Beyond Charlottesville - Terry McAuliffe
A Virginian by Choice
People go into politics for a lot of different reasons. I’ve pretty much seen it all since 1979 when I went to work on Jimmy Carter’s presidential reelection campaign. For me politics was always in my blood. It wasn’t any more complicated than that. Both of my parents were gregarious, friendly people who saw it as their job to make a difference for other people. Both of them loved being in a room full of strangers, meeting new people and hearing their stories. That’s always been me. I can’t hide who I am and never have tried. I love people and I could care less whether the person I’m talking to is a ticket taker in a movie theater, a truck driver, a school principal, or a head of state or captain of industry—they all have a story to tell. And I’ll never get tired of listening to people tell those stories. I always learn something.
You know what else? I have a lot of energy. Sleep when you’re dead, I’ve been saying for years. I love people, I love ideas, and I love life. If you want to be in the middle of the action, using good ideas to help peoples’ lives change for the better, then you want to be the one in charge, like a governor, able to show executive leadership and thoughtful planning and cool decision-making under pressure.
Running for political office has its ups and downs. Running for Virginia governor in 2009, I had to smile my way through many a tense meeting where my “Yankee” background had people wondering if they ought to listen to a single word I said. I never let that faze me. I kept talking to people—and kept listening. I told Virginia voters about my plans for the future, and they listened. You know why? Because when I talked about jobs, jobs, jobs, they saw the fire in my eyes and heard the conviction in my voice. They believed I would work my tail off to bring investment to Virginia and create good-paying jobs all over the state. I was always going to run as an advocate for jobs because as a born businessman and entrepreneur, I knew that was in my wheelhouse, and I knew that honest, good-paying jobs were what people cared most about. If I was talking about jobs with people, I knew I was on solid footing.
Other issues were more challenging, especially that of the racial divide. I’m a problem solver, happiest when I can bring people together and we can roll up our sleeves and get to work forming a bold plan to tackle a problem, and then putting that into action. That approach does not lend itself to fighting racism and its legacies. I knew I had a lot to learn about just how deep those legacies ran. Richmond, Virginia, had been the capital of the Confederacy, spearheading the resistance to freeing slaves in the Civil War. I remember my traveling chief of staff in 2009, Justin Paschal, pointing out all the Confederate statues and monuments we kept seeing as we traveled the state.
Early in the campaign, I had an event near Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley. As I was speaking, a woman approached Justin, who is African American.
“Do you know where you are?” she asked him.
He didn’t like where this was going, but what could he say?
“Yes,” he replied.
“Well, you should know that we had a Klan rally here last weekend,” she said. “I’d be careful if I were you.”
I was shocked when Justin later told me what she’d said. In all honesty, I hadn’t heard about the Ku Klux Klan in years. I couldn’t stop talking about that for weeks. Another time, Justin and I were heading into an event and at the door they were giving everyone a Confederate flag sticker. Justin was with me and they tried to put one of those stickers on his lapel. “You do that, I’ll break your arm,” he said.
My wife, Dorothy, will never forget walking through the crowd at a political event with Justin right beside her when a man suddenly came up to her and said, “I would never vote for your husband. He’s a n— lover.” She was horrified.
Those were eye-popping moments, but they were also isolated incidents. You didn’t want to fall into stereotypes and assume people were racists just because a fringe element had hung on to centuries-old hatreds.
Even people in Virginia who liked me as a candidate thought