As Terry McAuliffe sprinted out of Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School on a sunny Saturday morning in March, a woman shouted after him, “Where are you running to?”
“Another speech,” responded the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, jogging toward his dark red Wrangler in the nearby parking garage. “Can’t get enough in, you know.”
Two years since Mr. McAuliffe’s quest for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination was thwarted by voters who viewed him as a carpetbagger out of touch with grass-roots Virginia, the multimillionaire entrepreneur who raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns in the United States and his charitable efforts abroad is quietly mounting a second bid for the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor.
He is promising to create thousands of positions through green-energy ventures that could dovetail nicely with a 2013 campaign platform built on jobs and the environment.
When asked about the prospect of a second gubernatorial bid, Mr. McAuliffe told The Washington Times that running again is something he doesn’t think much about.
“If I think I could do a better job and do more for people as governor here, then I’d look at it,” he said.
Candidate without a campaign
One of Mr. McAuliffe’s chief obstacles in a second gubernatorial bid would be gaining support from voters who thought of him as chairman of the DNC and of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, instead of as a Virginian of nearly 20 years.
In the three-way 2009 party primary, Mr. McAuliffe garnered 26 percent of the overall vote, besting former Delegate Brian J. Moran’s 24 percent, but falling far short of state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds’ 50 percent.
That he’s scattering more campaign donations around the state than ever before could signify an attempt to put down more obvious roots. He gave nearly $30,000 to Democratic candidates and causes in the state last year, after donating $5,500 in 2008. There are no records of donations from Mr. McAuliffe between 1996 and 2008.
Then there are his travels. Lest anyone miss out on his efforts to reach Virginians all over the state, Mr. McAuliffe makes his outreach efforts easy to track. His bright green website promotes him as a candidate without a campaign, introducing him as “a Virginia businessman fighting for Democratic causes and creating jobs” and includes a Google map pinpointing his recent visits.
The map includes destinations Mr. McAuliffe visited during a three-day road trip through southwestern Virginia in March to talk about green energy with fellow Democrats and energy-focused groups.
Mr. McAuliffe’s travel itinerary includes some jurisdictions in which he lost heavily to Mr. Deeds in 2009.
In Charlottesville, where Mr. McAuliffe won just 10 percent of the vote, he spoke with groups about wind energy and turbines. He met with local Democrats in Radford, where 18 percent of Democratic voters supported him. He dropped in on a City Council meeting in Roanoke, where he performed somewhat better - receiving 24 percent of the vote.
Roanoke City Council member Bill Bestpitch said Mr. McAuliffe’s March visit was well received, but it’s not enough. He needs to travel and travel and travel some more, he said.
“I think he needs to get out in public a lot more,” Mr. Bestpitch said. “Coming by Roanoke and spending some time with people is just a start.”
Chris Horne, a spokesman for the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, said he got a call out of the blue from a McAuliffe aide to set up a visit to the Danville, Va.-based center, which aims to revitalize the area economy. Mr. Horne took Mr. McAuliffe for a tour, discussed renewable resources and asked him whether he was going to run for governor again.
“I asked him point-blank,” Mr. Horne said. “He said, ‘I never say no.’ “
Letting Democrats know
Mr. McAuliffe’s early efforts haven’t been lost on Virginia Democrats.
“I don’t think he’s traveling the state because he’s running for city council,” Mr. Deeds told The Times. He said it’s impossible to predict the issues that will drive debate in 2013, but that Mr. McAuliffe is doing a better job of laying the groundwork for a run than he did in 2009, when he took full advantage of Virginia laws establishing no limits on campaign contributions to amass an overwhelming war chest.
“Terry spent more than Moran and I combined,” Mr. Deeds said, later adding, “I think he’s doing the right things right now.”
Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder — who withheld his endorsement in the 2009 race for Virginia governor — said Mr. McAuliffe consulted with him earlier this year about a run.
“He’s come by to talk about him running for the governorship, that he was serious. I don’t know that I gave him any advice as much as listened,” Mr. Wilder said.
