By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Terry McAuliffe, the millionaire businessman who ran unsuccessfully for Virginia governor this year, is negotiating with investors and a U.S. automaker to lure a factory to southern Virginia -- raising speculation that the ambitious Democrat is not done with state politics.
McAuliffe has talked with Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to brief him about his plans, which are focused on luring thousands of jobs to a part of Virginia where unemployment is high. McAuliffe declined through a spokeswoman to comment on his efforts, but Kaine confirmed the meeting and said McAuliffe is in the "very preliminary" stages of trying to put together a deal involving a "green" automotive manufacturing plant.
McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, lost his party's nomination for governor to state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds in June. McAuliffe's continuing attention to Virginia suggests that another run for office, possibly for governor in 2013, is possible. And a focus on job creation in rural Virginia could help erase the perception that McAuliffe is a carpetbagger with big ideas but without deep ties to the state. It would also help him build support in areas where Democrats typically don't perform well.
"He's a very skilled guy," said Richmond-based political analyst Robert D. Holsworth. "But there are very ambivalent beliefs about the effectiveness of his style. Some people think he's very effective. Others think he is too salesmanly. If all of a sudden he can show four solid years of work and some accomplishments for Virginia communities, that's going to look pretty good."
Exactly what McAuliffe is doing in rural Virginia is unclear. Spokeswoman Elisabeth Smith said McAuliffe declined to comment, and others close to him said it would be inappropriate for him to discuss preliminary business deals that involve confidentiality agreements with other investors. But Kaine and his secretary of commerce and trade, Patrick O. Gottschalk, confirmed that they were aware of McAuliffe's activities. Both said it was too early to discuss any details publicly.
"Terry and I talked about it once," Kaine said. "We have a process where my economic development team -- it's my understanding that they're working with him now to figure out the scope of the project."
A "green" factory, such as one where hybrid automobiles are made, would dovetail with McAuliffe's campaign promise in the spring to focus on producing green jobs in Virginia. And attracting such an employer to southern Virginia would help offset the steepest unemployment rates in the state -- many of the cities and counties along Virginia's southern border have double-digit unemployment rates. One possible location for a new factory is in Isle of Wight County in the southeastern part of the state, where International Paper announced last month that it would close a plant and eliminate 1,100 jobs.
Over nearly three decades in national politics, McAuliffe became best known as a formidable fundraiser and close friend of former president Bill Clinton's. He also gained a reputation for mixing business and politics by partnering in private deals with campaign donors and politicians. Yet few question McAuliffe's business acumen -- he is a dealmaker by profession, making a personal fortune with investments in real estate, technology companies and other ventures.
He wouldn't be the first to follow such a game plan. In the late 1990s, after Democrat Mark Warner lost his bid to unseat then-U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R), the successful entrepreneur spent several years forging relationships with business leaders in southside and southwest Virginia.
With local partners, Warner helped set up five venture capital funds to help new businesses. The effort was widely credited with establishing Warner's reputation as a pro-business moderate while building political support among rural business leaders with a history of voting Republican.
"It was an education to those of us in rural Virginia," said Ben Davenport, a prominent business leader in Danville who partnered with Warner and others on a fund called Southside Rising. Davenport, an independent voter, wound up supporting Warner for governor largely because of his understanding of business. "Mark brought the idea to us and helped us organize and pick people that would be the right management team, and he also invested his own money in it."