RICHMOND — One of the best-known anecdotes from Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s colorful memoir has him wrestling an eight-foot-long alligator — intended to show that he never backs away from a fight.
That never-give-up, don’t-look-back approach has been on display in recent weeks as he tries to bat away opposition by Republicans — and some Democratic — to a signature achievement of his term: restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.
Using polling data, heartwarming stories, fiery speeches and town halls, McAuliffe has launched a robust public relations campaign to answer critics who say the flawed implementation of his clemency order outweighs his good intentions.
In the latest offensive, McAuliffe criticized 43 commonwealth’s attorneys who signed a brief supporting a GOP lawsuit seeking to reverse his order.
The elected prosecutors — among them five Democrats, three of whom are from Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties — worry that once felons’ civil rights are restored, they could serve on juries and more easily win back their gun rights. The state’s attorneys would have to intervene to prevent those things from happening.
“This is where some of the commonwealth’s attorneys say, ‘Oh, I have more work to do now,’ ” McAuliffe said in a mocking tone Wednesday during an appearance on WRVA, a Richmond radio station.
“It’s not our responsibility,” he said. “It is the sole responsibility of the judicial system whether to return someone’s gun rights. It’s their job. I tell them, ‘Do your job.’ ”
Radio host Jimmy Barrett interjected, “They are government workers — I mean, come on.”
McAuliffe replied: “Well, I’m sorry. Work a little harder.”
The situation puts Democratic prosecutors, including Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos in the awkward position of supporting McAuliffe, the de facto head of the state party but opposing his major policy initiative.
Stamos said that she applauds the intent of the clemency order but that there have been too many administrative hiccups. She was referring to errors in data the administration is using to restore the rights of more than 200,000 felons who are no longer in prison or under supervised release.
“It’s not political,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s a practical and legal concern. . . . I respect the governor, and I respect what he was trying to do. I just wish perhaps there could have been a little more consultation with us down here in the mud to see if we could have avoided some of these pitfalls.”
On April 22, when McAuliffe announced the order from the south portico of the Capitol, he encouraged felons to check their restoration status using a website maintained by the secretary of the commonwealth. If their rights were restored, they were immediately directed to a link to register to vote.
But some individuals whose rights McAuliffe did not intend to restore were mistakenly included in the database. That included criminals in prison and on supervised probation in other states and others under federal supervision.
Then Terry J. Royall, the commonwealth’s attorney in Nottoway County, noted that 132 sex offenders under involuntary supervision were among those whose rights were restored.
A McAuliffe spokeswoman accused Royall, an independent, of joining a Republican effort to “demagogue this issue.”
“This is yet another partisan attempt to spread misinformation and hysteria,” spokeswoman Christina Nuckols said.
Royall fired back in a news release, saying her “integrity and competence” should not have been questioned for simply exposing problems with the governor’s order.
Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Don Caldwell, a Democrat who signed the brief, said the incident shows that McAuliffe’s staff did not properly research the clemency order.
“When you have some embarrassment associated with something that you’ve done, one of the easiest ways to take attention off yourself is to attack someone else,” he said.
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said there are no plans to revise or replace the April 22 clemency order, which was written by the governor’s counsel. The problem is with how the order is being carried out, he said. The administration is responsible for implementing the order.
State officials say the public supports McAuliffe’s action.
A Roanoke College poll from May, before most of the loopholes were reported, found that 61 percent of likely voters agreed with the clemency order.
In an automated survey asking a different question, the Democratic Public Policy Polling group found more than 6 in 10 support the policy even after revelations about some imprisoned felons getting their rights reinstated.
One of McAuliffe’s closest allies, Levar Stoney, defended the order last weekend at the state party convention. Stoney helped develop the policy as secretary of the commonwealth but resigned shortly before it was announced to run for Richmond mayor.
“Even though there are people who have done their time and served their sentences, there are some people who would rather keep them in the shadows,” he told 1,400 party loyalists.
“What is wrong is wrong, and Governor McAuliffe did the right thing.”
The state Supreme Court will hear the Republican challenge to McAuliffe’s order on July 19.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.