He said Mr. McAuliffe has to let people know that he is a Virginian, that he cares about Virginia and the issues that are affecting Virginia.
“The more important thing is the people of Virginia; they are fiercely independent,” he said. “Too many people underestimate the intelligence of the voters, and one thing I told him is to listen to them.”
History suggests the path to victory for Mr. McAuliffe — or for any other Democratic candidate — could be difficult. Not since 1965 have Virginians elected a Democratic governor when the White House has been held by a Democrat.
Other names have been floated as opponents to Mr. McAuliffe’s likely bid. House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong, state Sen. A. Donald McEachin of Richmond, former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello and Sen. Mark R. Warner, a former governor, are possibilities, said political commentator Bob Holsworth.
Mr. Holsworth said Mr. McAuliffe is “obviously letting Democrats know he wants to run,” but it’s unclear whether state party leaders are as enthusiastic about him.
“I think there’s still some hesitation in the Democratic Party to embrace him,” Mr. Holsworth said. “He’s energetic, he’s smart, he’s really out there trying to address some of the issues. I don’t think he’s going to clear the field by any stretch of the imagination.”
Democratic strategist Paul Goldman said Mr. McAuliffe needs to do a lot more than shake hands around the state. Successful governors have offered voters a significant reform - such as current Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation plan, George Allen’s no-parole platform and James S. Gilmore III’s push to eliminate the car tax, he said.
“People need to have a sense there’s a problem you can solve, and the politics of that depends on what people are thinking,” Mr. Goldman said.
On the other hand, Mr. McAuliffe would be the first to run for governor who can claim to have created lots of jobs - assuming his business ventures go according to plan.
“Let’s assume he gets credit for bringing a lot of jobs to the state,” Mr. Goldman said. “Well, no one who’s run for governor has been able to say that.”
Mr. McAuliffe’s campaign seems to be trying a new strategy: Don’t talk about the jobs you’re going to create as governor — create them before you run.
Since losing the 2009 primary, Mr. McAuliffe founded a company called GreenTech Automotive Inc., which produces environment-friendly and energy-efficient vehicles, including compact cars and sport utility vehicles. It was the first in a line of green-energy investments he has made. He also acquired the producer of a new low-priced electric car and is on the road to converting a shuttered paper mill in southern Virginia into a renewable-energy plant.
As many as 100 jobs could be on the way for Southside Virginia if Mr. McAuliffe is successful in his attempts to transform a paper mill into a green-energy plant that creates a higher-energy, lower-pollution fuel by mixing wood pellets with coal. Closed in 2010, the mill employed 1,100 people in the economically distressed areas of Isle of Wight County and the town of Franklin.
The project moved ahead last week when Mr. McAullife announced that his investment company, CMI L.P., will investigate whether it’s feasible to take over and convert the mill, as part of a joint business venture. Depending on how quickly that proceeds, the plant could be up and running by the next gubernatorial election in 2013.
With two electric hybrids and three hybrid models lined up for production, Mr. McAuliffe’s GreenTech is creating manufacturing jobs. Those jobs, however, will be located not in Virginia, but in Mississippi, where Mr. McAuliffe has said he received a better offer to build a manufacturing plant.
His characteristic enthusiasm seems to spike when he discusses GreenTech’s most innovative project: the MyCar. The $10,000 vehicle can reach 45 miles an hour, travel 70 miles on a single charge and plug into standard electrical outlets. The car was produced by a Hong Kong-based company, which Mr. McAuliffe bought last year and incorporated into GreenTech.
“Go to China, buy a manufacturing company, bring it back, sell cars back to China,” Mr. McAuliffe said, his words tripping over each other in his haste. “All made here in America.”
He had just returned from a trip to Denmark to promote the car to the prime minister, he said.
Although he is effusive in his comments about his job-creating companies, brought back to the subject of Virginia — and his own political plans — Mr. McAuliffe remains coy.
“In two years, if I’ve got this company up and I’ve got thousands of people going and I’m a leader in the industry and the world on electric cars and I’ve built this thing into a billion-dollar company, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.