Terry McAuliffe declared four years ago he’d be Virginia governor 24-7. It was interpreted as another theatrical boast by an A-list notable for whom state office seemed a step down. But as his term trickled to a close, McAuliffe was publicly counting the hours left in which to wield power. There was, he said, work to be done.
Appearing Wednesday morning before the Commonwealth Transportation Board to announce a deal with an Australian firm to extend express lanes on Interstate 95 to Fredericksburg, clearing a notorious bottleneck, McAuliffe said he’d be busy most of the 76 hours until relinquishing office Saturday to fellow Democrat Ralph Northam.
“And then, I will quietly ride off into the sunset,” boomed McAuliffe.
McAuliffe’s equine metaphor — apparently self-deprecation — was greeted with awkward silence, eventually broken by scattered laughter.
Chronically hyperbolic, McAuliffe seems incapable of doing anything quietly.
And one of the last times he was on a horse — Christmas 2015, while visiting a daughter in Tanzania — McAuliffe was thrown, fracturing seven ribs. Returning to Virginia and his frantic routine, McAuliffe was finally hospitalized for his injuries after his January address to a Republican legislature with which he often battled, always joyfully.
McAuliffe’s bluster — as an Irishman, he says he comes by it genetically — may conjure for some a bouffanted Republican president who last year carried every Southern state except the least Southern: Virginia.
But unlike Donald Trump, McAuliffe, while fully capable of biting sarcasm, tends not to be publicly mean-spirited, despite his threat Thursday — more comical than combative — to punch Trump.
“I’m the happy warrior,” intoned McAuliffe, tailed by a film crew he’d hired to chronicle his final days as governor — a small gesture that, he acknowledged with a wink, will feed speculation he’s considering a go for the presidency in 2020.
As a national figure who became a state figure, McAuliffe — a former national Democratic chairman and Bill-and-Hillary Clinton confidant — symbolized the accelerating change that is remaking Virginia.
Like more than half of Virginia’s nearly 8.5 million residents, McAuliffe isn’t a native. Through McAuliffe’s tenure, only six of the 12 governors elected since the state’s competitive political era began a half-century ago have been born in the state.
The former altar boy from the west side of Syracuse, N.Y., is among the two in three Virginians who live in the state’s metropolitan areas; in his case, Northern Virginia, home to about 3 million people.
It’s the state’s economic engine, because it’s next door to Washington, where McAuliffe amassed a fortune at the intersection of commerce and politics. But Northern Virginia, stung in 2014 by mandatory federal spending cuts that blew a $2.4 billion hole in the state budget, became a poster boy for McAuliffe’s drive to reduce dependence on D.C. largess.
Northern Virginia also is the state’s political engine. Its bustling population of affluent, highly educated, federally oriented, increasingly non-white come-heres has tugged Virginia over two decades from deep red to purple to light blue.
This happened because this state is becoming more national, less Virginian. That means what occurs in Virginia increasingly has significance for the nation.
The importance of some events was magnified by a governor who was a celebrity before he was a chief executive — one who learned on the job.
McAuliffe had never dabbled in Virginia politics until 2009, his first, failed campaign for governor. His second, the winning 2013 bid, was a squeaker. It was hastened by an unpopular, two-week shutdown of the federal government, and a scary Republican opponent who still closed within 2 percentage points of McAuliffe.
McAuliffe’s differences with Republicans were, from the beginning, profound, often aggravated by his inexperience. They became toxic when the GOP completed its takeover of the General Assembly, winning a 2014 special election for a vacant Democratic Senate seat.
The standoff over McAuliffe’s proposed Medicaid-finance expansion of Obamacare was an enduring emblem of the shrill, Washington-like partisanship that has descended on Richmond.
However, the governor, for whom politics could be transactional, found common ground with Republicans on themes often deemed nonpartisan: the economy and jobs.
On McAuliffe’s watch, businesses committed a record $20 billion in capital investment, fueling 207,000 new jobs. Overall, joblessness fell to 3.7 percent, though it remains stubbornly high in pockets of the GOP countryside.
High-profile corporate gets, such as the Facebook data center outside Richmond, followed occasional flops, including plans for Chinese-owned factories in Chesterfield and Appomattox counties. Those projects spotlighted weaknesses in state incentive programs created by both parties, which quickly rallied to repair them.
Complementing McAuliffe’s economic message was his emphasis on inclusion. That’s important in a state that didn’t practice it for a long time; that in the late 1950s defied the U.S. Supreme Court by closing public schools rather than allow blacks and whites to sit the same classroom.
Same-sex marriage, banned in Virginia under a Republican-written constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2006, became the law of the land during McAuliffe’s term.
McAuliffe was the first Southern governor to officiate at a gay wedding. He never failed to remind corporate prospects he’d use his veto to stop socially divisive legislation, including a North Carolina-type bathroom bill that scared business in several states.
Reflexively vetoing abortion restrictions and expanded firearms rights, McAuliffe lived up to his promise to be a “brick wall,” a throwaway line from his 2013 campaign that would become watchwords. He issued a record 120 vetoes, all of which stood.
In 2016, ahead of the presidential election, McAuliffe attempted to restore en masse the voting and civil rights of 206,000 felons. Republicans successfully challenged McAuliffe’s order in the Virginia Supreme Court. Undeterred, McAuliffe did as the court decreed, reinstating rights on a case-by-case basis, acting on 170,000.
But McAuliffe now has a powerful talking point for a Democratic presidential primary audience for which access to the polls is an article of faith. So, too, is depoliticizing redistricting, an effort in which McAuliffe has assumed a national role.
And there was Charlottesville. Its name is shorthand for murderous, racially tinged violence, along with Ferguson, Trayvon and “I Can’t Breathe.”
After white nationalists crowded into the university town in August to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, McAuliffe made clear haters weren’t welcome in Virginia. He created a commission to study the violence — what happened, how state and local police handled it, and the behavior of protesters on both sides. Some findings were painful, likely spurring reforms that Northam will be responsible for implementing.
Events can be an obstacle to governing, the unexpected, unanticipated twists that yank a politician from his agenda.
McAuliffe took them in stride, dismissing some as “small ball.”
McAuliffe struck out four times on Medicaid expansion because of disciplined Republican resistance. But a bigger event — the election of Donald Trump — worked to McAuliffe’s advantage, though he won’t be around to capitalize on it.
Not only did enmity for Trump ensure McAuliffe would be succeeded by a Democrat, it nearly wiped out the Republican majority in the House of Delegates. Medicaid expansion now looks like a done deal.
Yet another change in a state synonymous with it — and where McAuliffe embodied it.