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A Virginian by Choice
People go into politics for a lot of different reasons. I’ve pretty much seen it all since 1979 when I went to work on Jimmy Carter’s presidential reelection campaign. For me politics was always in my blood. It wasn’t any more complicated than that. Both of my parents were gregarious, friendly people who saw it as their job to make a difference for other people. Both of them loved being in a room full of strangers, meeting new people and hearing their stories. That’s always been me. I can’t hide who I am and never have tried. I love people and I could care less whether the person I’m talking to is a ticket taker in a movie theater, a truck driver, a school principal, or a head of state or captain of industry—they all have a story to tell. And I’ll never get tired of listening to people tell those stories. I always learn something.
You know what else? I have a lot of energy. Sleep when you’re dead, I’ve been saying for years. I love people, I love ideas, and I love life. If you want to be in the middle of the action, using good ideas to help peoples’ lives change for the better, then you want to be the one in charge, like a governor, able to show executive leadership and thoughtful planning and cool decision-making under pressure.
Running for political office has its ups and downs. Running for Virginia governor in 2009, I had to smile my way through many a tense meeting where my “Yankee” background had people wondering if they ought to listen to a single word I said. I never let that faze me. I kept talking to people—and kept listening. I told Virginia voters about my plans for the future, and they listened. You know why? Because when I talked about jobs, jobs, jobs, they saw the fire in my eyes and heard the conviction in my voice. They believed I would work my tail off to bring investment to Virginia and create good-paying jobs all over the state. I was always going to run as an advocate for jobs because as a born businessman and entrepreneur, I knew that was in my wheelhouse, and I knew that honest, good-paying jobs were what people cared most about. If I was talking about jobs with people, I knew I was on solid footing.
Other issues were more challenging, especially that of the racial divide. I’m a problem solver, happiest when I can bring people together and we can roll up our sleeves and get to work forming a bold plan to tackle a problem, and then putting that into action. That approach does not lend itself to fighting racism and its legacies. I knew I had a lot to learn about just how deep those legacies ran. Richmond, Virginia, had been the capital of the Confederacy, spearheading the resistance to freeing slaves in the Civil War. I remember my traveling chief of staff in 2009, Justin Paschal, pointing out all the Confederate statues and monuments we kept seeing as we traveled the state.
Early in the campaign, I had an event near Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley. As I was speaking, a woman approached Justin, who is African American.
“Do you know where you are?” she asked him.
He didn’t like where this was going, but what could he say?
“Yes,” he replied.
“Well, you should know that we had a Klan rally here last weekend,” she said. “I’d be careful if I were you.”
I was shocked when Justin later told me what she’d said. In all honesty, I hadn’t heard about the Ku Klux Klan in years. I couldn’t stop talking about that for weeks. Another time, Justin and I were heading into an event and at the door they were giving everyone a Confederate flag sticker. Justin was with me and they tried to put one of those stickers on his lapel. “You do that, I’ll break your arm,” he said.
My wife, Dorothy, will never forget walking through the crowd at a political event with Justin right beside her when a man suddenly came up to her and said, “I would never vote for your husband. He’s a n— lover.” She was horrified.
Those were eye-popping moments, but they were also isolated incidents. You didn’t want to fall into stereotypes and assume people were racists just because a fringe element had hung on to centuries-old hatreds.
Even people in Virginia who liked me as a candidate thought I might have a hard time convincing Virginians I was truly one of them. Larry J. Sabato, the University of Virginia political guru, told me in 2009 when I went down to see him in Charlottesville that he thought I’d picked the wrong state. For years there had been chatter that I might run for governor, and people kept guessing different states.
“I thought you lived in New York,” Larry told me.
New York? I hadn’t lived in New York since the 1970s when I left for college. Florida? I was proud I’d taken over a bankrupt company and built it into one of the largest home-building companies in the state, constructing more than six thousand homes, but for me Florida was where I went on vacation or to visit my father-in-law, Richard Swann. The fact was, Virginia was my home, where I paid taxes and sent my children to school. I wanted to lead my home state.
