Virginia Cavalier

by Eve Fairbanks | February 4, 2009

'I love chicken waste!" Terry McAuliffe shouts to a crowd of several hundred elegant northern Virginians at Alexandria's Torpedo Factory art gallery. McAuliffe--the former Democratic moneyman dubbed by Al Gore "the greatest fund-raiser in the history of the universe"--is running for governor of Virginia, and tonight is the official rollout of his primary campaign. As he rhapsodizes about Virginia's 1,000 poultry farms, his pale eyebrows hop around furiously on his sharp, ostrich-like brow ridge. McAuliffe's listeners--many of whom are decked out in the kind of pricey wearable art that's offered for sale in the gallery--seem nonplussed. But McAuliffe presses on. As governor, he explains, he would transform the nearly half-a-million tons of chicken poop the state produces every year into an alternative energy source. "Ew," murmurs one elderly man. But, if McAuliffe recognizes any shade of absurdity in all this, he never lets it show. "Fifty thousand tons of chicken waste equals forty megawatts of power, which could power forty thousand homes!"

This kind of irrepressibility is Terry McAuliffe's signature quality. It's what allowed him, in the 1990s, to seduce prudish Democrats into a love affair with big money, to turn the debt-mired Democratic National Committee into a vacuum for donations as chairman from 2001 to 2005, and to fund Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign--as well as become an ubiquitous TV talking head. McAuliffe's technique is to smother his targets with relentless enthusiasm until their hostility or skepticism collapses for lack of oxygen. The classic is, of course, his cable interview on the night of the 2008 West Virginia primary, in which he assured Chris Matthews, "You're going to see a great speech tonight from Hillary Clinton. ... One of the greatest speeches, Chris, ever given." As Matthews and co-host Keith Olbermann began to arch their eyebrows in disbelief ("The greatest speech ever given?"), McAuliffe continued to hover in the feed on the right of the screen, unperturbed, his smile as bright and unembarrassed as ever.

But, as McAuliffe turns from bankrolling his friends' races to running for office himself, the smothering is aimed not at his peers but at the common man. At meet-and-greets from small-town Leesburg to exurban Manassas to far-south Martinsville, he douses voters in an ebullient rain of proposals. There are big ideas ("I promise you I will create more jobs than any of the other forty-nine governors") and granular ones ("I will make sure every lightbulb on [highway] warning signs is up and running"). And, when the ideas run out, there's the trademark McAuliffe confidence in his product--in this case, himself. "I think you'd love me as governor," he likes to add.

 

There are a number of things that Virginians might not be inclined to love about McAuliffe. There's his outsider provenance (he's originally from Syracuse) his staggering personal wealth (he offered to put up $1.35 million to help the Clintons buy their Chappaqua house), and his blue-blood social set ("I was standing there having a casual conversation with King Juan Carlos, my occasional hunting partner, when we were joined by Blair," he writes in his memoir). Everyman may be an antonym for McAuliffe. And yet, Virginians are giving him a remarkably warm reception. At a Saturday morning meet-and-greet in a Leesburg brewpub, McAuliffe, clad in a business jacket and a subtly country-and-western scalloped silver belt, delivers his rapid-fire presentation of proposals to shouts of "Yes!" and bursts of applause. "You came in here two strikes down with me" for being an outsider, one blue-shirted local named Mike Turner tells McAuliffe afterward. "But I'm won over." The sentiment is widespread. Bob Moses, an AFL-CIO employee who also vice-chairs the Loudoun County Democratic Committee, reports that, after listening to McAuliffe's "phenomenal" number of "solutions" at the brewpub, "people walked out of there in shock and awe. ... Let's just say that there were a number of people who were uncommitted who now are behind Terry."

McAuliffe's money isn't exactly sending the party faithful running, either. A streak of thrilling, national-news-making triumphs in Virginia--Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Jim Webb, Barack Obama--has turned the state's Democrats on to the pleasure of winning. And next November's election is especially critical, since the outcome of the battle for the House of Delegates will dictate who controls 2010's congressional redistricting and, thus, the state's political future for a decade. Because Virginia has no cap on campaign donations, a candidate like McAuliffe has the potential to become a sort of political Johnny Appleseed, using his millions to sprinkle field organizers throughout Virginia, which could also boost local races. (He plans to deploy at least 40 field organizers in the Obama model.)

But money is not McAuliffe's only appeal. His jubilant can-do optimism is striking Virginians as authentic, set against the backdrop of the hope-powered Obama era. "He brings a kind of energy and visibility and presence that's just extraordinary," gushes Bob Holsworth, a political analyst at Virginia Commonwealth University. (Or, as McAuliffe puts it to me: "People want to be with winners. Would you rather have a beer with a downer?") In an amazing sign of the times, Holsworth explains that the entrance of McAuliffe into the gubernatorial primary, rather than making the race more cynical--as a connoisseur of McAuliffe's Washington exploits might reasonably expect--has delivered the race from cynicism. "He's good for the campaign. He's going to shake up the complacency," says Holsworth. "They're all going to have to have ideas."

McAuliffe's ideas may be hard to beat. In the style of Julius Caesar, who bequeathed his private arbors and 75 drachmas each to the people, McAuliffe spontaneously offered last week to donate his gubernatorial salary to build the economically depressed town of Martinsville a high school gym.

 

There will be some reluctant nonbelievers along the way, of course. From Leesburg, McAuliffe drives on to another brewpub in Manassas, where his performance rates nearly as high as it had in Leesburg. The hiccup comes during the question-and-answer session, a potentially perilous period for McAuliffe, given his zealous devotion to chicken waste and highway lightbulb repair. As he wraps up one answer, a trembling mother thrusts a picture of her autistic son, Jimmy, into his face and asks when Virginia will cover autism on its state employee health plan. But soon, somehow, McAuliffe's answer circles around to the extra lanes he wants to build on U.S. Highway 58, which runs from Virginia Beach to the Cumberland Gap. "We've got to four-lane 58 the whole way!" he exclaims, rocking back and forth like Rain Man. The crowd is quiet at their tables, and the realization descends on McAuliffe that something is not quite right. He pauses and peers hard at the mother, Rachel Kirkland. "Your child should be covered," he says. "I apologize for that."

"The divorce rate for autism parents is 85 percent," says Kirkland, her voice breaking.

"Right," says McAuliffe and falls, briefly, silent.

But there's nothing in this world that can't be fixed, and when Kirkland darts out before the meet-and-greet is over, a young aide trots into the drenching rain to follow up. To help McAuliffe gain sensitivity on the autism question, Kirkland suggests he drop by her son's classroom, or even come to her house and babysit little Jimmy. The idea of Terry McAuliffe babysitting an autistic child seems a patently bad one. But, in keeping with his boss's limitless spirit, the aide replies that this is "not outside the realm of possibility."

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