Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe bounds out of a gray SUV in the loading dock under the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington. Bodyguards in suits race to keep up.
Moments later he’s seated in a darkened ballroom, where Deputy National Intelligence Director Sue Gordon is warning cybersecurity-conference attendees about threats and vulnerabilities. Intelligence officials and security executives, dining on chicken, clap soberly.
Then McAuliffe takes the lectern.
“Good afternoon, everybody!” he booms. “How many Virginia residents we got?”
The crowd seems to perk up. “Woooo!” a few people shout.
“Fantastic,” McAuliffe says. “Maryland?” A slightly softer chorus of wooos, to which he responds: “You guys like paying taxes. I’m okay with that.”
This jab at his neighboring state never fails to get a laugh, whether McAuliffe delivers it to an audience of cyber-spooks or to a startled patron in a coffee shop. It’s salesman’s patter, honed after four years of using his position as governor to pitch companies on the advantages of locating in Virginia. Now his term in office is winding down, but McAuliffe is still wound up.
“We got some California folks, right?” he says, to more whoops. “Yeah? You like sharks? . . . You come to Virginia, we don’t have sharks in Virginia Beach. Dolphins, they come right up to the beach, they pick up your children, they give rides, they drop them back off.”
The bada-bing is why some wrote off McAuliffe as miscast for stiff-necked Virginia politics. He was too slick, a Bill Clinton crony and operator who was unprepared for the tedious grind of governing.
But when he steps aside Saturday for his chosen successor and fellow Democrat, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, the 60-year-old McAuliffe can point to a slate of achievements — low unemployment, $20 billion in promised business investment, a revived Port of Virginia, increased money for education, positive approval ratings.
As it turns out, being a manic salesman has its political advantages, especially in a divided state government where the opposing party controls the legislature. Issues don’t have to be partisan if they’re hitched to the all-American ideal of making a buck.
Democrats credit the governor’s approach with positioning them for sweeping victories statewide, from Virginia’s being the only Southern state to go for his old friend Hillary Clinton in 2016 to November’s surge that brought them to near-parity with Republicans in the House of Delegates. McAuliffe leaves office as a credible name on the list of 2020 Democratic presidential contenders.
While coy about his plans after office, McAuliffe has said that he will work with former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. on his redistricting project to end gerrymandering and will help Democratic candidates running for governor in 36 states — two initiatives that will keep McAuliffe visible across the country.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do about 2020. I really don’t,” he says in an interview. “I’d never be in Congress. It’s not my personality. Never in the Senate.” Would he be a presidential running mate? “That’s a great question. Never been asked that,” he says. “You know, that’s not my action. But, I mean, never say no.”
Republicans argue that McAuliffe never pulled off any big legislative wins. His showiest accomplishment — the restoration of voting rights to some 173,000 convicted felons — was an end run around the General Assembly. Republican leaders took him all the way to the state Supreme Court to try to block it.
There’s one area, though, where even his staunchest political opponents give him credit.
“This governor has worked very hard on economic development,” Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) says. The real test, Norment warns, is how much of the bluster about development deals comes to fruition. “He is effusive in his enthusiasm about what he has accomplished and what the out-year results are going to be. . . . We’re hopeful that they will [bear fruit], but I do think that his enthusiasm is a little exaggerated.”
Even grudging respect from Republicans is something of an accomplishment for McAuliffe, whose campaign in 2013 against Ken Cuccinelli II was an unusually ugly partisan brawl by Virginia standards.
After his narrow victory, McAuliffe’s showboating style got him off to a bad start with Republicans in the legislature. His priority was to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and he boasted that he would wine and dine the opposition until they capitulated.
“This word will sound more negative than I mean it to be,” political scientist Quentin Kidd says, “but he was Trumpian in the way he would sell himself and sell what he could do. Republicans were very dismissive of him. They were beside themselves that they lost to a guy like Terry McAuliffe.”
Then-House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) pledged before McAuliffe was even sworn in that the legislature would never expand Medicaid, and no amount of schmoozing ever moved the General Assembly’s tough corps of Republican leaders.
So after a disappointing first year, McAuliffe adapted. He kept putting the Medicaid expansion in his budgets, but he also developed working relationships with the chairmen of the legislative finance committees. Virginia has a constitutional requirement to balance its budget each year, and there was never much drama as McAuliffe and Republicans filled shortfalls and constructed basic budgets.
And he shifted his rhetoric to his natural strong suit, economic development. Initially, McAuliffe struck some as too hung up on simply wooing companies to move to Virginia.
“When he came in and said ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ I’m not sure he really focused on the training and skill sets you need for those jobs,” says Bobbie Kilberg, president and chief executive of the Northern Virginia Technology Council.
An arm of the council known as TechPAC had endorsed Cuccinelli for governor, a shock to the pro-business McAuliffe. When McAuliffe interviewed with the influential group, he struck some members as superficial and unprepared to talk policy.
Kilberg, a longtime Republican, says McAuliffe has matured in office. He deserves credit, she says, for realizing that Virginia’s economy requires unglamorous underpinnings — workforce training, money for higher education, a reshaping away from dependence on government contracting.
“He’s grown tremendously in his understanding of specific policy initiatives and his ability to implement them,” she says. “If that was one of the criticisms that TechPAC had back then, I think he’s overcome those.”
