up the newborn. A moment later, Terry was wailing.
His mother, now 91, is known for singing renditions of “Hello, Dolly” at parties. His father, whose 2001 funeral was attended by Bill Clinton, was a real estate broker and treasurer for the Onondaga County Democratic Party, taking his youngest son to political dinners, and sometimes posting him at the door to collect checks.
When he was 14, McAuliffe started a driveway-sealing business, a story he often repeats on the stump, including the detail about how many jobs he got on the first day, a number that has fluctuated in his various accounts.
“By the end of that first day, I had six jobs,” he wrote in his 2007 memoir, “What a Party!”
“I had 14 jobs my first day,” he told Tim Russert that year during an interview to promote his book.
“My first day, I had 10 jobs,” he told a crowd of supporters in Arlington in May.
One fact that remains unchanging is that he asked his mother to answer the phone at their house, “McAuliffe’s Driveway Maintenance.”
“Like it was very successful,” Millie McAuliffe recalled. “Like I was his secretary.”
As a kid, his nickname was “Maddog,” because he was always getting into fights, even as Bishop Ludden’s yearbook described him as someone who “likes letting the good times roll, dislikes nothing. . . . Enjoys Genny [Genesee Beer].”
The senior class voted McAuliffe “Most Likely to Succeed,” and his zeal was obvious to friends and professors at Catholic University of America. “We knew that this was a guy who was going to be successful because he would do whatever it would take,” said Norman Ornstein, who taught McAuliffe at Catholic. Still, he added, “ I don’t think you would have said he’d end up in the political world. You’d have thought he would end up as some kind of mogul.”
In 1979, a housemate told him about job openings at President Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign, which ended up dispatching McAuliffe on fundraising trips to 40 states. At 22, with a boyish face, he was Carter’s campaign finance director, and he bought a pair of nonprescription eyeglasses to add gravitas to his appearance. He became an unrelenting advocate, making hundreds of calls a day, networking and dropping by donors’ homes unannounced if they hadn’t sent their checks.
“I love it when people say to me, ‘Terry, I’m not going to give you a check, I hate you, I hate your candidate, get out of my office,’ ” McAuliffe once said, describing his approach. “To me, that’s just the beginning. I just settle in, ask for the diet Coke and we begin to do the negotiations.”
McAuliffe’s work on Carter’s campaign eventually led to a job with Coelho at the DCCC, after which he was finance chairman for the 1988 presidential campaign of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.). Along the way, he graduated from Georgetown law school, started a lobbying practice, a title insurance company and investment businesses, developed real estate, and married Dorothy Swann, the daughter of Richard Swann, an influential businessman who had been Carter’s Florida campaign chairman.
What struck colleagues was McAuliffe’s tenacity and work ethic, as well as an optimism so seemingly boundless, and occasionally grating, that they sometimes questioned whether he was for real. He had a way of finding slivers of hope, even on a night, say, when they had to tell Gephardt that his presidential campaign was dead.
“Terry was practicing how he was going to tell him — ‘It’s really not over, we will fight another day,’ ” recalled Donna Brazile, who worked on the campaign. “Terry was like, ‘Dick Gephardt still has a future in politics.’ The rest of us were focused on ‘It’s over.’ ”
She laughed. “It was irritating.”
On Sept. 12, 2001, the day after terrorists attacked New York and Washington, Brazile was at the DNC headquarters, where McAuliffe, then the party’s chairman, was trying to formulate the Democrats’ response to the tragedy.
“He was looking out the window and saying, ‘We’ve got to pick things up,’ ” she recalled. “The last thing I wanted to hear was a pep talk. I was like, ‘Stop! Stop! Cry a little.’ ”
Brazile described McAuliffe as a “one-man happy machine” who is “not a fake guy.” “This is a true guy,” she said. “This is who he is. He’s this cheerleader you never thought you’d have in your life.”
McAuliffe stood by Clinton when Congress voted to impeach him in 1998, then, despite torrid criticism, offered to guarantee the $1.35 million loan the Clintons were seeking to buy a house in Chappaqua, N.Y. He chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, refusing to concede even when the political establishment and the delegate count pronounced her candidacy finished.
