RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe has vetoed more legislation than any governor since Jim Gilmore in 1998, and Democrats have a simple response: We told you so.
The governor with liberal bona fides promised to nix any bills that he thought would erode gay rights, block women’s access to health care or otherwise fly in the face of Democratic principles.
“Unfortunately, they sent those bills to me and I vetoed them. No surprise,” McAuliffe (D) told reporters Monday.
The governor vetoed 32 of the 811 bills that lawmakers sent to his desk for action by midnight Sunday.
With a Democrat in the governor’s mansion and Republicans controlling the General Assembly, the partisan divide has meant enthusiastic passage of ideological bills followed by swift vetoes.
The conflict has only been heightened in a rancorous presidential election year when both parties are working hard to excite their base.
It’s a trend that Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said he has seen intensify as tea-party-inspired conservatives replace moderate Republicans in the upper chamber and exert their influence over the party.
“They’re terrified of these people, just terrified,” said the 40-year veteran of the legislature. “They run everything that party does virtually. A lot of these people, they know what they’re voting for is wrong. They do it anyway.”
Republicans say that more than halfway through his four-year term, McAuliffe still lacks the finesse to win over lawmakers who long ago mastered the parliamentary one-upmanship that defines Richmond politics.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said that when his party was in the minority in the House in the 1980s, aides to then-Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (D) visited him often. “Things aren’t any more partisan than they were 30 years ago,” Howell said in an interview. He added: “I think [McAuliffe’s staff] were fairly disengaged, and that’s disconcerting.”
But McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy, said no amount of communication could have changed the philosophical differences.
“They passed a lot of bills they knew he was going to veto,” he said.
The administration assigned a staff member to every lawmaker this year, an approach Coy credits with compromises on transportation funding and gun laws.
Still, in the four weeks since legislators declared sine die ending the legislative session, McAuliffe has methodically rolled out vetoes on political flash points.
In one of the most high-profile debates of the session, Republicans wanted to prohibit state agencies from punishing religious organizations that discriminate against same-sex couples. Similar efforts that passed in Mississippi and North Carolina resulted in pushback from leading businesses and employers in those states.
Other bills would have blocked future funding for Planned Parenthood, protected Confederate monuments and strengthened immigration regulations. The governor also killed measures that would have extended coal tax credits and given the legislature control over implementation of the federal Clean Power Plan.
Republicans wanted to reverse McAuliffe’s ban on guns in state office buildings and give victims of domestic violence instant concealed-carry permits. McAuliffe’s reply? No and no.
It didn’t matter that he struck a surprising deal with the GOP on guns that expanded the recognition of concealed-carry permits from around the country in Virginia in exchange for tighter restrictions on domestic abusers and voluntary background checks at gun shows.
That goodwill met a dead stop on bills intended to allow home-schooled students to participate in public school sports and charter school bills that had gained some bipartisan support.
Lawmakers will return to Richmond on April 20 to attempt to reverse some of the vetoes, but few if any bills have the two-thirds majorities needed for an override.
When Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) served as governor, a similar pattern played out in the first two years of his term, when he vetoed 12 and 15 bills. Before him, then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) managed to woo GOP majorities in both parties — a legacy that helped propel him to the U.S. Senate but left a stain on Republicans who made his successes possible.
In the late 1990s, Gilmore (R) feuded with his own party, forcing him to veto 37, 23 and 19 bills during his term.
Last year, McAuliffe vetoed 26 bills, but the rancor played out at a softer pitch. All 140 General Assembly seats were on the ballot that year and neither party wanted to be distracted by legislative controversies.
That’s not the case this year.
“At the moment in Virginia, the legislature and the governor have an effective veto over each other,” said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist.
It’s a reality that makes useful fodder for fundraising.
“The Governor is using his veto pen to fire up the liberal base ahead of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election,” reads a House GOP pitch sent out last week. “Help us by donating $5 today.”