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Clinton Loyalist Still Fighting, This Time For Himself

5 years ago
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Compared to raising money by wrestling an alligator or singing onstage at an Indian casino, both of which he's done, Terry McAuliffe is waging a relatively tame campaign for Virginia governor.

One day last week in Spring Grove, he merely descended into an algae pond wearing camouflage waders, climbed a 30-foot scaffold to inspect algae research, and drove three miles in a homemade, algae-fueled go-cart.

"Great ride over," the mud-spattered candidate exclaimed as he eased out of the driver's seat of the little vehicle.

It's made of junk and an Italian engine, and can't go backwards because "I spent all the money going forward," Jes Sprouse, who runs Algal Farms, told him. McAuliffe promised to try to get him more money. "We'll get you reverse," he said.

That was one of the smaller assurances coming these days from a man not known for understatement. Big is the word from McAuliffe as he describes his ideas for Virginia, and big is also the word for the transformation he is attempting: From fundraiser, spinmeister, dealmaker, and Clinton-family stalwart to Democratic gubernatorial nominee and officeholder in his own right.

For Virginia Democrats, who have a June 9 primary to choose an opponent for Republican attorney general Bob McDonnell, it's quite the show. In one corner are two Richmond veterans, State Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath and former state delegate Brian Moran of Alexandria.

In the other is McAuliffe – a former Democratic National Committee chairman with a business background and an all-star Rolodex, who helped keep Bill Clinton in the White House and tried last year to get Hillary there as well.

Like his network of business, entertainment, political and foreign leaders, McAuliffe's campaign reflects his personality. It's outsized if you like him, overkill if you don't, and either way he's not about to tamp himself down.
"You are who you are," McAuliffe says in an interview. "Have you known my personality to change in all these years you've known me?"

"Um, no," I reply slowly, sorting through the grab bag of conflicting adjectives filling my brain – ridiculous, impressive, shameless, hyperactive, flamboyant, overly loyal, oh wait, he's resumed this discussion.

"I am who I am," he says. "If people don't like my personality, don't vote for me." His voice rises to a hoarse squeak. "This is politics."

McAuliffe has devoted 30 years to national politics and lived in Northern Virginia for the last 20. But only now is his state getting the full-court Terry.

Former president Bill Clinton is promoting his former campaign finance chairman all over the state, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Blue Ridge Mountains to the D.C. suburbs. The hip-hop artist will.i.am, famous for the "Yes We Can" video he made for Barack Obama, is touring with McAuliffe today (Monday, May 11).

On the money front, Virginia records show McAuliffe raised $4.2 million in the first quarter of the year – nearly three times as much as Moran and Deeds combined. As of the middle of last week, McAuliffe had spent close to half a million dollars on TV ads, according to Evan Tracey at the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Deeds had spent about $50,000 and Moran was not on the air.

Online, McAuliffe has a 130-page business plan for Virginia while Moran has a three-page economic plan and Deeds – who is stressing education – doesn't list jobs or the economy as a separate issue. The McAuliffe campaign issues press releases and advisories at a clip reminiscent of a presidential campaign, with a travel schedule to match.

"Everything is lined up for him. It will be an upset if he doesn't win," says Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Two out of three recent polls show McAuliffe leading his primary opponents, but many Virginia Democrats remain undecided. Will they go for Terry's sledgehammer approach or stick with a lower key, more familiar alternative? And if he wins the primary, how will he fare with independents and Republicans?

McAuliffe is betting that Virginia's need for jobs will trump his past as a partisan combatant. "I think people are excited in this horrible economy to probably have a governor with big ideas, who knows lots of folks, who will use those folks that he knows to bring jobs, a big personality to jump-start our economy," he says. "I think that's what people like. I think that's what they want."

Moran spokesman Jesse Ferguson calls McAuliffe "a phenomenal fundraiser," arguably the best in American history. But he says Virginians will be more interested in Moran, who has the support of local leaders throughout the state. Deeds says he is most qualified and the only one who has run a statewide race – losing the attorney general race to McDonnell by 360 votes.

Both men have been focused on Virginia issues for decades. Yet McAuliffe and his 130-page plan are giving them serious competition. "Oh Jill, don't be shallow," he says to me, after deducing that I had not read all 130 pages. Message: Terry is a man of substance.

It's true that he's got concrete proposals for everything from renewable energy requirements to teacher pay to banning lobbyist gifts to getting rid of exploitative payday lending. And to be fair, he talks about them incessantly. But name-dropping is also part of the schtick.

Asked about alternative energy last week at a town meeting in Richmond, McAuliffe replied, "I spoke to Boone myself a couple of weeks ago on this." As in Boone Pickens, the Texas oil magnate now pushing wind energy.

