RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe ran for office, in part, as a master dealmaker. But since his election, he rarely has gotten Republicans to the table.
With no movement on his marquee promise to expand Medicaid in his freshman year, he made a failed attempt to get around the legislature. He has used executive orders to expand abortion access and ban guns from state offices. With his authority in doubt, but GOP opposition only too clear, he plowed ahead with a Supreme Court re-appointment that seems doomed.
Now halfway through his term, McAuliffe has finally struck his first big compromise with traditional foes. The Democrat — long proud of his “F” rating from the National Rifle Association — found common ground with that organization with help from a Republican state senator who lets supporters fire submachine guns at his barbecue fundraisers.
McAuliffe is trumpeting the deal as one of the most consequential of his governorship: a historic compromise that expands gun rights in some areas in exchange for pulling them back in others. Some longtime Richmond political analysts praised it as an example of the “Third Way,” the middle-of-the-road politics that the long-time Clinton fundraiser has always preached but rarely has been able to practice in an increasingly partisan Richmond.
Yet at this moment of unlikely unity with Republicans, McAuliffe has also alienated some of his closest allies. That’s partly because he continued to operate as the go-it-alone governor in one sense: While collaborating with the gun rights camp, the governor kept most, if not all, gun-control players in the dark. Now, activists think the former entrepreneur, who prides himself as a savvy negotiator, gave away far more than he got.
The gun rights negotiations offer a window on McAuliffe’s governing style, say Richmond political operatives, who see a midterm politician itching for a big win and willing to buck friend or foe who stands in his way.
McAuliffe has worn the backlash as a badge of honor, a sign that he has resisted both extremes to reach a sensible, centrist agreement. But all of the outcry has come from the left. When the first piece of the package passed the Senate on Thursday, 13 of the 19 Democrats voted against it.
“This is a guy who loves a good deal,” said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist. “And the political reality of his term has compelled him to do more things sort of administratively or by fiat than is actually his natural tendency.
“But the challenge of the dealmaker is that they sometimes love the deal more than the purity of the process. I think this is what happened here: He kind of saw a better bargain and decided to take it, even while leaving out some of the people that he had been most closely connected to.”
The deal, comprising separate bills still working their way through the legislature, would ban gun possession by domestic abusers and promote more voluntary background checks at gun shows. But it also expands the right to carry concealed weapons in Virginia — reversing a gun-control victory that Attorney General Mark Herring (D) had pulled off with great fanfare in December.
McAuliffe seemed to have underestimated the left’s outcry, a miscalculation similar to one he made last summer, when he doubted the GOP’s willingness to unseat his temporary appointee to the Supreme Court. (The fight over Justice Jane Marum Roush is not over, but she appears likely to lose her seat when her appointment expires next week.)
Much of the upset over the gun deal stems from the change on Herring’s move. Just 10 days before news of the agreement leaked, McAuliffe had stood with Herring and hundreds of activists at a Capitol Square rally, cheering the attorney general’s decision to revoke reciprocity rights for 25 states with concealed-carry standards looser than Virginia’s.
“We’re just warming up!” McAuliffe said to cheers.
But the deal, which the attorney general played no role in crafting, not only restores reciprocity to those 25 states, but also extends it to every state except Vermont, which does not have a permitting process.
“He’s doing this because he truly believes it’s the right thing to do,” said McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy. “We’re taking political heat for it, obviously. But this entire gun-safety agenda is about what steps will save the most lives and keep communities the safest. And on that criteria, this deal was a no-brainer.”
McAuliffe contends the concessions he got in other areas — on domestic abusers and gun shows — are more meaningful than the concealed-carry aspect. On this point, he has repeated an NRA talking point: People who take the time to get a government permit to carry a concealed weapon are not the ones society has to worry about.
Whatever the merits of that calculation, gun-control activists such as Andy Parker, the father of Alison Parker, the Roanoke television reporter shot on live TV in August, feel that McAuliffe is “giving the store away.”
It’s a criticism that Republicans have sometimes made with regard to McAuliffe’s approach to economic development. He has made expanding and diversifying Virginia’s economy his central focus after his freshman-year Medicaid defeat suggested he could expect little help from the legislature.
Republicans have been on board with the goal, but have been pressing since last year for more oversight of his economic-
McAuliffe is known for hashing out deals and forging relationships over drinks and easy banter. Richmond Republicans proved immune to that approach in McAuliffe’s first year, when he invited legislators over for a string of cocktail receptions.
Emerging with news of the gun deal was an anecdote showing the administration had not abandoned that personal approach.
At a critical moment in the negotiations, Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran and Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney hashed things out over an oyster dinner with two NRA lobbyists and Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (R-Spotsylvania). Reeves, a former Army Ranger and one of the legislature’s strongest gun rights voices, has built entire fundraisers around the Second Amendment.
The oyster dinner was a detail that only fueled the anger of gun-control activists, who now had a perfect visual of the table at which they had not been offered a seat.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re part of the menu,” said one activist, who, wary of offending the administration, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
For all of McAuliffe’s personal approach to politics and governing, he also has shown a willingness to stand up to allies, even lash out at them at times.
Even before taking office, he rankled his base by making a few moderate cabinet picks. His health secretary is a holdover from McAuliffe’s anti-abortion predecessor, upsetting abortion rights groups that poured $1.8 million into his campaign. He resisted pressure from environmental groups that gave $3.8 million to his bid and appointed a pragmatic mayor to oversee natural resources instead of more well-known environmentalists.
On Friday, Coy spoke dismissively of Everytown for Gun Safety. Bankrolled by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), Everytown answered McAuliffe’s call for help in the fall Senate races with a $2 million TV blitz. The group, upset with the gun deal, launched a biting social-media campaign against McAuliffe, complete with side-by-side pictures of McAuliffe and NRA chief Wayne LaPierre.
Coy also pushed back on the notion that gun-control advocates were caught completely off guard. He said Lori Haas, whose daughter was shot and injured in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, was made aware that the deal was in the works “more than a week in advance” of its announcement.
“She was aware, she was fully briefed and apprised of the discussion,” he said. “She provided input.”
Haas, perhaps Richmond’s most prominent gun-control advocate and a critic of the deal, said Moran gave her a heads-up before news leaked about mid-day on Jan. 28.
“I was told about the deal less than 48 hours before The Washington Post broke the story,” she said. “I was not brought in. I was told about the deal.”
Coy also confirmed that McAuliffe and Moran waited until the night before it was announced to call another key activist, Parker, the father of the slain TV reporter.
“I was getting pitched on the deal after the deal was done,” said Parker, who starred in Everytown’s ads. “I appreciate the fact that he [McAuliffe] called and Brian Moran called, but . . . why wasn’t somebody on our side involved in the negotiations?”
McAuliffe personally took a jab at Haas and Parker by noting that they are paid advocates for gun-control groups, suggesting they were more focused on pursuing a national agenda than solutions for Virginia.
“A bipartisan group of Virginia leaders from all across the ideological spectrum support this deal,” Coy said. “One group from New York and its affiliates are upset, but that does not represent Virginia views on this. They do not speak for all the other individuals who were at the table.”