McAuliffe wielded economic development as a kind of weapon against ideologically charged issues.
He used it to attack legislation from conservatives that would have required transgender people to use bathrooms that conform to their birth gender. Tech companies won’t consider locating in a state that even debates such a bill, McAuliffe warned. If such bills passed, McAuliffe vetoed them. Last year he broke the Virginia record for vetoes, eventually hitting 120.
He used the need to improve the state’s business climate to push for better funding for schools, teacher raises, mental-health services and transportation. While motorists have howled about high tolls on the new 66 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia, McAuliffe gets kudos in Hampton Roads for jump-starting tunnel expansion and express-lane projects that have begun to ease years of worsening congestion.
Similarly, the southeastern Port of Virginia had been struggling and was on the verge of being sold before McAuliffe led an overhaul. Now it’s setting one tonnage record after another.
And he backed plans for two major natural-gas pipelines through rural parts of the state, angering environmentalists and the progressive wing of his party. They’ll create jobs, he argued.
Because many of those positions were also in line with Republican priorities, opponents argue that McAuliffe takes too much credit.
“What is Terry McAuliffe’s signature accomplishment?” says Garren Shipley, a longtime GOP provocateur who represents the Republican National Committee in Richmond. Playing the “Seinfeld” TV theme music on his phone, Shipley says, “It’s the governorship about nothing.”
From a tactical point of view, though, Shipley acknowledges admiration for the way McAuliffe linked social issues to economic development. “Full marks for that. We have noticed that, as well,” he says. “Terry McAuliffe is many things, but stupid is not one of them.”
McAuliffe’s most in-your-face act was his aggressive move to restore felon voting rights. When the state Supreme Court agreed with Republicans that he had overstepped by granting rights to all former felons at once, McAuliffe vowed to sign the restorations one at a time. Thousands of them.
He says it’s his single proudest achievement, the centerpiece of a record on civil rights that included a forceful response to the violent white nationalist rally last summer in Charlottesville. That event, in which one counterprotester died and two state troopers were killed in a helicopter crash, brought out rare displays of anger and emotion in McAuliffe.
But it’s not what he cites as his legacy. “I think I will be known as the governor who truly diversified Virginia’s economy,” he says in an interview.
If so, it’s something that will take years to play out. Virginia is still heavily dependent on federal spending, and though its overall unemployment rate has fallen to 3.7 percent, parts of the state are worse off than others.
McAuliffe routinely — as in, several times a day — cites the capital investment he has attracted to Virginia. The roughly $20 billion is far more than any of his predecessors. From a billion-dollar Facebook data center to massive Amazon warehouses to a proliferation of breweries and cideries all over the state, the new investment is tied to some 207,000 new jobs.
The catch is that many of those projects are a long way from fruition. There have been a handful of notable busts — a Chinese manufacturer that got $1.4 million in state grants for a factory in Appomattox County that never materialized, for instance, and another Chinese company that promised to pay back $5 million in state loans after failing to deliver a giant facility in Chesterfield County.
But with his rallying cry of “Sleep when you’re dead,” McAuliffe says the more you attract, the more will stick. He only half-jokes that he’ll work up until his final minute in office trying to tip that number over $20 billion.
The state official most burdened by that goal is Todd Haymore, who as secretary of commerce and trade has accompanied McAuliffe on 33 of his 35 foreign trade trips and myriad jaunts around the state to announce new deals.
Haymore could probably win a lifetime of free beers in Richmond with tales about keeping up with McAuliffe: They ate chicken feet in China after busting open an embargo against Virginia poultry. After one deal fell through, an angry McAuliffe ordered him to get off the helicopter — in midflight. The governor told French sommeliers — in Paris — that Virginia wines are the best in the world. Haymore dozed off at an official dinner after 36 hours of travel, and McAuliffe punched him in the leg to wake him up.
Haymore played a similar role for McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican Robert F. McDonnell. He, too, was an economic-development whiz — his slogan was “Bob’s for Jobs” — though his legacy has been overshadowed by the money-for-favors scandal that nearly sent him to prison.
But Haymore says nothing really compares with McAuliffe’s frenetic pace.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it,” Haymore says.
On this typical day last month, McAuliffe called a company in Europe at 2 a.m. to try to close a deal, then got on the state Beechcraft in Richmond at 8 a.m. and flew to Virginia Beach to announce a factory expansion. From there he flew to Manassas to help a glass company announce 40 new jobs. Then he drove to Washington for a news conference about Metro. Later that night he had a fundraising dinner. In between, the cybersecurity conference.
McAuliffe made cybersecurity his signature issue in 2016 when he served as head of the National Governors Association, so he’s no stranger to the topic. But speaking to the audience, his larger focus becomes clear.
He tells the officials how important their work is. He describes how he has gotten Virginia to spend more money for cyber-job training, to build a workforce for the future. He boasts of being the only governor to attend a particular global security conference. Suddenly this wonkiest of gatherings has become something else. A sales pitch.
“If you want to be a success,” McAuliffe says, “you’ve got to put your business in Virginia.” Then he closes with a classic move, getting the mark to participate in the pitch. Where do you suppose, he asks the crowd, is the first National Guard unit in the country with a cyber-command center?
“Virginia!” the conference-goers say in unison.
“Folks,” McAuliffe says, laughing, “I’m just trying to tell you here. I’m just trying to make you some money.”