At the same meeting, a movie titan got a cameo after McAuliffe said lawmakers won't put money into a film fund. "We are about to lose 'Lincoln' and '1776.' They are about to go to Massachusetts, where they will create sets that look like Richmond," he said. He added, "I know Tom Hanks very well. It's a business."

Earlier that day, McAuliffe learned he had won the endorsement of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters – a big deal in a Democratic primary. Executive director Lisa Guthrie said the "dynamics of government in Virginia need to change dramatically" to protect the environment. McAuliffe, she said, has the vision, contacts and skills to make that happen.

McAULIFFE SHAKES UP A RACE

McAuliffe, 52, erupted into the governor's race months after Deeds and Moran had started running against each other. They've now shifted strategies to go after him.

Deeds, referring to some of McAuliffe's out-of-state contributors, said in a Williamsburg debate last month that McAuliffe would be beholden to Donald Trump and Wall Street. McAuliffe counters that he's raised more money than either rival within Virginia, and much of his out-of-state money comes from friends. "They haven't been lobbying down at the General Assembly. They want absolutely nothing" from Virginia, he says.

Moran is trying to paint McAuliffe as a truth-stretcher. He has challenged McAuliffe's statement that he created five businesses in Virginia, saying he was able to find only three and they were registered to McAuliffe's home address in Northern Virginia. "Just how many employees do you have working in that McLean residence?" Moran asked in a debate.

McAuliffe often says his many ventures over the years have created thousands of jobs. However, the five companies based in McLean are investment partnerships with no employees. As far as the idea that they produced jobs, "I never said that," he tells me.

It was a bit of creative omission, reminiscent of his answer when someone at the Richmond town meeting asked where his kids – aged 17, 16, 14, 9, and 6 – go to school. He said one attends Gonzaga, a Catholic high school in Washington, and four go to the Potomac School in McLean. He didn't mention that Potomac is a private school.

Moran is also going after McAuliffe's repeated assertion that he never says anything bad about other Democrats. "You have taken polls testing negative attacks against me. You have sent out e-mails to the press attacking me," Moran said at a debate last month in Blacksburg. "I can take your negative campaigning against me. What I can't take is the sanctimonious rhetoric that you get up here and say I'm Mr. Positive."

"I have not said one negative word myself about you or Creigh since I got into this race," McAuliffe responded. Yeah, Moran retorted, because your aides do the talking.

Ferguson, the Moran spokesman, says Luce Research of Colorado confirmed it had conducted a poll for the McAuliffe campaign that "certainly was designed to either test or spread negative messages about Brian." He says the lines of attack haven't been used yet in ads, but reporters have asked about some of them – suggesting they've been fed information.

McAuliffe spokeswoman Elisabeth Smith says the campaign does not comment on internal polls and does not consider criticizing someone's record a negative attack. McAuliffe reiterates that he personally has not said anything bad about anyone. "We are running a positive campaign," he says.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO TERRY

McAuliffe ran the national party from 2001 to 2005 and proudly reels off his accomplishments there – getting the party out of debt "for the first time in history," building voter information files and TV and radio facilities, renovating the headquarters and changing the primary calendar – and finishes, "I ran that. I was in charge of that."

He agrees that the Clinton campaign was poorly run but says that as chairman, he was not responsible. "I didn't run the campaign," he says. "I didn't attend any meetings. My relationship was with Hillary."

A self-described "glass overflowing" type of guy, McAuliffe says his job was to be upbeat and motivational. For Virginians who'd like to know how he'd perform as their cheerleader, the operative words are irrepressible and sometimes literally unbelievable.

The liberal TalkingPointsMemo.com website captured the high points of Terry TV in a hilarious "Terrymania!" video. "Terry McAuliffe: Insane but somehow oddly lovable," the Blue Oregon blog wrote after seeing it. As for Terry, "Loved it," he says. "Loved it."

We see him asking CNN anchor John Roberts to contribute to Clinton's campaign, talking about "the fight" until he's hoarse and pausing for a brief, bemused moment before asking a Fox news anchor, "Are you saying I'm not tethered to reality? Is that what you're saying?"

We see him professorially explaining his personality to Chris Matthews on MSNBC. "I'm always exuberant, Chris, that is my nature," he says. Chris, another exuberant soul, replies, "I'm talking about sodium pentothal. Have you taken an injection to add truth to that exuberance?" "Maybe it's methamphetamines," adds anchor Mika Brzezinski.

After the late Tim Russert tells him on NBC's "Meet The Press" that even Clinton delegates say she can't win the nomination, he says three times that "nothing's impossible" and adds, "You are talking to Terry McAuliffe. I don't think anything in life is impossible."

He held on to that right up until the night of June 3, 2008, when he introduced Hillary Clinton as "the next president of the United States." That was the night the primaries ended and Obama finally clinched the Democratic nomination.

