Bucking tradition: Does Democrat Terry McAuliffe have what it takes to beat Ken Cuccinelli?

by Peter Galuszka

Easter Sunday blows rainy and cold while the cell phone buzzes at 12:58 p.m. It's a surprise email from Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Terry McAuliffe. "Peter," his message reads. "My family and I are about to head out to Easter brunch but I wanted to make you aware that today's the last day we have to file our first financial report of the year." McAuliffe asks for a $5 donation.

The campaign continues through the holiday. At 2:58 p.m. another email blares from Emily Aden, McAuliffe's research director, asking for $5 or more. At 7:24 p.m., another McAuliffe staffer, finance director Andrew Smith, chimes in with his pitch for five bucks.

McAuliffe's data-mining prowess is impressive, but it also shows remarkable tone deafness. Many Virginians prefer their holidays uninterrupted by cash solicitations. Nailing the point, Larry Sabato, longtime political analyst at the University of Virginia, tweets later that evening: "Returning to email after pleasant Easter to find 11 obnoxious pleas for $$$. Now know answer to age old Q: Is nothing sacred?"

And that, in a nutshell, may be McAuliffe's biggest challenge. Can a hard-charging, if not bombastic, Washington fundraiser and businessman with no experience in elective office become governor in a tradition-loving state that he doesn't seem to understand?

It's a crucial question, because McAuliffe is going up against Republican Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, an experienced and shrewd elected official who is among the most stridently social conservative politicians Virginia has seen in years. Cuccinelli could take the state firmly where myriad groups, including feminist and gay voters, don't want it to go. Early polls had the race as a virtual tossup, but a recent Washington Post poll gave Cuccinelli a 10-point lead among voters certain to cast a ballot in November.

Tall, curly-headed and imbued with more than a little Irish charm, McAuliffe, 56, is a skilled professional at national political fundraising in Washington, where he's worked since the 1970s. His back-slapping, shot-slamming persona makes him "an indefatigable campaigner," Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth says. "I went to a Virginia Commonwealth University basketball game a few weeks ago and there he was, dressed in black and gold."

A Democratic insider since the days of Jimmy Carter, McAuliffe counts among his close friends Bill and Hillary Clinton, along with a wide assortment of international celebrities. He was co-chair of Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign and chaired Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential run. His gubernatorial try here is seen as a prelude to Hillary Clinton's expected presidential bid in 2016. In March alone, he raised $2 million for his race at six out-of-state fundraisers with the help of such notables as James Carville and Dee Dee Myers, Politico reports. The latest figures from the Virginia Political Action Projects show that McAuliffe has raised $6.7 million compared to $4.3 million for Cuccinelli.

As chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005, McAuliffe raised hundreds of millions of dollars and lifted his party out of debt for the first time. He also helped develop the sophisticated databases that fueled the Easter Sunday outreach to tap donations. And it's no doubt working. "He was an incredible fundraiser for the DNC," says Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

McAuliffe also is a savvy businessman. He helped found Federal City National Bank in Washington when he was only 28, later helping guide the small, community bank through the 1991 recession. He made about $18 million investing in a high-speed fiber optic system running under the Atlantic Ocean called Global Crossing, then sold out before the company went bankrupt in 2002. More recently, he's turned around a failing homebuilding company.

Moving into clean energy in 2006, he founded GreenTech Automotive, a maker of cheap, two-seat electric cars. But he wasted much of the political goodwill the venture might have given him by deciding to locate an assembly plant near Horn Lake, Mississippi, after flirting with Virginia. That gave Cuccinelli a ready-made stick which the Republican has already used to beat him. On April Fool's Day, Cuccinelli's campaign sent out a fake news alert that McAuliffe was opening a car factory in Fredericksburg. Later, McAuliffe revealed that he had quietly resigned as chairman of GreenTech in December. He's also fighting allegations that GreenTech was used to obtain improper visas for foreign workers, that the venture has fallen far short of stated goals, and that its officials squirreled away finances offshore in the British Virgin Islands.

Indeed, McAuliffe carries some heavy baggage. Quentin Kidd, professor of political science at Christopher Newport University, says the biggest challenge for McAuliffe is shedding his persona as an "inside Washington kind of partisan." In Virginia, both parties have succeeded when running moderate gubernatorial candidates long on business experience. McAuliffe no doubt is attempting to recast his image in this regard, but Cuccinelli is already working overtime to undercut this advantage by hammering him hard, and early, on GreenTech.

"If he hopes to make the case that he has the business acumen, he'd better start doing it," Kidd says of McAuliffe. "And in order to start doing that he's got to deal with this GreenTech issue."

It won't be easy. Despite years of trying, McAuliffe can't seem to shed his image as a vainglorious outlander. In a 2007 best-selling book about his life as a national party apparatchik, McAuliffe paints himself as an old-style Irish Catholic pol straight from the whiskey-soaked chapters of the 1956 novel The Last Hurrah. His Upstate New York accent makes him sound un-Virginian. When I ask about his background on a recent campaign tour, he retorts: "My wife and I have lived in the same home in Northern Virginia for 21 years. We have five children. I want our children to stay here and have jobs."

