RICHMOND — No matter which one wins the Virginia governor’s race, Terry McAuliffe or Ken Cuccinelli II will have to prove the same thing in office: that he’s not bringing Washington to Richmond.
Each is a longtime partisan lightning rod — one a Clinton intimate, the other a tea party hero — who warns that his rival will turn the collegial, results-
oriented “Virginia way” into Beltway gridlock.
If he proved naysayers wrong and could get his agenda through a divided General Assembly, a governor McAuliffe (D) would expand Medicaid, increase teachers’ salaries, overhaul school standardized tests, invest in green technology, expand Metro’s Silver Line to Loudoun County, roll back restrictions on abortion clinics and expand gay rights.
A governor Cuccinelli (R) would cut taxes by $1.4 billion a year, create more charter schools, block Medicaid expansion, oppose the Silver Line in Loudoun, keep intact abortion rules as well as laws against gay marriage, and permit, if Washington would go along, new coal-fired power plants and offshore drilling.
To accomplish either one of those starkly different agendas, the new governor will have to overcome his political reputation as well as the increasingly partisan contours of Richmond’s landscape. Some political observers are skeptical.
“With these guys, what you see is what you get,” said Jennifer Duffy, of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “They’re not going to be different people as governor than they were as candidates.
“You can make an effort to grow into a role,” Duffy said. “But if everybody around you is so used to the person you are, they may not let you. Democrats in the legislature are pretty much going to be hostile to anything Cuccinelli would propose. And I think Republicans in the legislature are going be very wary of anything that McAuliffe would promise.”
Virginia’s 72nd governor also will face challenges all his own, depending on whether he’s the national Democratic operative with scant connection to Richmond or the conservative Republican with a long but sometimes difficult history here.
McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, has never held elective office or been involved in public policy on the state level. Forced to duck in March when asked to name the positions in the governor’s cabinet, McAuliffe would have to get up to speed on a sprawling bureaucracy and build relationships with legislators from scratch. That would be tough in the GOP-dominated House, a likely firewall to his top priority: expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
McAuliffe counts on the expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state health-care program for the needy, to bankroll his broader agenda. The federal government would provide $2 billion a year initially, and McAuliffe also factors in tax revenue generated by the thousands of health-care jobs he says would be created. If he couldn’t persuade the House to go along — and opposition in that chamber is fierce — money for teachers’ raises and all the rest would not be there.
McAuliffe, an unrivaled schmoozer who has raised piles of personal and political cash, has said he would meet one on one with every Republican legislator to convince them that expansion would benefit Virginia.
But with the Democrat leading in the polls, Richmond Republicans are already signaling in other ways that they would not roll out the welcome mat. Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) would greet a governor McAuliffe with a bill outlawing investment schemes like one that allowed the Democrat to profit from a Rhode Island man’s death.
“I find it unfortunate that this kind of legislation is even necessary in the commonwealth of Virginia and even more unfortunate that a person running to be our governor took part in such an abhorrent investment,” Reeves said.
Cuccinelli, who spent eight years in the state Senate and the past four as attorney general, has a history with legislators, but not always a happy one — even with members of his own party. More conservative and ideological than moderate Republicans in the Senate, Cuccinelli alienated them with attention-grabbing and seemingly heavy-handed moves.
He dispatched deputies to the courthouse minutes after President Obama signed the health-care act into law so he could be the first attorney general in the nation to sue. He threatened not to represent members of the state Board of Health in litigation if they didn’t reverse a decision to exempt existing abortion clinics from strict new building codes.
Cuccinelli is an engineer, a wonky, down-in-the-weeds sort who delves into legal footnotes and office paint alike. McAuliffe is a salesman, a breezy big-picture guy who sets the agenda and tone but leaves the details to underlings.
Cuccinelli has been known to get deeply involved in some of his office’s most complex litigation, absorbing as much about the cases as the deputies officially in charge of them. Private attorneys for companies in legal battles with the state have at times been startled to see the attorney general turn up for meetings over litigation, not just saying a few opening remarks and leaving the rest to subordinates, but getting into the nitty-gritty.
“On any number of cases that were argued by his office, he could have stepped in readily and argued them himself,” said Chuck James, who served as Cuccinelli’s chief deputy before returning last year to private practice at Williams Mullen in Richmond.