“My lasting impression of Terry was that he had enormous energy, maybe a ridiculous amount of energy,” Larry said later. “And that he was tough. Real politics isn’t political science. It’s what you instinctively know about people and how they vote.… He could throw a good punch and take one, too. A lot of politicians have glass jaws. Not Terry.”
I knew when I first decided to run for governor of Virginia it wasn’t going to be easy. There were a few obstacles to overcome, starting with the fact that I’d never run for public office before, unless you count chairman of the Democratic National Committee. It was a gutsy move to run, no question. But my whole life from when I was a kid growing up in Syracuse, New York, starting my own driveway-paving company when I was fourteen, had been all about working hard, paying close attention to what people actually want and need, and having fun doing it. So when I ran for governor of the commonwealth in 2009 I was running to win and running to make a difference. You can’t do that finishing second.
Dorothy and I first settled down in Virginia back in 1992, soon after our first child, Dori, was born. We wanted a house with a backyard where the kids could run around and play with the dogs. We’d both attended college and law school in Washington, DC, and had been in the area for years already. We chose McLean, Virginia, as the place we wanted to put down roots, and we raised our family of five children there. As Dorothy liked to say, by 2009 she’d shopped at the same Safeway grocery store for seventeen years.
Did that make us Virginians? It depended on who you asked. Northern Virginia, where we lived, was full of people who had come from somewhere else. Other parts of the state were a different story. Some folks figured you had to be fourth- or fifth-generation to be considered a true Virginian and I was OK with that. As I used to say on the campaign trail, I didn’t have any choice of where I was born. My mother made that decision for me. But when I had to make my own decision, I chose Virginia.
I was obviously aware it would raise some eyebrows when I announced in January 2009 that I was running for governor of Virginia. I got it. People knew me for my work in national politics. They’d seen me on TV as DNC chairman, talking issues—or politics—with various Republican counterparts. What they didn’t know, at least not at first, was why I was running for governor and how sure I was that I could transform the state, bring it into the twenty-first century, and build a dynamic new economy.
It’s funny about politics. People are always going to pigeonhole you. They always try to figure out an election that’s coming up by studying what happened in the election before. I’m not sure how helpful any of that is. I’ve always tried to go out and fight for what I believe, focusing on getting results, and at the same time, trying to show that politics doesn’t have to be boring. You can be serious and committed and still try to stir things up and make even a routine event fun and interesting, especially if you love what you’re doing when you’re giving speeches or meeting voters or even debating your opponents.
I’m known for my perpetual optimism. Until I published my first book in 2007, the New York Times bestseller What a Party!, a lot of people assumed that anyone having as much fun as I was couldn’t also be serious, very serious, about doing the work of making a difference for people and governing a state of eight and a half million people.
I used to kid Marc Fisher, the Washington Post columnist, about his November 2008 column assuring readers that, as the headline put it, GUBERNATORIAL IS ONE THING TERRY MCAULIFFE ISN’T. Again, he was mostly writing about my image, but it’s funny what he chose to mention. “McAuliffe wants to be governor of Virginia, a job that has more to do with repairing roads and managing prisons than it does with sweet-talking Hollywood moguls and spinning the loudmouths on CNN, MSNBC and Fox,” Fisher wrote. “Could a state in a grim budget situation use a chief executive who once wrestled a 280-pound alligator to land a $15,000 donation from a Florida Indian tribe?”
I didn’t get that one. How does wrestling an alligator thirty years before disqualify you from serving the people of the commonwealth? There are probably worse ways to prepare for the challenge of working with the Virginia General Assembly. I’m kidding.
My main challenger for the Democratic nomination, or so I assumed, was Brian Moran, not the more conservative Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds. Like me, Brian came from an Irish family with an interest in politics, and his brother, Jim Moran, was a longtime congressman representing Northern Virginia. Like me, Brian was originally from the Northeast, and, like me, he loves to talk. A couple of years earlier he’d had me come and speak at his annual pancake breakfast fund-raiser. He joked that if the morning coffee didn’t wake everyone up, listening to me sure did.