After the race was over, McAuliffe introduced Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, and Hillary Clinton to a crowd of Clinton fundraisers at a Washington hotel. The meeting was intended to salve wounds, but the mood was anything but sanguine.
“Terry comes out, completely oblivious to the anger and danger in the room,” recalled Lanny Davis, a Clinton adviser, chortling at the memory. “And he says,” — Davis is shouting his imitation — “ ‘HEY, EVERYBODY! HOW YA DOIN’?’ He’s happy. He’s smiling. He’s Terry McAuliffe. Oh my God, does he know what’s happening?”
“He was saying, ‘Listen everybody, we’re family again, this is wonderful, this is great’ — everything that was the opposite of what people were feeling,” Davis said. Yet, somehow, McAuliffe’s exuberance helped diminish the tension. “People were still angry, but it broke the ice,” he said.
At the Democratic convention in 2008, McAuliffe started talking to strategists about the next gubernatorial race in Virginia. Before declaring his candidacy the following January, he spoke to an array of Virginia politicians, strategists and analysts, including Bob Holsworth, a founding director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University.
When they met at a Richmond pub, Holsworth recalled, McAuliffe explained what was driving him, and his answer had nothing to do with promoting a particular issue or political philosophy, often the forces behind any candidacy.
“He’d been close to presidents and here was an opportunity to stake out something for himself,” Holsworth said. “He wanted the opportunity to be the person who was leading, rather than the person helping someone else to lead.”
For months, McAuliffe was ahead in the polls. He had raised twice as much money as the combined total brought in by Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran, the two Democrats he was fighting for the party’s nomination. Bill Clinton campaigned for him. Will.I.Am, the singer who provided the “Yes, We Can” soundtrack to Obama’s historic rise, flew in to add a touch of celebrity dazzle.
On the night of the primary, McAuliffe was feeling hopeful, awaiting the voters’ verdict in an Arlington hotel suite and reviewing an adviser’s draft of his victory speech. The results began trickling in, and they were awful. He not only lost the state, but he was crushed in his home precinct. Soon, McAuliffe was downstairs, on a stage, a loser straining not to sound like one.
“It has been, I gotta say,” he said through a smile, “one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
Almost immediately, he began to think about running again.
On a Sunday morning in September, McAuliffe sat in an easy chair in his rambling McLean home where he lives with his wife, five children and two dogs. He was reminded that he got 26 percent of the vote in 2009, a bit more than half of Deeds’s winning total.
“Oh, you don’t have to bring all that up,” he said, wincing.
“That was a big flameout,” he added.
“Golly, I hate losing.”
As a rule, McAuliffe said by way of explaining what he described as his quick recovery, “I never dwell.”
“Some people maybe thought I was gonna pick up the marbles and go home,” he said. “I didn’t.”
He described himself as “the ultimate optimist.”
“I don’t tolerate negative energy,” he said. “I don’t read anything on the campaign unless it’s given to me in a briefing. I don’t read bad stories, none of it.”
At home, talking to a reporter, with his press secretary seated next to him, McAuliffe was much like he is on the campaign trail — a big man with a booming voice and a hearty laugh. Describing himself as someone who enjoys action, he imagined his own burial, saying, “When they put me in the box, that box is still gonna be moving because I’m still trying to get something done.”
At times, his thoughts seemed to meander, as when he described his approach to politics, one moment referring to having learned “a lot of great things from Bill Clinton,” then, in the next, mentioning an exchange he had with “a guy like Frank Friedman, president of Piedmont Community College.”
“So for me, it’s taking a little bit from all of it and trying to come up with what makes the most sense,” he said.
Then, in the next instant, he talked of his mother, his premature birth and how he had been “declared dead three times” in the delivery room. “They never thought I’d make it, so I guess I’m making up for that,” he said. “Coming in with lower expectations, already, you got to get out and say, ‘Yes, we can do this.’ ”
He always had an interest in public policy and the possibility of running for office, he said, but no specific timeline.
“Things came up,” he said, alluding to all the campaigns, all the business deals and investments such as the $100,000 Global Crossing stock purchase that turned into an $8 million profit.
He understands that his years as a political fundraiser may define him, he said, but he bristles at the notion that he’s one-dimensional. “Do you think you can raise money and not understand every issue?” he asked.