Duffy noted the role Cuccinelli personally played in the case of Thomas Haynesworth, who spent 27 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of rape. Cuccinelli worked to free Haynesworth and gave him a job in the attorney general’s office.
“When he gets invested, he gets invested. He doesn’t let it go,” Duffy said.
McAuliffe operates much more in the style of a hands-off executive, who “lays out what the vision is and empowers each person to kind of go out and achieve it,” said Mo Elleithee, who was a senior adviser to McAuliffe’s failed bid for his party’s gubernatorial nod in 2009.
Elleithee, now communications director for the Democratic National Committee, recalled an early meeting between McAuliffe and his senior team four years ago to map out “the big picture.”
“He wanted to talk about what the message was. We talked about where the votes were,” Elleithee said. “We walked out of there, and he said: ‘Okay, go set it up. I’m just going to talk to voters.’ He trusted us to set it up, to build the infrastructure, to figure out where to put the offices, to hire the staff, while he went out there and sold the message.”
Both management approaches have their advantages and shortcomings, say political observers. State government is just too huge for Cuccinelli to micromanage, they say, while a governorship is too important for McAuliffe to breeze through it.
At times, Cuccinelli’s wonky tendencies can get in the way of his ability to communicate his broader vision, said James’s mother, Kay Coles James, a member of the attorney general’s informal “kitchen cabinet,” who was health secretary under Gov. George Allen and President George W. Bush’s director of personnel management.
“If you ask him what time it is, he’s going to tell you how the clock works,” she said. “I have told him on more than one occasion, ‘Okay, I know you’re an engineer, but could we set that aside for just a minute?’ ”
At the same time, McAuliffe’s easygoing style has sometimes given people the impression that he lacks gravitas. He lost a critical endorsement from a Northern Virginia business group because he appeared flippant and uninformed when he met with the group, some members told The Washington Post.
The cabinet secretaries and advisers the new governor surrounds himself with will be critical to helping him compensate for his shortcomings. Cuccinelli, typical of his buttoned-down style, is saying nothing publicly about whom he’d like to have serve with him.
McAuliffe, in contrast, is not only filling out a potential cabinet but is doing so by shout-out. In off-the-cuff remarks to reporters, McAuliffe has for months thrown out names — many of them Republicans or Republican appointees — he’d like to serve with him: Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R); Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms (R); Todd Haymore, secretary of agriculture and forestry under Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R); and Bill Hazel, McDonnell’s health and human resources secretary. Often McAuliffe’s comments have come as news to those would-be appointees.
McAuliffe in particular has promoted himself as a bipartisan dealmaker. But he has sometimes used language that sounds like he’s drawing lines in the sand.
Criticizing Cuccinelli for appearing at a Richmond Family Foundation dinner with the Republican senator from Texas who is considered the architect of the shutdown, McAuliffe said, “I wouldn’t even be in the same room with Ted Cruz with the damage he has brought to so many Virginia families.”
McAuliffe has said many times on the campaign trail that he would not sign a budget unless it included Medicaid expansion. Cuccinelli said the remark amounts to a threat to shut down the government, given opposition to expansion in the House. McAuliffe has since changed his rhetoric.
Social and fiscal conservatives consider Cuccinelli a hero for what they see as a steadfast commitment to constitutional and religious principles. Democrats say that makes him too unyielding to make a deal.
Chuck James said there were plenty of times when Cuccinelli’s staff succeeded in changing his mind on legal matters. And he shared a story about Cuccinelli backing down on the matter involving office paint.
The attorney general’s office occupied six floors in the state’s Pocahontas Building when Cuccinelli took office, but he consolidated it into five to save money. Some lawyers lost corner offices and nice views, and someone suggested repainting offices in cheerful colors to soften the blow.
Cuccinelli was good with the existing “battleship gray.” Offering alternatives including “waffle batter yellow” and “sea mist green” struck him as unnecessary, James said.
“He’s an efficiency guru: ‘If you’ve got to have five different colors on hand, how does that work for DGS?’ ” James said, referring to the state Department of General Services. “He was very sort of linear and utilitarian, and this was anything but.”
But Cuccinelli listened to the arguments about how the colors could boost morale and eventually changed his mind. He added just one catch: Offices would be repainted only in the course of regular maintenance.
Said James, “He reverted back to engineer.”