The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe aims to unseat Democratic prosecutor who opposed him on felon rights

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), seen in 2018.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), seen in 2018. (Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post)

Three years ago, Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos bucked her party and its leaders to oppose then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s attempt to restore voting rights to over 200,000 felons by executive order.

Now a year out of office, McAuliffe (D) is pushing back. On Sunday, he endorsed Stamos’s primary challenger, a reform-minded defense lawyer named Parisa Tafti.

Speaking at a fundraiser in Alexandria for state lawmakers Sunday night, McAuliffe recalled that in the reenfranchisement fight, “there was a Democrat or two commonwealth attorneys” who joined Republicans in arguing to the state Supreme Court that his mass rights restoration was unconstitutional.

“We have a candidate here who’s actually running against one of those commonwealth attorneys who tried to stop me,” McAuliffe said, gesturing to Tafti. “Good luck in your race; I’ll do anything I can possibly do to try and help you.”

In an interview, Stamos said her objection was to McAuliffe’s methods, not his intentions.

I “absolutely was in sync and in accord with the outcome; it was just that the rollout did not consider a number of things, including that we had people on probation who had not completed their sentences,” she said, as well as people facing new charges. “It’s important to do the process in an orderly way.”

The “en masse” approach, she said, was dangerous, especially because “voting rights are a precursor to gun rights.” (Felons still need approval from a judge to possess firearms, but reenfranchisement is the first step.)

Stamos was not the only Democrat in Northern Virginia to protest McAuliffe’s sweeping change, and she is not the only one facing a primary challenge in June. A spokeswoman for the former governor did not respond when asked whether McAuliffe would also back candidates running against incumbents Raymond F. Morrogh in Fairfax and Paul B. Ebert in Prince William County, both of whom signed onto the Republican suit.

Virginia is one of several states that permanently disenfranchise felons. The state constitution, however, gives the governor authority to restore the right to vote, serve on a jury and run for public office.

McAuliffe went much further than his predecessors with his April 2016 executive order that restored voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who had completed their sentences. Republicans were incensed that the order included violent offenders and those who had not yet paid restitution to victims, and they accused McAuliffe of trying to help his friend and political ally Hillary Clinton by adding Democratic voters to the rolls.

Adding to the controversy was a botched implementation of the order; the governor’s office mistakenly restored rights to 132 sex offenders still in custody, as well as several convicted killers on probation in other states.

GOP legislative leaders were able to block the order in the state Supreme Court.

McAuliffe was able to sidestep the ruling with an “individualized” approach. Although the difference was largely procedural — instead of simply announcing that any felon whose sentence is complete is eligible to vote, the administration mailed each person a notice to that effect — it withstood a subsequent court challenge.

He restored rights to some 173,000 convicted felons before leaving office, calling it his proudest achievement. Republicans have continued to cry foul. In 2017, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie released an ad claiming McAuliffe made it easier for violent felons and sex offenders to get their hands on guns. He lost to Democrat Ralph Northam, McAuliffe’s lieutenant governor.

In his speech Sunday, McAuliffe pointed out that in most states, felon reenfranchisement is “automatic.” Virginia chose otherwise for explicitly racist reasons, he said, quoting a state lawmaker who declared in 1902 that the law would keep blacks “from being a political factor in Virginia.”

“I was reversing a wrong committed in 1902,” McAuliffe said. “Why would you ever sue a Democratic governor for trying to restore rights?”

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