WASHINGTON — After four years of exuberance, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe leaves office Saturday proud of his term and with a plan for the future that includes crisscrossing the country for campaign stops and speeches.
Republicans in the General Assembly argue McAuliffe should have done more to reach across the aisle both in style and in substance, and bristled at some direct attacks in his final State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday, but in a final interview from the Executive Mansion McAuliffe sold his term as one of progress.
“We had a great working relationship on job creation, on economic development,” McAuliffe said, seated in Patrick Henry’s chair, “but we disagreed violently on social issues.”
“They were trying to play to their base; my point is, you cannot grow an economy if you put walls up around it,” he said.
McAuliffe vetoed a record 120 bills over the course of his term, benefitted from newly available transportation funding finalized by his predecessor Bob McDonnell, and overhauled the way that money was allocated to projects across the state.
McAuliffe, who turns 61 in a few weeks, regularly launches into a long list of accomplishments over the course of his term that cites transportation projects, promises of $20 billion in investment in Virginia from businesses that have yet to be fully realized and more.
“I can’t do anything in 10 seconds,” McAuliffe laughed when asked to boil it down.
His proudest moment was restoring voting rights to more than 170,000 Virginians who had completed sentences for felonies — something he had to do in each case individually after the Supreme Court of Virginia struck down his initial attempt at blanket restoration.
The court’s majority included the justice whom Republicans in the General Assembly elected over McAuliffe’s recess appointment to the court, Jane Marum Roush of Fairfax County.
McAuliffe’s toughest moment of the term was the violence in Charlottesville.
Family members of Heather Heyer and the two Virginia State Police troopers killed in a helicopter crash that day were guests in the House of Delegates chamber Wednesday night for McAuliffe’s final address to the General Assembly.
“It was the honor and privilege of my life to be governor. I’m very proud of leaving this state in great shape,” McAuliffe said.
What’s next for McAuliffe
When he leaves office shortly after noon Saturday, McAuliffe plans to shift to campaign mode for Democratic candidates in the 36 states with governor’s races this fall.
“Yeah, I’ll probably make it to Iowa to help that governor’s race,” McAuliffe said.
The 2020 Iowa Caucuses are two years away.
“Oh really?” McAuliffe said sarcastically. “Let’s get through this year [first].”
McAuliffe — who is always exuberant and never shy to resort to hyperbole or deadpan — suggested on MSNBC Thursday night he would punch President Trump if hovered over in a presidential debate the way Trump appeared to do to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In addition to campaign stops, McAuliffe plans to spend more time with his family, give speeches, volunteer with veterans and work on redistricting reforms.
Asked about the failure of the state’s Department of Elections to fully investigate reports as early as 2015 about voters being assigned to the wrong districts in the Fredericksburg area, McAuliffe said he hoped to fix problems in the future.
“It all comes back to these gerrymandered districts,” McAuliffe said.
He also blamed gerrymandering, which can lead to districts that are safe for one party or the other, for polarization in politics and his failure to get the Medicaid expansion allowed under the Affordable Care Act approved by the General Assembly.
Republican leaders have expressed reservations about the costs of the existing program, but McAuliffe is hopeful that the 15-seat Democratic gain in the House of Delegates could mean the expansion gets done this year.
He included it, again, in his budget proposal.
“The state’s in great shape; the economy’s in great shape; you know he [Gov.-elect Northam] needs to get Medicaid expansion, which I think will get done this year — very excited about that,” McAuliffe said.
Stands by tolls
McAuliffe stands by the many major transportation projects underway across the state, including new tolls on Interstate 66 and Interstate 64 and plans to build new toll lanes or extensions on Interstate 95 toward Fredericksburg and Interstate 66 outside the Capital Beltway.
“This is what you have to do going forward on a transportation system,” McAuliffe said.
He sees few options to get major projects done without tolls now.
“Let’s just not say tolls — people are now given choices,” he said. “We’re adding more capacity, incentivizing getting people out of cars or [doing] more carpooling.”
“Doing nothing was not an option in Northern Virginia,” McAuliffe said.
Advice to Northam?
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam will be sworn in on the steps of the state capitol shortly after noon on Saturday in front of about 4,000 people.
When he walks into the Executive Mansion a few hundred feet away, he will get some advice from McAuliffe.
“I will have a letter for him at his desk when he opens it up, and I also am leaving some special surprises for him that we’ll talk about after Saturday,” McAuliffe said.
“We’ve been very close for four years … so it’s more of a letter of just how proud I am of him and to continue on the … great legacies that he and I got together,” McAuliffe said.
Opening his term as House Speaker on Wednesday, Republican Kirk Cox expressed more optimism that he will be able to comfortably work with Northam than McAuliffe, due to their different styles and Northam’s experience in state government as a state senator and lieutenant governor.
In the past, Northam has also held more moderate positions on many issues, although he campaigned on a more progressive platform.
McAuliffe’s most fun moment?
He also cited his most fun experience as governor.
“The most exhilarating is when I jumped out of an airplane, with a parachute, to land at a wounded warrior concert in Virginia Beach. That … moment when that door opened up and they pushed me out was exhilarating,” McAuliffe said.
He volunteered for it.
“Of course I volunteered. Yeah, I’ve got no one to blame but myself on any of this stuff,” he said.
McAuliffe called his term as governor — Virginia’s executives are constitutionally barred from serving consecutive terms — the honor and privilege of his life.
“It’s been a lot of fun; we’ve gotten a lot of great things done … I’ve loved every, every minute of it,” he said.
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