McAuliffe Is Dems' Comeback Kid
DNC Chair Fought for Stability, Financial Strength
By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2004; Page A22
BOSTON, July 25 -- On Monday night, Terence R. McAuliffe's party will hail him as a hero, the first Democratic chairman in decades to put the party on secure financial footing -- with an unheard-of $70 million in the bank -- and on the cutting edge of high-tech politics.
When McAuliffe gavels the Democratic convention to order at FleetCenter, he will be honored by the 5,672 delegates and alternates as the man who almost single-handedly put the Democratic Party back together again.
"Serving as chairman of the party when you don't have the White House, and you don't have the House, and you don't have the Senate, is the toughest job in the country," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) told The Washington Post. "Thanks to Terry McAuliffe, we are ready to lead this country, we're ready to change this nation and I thank him for his leadership."
But McAuliffe has not always enjoyed such a lofty standing in his party. Just six years ago, he struggled to survive federal investigations of illicit Teamsters campaign contributions to the party and his fundraising role as national finance chairman and then national co-chairman of the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection campaign.
At the nadir of his political career, McAuliffe threatened to give up politics forever. "My wife and I decided I don't want to do it anymore. I ought to be left alone," McAuliffe said during the federal inquiries. "I'm not doing money anymore," he declared. "I'm not involved in any campaigns."
McAuliffe reconsidered after he was absolved of any wrongdoing. In 2001, with a helpful nudge from Bill Clinton, he was elected Democratic National Committee chairman, only to become the target of grass-roots fury. Loyal Democrats, dismayed by the election of George W. Bush, complained that their leaders in Congress were acceding to the new Republican president on everything from Iraq to tax cuts. The outrage fueled demands that McAuliffe resign after the party lost House and Senate seats in the 2002 election.
Zack Exley, an Internet aficionado who worked at MoveOn.org, set up a Web site in 2002 that declared: "Don't blame the American people! Blame the Democratic Party leadership. Terry McAuliffe is an idiot."
McAuliffe recalled in a recent interview that "in 2000, we had a devastating loss. This party was demoralized in 2001, people were madder than heck at the party. 'Why did we allow this to happen?' and 'Why didn't we fight harder?' . . . We went through a very tough time in 2002 after the midterm election."
McAuliffe said that after passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that prevented the parties from raising and spending unregulated "soft money" from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, many "wrote off" the Democratic Party. "It was one of the darkest times in our party," he said.
But McAuliffe fought back. He forced a controversial change in the primary campaign schedule and pressed state chairmen to give up exclusive control of their voter lists. He also invested millions in a new headquarters, and gambled that the party could mount a challenge to the GOP's three decades of dominating fundraising.
Every one of these high-risk tactics paid off. The schedule change gave Kerry time to raise more than $200 million; the DNC now has a voter list with information on more than 170 million people, which allows the party to develop its own direct-mail donor list. The new headquarters, in turn, is wired to run an operation increasingly dependent on the Internet and the facilities to produce all forms of telecommunications and traditional media.
Exley is now one of the key architects of Kerry's successful Internet fundraising operation, an operation that will soon be restructured to redirect its hundreds of thousands of donors to McAuliffe's DNC.
Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore's campaign manager and one of McAuliffe's early critics, has done an about-face. "We boxed," she said. "He has been punched, believe me." Now, she said, "Terry has put the party in a strong strategic position."
McAuliffe first gained attention in the presidential election of 1980, wrestling an alligator on a fundraising prospect's dare. His major claim to fame in the 1980s and 1990s was raising "soft money" contributions in amounts ranging from $100,000 to more than $1 million. Now, as DNC chairman, McAuliffe has become the champion of the direct-mail and Internet small giver.
While many assumed the 2002 McCain-Feingold law would gut the Democratic Party, the party has decisively broken all "hard money" fundraising records (contributions of $25,000 or less), eliminated debt and built a donor base that could potentially power the party for years with McAuliffe at the helm.
McAuliffe expects that when his term ends in early 2005, "I am going to walk off the stage and everything we said will have been accomplished. . . . The new chairman, whoever it might be, will take over a party financed by millions of dollars that will automatically come in at the touch of a button, new facilities, no debt and voter files. This party is now secure for 25 years."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company