What Is Terry McAuliffe Up To?

The next Virginia Governor's race is two years away, and he's setting himself up for a run

It's 7 a.m. on a hot July morning and Terry McAuliffe jumps into the passenger seat of his hybrid Chevy Tahoe. On this Saturday in McLean, Va., the heat index will reach 110 degrees. The country is fired up over the debt ceiling fight in Washington, and McAuliffe, 54, wide-eyed and grinning, looks like a kid who's just been told he's going to McDonald's. He pulls a map of Virginia from the glove box. It's peppered with magic marker circles (You can see a digital version of the map on his campaign-like website).

"Love the map!" McAuliffe says, almost shouts, and then sips coffee from a travel mug. "It's fun going to these tiny towns. To them I'm the former chair of the DNC, and it's fun for coal miners to get to know you, to get rid of the labels, the stereotypes."

To ask, "What stereotypes?" almost seems silly. He's the self-promoting, fundraising mastermind who headed the Democratic National Committee during George W. Bush's first term; he's Bill Clinton's best friend and co-chair of his successful 1996 re-election campaign; chair of Hillary Clinton's 2008 Presidential campaign; he hunts pheasant with the King of Spain; listens to Jack Nicholson tell stories until 5 a.m. and once wrestled a 280-pound alligator for a $15,000 political contribution from the Seminole Indian Tribe.

He's a rascal, a risk-taker and a salesman, and, in 2009, Virginia voters were not ready for his expensive, polished, full-court-press gubernatorial campaign.

McAuliffe's energy might be too much for some people, he admits. "It could be, but I can't change it. It is what it is. If you know me, that's who I’ve been for 54 years." 

"I got kicked out of third grade because I wouldn't stop talking," he recalls with satisfaction. "I was always fidgety and could never sit still. The teacher said she wouldn't teach me another day and I was transferred out of the classroom…. I'll never forget when I had to lug my desk up a flight of stairs."

Since losing the Democratic primary to Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) in June 2009, McAuliffe has given more than $90,000 to Virginia politicians and organizations. He's spoken at 295 events across the Commonwealth, with 40 events confirmed between now and Election Day this November 8. At these Democratic events, he's often introduced as the next Governor of Virginia.

One thing's for sure—McAuliffe has been busy. Two weeks ago, he was in Ordos, China, announcing a new joint venture for his new electric car company, GreenTech Automotive, which will sell automobiles in China with U.S. parts. He's also led an effort to transform a shuttered paper mill into a green-energy wood pellet factory in Franklin City, Va.

And what will result from these pursuits? Jobs, he says. So, who stands in his way?

"It all depends on who runs. I haven’t heard many names mentioned," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Terry McAuliffe is probably the most prominent. Occasionally Virginia Delegate Ward Armstrong (D-Martinsville and Henry County) is mentioned.”

A lot also depends on 2012, and whether President Obama is reelected, Sabato says. “If Obama wins, it actually hurts Democratic chances at the Virginia governor’s seat in 2013. It’s going to be difficult for Democrats to win in Southern states until the Obama administration is over. If Obama loses in 2012, Democrats might have a better chance. Since 1977, Virginia has voted for the gubernatorial candidate of the party opposite the White House. This has occurred every four years over that period of time."

The Drive

Levar Stoney, McAuliffe's public relations chief and the former executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, is in the driver's seat, and turns onto I-66 West. The trio are bound for Nelson County's Rockfish Valley Community Center in Afton, Va., which is between Charlottesville and Lynchburg. It's going to be a long day—two hours to the event, make a speech and mingle, turn back, have lunch with the McAuliffe family and then leave for a beer, conversation and a speech at the 7th Annual Lee District Liberty Luau in Alexandria.

McAuliffe still won’t say if he’s really running for governor in 2013. "I don't know, honestly, what I'm going to be doing in two years, I really don't. But is it a possibility? Yes. And if it is indeed a possibility, then I'm going to put myself in the best possible position for when I make that decision. I do that with everything I do," McAuliffe says.

McAullife is starting to riff, and his talking points are centered on jobs and job creation. "We've borrowed over $380 million from the federal government for unemployment insurance and we have to borrow $600 million more. We have $1 billion we're on the hook for that no one ever talks about in Virginia. We've got VRS (Virginia Retirement System), which is close to $700 million, and you start adding up these future obligations, and we've got to turbo charge our economy. The same old set of how we do business doesn't work in the future in a global economy.”

McAuliffe wants wind turbines off the coast of Virginia. "The General Assembly has a study in front of it that says it will create 10,000 jobs. We literally could light up 750,000 homes with wind. Out in Norfolk, we have the largest transmission port in the U.S. outside of New York City. This is not complicated. I really don't care right now what you think about climate change. That's not my point. I do believe things are happening to the earth, but even if you don't, think of alternative energy from a job-creation component. Where are you creating the blades, where are you making the turbines and the solar panels? It's the whole mix."

