The Northern Virginia Technology Council’s political arm on Monday formally announced its endorsement of Ken Cuccinelli II in the Virginia governor’s race despite an aggressive behind-the-scenes attempt by supporters of his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, to wrest the prize away.
In addition to backing the Republican nominee for governor, NVTC’s TechPAC also voted to endorse the Democratic nominee for attorney general, Sen. Mark R. Herring (Loudoun), over Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), according to sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the formal announcement is to be made later this week. The TechPAC has not generally weighed in on lieutenant governor races.
NVTC’s TechPAC, whose 25-member bipartisan board includes top executives from many sectors of the technology industry, voted to endorse Cuccinelli on Thursday after conducting lengthy interviews of both candidates. Several board members said Cuccinelli, the commonwealth’s attorney general, came off as serious and even wonky while discussing policies of importance to the group, while McAuliffe seemed flippant and uninformed.
But the formal announcement was delayed until Monday after McAuliffe supporters and some NVTC officials who have not made up their minds in the race pushed for the council’s executive committee to reconsider the endorsement. Several said they were most concerned about backing Cuccinelli because some of his positions on social issues, such as his hostility to gay rights, could send a message that Virginia is not a welcoming place to do business.
The decision to endorse Cuccinelli touched off an intense lobbying campaign, with some state Democratic lawmakers sending outraged e-mails to TechPAC members that warned their legislative initiatives could be blocked. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) urged the NVTC to reconsider, and so did Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who had said previously he would remain neutral in the campaign after Cuccinelli outmaneuvered him to gain the nomination.
On Monday, Republicans took their turn venting outrage at what they said was a brazen display of partisan muscle.
“You cannot extort endorsements; they have to be earned,” state Sen. Frank M. Ruff Jr. (R-Mecklenburg) said in a written statement.
Cuccinelli, addressing about 500 supporters at a fundraiser in Richmond with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Monday, said: “Not only did my opponent try to bully members of this organization, but we also had Democrat state senators leveling some of the most serious political threats I’ve ever seen in Virginia. It was very un-Virginia, which might suit their candidate well, but that is not how politics should be done in Virginia. We saw an interesting example of what we’d have to look forward to with a Governor McAuliffe just in how they handled this situation.”
McAuliffe campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin dismissed the flap and said pro-Cuccinelli partisans inside the business organization had misrepresented what McAuliffe said.
“With Ken Cuccinelli desperate and losing the support of mainstream Republicans, it’s not surprising that his allies are willing to twist Terry’s words for a political attack,” Schwerin said.
After a special meeting Sunday among the NVTC’s leadership to review the PAC’s decision, the parent organization agreed to let the decision stand. However, the parent group also issued a news release distancing itself from the PAC.
The TechPAC endorsement “may not in itself reflect the views of NVTC’s membership,” the statement reads. “Given the deeply divided opinions of the NVTC membership concerning this race, NVTC is making no endorsement in the gubernatorial election.”
TechPAC’s board also acknowledged the discord caused by its endorsement.
In a statement released Monday, Dendy Young, TechPAC chairman and chief executive of McLean Capital, said: “TechPAC members are highly sensitive to the divisive nature of this particular gubernatorial campaign, and the attending underlying social issues. Cuccinelli assured TechPAC Trustees during the interview process that his administration will focus on jobs and the economy, and not on a divisive social agenda, which TechPAC believes would seriously hurt the appeal of Virginia as a place to locate and grow businesses. Cuccinelli also committed to preserving and efficiently implementing the transportation funding legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this year.”
Kevin O’Halleran, a spokesman for Herring’s campaign, deferred comment about the TechPAC’s attorney general endorsement, saying the council is expected to issue a statement later this week.
The campaign to reverse the decision on the gubernatorial race began soon after Young called both candidates to alert them to the decision.
“It was very unpleasant,” Earle Williams, a Republican who said he is reluctantly supporting McAuliffe, said after speaking to Young about the telephone call. “But he’s tough. He can take it.”
Williams, who is a senior adviser to the NVTC, said he thought Young and the TechPAC board did the right thing by not buckling under pressure.
The fracas also pulled back a curtain on the two candidates not often seen in their campaigns. Cuccinelli, speaking of the landmark transportation plan passed by the General Assembly, told the board that although he opposed the bill, he would focus on implementing the bill. He told the group that he made sure it would pass constitutional muster even though there would have been ways to allow the measure to ultimately fail to survive a legal test.
“But you know, I could have killed it,” Cuccinelli told the group, according to a person who heard him. “There were plenty of ways I could have killed it, and I didn’t.”
McAuliffe, meanwhile, failed to impress in his interview and even shocked some members, several board members said. When someone asked how he planned to work with people to get things done in Richmond, McAuliffe replied that he would wine and dine them.
“I’m an Irish Catholic. I like to drink. It is what is. We’ll go have lunch. We’ll go have drinks. We’ll work the phones. We’ll do whatever it takes to get things done," he said, according to two NVTC officials present at the interview, including one who supports Cuccinelli and one who has not taken a position.
Some were astonished, although one of the officials said others interpreted it as McAuliffe’s way of trying to illustrate how he would work across partisan lines with anyone to cut a deal.
McAuliffe also had nice things to say about Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) during his interview, but he added that he thought McDonnell was more involved in the nitty-gritty of each piece of legislation that McAuliffe would be if he were elected.
“Terry said, ‘I am not going to read every bill when I’m governor. I’m going to hire people to read them for me.’ It was an astonishing statement,” a board member said, quoting McAuliffe from memory.
Another official also recalled those words but interpreted it as McAuliffe’s way of trying to give the members an idea of his governing style.
This is the third consecutive governor’s race in which TechPAC has endorsed the Republican candidate.
Williams, the senior adviser to the NVTC, said the endorsement by its PAC symbolizes the fissures in Virginia’s business community caused by this year’s polarizing choices.
“I’m supporting McAuliffe, but I don’t like him,” Williams, who ran against George Allen in 1993 for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, said.
“Either the Northern Virginia Tech Council’s endorsement is very important, or Dick Saslaw, Janet Howell and Barbara Favola have a very low threshold for bullying people,” said state Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Louisa), referring to prominent Democrats in the Virginia Senate.