RICHMOND — Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe made a flurry of phone calls to GOP legislators Wednesday and picked a Republican to help steer him through his transition from hardball candidate to the post-partisan governor he promised to be for Virginia.
Having clogged Virginia’s airwaves for months with attack ads, McAuliffe sought to strike a new tone one day after winning a relentlessly bitter governor’s race , vowing to make good on his campaign pledge to put party labels aside and work in the interests of everyday Virginians.
McAuliffe will need those across-the-aisle friendships to get his agenda — most notably, Medicaid expansion — through a divided and highly skeptical General Assembly.
“To those who did not support me, to those who voted for either of the two worthy opponents, let me just say that I will get up every single day working for you,” McAuliffe said, referring to Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II and Libertarian Robert Sarvis. “I will do everything I can to earn your trust and respect during the next four years. I will do that by building an administration that is truly bipartisan.”
Standing in a state Capitol that’s been tarnished by scandal, McAuliffe reiterated a campaign pledge to sign two executive orders on the day he takes office in January. One would limit the value of any gifts to himself or immediate family to $100.
That pledge is a reaction to the gifts scandal that has consumed outgoing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), whose family has accepted more than $160,000 in luxury gifts and money described as loans from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a businessman who also gave Cuccinelli gifts worth more than $18,000. State law allows office-holders to accept gifts of any size as long as they disclose those worth more than $50.
The other executive order, which McAuliffe said he would sign first, will protect state employees, including gays, lesbians and transgender people, from discrimination on the job.
In his first appearance since Election Day, McAuliffe held a news conference to announce his transition team, drawing 13 TV news cameras to the Capitol. Looking rested despite the previous night’s nail-biter, and accompanied by his wife, Dorothy, McAuliffe announced a transition team that includes moderate Republican John Chichester, a former state senator.
Former GOP congressman Thomas M. Davis III, also a moderate, praised the selection of Chichester, a former Senate Finance Committee chairman, for his deep knowledge of state government — a deficit for McAuliffe, who has never held elective office. But Davis said that Chichester, who has endorsed may Democrats over the years, is not going to win McAuliffe any points for bipartisanship.
“It’s a rent-a-Republican,” Davis said. “I think he’s on everybody’s Republicans-for-Democrats list.”
As a close friend of and prolific fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe has traveled in circles far beyond Richmond’s political scene, which is perhaps one reason he chose someone not normally associated with state politics to help with the transition: best-selling novelist John Grisham, a former Mississippi state legislator. He and his wife, Renee, who live outside Charlottesville, are co-chairing McAuliffe’s inaugural committee.
McAuliffe is seeking to surround himself with people who know how Richmond works. He announced that his transition director will be Paul J. Reagan, a veteran operative who has served as chief of staff to many Democrats, including former senator Jim Webb.
The transition committee will be chaired by Del. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and will also have two co-chairs: Chichester and Nancy Rodrigues, McAuliffe’s campaign treasurer and former secretary of the State Board of Elections.
The transition team will help McAuliffe handle the tsunami of resumes and offers of assistance that typically crash down on a newly elected governor.
“It’s a lot like disaster management. You get so may offers of help that one of the things you have to do is set up a mechanism for triaging all of the offers,” said William H. Leighty, who was chief of staff to former governors Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine
Leighty spoke as a veteran of those transitions and others, but not on behalf of McAuliffe’s, which he has not been involved in. He has taught transition planning for the National Governors Association, the PEW Charitable Trusts and the government of Nigeria.
“You have a compressed time frame, you have a lot to do, and while you’re trying to get all that work done . . . you’ve got literally thousands of people e-mailing you resumes,” he said. “With Warner, we ended up with 14,000 resumes.”
It is a head-spinning shift from campaign mode, when the candidate and his aides are reaching out to others, Leighty said.
“The moment you become a governor-elect, your operation turns from one of trying to get your message out and getting people to pay attention to you to managing all the people paying attention to you now,” he said.
Behind the scenes, McAuliffe also has been getting advice from another Democrat who never held public office until he was elected Virginia governor: Warner.
Now representing the state in the U.S. Senate, Warner and a handful of gubernatorial staffers had dinner with McAuliffe in late October at a Richmond area home, according to two people familiar with the gathering who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss a private event. Warner used the reunion with his former aides as an opportunity to give advice to the candidate, who was then up in the polls and starting to mull the nuts and bolts of a transition, both said.
“The emphasis was on how important it is to surround yourself with people who you trust, who are competent, who understand government and also you have confidence will help you make the right decisions as you enter what is really an extraordinarily hectic time,” one of the participants said.
Warner said that choosing the right staff is especially important when the new governor has limited experience.
“It makes it a little different than the other guys,” the attendee said.
McAuliffe has spent his life in politics, but was never on a ballot until his failed bid four years ago for the Democratic nomination for governor. This year, he was unopposed.
McAuliffe was asked at his news conference how he felt on election night, when he realized he had finally won office for himself.
“When I stood up there last night, it wasn’t about me,” McAuliffe said. “I was thinking about all those folks I met at Thelma’s Chicken and Waffles and all around this commonwealth. They are sick of people fighting each other in government.”