Can Virginia voters accept this guy as their leader?

"Sure, I think that everyone now knows I'm a Virginian, that Dorothy and I have lived here the last 25 years and are raising five children," he says. "It really depends if we can shake it up. That means lots of jobs, lots of new industries. Fix our Medicaid system so we're not 49th, fix our education system so that we're a leader in the nation and in the world in sciences, technology and math, because if we don't do it it's going to have a ripple effect down the road…. One thing about me—I love big ideas and am very results oriented. You have a lot of big talkers in politics. I've done it. I've met payrolls.”

In other words, yes, McAuliffe is laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial campaign—though he always says this kind of stuff. He's publicly chummy with Deeds and former Del. Brian Moran, his Democratic rivals in 2009. He's also courting their constituents and donating to their campaigns and causes. He donated $25,000 to Deeds' campaign after losing the primary, and gave the Democratic Party of Virginia $13,200 after Moran was elected State Party Chair.

"I've been so impressed with Terry's commitment to creating jobs and helping Virginia's middle class working families," Moran says in an email to Patch. "….I don't think there is any doubt that he would be a serious competitor for the Gubernatorial nomination, or any other office in the Commonwealth, though from what I understand right now he is focused on helping Democrats win in 2011, and building a new business based on Green Technology."  

Wrestling an Alligator

McAuliffe was born and raised Roman Catholic in Syracuse, New York, and was exposed to politics at an early age. His father, Jack, was a local Democratic Party treasurer.

At 14, the former golf caddy started McAuliffe Driveway Maintenance, and eventually had company trucks driven by a staff of friends. "I was the youngest of four boys, and I could fix everything," he says. "My father wouldn't know a lawnmower if it fell on him. I was always industrious, loved to work. My mother figured I would be great in hotel/motel management."

At 22, McAuliffe left law school at Georgetown for President Jimmy Carter's reelection campaign. Soon the kid from Syracuse was the finance director. "God, I used to wear clear glasses just to look a little older. I was the President's finance chair and I looked like I was 15," he says. "I left Georgetown Law School for a guy who never had a chance at winning. My mother cried when I told her. But it was the best decision of my life. That's what I tell people all the time—take chances while you're young. Do what you want to do and opportunities will come along. Take them. You'll make mistakes and you'll learn from them."

On the hunt for Carter campaign dollars, McAuliffe asked for $15,000 from Chief James Billie of the Seminole Indian tribe in Florida. "I always teach people when they're out raising money, what's the worst they can say? No! Big deal. I wouldn't have gotten a date in high school if I ever took 'No' for an answer. You go back. So, he said: 'Ok, Terry. I'll give you the fifteen grand, but you have to take part in an ancient tribal custom.' I thought we were going to smoke a peace pipe or something. But he wanted me to wrestle an alligator."

The story made national news, and McAuliffe was on the cover of Newsweek. Prior to the three-minute match, Chief Billie, who now wears one of his thumbs on a necklace around his neck (alligator incident), gave McAuliffe a tutorial on best practices.

"Had to do it," McAuliffe says. "No question. I made a commitment and couldn't walk away from it—couldn't do it. It's not my nature. Once I say I'm going to do something I do it. If you don't have your word you've got nothing.”

An alligator's tail is very powerful. "The tail can snap your vertebrae. But (an alligator) also has very weak muscles to open their mouths, so you straddle it and hold his mouth shut as he's trying to twist you off so he can bite you," McAuliffe says.

Three minutes later: "Did that, got the $15,000, went out and had a great time in Miami. I'll do anything once, not twice," McAuliffe says.

After Reagan defeated Carter in the general election, McAuliffe returned to law school, but not before meeting Bill Clinton for the first time. "I’m now in charge of finances for the party, the election has just happened, and I'm going to go back to Georgetown and they had a governors’ meeting in Maryland. I get a call that a former governor of Arkansas would like to meet with me. He was going to run for the DNC Chairman."

The relationship would become strong.

McAuliffe, who was a millionaire before turning 30, was also Chair of Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. "I am very big on loyalty," he says. "If you are my friend, you are my friend. Everybody's with you when you're winning. I want to know who's with me when I'm losing, when I'm down. We had a great primary, but it was only when Hillary Clinton said, 'Terry, it's time to step down. You fought to the end. I'm proud of you,' that we moved our full support to President Obama and his campaign."

How close are the McAuliffes and Clintons, aside from the fact they vacation together? "We hung out three days ago," he says. "I see him all the time. We golfed twice in the last two weeks.”

