RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe begins his second year as Virginia governor Sunday still facing an adversarial Republican legislature — but still making big promises with the same exuberance he radiated when he was sworn in as Virginia’s 72nd chief executive.
After a year of ups and downs worthy of the governor’s favorite adjective — “spectacular” — McAuliffe is launching the next one with revamped priorities and tactics.
McAuliffe (D) bagged big economic development wins in his freshman year, resulting in $5.5 billion in private economic investments in the state — more than double, he says, what any previous Virginia governor pulled off in his first year. But he also lost a bitter fight with the Republican-controlled General Assembly to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, his marquee campaign issue and chief legislative priority.
As the legislature prepares to return to Richmond on Wednesday as resolute as ever about opposing Medicaid expansion, McAuliffe’s renewed call for such a change is widely seen as symbolic. He has promised to try a more hands-on approach with lawmakers who bucked him last year, but he has decided that jobs, an issue with broad bipartisan appeal, will be his chief cause in the session.
“I think this year’s going to be spectacular,” McAuliffe said. “We’ve got so many big things in the pipeline. I’m talking some big, big ones. . . . It’s going to be a great year. It’s going to be a great legislative session.”
There's little chance that politics will take a back seat this session, however. All 140 General Assembly seats will be on the ballot this year, in some cases intensifying the already strained relationship between the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled legislature.
In addition to Medicaid and jobs, McAuliffe and his Democratic allies plan to push gun control and gay rights issues. The traditionally liberal causes are important for energizing their most passionate supporters, yet unlikely to gain traction in a conservative House of Delegates where the GOP holds an overwhelming majority.
Republicans, for their part, will be mindful of the need to walk a tightrope on some issues for fear of angering committed primary voters without alienating more moderate general-election voters. Hoping to avoid getting drawn into divisive social issues, Republican leaders are expected to try to quietly kill some bills in subcommittee to limit public debate.
Other, less politically fraught issues likely to occupy the legislature this year have been driven by the headlines: how to address campus sexual assault in the aftermath of the University of Virginia/Rolling Stone magazine controversy; improving day-care regulations in the wake of a spike in deaths in unlicensed facilities; enacting stiffer ethics laws in response to former governor Robert F. McDonnell’s conviction on public corruption charges; and whether more mental-health reforms are warranted more than a year after state Sen. Creigh Deeds’s son attacked him before taking his own life.
During a 50-minute interview last week with The Washington Post, McAuliffe focused heavily on job creation as his top goal. He spoke with excitement and energy as he looked back on last year and ahead to this one. He talked not just with his hands but both arms, mindful of the mug of black coffee — his sixth of the day, he said — perched on the arm of his leather chair in his Capitol Square office.
The governor ticked off a string of what he sees as his biggest accomplishments: pulling the plug on a $1.4 billion road project in southeastern Virginia that critics dubbed the “highway to nowhere”; restoring rights to about 5,500 felons; officiating over one of Virginia’s first same-sex marriages; easing restrictions on abortion clinics.
With the exception of tackling a $2.4 billion budget hole, McAuliffe’s biggest coups did not involve the legislature.
In the interview, he predicted that things will go better this year with General Assembly Republicans. GOP leaders said he was so focused on Medicaid last year that he did not engage on other issues. During the session that began three days before McAuliffe’s inauguration, the new governor submitted just one bill, to help a retail development in Bristol, in addition to a budget plan that went nowhere. This time, McAuliffe said, his office intends to work more closely with the legislature. Someone on his team is assigned to coordinate with each of the 140 members. And there will be no shortage of legislation coming from the administration.
“We’re going to have about 38 governor’s bills this year. I think we’ll have close to 102 agency bills. I think we have 37 secretariat bills,” McAuliffe said. “I mean, we are flooding the place. All of them — all of them — related to workforce development, job creation. Because, listen, I think even the Republicans will say, ‘Yep, this guy’s pretty good at creating jobs.’ ”
A legendary Democratic fundraiser, a close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton and sometimes-controversial entrepreneur, McAuliffe has business and political contacts around the world. He has tapped them to help the commonwealth land more businesses and increase exports.
Even some conservative Republicans agree that McAuliffe has been an effective and tireless pitchman for a defense-heavy state trying to broaden its employment base as federal cutbacks take effect. State Sen. Frank M. Ruff Jr. (R-Mecklenburg) recalled sitting in on negotiations for a project in his economically distressed region on the North Carolina border. The deal never panned out, but Ruff came away impressed with McAuliffe’s powers of persuasion.
“He kept going back to the point, ‘What’s it going to take?’ ” Ruff said. “If you ever go in to buy a mattress, a good salesman is going to keep trying to make that point, even as you’re going out the door.”
Yet McAuliffe’s deal-making prowess fell short in the Capitol, as he failed to get the GOP to expand Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor. McAuliffe crisscrossed the state to visit strapped hospitals and clinics in a campaign-style tour meant to pressure Republicans.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said McAuliffe never grasped Republicans’ deep philosophical objections to extending an entitlement program to able-bodied adults.
“He thinks it’s like doing a deal to raise a couple million dollars for the president’s PAC,” Howell said. “It’s just a whole different thing. . . . There are some things you can’t work a deal on.”
McAuliffe said he always knew Medicaid would be a tough sell, which is why he also tried to circumvent the General Assembly. (He was thwarted when a conservative blogger exposed his plan.)
“You know as well as I did, they were never going to pass it. Speaker told me Day One,” he said. “But golly, I got to try.”
McAuliffe said he is waging the same symbolic fight this year with a package of gun-control measures. Among other things, it calls for limiting handgun purchases to one per month and requiring that buyers at gun shows undergo background checks.
“I have no illusions about it, but I’d like to have the debate,” he said. “I owe it to the people who worked their heart out [on his campaign].”
Republicans say McAuliffe undermines another campaign promise — that he would work in a bipartisan, pragmatic style — when he proposes bills that will produce nothing but a riled-up Democratic base.
Howell noted that McAuliffe worked well with the GOP to address a $2.4 billion budget shortfall. He said the governor also has helped the GOP seek federal funding for veterans and for an advanced-manufacturing apprenticeship program. But the good will did not last long.
“Then when he turns around and puts Medicaid back in the budget, knowing it won’t pass, when he comes up with these gun-control issues knowing they won’t pass, it makes it difficult to think he wants to work with us,” Howell said.
Stephen J. Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist, sees a healthy balance between sparring and cooperation.
“To me, what’s been striking about the Medicaid expansion debate is that it didn’t stand in the way of significant agreement on the budget once the Medicaid issue was resolved,” he said. “One of the things with the president and Congress, once the key issues are resolved, there’s always a lot of bad blood that prevents cooperation on a lot of [other] issues. This is one of the ways where Richmond still is a little less dysfunctional than Washington.”
Maurice Jones, McAuliffe’s secretary of commerce and trade, said the governor is not easily discouraged. He recalled getting stuck in a three-hour traffic jam with McAuliffe during a trade mission to China.
“I’ve worked with folks who would have blown a top,” Jones said. “What does he do? He finds a way to have fun. He gets off the bus in the middle of the highway. He’s walking up and down the highway, talking to people, waving to people. . . . If they spoke English, he would say, ‘Hey, you ever been to Virginia?’ ”