"I believed everything I said," McAuliffe says now of that evening. In fact, he says, he and both Clintons were calling superdelegates that night trying to get them on board. "I was Hillary's chairman. I thought she was going to be president," he says to me. "I'm sorry. Maybe you didn't."

In the current campaign, Sabato says, McAuliffe "told me he knows every world leader personally and they all return his telephone calls." He adds, "Nobody believes that stuff."

McAuliffe often says he'll call President Obama every day with ideas to help Virginia. When I suggest this is hyperbole, he disagrees. "I'm gonna. I would hope to as governor," he says, and laughs. "Now, he may not take the call every day."

A LIFELONG ROWDY STREAK

In his 2007 book, "What A Party!", McAuliffe describes growing up in Syracuse, the youngest of four boys, in ways that suggest the more things change, the more they stay the same. His "rowdy streak" got him kicked out of 3rd grade. He started his first business – driveway paving – at 14. And, most important, "I always loved selling."

Since that driveway-paving business, McAuliffe has made millions as a venture capitalist, real estate developer and homebuilder. He has chaired a bank and owned a hotel. Often his business partners and associates have been political friends and allies he's met in a fundraising career that began in 1979 on Jimmy Carter's re-election campaign.

McAuliffe, then 22, worked for and stayed at the home of Richard Swann, Carter's Florida finance director. It was fate in more ways than one. Swann's then 16-year-old daughter Dorothy later married Terry and still later – this week, in fact – she talks about her husband and their five children in a mellow new TV ad.

The book and the life underscore some of McAuliffe's contradictions. He does hang with the rich and famous – heck, he is rich and kind of famous. But he's also unpretentious and clearly not concerned about the possibility of looking silly.

"This is my book and obviously I've done my best to make myself look good," he says in his author's note. Then he goes on to discuss the loud polyester suits he used to wear (if someone had taken a match to me, he writes, "I'd have gone up in flames") and trying to eat bacon with a spoon at the White House because he dropped his fork on the floor.

For his day exploring algae in southeastern Virginia, McAuliffe is dressed in rubber boots and jeans (38-34, according to the outside label). His adventure begins mysteriously. No one at Algal Farms, the address on the campaign press advisory, has heard anything about his visit.

A large pool of algae, five bioreactors on a scaffolding and a garage crammed with equipment and experiments sit beside a neatly painted home with a wreath on the door and laundry drying on the line. McAuliffe arrives – in a Chevy Tahoe hybrid – and correctly surmises that this is not a research project run by Old Dominion University.

"This is the wrong site. We'll see both," he decides on the spot, and shakes hands with Sprouse. "I think we're supposed to be at the next farm down, but this is great. I hope we didn't bother you. What are you having for lunch?" he jokes.

"Come on, let's take a look," he says, and climbs up the "algae tower of power," as Sprouse calls it. Back on solid ground, McAuliffe says high unemployment in southeastern Virginia provides an opening to get in the game for renewable energy contracts that other states are now winning.

He gives a number for a high unemployment rate in Martinsville. "I'm from Danville," a reporter says. "Danville, OK, you're 13.6," he says, and the rest of us raise our eyebrows.

"Nobody's tripping him up," says Ben Tribbett, author of the Virginia politics blog named NotLarrySabato. "He's not having local issues hitting him in the face because he doesn't know about them. That's the disaster story that could have taken him down."

McAuliffe talks constantly about the energy potential of chicken waste ("I've actually made chicken waste something exciting") and the need for mandatory standards on renewable energy.

Virginia has set a voluntary goal for utilities to generate 15 percent of their energy from renewables by 2025; McAuliffe would make it 25 percent and mandatory. Investors say "we can't invest in a state that's not serious about renewables," he says. So they invest in Arkansas and Tennessee instead.

McAuliffe looks at a coal substitute made from algae. It's organic and after burning it leaves less than 25 percent of the ash of real coal. "Now why are we not doing this everywhere, Jeff?" he teases Jeff Schapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "I don't know, Terry, you tell me, "Jeff teases back.

"We need to get Secretary Chu down here to see this. It's incredible," McAuliffe muses, referring to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. He continues to think out loud. China's opening a coal plant every eight days, he says. "We could sell this technology to China."

Later, at the town meeting, he says he's offering campaign resources in an effort to elect a "like-minded" majority in the House of Delegates, which he says fought former governor Mark Warner on budget reform and has stymied Gov. Tim Kaine on transportation for four years. He talks about goals like more music and art in schools, and the economic growth that will be needed to pay for them.

"You give me the tools, I will go get jobs," he says. "I'll answer all your questions. I'll stay here 'til midnight if you want."

It's a figure of speech. Possibly.
Filed Under: Democrats

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