Hillary Clinton's popularity has not waned like that of President Obama, which could bolster McAuliffe's potential gubernatorial campaign. "It would be a plus," said Sabato. "It would help McAuliffe raise money, and the image of the Clintons has moved up in Virginia as it has in most places. Hillary Clinton could be of even greater help than Bill Clinton. Her approval ratings have not taken a hit during the bad economic times."

A Short Speech in Nelson County

McAuliffe and Stoney are warmly greeted by Janet Hunter, chair of the Nelson County Democratic Committee. Sen. Creigh Deeds is finishing up his speech to the whir of box fans in the unairconditioned gymnasium.

"…He lends his voice to causes we all believe in. He's a great American, a great Virginian, my friend Terry McAuliffe!"

McAuliffe hasn't been in the gym for fifteen seconds before he takes the mike from Deeds. "Good to see you, buddy," he tells Deeds in passing and then, just as the applause begins to die down, shouts: "Good morning! Come on, this isn't a Republican fundraiser! I said, ‘Good morning!’ Let's hear it for the greatest state senator in the history of the Commonweatlth of Virginia!"

The energy in the room has changed, and a crowd of about 50 are focused on the loudest guy in the room. "I ran on a platform of big ideas: Get rid of payday lending, get rid of the one-term governorship, create a renewable energy standard, a lobbyist ban, a lot of the things that I thought were important, and I said, if you don't like my big ideas don't vote for me. And you didn't (That one always gets a laugh). It is what it is, but the issues I talked about then are as prevalent today."

McAuliffe then mentions GreenTech and the wood chip factory. "I wanted you to know that I did what I said I was going to do, but I'm doing it not as governor, I'm doing it as a private citizen.”

The speech lasts about 12 minutes, and McAuliffe and Stoney stick around to chat for a half hour. "I'm very worried what's going on with this debt stuff," he says, referring to the then-current fight on Capitol Hill over the debt ceiling. "We have set a very sour tone going forward on our economy for world creditors. They're looking at this sideshow and they're not going to forget it.... Our future that we are risking is relying on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Middle Eastern countries for oil to relying on Germany and China for future technologies for energy. That's not a good position. We should be leading and not following, and this debate is beyond belief to me."

The two-hour ride back to McLean is quick. McAuliffe talks while flipping through three newspapers—The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. "You can almost just read one paper," he says. "There are so many wire stories... Newspapers don't have the investigative staffs they used to. Why do you think they let Bob McDonnell get away with murder? They take the press release."

The Luau

The pool party starts at Susie Warner's house in Alexandria at 6:30 p.m., and the heat is stifling. McAuliffe, his blue oxford shirt replaced by a blue Hawaiian shirt and pink lei, drinks beer and rubs elbows with dozens of Northern Virginia Democratic politicians. Peter McAuliffe, his eight-year-old son, is there with a swimsuit.  

"Terry is a larger-than-life individual," says Sharon Bulova, chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "I had lunch with him two months or so ago and I don't ever think I had so much fun. He was having a conversation with people all over the restaurant from our table. He's an outgoing, gregarious person, but an astute businessman, and I think that's a powerful combination."

U.S. Congressman Jim Moran (D-8th), brother to Brian Moran, arrives and gives Patch his endorsement. "Terry's running for governor. He's the real thing and I'm going to support him," Moran says. "I think that Ward Armstrong is going to run for Lt. Governor.”

Pixie Bell is the first vice chair of the Eighth Congressional District Democratic Committee. "When he started out running four years ago, he just kind of dropped down from the sky. I certainly had a bad view of him then. He's been everywhere, he's contributed financially and he's building his electric car business and things that will create jobs. He's figuring out what the needs are and has been addressing them," she says. "He's also courted the people who were strong Brian Moran supporters, because there was bad blood between those campaigns. He's overcome that, and the negative feelings about him."

Steve Bunn, co-chair of the Lee District Dems, gets the ball rolling and introduces McAuliffe. "This is a man who has tried very hard to make jobs here in Virginia, a person who needs no introduction and who has run for governor and will likely do so again," Bunn says.

McAuliffe unhesitatingly takes the mike for the second time that day and says this: "What I worry about every night before I get to bed is that we can not let them take any more seats in the House of Delegates, because no office is worth it if they have a veto-proof House. That's the stakes of 2011. We start the comeback of the Democratic Party here in Virginia, we win seats in the House of Delegates, we win seats in the State Senate, Barack Obama carries the state next year, Tim Kaine is elected in the United States Senate, then we come back and we win the governorship back and then the world is great for everybody.

“Folks, you've got to be out there with a message. You've got to fight hard, because they are fighting hard on the other side," he says.

