“It doesn’t help when the governor continually does things of this nature,” House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said when asked whether the proposal would have a bearing on bipartisan cooperation.
McAuliffe devoted the nine weeks between Election Day and his inauguration to ardently wooing Republicans with moderate Cabinet picks, face-to-face meetings and lavish praise for the outgoing GOP governor, Robert F. McDonnell.
But he spent his first week on the job antagonizing a good number of them. Republicans who had initially succumbed to McAuliffe’s charm offensive were already bristling at his liberal rhetoric, planning to squash one of his political appointments and recoiling from his strong push for Medicaid expansion.
Some Republicans were put off by how strongly McAuliffe played up his stances on gay rights, abortion rights and immigration in two major addresses and in his inaugural parade. They were angry that he appointed Boyd Marcus, a Republican who backed him in the campaign, to a six-figure patronage job — and amazed that he would characterize the pick as an olive branch to the GOP.
And Republicans were taken aback by his forceful approach on Medicaid. McAuliffe announced in a speech last week that he wants the committee holding the keys to Medicaid expansion to wrap up its work this session. On Monday, he made it clear that he intends to take expansion power away from that panel and give it to himself if it doesn’t sign off.
Just over a week into the job, McAuliffe has revealed a lot about the kind of governor he wants to be: a bipartisan deal-maker who still intends to champion some distinctly liberal goals. While primarily casting himself as an intensely pro-business, non-ideological moderate, McAuliffe has unabashedly leaned leftward on a handful of key Democratic priorities.
McAuliffe’s unbridled support for the priorities of his party’s base represents a dramatic shift in tone and strategy from that of McDonnell, who tried mightily to avoid talking about social issues.
Where McDonnell ever so cautiously walked a tightrope, McAuliffe looks more like a trapeze artist, breezily swinging from one side of the Richmond big top to the other.
“He is saying, ‘Let’s work on a bipartisan, collaborative effort to move Virginia forward.’ And gosh that’s warm and fuzzy,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City). “But . . . ‘I’m going to jam Medicaid expansion through, telling a legislative committee to immediately meet and come to some conclusion. I am insistent on some of the ecumenical approaches that everyone should be able to love whomever they want.’ He’s just thrown down the gauntlet on a number of issues, which I think is a little presumptuous for someone that has been in public office less than a week in his entire life.”
McAuliffe’s supporters give him credit for being forthright about all of his objectives, for standing tall on touchy issues.
“I don’t know if it’s a balancing act. It’s what he believes,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “He’s not running from the stuff he got elected on. . . . He’s not shying away from any of that.”
Rapid shifts in both public opinion and the state’s demographics have given McAuliffe freedom to stake out some positions — most notably on gay rights and immigration — that until recently were non-starters in the commonwealth. That pleases his liberal base and could put Republicans on the defensive, forcing them to take positions that in recent elections have worked against them in a changing Virginia.
But McAuliffe’s strategy carries some risk given how desperately he will need Republicans to get anything through a General Assembly. The GOP dominates the House and at least temporarily controls the Senate.
The governor’s hard push to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act poses a particular peril given the federal program’s botched rollout and continuing problems. Republicans are opposed, convinced that the federal government can’t afford to keep its promise to foot most of the $2 billion-a-year bill.
McAuliffe acknowledged Monday that he still has a ways to go before persuading Republicans to sign on to an expansion.
“I have no doubt we will have much more to discuss as these budget bills move forward, but I am optimistic that we will come together to produce a final budget worthy of the Virginia families which we serve,” McAuliffe said Monday, referring to his proposed budget amendment on the Medicaid commission as well as several other, less controversial ones.
It should shock no one that McAuliffe, who embraced all of these issues on the campaign trail, would carry them into the Executive Mansion, Saslaw said. McAuliffe sold himself to Virginians as a business- and budget-minded alternative to then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), whom the Democrat characterized as too socially conservative for the swing state.
But as McAuliffe relentlessly wooed Republicans after the election and assembled a notably moderate Cabinet, some expected him to soft-pedal his left-leaning social stances just as McDonnell played down his right-leaning ones. Some of the abortion rights activists and environmentalists who had been the Democrat’s biggest campaign supporters looked at a few of the Cabinet picks and feared he was throwing them overboard.
But in the speeches of his first week as well as Executive Order No. 1, which bans discrimination in state employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, McAuliffe was back to serving up a political smorgasbord.
In the speeches, McAuliffe said everything conservative Republicans wanted to hear, as he vowed to pinch state pennies and protect the state’s stellar bond rating, strengthen the economy and work cooperatively with the GOP. And he said a lot that liberal Democrats wanted to hear, too, promising to protect gay rights and abortion rights, expand Medicaid and pre-kindergarten programs, and back the Dream Act, which would allow the children of certain illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition at Virginia colleges.
McAuliffe had a contingent of “dreamers” — young people who hope to benefit from the legislation — march in his inaugural parade, which also featured marchers from the gay rights group Equality Virginia.
“They got rained on and they told me that was their baptism — baptism into being real Virginians,” Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax) said in reference to the dreamers.
Cox, the Republican delegate from Colonial Heights, said the social issues seemed to him to make up the most passionate part of McAuliffe’s speeches, even as the governor stated flatly that his primary focus would be economic development.
“If you really listen to his rhythm and where he got going, I think he really emphasized” social issues, Cox said. “I think there’s an expectation that those issues are going to be talked about some. But once again, it’s a bit of a contradiction when you run your campaign on, ‘We need to stop talking about that.’ ”
McAuliffe’s outspoken support for those liberal priorities by no means ensures their success. In fact, there are legislators on both sides of the aisle who think it unlikely that the House will approve any.
Republicans were unmoved in a House Appropriations Committee hearing Monday afternoon, when hospital industry representatives argued that hospitals need the Medicaid funds to replace reimbursements for charity care, which the Affordable Care Act discontinued.
“I don’t see any possibility of expansion this session,” Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) said after the meeting.
Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.