RICHMOND — Virginia has opened the doors to its 200-year-old Executive Mansion to a flamboyant Democratic cheerleader who will have to overcome skepticism and a GOP-dominated House to effectively govern a state with more than 8 million residents.
With no experience in state government and an agenda outlined only in broad strokes, Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe eked out a win Tuesday on a promise to expand Medicaid, invest in education, improve transportation, promote green technology, protect access to abortion, and ensure that Virginia is welcoming to gays and scientific inquiry.
“I want us to be Number 1 in everything,” he declared on the eve of the election. (Map: The demographics of victory )
Now friends and foes wonder how and if the former Democratic National Committee chairman, entrepreneur and Clinton intimate will make good on those ambitious goals, particularly when his narrow win will make it hard to claim a mandate.
“We really don’t know where Terry McAuliffe’s going,” said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). “He hasn’t really laid out any realistic plans. He’s promised something for everyone. . . . His whole orientation is toward Washington-style politics, schmoozing and doing deals, going and having a few drinks. That’s not gonna work. I think he’s got a pretty sharp learning curve.”
But Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said Virginia’s 72nd governor will master Richmond quickly. “There’s nobody who has more energy, who has more heart, who goes after something and knows how to get it done,” he said.
The man who titled his autobiography “What a Party!” and hawked Bill Clinton inaugural merchandise on the QVC shopping channel just landed the job held by Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and, in recent years, a string of subdued middle-of-the-roaders.
In March, McAuliffe could not name the positions in the governor’s Cabinet, but more recently he has taken steps to assemble his own. In the process, he’s courted trouble by trying to retain Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s health and human resources secretary. He has publicly hinted that he would like Bill Hazel to stay on in his Cabinet and made an indirect appeal behind the scenes, according to two people familiar with the effort, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss a confidential matter.
As a highly respected expert on health policy with GOP credentials, Hazel might be able to help McAuliffe persuade skeptical House Republicans to go along with the new governor’s top priority: expanding Medicaid. But the idea that McAuliffe would even consider Hazel for his Cabinet has upset women’s groups, who blame the secretary for supporting legislation mandating ultrasounds before abortions and imposing strict building codes on abortion clinics.
For some supporters, McAuliffe’s courtship of Hazel demonstrated an ability to play the bipartisan pragmatist capable of compromise. Others worried that it showed a willingness to abandon principles and people along the way. “We are unabashedly opposed to Secretary Hazel staying on in the cabinet,” said Tarina Keene, executive director NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. “I think having someone like Dr. Hazel stay on is certainly not going to be an option for the administration considering the people who put him in that office.”
Other McAuliffe supporters said Hazel would be a wise pick given how hard it will be for McAuliffe to sell the House on expanding Medicaid as part of the state’s response to the federal health-care overhaul known informally as Obamacare. McAuliffe has said expansion will provide health insurance to 400,000 poor Virginians and create tens of thousands of jobs. Republicans contend that the federal government cannot make good on its promise to foot most of the bill.
McAuliffe campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin said “no decisions have been made” about Cabinet posts in general or Hazel in particular. Hazel declined to comment.
But supporters expressed confidence in the power of Bill Clinton’s best bud to charm, persuade and work a deal.
“He studied at the foot of the master. Clinton was striking deals with guys who’d impeached him,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “It’s hard to be with Terry in a social situation and not have a good time.”
Saslaw promotes the next governor primarily in terms of what he is not: Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, the Republican in the governor’s race, a tea party hero for his opposition to abortion, a university climate scientist and Obamacare.
“I can tell you what he’s not gonna do: He ain’t gonna sue any scientists at [the University of Virginia], and he ain’t gonna sign any of those crazy bills,” Saslaw said.
In business and in politics, McAuliffe has been a big-picture executive type who sets a vision and leaves the details to staff. He was a highly partisan DNC chairman, but he wrangled incentives out of a GOP governor of Mississippi for the electric car company he co-founded.
“Is he going to be the wheeler-dealer we all think he is, have everyone at the mansion for breakfast every day, parties at the mansion in the evening, and know who likes bacon and who likes sausage? ‘Whaddaya got? Need some money for that high school? Let’s deal,’ which was Mark Warner in spades,” said Ray Allen, a senior Republican political strategist. “Or is he going to be the national Washington liberal who wants to fundamentally remake Virginia in the national image? I’m personally interested to see.”
At the Richmond rally on the day before the election, Warner and Sen. Timothy M. Kaine predicted that McAuliffe would find ways to compromise with Republicans while the candidate vowed to be “a brick wall” against efforts to limit abortion rights.
Howell, the House speaker, said much of what McAuliffe has promised is based on his misunderstanding of how state government works. McAuliffe has promised, for instance, to invalidate the abortion clinic standards by issuing a “guidance opinion” — something state officials say does not exist. McAuliffe seems ready to operate under “that new rule where they can change laws by fiat. He’s been listening to Obama too much,” Howell said.
Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican whom McAuliffe has publicly courted for his Cabinet, said the new governor will have to surround himself with people who are experienced in state government, include some prominent Republicans in his administration and moderate his political agenda.
It’s the last of these that could prove most tricky for McAuliffe but, perhaps, will be essential to keep some moderates with him as the Obamacare landscape shifts. Bolling came out in favor of Medicaid expansion early this year while considering an independent run for governor. But the health-care program’s troubled rollout — with spectacular computer glitches and news that millions of Americans will lose their current coverage — has Bolling rethinking his position.
“Everything with this Affordable Care Act has just fallen apart,” Bolling said. “That may actually be an out for somebody like a Governor McAuliffe, ‘Well, this is something we intend to continue to pursue . . . but I think we’ve got to see how this plays out.’ ”
But backing away from his central campaign promise would surely anger McAuliffe’s base. Ben Dendy, president of Vectre Corp., a Richmond-based lobbying firm, said he believes that McAuliffe can and will fulfill that promise.
“I think he’s going to enter office with a mandate to do that,” said Dendy, who served in the administrations of two Democratic governors, Charles S. Robb and Gerald L. Baliles.
As to how McAuliffe will make that happen, Dendy recalled Warner’s ability to get moderate Republicans on board with a $1.5 billion tax increase by wooing them one at a time.
“Until he did that, I could not have told you how he was going to put it together,” Dendy said. “I could tell you how to put it together on the House floor, but I could not tell you how he would get it out of the House Finance Committee, which was put together as an anti-tax committee. But he figured out a way to do it.”