The rhetoric incites applause and whistles, and McAullife rejoins the crowd of Democrats as Jim Moran takes the stage, followed by Bulova and Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay. But after a few moments it's apparent that McAuliffe has slipped away. The next day, Stoney emails Patch to apologize, but McAuliffe and Peter had to run to catch the last showing of Captain America.

Questions and Answers

The following are excerpts from Patch’s interview with Terry McAuliffe.

Patch: What do you think are Hillary Clinton's 2016 Presidential aspirations?

McAuliffe: My personal opinion is that she is really looking forward to getting back to Chappaqua, enjoying life, hopefully being a grandmother and running a foundation for women and children. She has been first lady, a U.S. Senator, Secretary of State. She hasn't stopped in 20 years. I think she's looking forward to enjoying life, to relaxing and not having to get in a plane every single day and going to three countries.

Patch: Have you ever done drugs?

McAuliffe: Never touched a drug in my life, never smoked pot. Can you imagine me on drugs? I'd be jumping off skyscrapers!

Patch: What's the secret to being a good salesman?

McAuliffe: I think you're born with it. First of all, you've got to be passionate about what you're doing. It's not easy to raise money - to ask people for a million dollars, or $10,000, which is harder. You've got to totally believe in what you're doing. I always try to bring a lot of enthusiasm to it and excitement. You've always got to believe you're going to win, and you've got to convince people you're going to win.

Also, you've got to be positive. I don't have bad days. I do not allow negative energy to enter the room. Tell me how we get it done. If I don't want to do it, I don't do it. I've always been positive. That's why I've been successful with so many businesses. You make a goal, you put it out there and motivate people to go with you and get it done. 

Patch: You're always talking about competition and China…

McAuliffe: China recently announced an $800 billion investment in alternative energy. They want to own the electric car market. That's frightening to a guy like me. I'm on the board with the Clinton Foundation - we travel all over the world. Ten years ago, no China. Today, they're everywhere with hydroelectric plants. They're putting a footprint, a flag up all over the world. Listen, we designed the Kindle here in America. It's the hottest thing going, and we can't make it in America. It's made in Indonesia and Singapore. Thousands of jobs. We've got idle plants, the idle Ford factory in Hampton Roads. Fill these plants up with people.

China owns $1.2 trillion of our debt. In five years they're going to be a bigger economy than ours. The thing that bothers me the most is that we're not creating the manufacturing jobs, not creating the manufacturing to go with it to make it competitive. You have to create 150,000 jobs a month in America just to keep up with population growth. We did 18,000 last month.

Patch: And competition...

McAuliffe: I believe we should be competitive on everything. If they're number one, I want to be number one. Think you'll be number one, try to be number one and you'll be a lot closer than you were. Shoot for the moon. You may only get to the stars, but it's a whole lot better than being stuck here on the earth. If you don't you'll never be anywhere close. Always think big and then do it.

Patch: What's your opinion of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cucinelli?

McAuliffe: I'm just not  a big fan of extreme politics either way. The way these guys went after that guy (a former climate scientist) at UVA on climate change - they don't understand the ramifications of that. A scientist never wants to open themselves to attacks and harassment, and they'll just as readily go to Maryland, to North Carolina.

Patch: Have you ever been starstruck?

McAuliffe: Starstruck - no. Amazed, yes. When I met Mandela. Mandela, I think, is the most impressive. I went out to Robbens Island - this little cell, and you see what this man endured. Incredible.

Patch: Would you ever go back to the DNC?

McAuliffe: No. I loved it, and they wanted me to run again. I left with a 96 percent approval rate. I rebuilt the national headquarters, built the first national voter file (known as Demzilla), changed the election calendar, raised more money in the history as chair of any party - $556 Million. I loved it. But four years is a long time, and I was the most traveled chairman ever.

Patch: What do you do to relax?

McAuliffe: Action flicks before bed. It relaxes me. It drives Dorothy crazy, but that's what I have to do to get my mind off of it. It calms me down.

C. Marchionna August 23, 2011 at 12:59 AM
Great article - very detailed!
Susan Larson August 23, 2011 at 05:06 AM
Thank you for your comments and compliments on the Terry McAuliffe article by James Cullum.
David D Howell August 24, 2011 at 05:32 PM
Great article, James. Enjoyed it very much Dave Howell
Burke Brownfeld August 25, 2011 at 02:09 PM
I agree. This article was really well written and gives a really nice profile of McAuliffe. Nicely done!
Beth Jarvis August 31, 2011 at 07:59 PM
I'm late to the party with my comments on this article, however, I concur...this was an engaging read and very well-written. James Cullum did a first-rate job of accessing, humanizing and showcasing the attributes of Terry McAuliffe. If/When McAuliffe does decide to announce his run for Governor of Virginia, it would behoove him to let this article resurface and he should consider adding Cullum to his press team too!


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