Other prominent but nonnative Virginia Democrats somehow don't have the outsider problem. U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, born in Minnesota, married the daughter of a former governor and served as Richmond mayor before running for governor and the Senate. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, born in Indiana, was a Washington-based entrepreneur, but Warner helped manage L. Douglas Wilder's gubernatorial campaign before moving into the political arena and becoming governor himself.

That Warner wasn't interested in another run at governor and that other Democrats shied away has drawn frowns about McAuliffe who, despite his Washington glamour, couldn't beat R. Creigh Deeds, a mild-mannered lawyer from rural Bath County, in the 2009 Democratic primary. Deeds later lost decisively to Republican Robert F. McDonnell.

The stakes are extremely high. McAuliffe's gubernatorial challenge may be one of the most important in modern Virginia history, given Cuccinelli's notoriety. The tea party favorite has built a reputation for his outspoken opposition to homosexuality, harassing climatologists who believe mankind is responsible for global warming, and fighting for stricter regulations for abortion clinics. In a move that's outraged the gay and lesbian communities, Cuccinelli petitioned to keep Virginia's medieval anti-sodomy law even after a court panel ruled it was unconstitutional. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has rejected the petition.

So far, Cuccinelli's campaign is short on policy details, although he co-authored a book, The Last Line of Defense, a dry alarm against what he sees as the unconstitutional spread of federal power. While national media watch closely and out-of-state money flows, the lines are being drawn. And they are distinctly partisan, says Kidd, who says neither candidate brings the kind of "typical positives" seen in past elections.

Cuccinelli is seen as an overzealous social conservative, and will have a very difficult time distancing himself from his hard-line views on abortion, gay rights, and climate change. McAuliffe has to convince his own party that he's progressive enough to energize the masses.

"I think some Democratic base voters see him as the way he has been portrayed — as simply a Washington moneyman without a lot of substance," Kidd says of McAuliffe. "He's got to make up for that."

McAuliffe's best play will be to somehow shed his image as a hot-shot fundraiser and opportunist. To do that, Holsworth says, "he's trying a run-to-the-middle embrace while he paints Cuccinelli as an alien from another planet."

To that end, McAuliffe has been portraying himself as a reasonable, pro-business creator of jobs who's reaching out to sensible Republicans by praising Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's recent success with his transportation reforms that will raise billions of dollars for roads.

He's also trying to ratchet down his exuberance, shying away from the attention-grabbers that brought him scorn, such as using a marching band to announce his entrance at a Democratic Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in 2009, according to the Washington Post. Most analysts say the race is still too close to call.

"I am an Irish story teller," McAuliffe writes. "My people came over from County Cork. We love Guinness. We love St. Patrick's Day. And we love blarney."

McAuliffe reveals plenty about his personality in his gushy, 2007 book, What a Party! My Life Among Democrats: Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators and Other Wild Animals, which he co-wrote with Steve Kettman.

The youngest of four boys, McAuliffe grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., as a self-described hustler who got into "so many fistfights that my nickname was Mad Dog." A big influence was his father, a World War II artillery officer who was treasurer of the Onondaga County Democratic Party. His childhood was spent in a closely-knit community dominated by holidays, sports, and political campaigns.

McAuliffe also seems to have inherited more than a fair share of blarney. "I always loved selling," he writes, be it flipping a thousand red roses on Valentine's Day with his mother's help when he was 12 or starting his own small business, McAuliffe Driveway Maintenance, when he was 14.

McAuliffe left Syracuse to attend the Catholic University of America and Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. Curiously, Cuccinelli is the product of a Catholic education as well. After growing up in Northern Virginia, he attended the elite Gonzaga College High School in Washington that's run by the Jesuit order known for its academic rigor. While Cuccinelli seems the dour dogmatist, McAuliffe plays everybody's pal.

McAuliffe seems in a constant state of stupefaction that he's in the corridors of power. As a young Capitol Hill staffer, he wore fake eyeglasses to seem older, as shown in a caricature of him on the wall of the Palm Restaurant in Washington, which caters to the powerful. He writes about taking an airplane ride with President Carter and sneaking phone calls to his drinking buddies in Syracuse so they could impress their dates. The calls were presaged with the statement, "This is Air Force One, please hold for Mr. McAuliffe."

As a young Jimmy Carter apparatchik working a Florida campaign in 1980, McAuliffe says he wrestled an alligator to convince the chief of a Seminole tribe to contribute $15,000 to the Democratic cause. The gator was toothless and drugged and McAuliffe persisted, enduring the giant reptile's girth and bad breath from rotting food. He got the donation.

He tells of trading whiskey shots with his pals until the pre-dawn hours before putting on his shorts and running shoes to race in one of several marathons he's completed. As a congressional staffer, he visited Central America during its years of unrest in the 1980s and describes being nearly shot down by rebels while flying in a helicopter over Nicaragua.