“Both of us would speak at a high decibel level and get people pumped up, almost like a football coach,” Brian says now. “My dad was a football coach. You wanted to inspire people and get them fired up, and Terry did that on steroids.”
We weren’t both going to win the nomination for governor. Brian had been in Virginia politics for years, having served in the House of Delegates since 1996 and as Democratic caucus chairman, and he saw me as a latecomer to the race. He and I were both going after Northern Virginians especially; that was going to be our prime territory, and he was pretty tough on me that year.
“There is no reason to perceive him as a Virginia Democrat,” Brian told one reporter that year. “Before the last six months, he’s had little, if any, involvement not only in Virginia politics but in Virginia governance.”
I expected Brian to throw a few elbows my way—that’s politics, and none of it ever bothered me, but Brian went a bit overboard. His campaign advisers had him all jacked up to go after me as much as he could. We had Virginia’s annual state fund-raising dinner in February 2009, headlined by President Bill Clinton, who came as a favor to me, featuring all three candidates. Brian spent all his time taking shots at me. As The Washington Post put it, “Moran took repeated swipes.… Some Democrats called it inappropriate to criticize a fellow Democrat at a party event.”
I’d made a pledge not to attack either of my primary opponents, and I stuck to that. Brian hit me hard on the stump and in our debates, but his early lead in a couple of polls faded and I was ahead in five straight polls from April to May with Creigh Deeds a distant third. The New York Times Magazine sent out a veteran political reporter, Adam Nagourney, to report on how I was doing as a candidate, and we had some fun challenging Adam to try to keep up with me. (He couldn’t.)
I had “outtalked, out-handshook, outspent, outhustled, outshouted and just plain outcampaigned them across Richmond,” Nagourney wrote. “McAuliffe, tipping back bottles of beer, stayed so late talking to party members at the Virginia Young Democrats reception—he made sure I noted he was there an hour longer than Moran or Deeds—that it seemed just a matter of time until the cleanup crew swept him out with a broom.”
Then on May 22 came a political earthquake. The Washington Post weighed in with its editorial making an endorsement, and for some reason decided to throw its weight behind Creigh Deeds. Keep in mind, at that point every poll for the last couple of months had me up by at least nine percentage points. My problem with the Post editorial wasn’t so much the argument for Deeds. What bothered me was the use of one word that changed everything. A May 3 feature in The Post had included the bizarre assertion that I’d referred to myself as a “huckster” in my own autobiography. Not true. The reporter who wrote that article could have spent five minutes checking the facts with a simple Amazon search, and realized that no, that word does not occur once in the more than one hundred thousand words of my first book.
But the Post editorial repeated the “huckster” claim. Not until May 27, less than two weeks before the Democratic primary, did we get a correction printed. The reference in my book was to my Uncle Billy Byrne admiringly calling me a “young hustler” when I started my paving business at age fourteen. He loved my gumption in going out and getting an old milk truck that belonged to him running, and driving it home, even though I was too young to have a driver’s license at the time, and painting MCAULIFFE DRIVEWAY MAINTENANCE on the side. What can I say? I was a born entrepreneur.
After that Post editorial, my lead in the polls evaporated, and Deeds went on to win the nomination, with me coming in a distant second—then he lost the general election to the Republican, Bob McDonnell, 58.6% to 41.2%. Some people who didn’t know me thought I might “fade back into national politics” after that, as Larry Sabato put it, but I’m not one to fade, and I wanted to make a difference in Virginia. I took some time to ask what we could have done better in the ’09 campaign, and then I got to work on four more years of driving all over Virginia to meet more people to hear their stories and get more perspectives. I was going to run for governor again—and win—in 2013.
I hated losing that 2009 primary, but looking back now I can say that losing was one of the best things that ever happened to me. By then I’d already toured every corner and crossroads of the state, but over the next four years I went to every nook and cranny of Virginia and talked to people about what they needed out of their state government and where they hoped the future would take them—and take Virginia. I had time to soak it all up. I’d always loved history, and if you love U.S. history, it starts with Virginia history. Those four years gave me a deep and living connection to that history—and I saw it pointing to the future.
Copyright © 2019 by Terry McAuliffe