There are limits to how much a governor can get done, absent help from the legislature. But there’s also a lot a governor can do on his own. Terry McAuliffe is proof of that.
The 60-year-old McAuliffe, who is stepping down in January due to Virginia’s one-term limit, is a Democrat. Throughout his term, the Virginia Legislature was controlled by Republicans. That means McAuliffe has not gotten much traction on his legislative agenda, including his highest priority, expanding Medicaid.
But while McAuliffe has been handcuffed in many ways, he’s found plenty of useful work to do. He decided early on to spend much of his time promoting Virginia all over the world as a great place to do business. By the time he leaves office, he’ll have taken nearly three dozen trips abroad; just last month, he visited five countries in Asia, promoting the Virginia brand. “I don’t compete against the other governors -- it’s really expensive to do that,” McAuliffe says. “Ninety-five percent of the world’s customers live outside of America, so I’ve focused on international travel.”
The bottom line is that Virginia has created more than 200,000 jobs on his watch, with unemployment well below 4 percent -- and with the rate down in every county in the commonwealth. “Having him out there making the case for Virginia is positive,” says Frank Ruff, a Republican who chairs the Virginia Senate’s economic development subcommittee. “He’s a born salesman and that’s generally what it takes.”
Some Republicans -- and even some Democrats -- were dubious about how McAuliffe might perform as governor. A former chair of the Democratic National Committee, he came across as stridently partisan and performed poorly during his first run for governor in 2009. But he spent the next four years traveling the state and mastering the issues. “He won in part by being this enthusiastic champion of business in Virginia,” says Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University, “and a much more mature candidate.”
McAuliffe has, of course, attended to the normal duties involved in running the state, such as promoting transportation projects and initiatives in education. He talks about making Virginia the first state to functionally eradicate homelessness among veterans.
His proudest single achievement, however, is restoring voting rights to ex-felons. In most states, this happens automatically. In Virginia, former felons are barred from voting unless they can obtain a pardon from the governor. McAuliffe tried to offer a blanket restoration to felons as a class, but the state Supreme Court shot that idea down. So McAuliffe started taking up each case individually. “I said, ‘Fine, I’ll do each one myself,’” he recounts. “‘Line ’em up, I’ll get the pens.’”
McAuliffe has restored voting rights to more than 165,000 ex-convicts, arguing that if they’ve served out their sentences, they should have the full rights of citizenship. It’s the largest enfranchisement effort ever undertaken by an American governor. It’s also another example of McAuliffe getting as much done as he possibly can in the face of concerted political opposition. “With each challenge put up in opposition to it,” says Tammie Hagen, a community organizer who had her own voting rights restored, “he had a counterplan to carry it out on every front.”
-- By Alan Greenblatt
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