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McAuliffe's Campaign Junk-et

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Washington Sketch toured an energy-producing trash facility plant with chicken litter lover Terry McAuliffe. Is it time for the Virginia gubernatorial candidate to come clean?
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Friday, March 20, 2009; Page A03

There is really no cleaning up the fact that Terry McAuliffe practices trash politics.

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Campaign with him for a few hours and you feel as if you need to take a shower. In fact, the dirty little secret can now be told: McAuliffe, venture capitalist and Clinton moneyman, is the junkyard dog of the Virginia gubernatorial race.

"I love trash," he said yesterday. "I love chicken litter, cow manure, garbage. . . . This is the kind of thing that gets me excited."

And if his opponents were to accuse him of dirty tricks?

"They would probably be right," he admitted with a grin.

McAuliffe said these words -- shouted them, actually -- while standing on a steel grate overlooking a huge trash pit yesterday in Lorton. Claws dangling from cranes grabbed mounds of refuse. Dust flew everywhere. The pit was dark. The smell was bad.

"This is as good as it gets," McAuliffe said. "How exciting is this?" Nodding, grinning, he shouted above the mechanical groans: "Look at those claws!"

Actually, the place was a dump. And that's how McAuliffe likes it. Not since Oscar the Grouch has a creature so enjoyed his trash.

How do you turn a fast-talking, hard-partying Democratic Party apparatchik from New York who lives in McLean into a Virginia commoner? Evidently, you get him involved in solid waste. McAuliffe's campaign for governor is based in no small part on garbage.

The Macker has always comported himself with the boundless enthusiasm of a Bernese mountain dog: as entrepreneur, fundraiser, Democratic National Committee chairman and Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential campaign manager, who, on the night his candidate effectively lost the party's nomination, introduced her as "the next president of the United States."

Now McAuliffe, who speaks almost entirely in exclamation points, is applying that same zeal to being a man of the people. As part of his campaign, he has spent a day working as a busboy and a bartender. He plans to labor on a ship. "I've been an African American barber," the Irish candidate reported to his hosts at the landfill in Lorton yesterday. "You know, about three Saturdays ago, there was a grass fire out here," he told the workers at the waste plant. "You know who was on the firetruck to put it out? I was! I was a fireman that day. . . . I got those hoses out so fast, you would not have a plant today if I had not been on that truck. Saved your plant. Probably saved Northern Virginia."

Something McAuliffe is doing must be working. Thanks in large part to his personal wealth and his fundraising network, he is considered a good bet to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary in June.

Before the candidate arrived yesterday at the Covanta Energy facility, a project with Fairfax County that turns solid waste into energy, a procession of garbage trucks made its way around the hills of decomposing trash. A Chevy Tahoe hybrid pulled up and McAuliffe hopped out, holding a 7-Eleven coffee cup -- no more effete Starbucks lattes for this man of the people. He had traded in his pinstripes and wingtips for hiking boots, khakis and a V-neck sweater. Greeted by Covanta officials, he started his trash-talking immediately. "Chicken waste, trash, I love it all," he said. "Can't get enough of it."

He introduced his assistant: "He's living the dream every day. Chicken waste last week, landfill today." He introduced Peter O'Keefe, "our senior policy adviser on, uh -- waste! Behind me, he's the one who gets second most excited about waste. Right, Petey?"

"There's Terry and then a two-mile drop-off when it comes to level of excitement," O'Keefe answered.

A PowerPoint presentation was given for the candidate, who nodded vigorously, scribbled notes and interrupted continually. "Totally unrelated, but I spoke to the Boilermakers this morning," he declared. "We've got to build boilers in Virginia." He further volunteered his view that "we've got to be educating students that this is a field to go into. I wouldn't call it garbage. Spice it up a bit. Look what I've done for chicken waste in this state!"

"Okay," said the man giving the presentation. "We're running a little behind."

The officials showed McAuliffe a model of the plant and its byproducts: pit, furnace, flue gas, lime slurry, fly ash, drop house, scrubber. He reacted with "interesting" and "gotcha" and "wow" and "yup" and "hmm" and "huh." The candidate was ready for his tour. "Wow, look at this," he marveled at the slurry tower. Moving on to the pit, he watched the claws lift and drop the trash to compress it. "That was a fluff," he reported. The guide pointed out that, because of all the questions, the tour was running late. "We want to see it all," McAuliffe insisted. "Don't hold back!"

On to the furnaces, then. "Twenty-two hundred degrees!" McAuliffe shouted to his entourage. "Wow! That baby is at 2,200? Wow!"

On the elevator ride to the plant's control room, somebody asked McAuliffe whether he preferred the Lorton plant or his earlier trip to a chicken waste facility. "All of it," the candidate replied judiciously, before coming clean and acknowledging that chicken waste "was my first date."

After a close-up examination of the trash unloading operation, the millionaire fundraiser climbed onto a garbage truck to chat with prospective voters. Terry McAuliffe was in his element.

A video version of this Sketch will be online tomorrow and you can join Dana Milbank at noon for a live Web chat at www.washingtonpost.com.


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