But for a man so in love with the nation's Capital, he writes that he's "not of Washington," and later goes out of his way to create new images, including that of a good ol' boy, albeit with the customary name-dropping. He writes: "I may not have grown up with it but I've made up for lost time in recent years and have been an avid hunter. Among my more memorable trips were taking my son Jack wild boar hunting in Hungary with a group that included Prince Andrew and wild bird hunting with King Carlos in Spain, who is a terrific guy."

On he goes into the Clinton years with lots of upbeat stories and only a few mentions of Monica Lewinsky or other problems, including his depositions by Senate committees. In response to one session, he denied that it was his plan to charge big fees for coffee with President Clinton. "It wasn't," he says, "no more than having sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom was my idea."

McAuliffe drew national fire during his 2009 race for the Democratic primary in Virginia when consumer activist Ralph Nader complained to reporters that during the 2004 presidential campaign, McAuliffe, then head of the Democratic National Committee, offered him campaign money to stay off the presidential ballot.

According to news accounts, McAuliffe didn't deny the charge. Describing McAuliffe as "slipperier than an eel in olive oil," Nader told reporters: "He threatens, he promises, he cajoles, he jokes, he charms, he intimates. He really is not someone who should be governor and in possession of the public's trust."

Gaining that trust is essential if McAuliffe is to win and he seems to understand it. On the campaign trail he shows humility, sensitivity, and concern. He's on a dogged mission to visit all 23 community colleges in the state to learn where and how to create more jobs, which he says is his most important goal.

It's a smart play. Virginia is known for its community college system, established by the late Gov. Mills Godwin in the 1970s, who morphed from race baiter to job creator.

"Fantastic," McAuliffe says while he listens to school officials at the Culpeper Campus of the Germanna Community College talk about their projects, from designing machine controls to sponsoring a weight-loss competition. During the February visit, he furiously takes notes while he asks a barrage of questions.

At one point he asks how many times previous governors met with presidents of community colleges. Hardly ever, comes the response. McAuliffe shakes his head and says that will change.

"I'm all about jobs, about creating jobs and building the jobs that we have here today," he tells reporters at the end of the tour. "That's why the community college plays such an important focus on that. That is my focus to bring mainstream pro-business ideas, and my opponents more into a social, ideological agenda."

He gives his salesmanship a nod. "If governor, I have to sell my product, which is Virginia, and I'm competing against 200 nations around the world and other states. We have to make Virginia the best in education and transportation. We have to make the entire Commonwealth work. And we can't be sending out signals with a social-ideological agenda that says that people aren't wanted."

The big economic issues he sees are preparing the state for federal budget cuts and building a better transportation system. In Hampton Roads, he says, half of the economy comes from federal spending, which is "simply not a sustainable model."

What's needed are "21st-century jobs" and a way to move goods and people around, he says. While Virginia rates near the top in business-friendliness, it's 33rd in infrastructure and transportation, he says. The new transportation bill will help, and he praises McDonnell for it. Cuccinelli has slammed the plan for its tax hikes and questioned its constitutionality.
On the environment, he notes that Virginia is the only state in the mid-Atlantic that doesn't have a renewable energy standard that requires a percentage of the state's power to come from renewable sources such as wind or solar. "This means there is no incentive for alternative energy companies to come here," he says. As for new nuclear power plants, he says, "I'd have to look at any proposal." Later, in response to written questions from a reporter, McAuliffe says that exporting natural gas, as Dominion has proposed, should be done if it is safe.

His position on global warming is the polar opposite of Cuccinelli's. "Unlike my opponent," he says, "I trust the scientific consensus that humans contribute to climate change."

As for the Republican plan to keep abortion money from being included in upcoming federal health insurance exchanges, he says, "we shouldn't have the government tell women that they can't spend their own money for comprehensive health care coverage."

In a nod to criticism that he's an overbearing outsider, he says he carries a notebook for a reason. "The best ideas come from people who are dealing with these issues every day," he says. "There are big differences in this race: I am focused on bipartisan ideas for economic development and job creation while my opponent is focused on a divisive ideological agenda that is far outside the Virginia mainstream."

McAuliffe has a powerful message on policy. How well he delivers it depends on how well he can ratchet down his exuberant personality and understand that glitz, celebrities, and Easter Sunday digital blitzes don't sell well in the Old Dominion. In that regard, he may be his own worst enemy.

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Peter Galuszka is a contributing editor to Style Weekly in Richmond, where a version of this article and Scott Elmquist's photos first appeared.

6 comments

McAwful is about as "Washington establishment" a democrat as they come. How is that bucking tradition?

"...glitz, celebrities...don't sell well in the Old Dominion." Sure it does. They elected Obama twice.

When two days pass on a story and you get one comment (this will make two) that doesn't bode well. I'd never vote for C though, will the thought of C getting in get me to vote for Mc?

Carpetbagger, no more, no less.

Maybe he should run for Governor of Mississippi. Virginia certainly doesn't need him.