He believes he’s a far better candidate than he was four years ago, an assessment his friends share: more subdued, more disciplined, more knowledgeable about Virginia, less prone to the antics of the ’09 campaign, like when he exclaimed “I love trash!” while visiting a garbage dump or promised to create more jobs than each governor of the country’s 49 other states.
Still, he retains the capacity to make his loyalists cringe, like when he told the Northern Virginia Technology Council that he would get things done as governor by taking people out for drinks; that instead of reading legislation, he would pay staffers to do it for him. At a recent meeting of senior citizens, he offered to give everyone his cellphone number, suggesting they could reach him at any time.
Four years ago, McAuliffe said, “a lot of people didn’t think I lived in Virginia — let’s cut to the chase.” Since then, he said, he has traveled throughout the state, visiting colleges, businesses, festivals and civic organizations. “I knew I needed to learn a lot more,” he said. “I’m listening more.”
Whatever the outcome on Nov. 5, McAuliffe said he is “hoping” that it will be his last election, and he declared no interest in running for the U.S. Senate or Congress. What he knows for certain, he said, is that he won’t be a full-time fundraiser or chair campaigns for other candidates.
“I’ve done it my whole life,” he said. “There are other things. I’m done with that.”
A few Sundays later, McAuliffe traveled to Centreville, in Fairfax County, to visit a campaign field office — a narrow storefront in a shopping center where he rallied a few dozen volunteers with stock lines from his stump speech.
“I’ve been in business for 42 years,” he said. “I did start my first business — I’m sure you’ve seen the ads — when I was 14.”
“It’s all about turnout,” he said. “Forget the polls.”
“Let’s drive this thing home.”
Everyone cheered. He posed for photographs.
“Thanks for coming,” he said to one volunteer and then another, his arms around their shoulders. “Really appreciate it.”
An aide said, “We’ve got to start moving.”
“Don’t rest,” McAuliffe said to a supporter on his way to the exit. “This is it.”
Then he was out the door, a candidate in a hurry to get to his next stop.
Born Feb. 9, 1957, in Syracuse, N.Y.
Married to Dorothy Swann McAuliffe.
Children: Three daughters and two sons, ages 11 to 22.
Residence: McLean, Fairfax County.
High school diploma from Bishop Ludden Junior/Senior High School, 1975.
Bachelor of arts in political science from the Catholic University of America, 1979.
Juris doctor from Georgetown University, 1984.
Author, “What a Party! My Life Among Democrats: Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators and Other Wild Animals,” published in 2007.
National finance director, President Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign, 1980.
Co-chairman, President Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign, 1996.
Chairman, Democratic National Committee, 2001-05.
Chairman, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, 2008.
McAuliffe has called for boosting teacher salaries with money freed up from unspecified “efficiency.” He would alter teacher performance evaluations to reflect student progress. His K-12 plan makes no mention of charter schools or letting parents take over failing institutions.
McAuliffe opposes any effort to pass “personhood” legislation. He has said he believes that “women should be able to make their own health-care decisions without interference from Washington or Richmond.”
When he ran for governor in 2009, McAuliffe said, “I never want another coal plant built.” In May, he said that he wants “to make sure we have a healthy workforce of coal” and that he would be concerned with regulations that increase utility costs for Virginia or cause power plants to close. More recently, he proclaimed his support for the Obama administration’s proposal to restrict carbon emissions.
McAuliffe has said he would convene a task force to find revenue-neutral ways to reduce or eliminate the business, professional, occupational license tax, the merchants’ capital tax, and the machinery and tools tax. Asked in early September whether tax increases would be “on the table” to pay for his policy proposals, McAuliffe said no.
McAuliffe has said he is “proud to support marriage equality.” He has said he would sign a bill overturning Virginia’s ban on such unions if it reached his desk. And he would sign an executive order prohibiting workplace discrimination within the state government based on sexual orientation.
McAuliffe supports Medicaid expansion, arguing that Virginia should get back the money it pays to Washington in taxes. He says expansion would inject billions into the state economy, create thousands of jobs and free up money from the commonwealth’s general fund that could pay for other priorities, particularly education.