Former Gov. Bob McDonnell entered office amid high hopes and left in disgrace. Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s tenure has followed somewhat the opposite trajectory.
McAuliffe won election four years ago less on his own strengths than on the weakness of his Republican opponent. His reputation as a fast-talking, glad-handing, alligator-rasslin’ money man for national Democrats — and close chum of Bill Clinton — did not inspire great confidence.
To his credit, McAuliffe quickly grew into the office. But he confronted a mule-headed Republican legislature determined not to give him any big wins. McAuliffe’s curse was Virginia’s blessing: Both sides thwarted the other’s worst instincts. As a result, McAuliffe could do little more than tinker at the margins of state policy.
One major exception: felon voting rights. Although a court spiked his effort to restore voting rights to ex-cons en masse, McAuliffe automated the process to such a degree that it made little difference: By April of this year he had restored voting rights to more than 150,000 of the original 200,000 or so felons affected by his original order.
Other significant accomplishments include fixing Virginia’s broken system of transportation planning and funding (much credit here goes to McAuliffe’s secretary of transportation, Aubrey Layne) and whipping the Port of Virginia, which had been hemorrhaging money, back into shape. He hashed out a compromise with Republicans to foster both gun rights and gun safety, and he broke with his base again to support the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. He tried repeatedly, and sometimes angrily, to expand Medicaid in Virginia, but Republicans blocked him at every turn.
Although McAuliffe’s tenure does not leave Virginia transformed, the state is no worse off than when he entered office and in some ways improved. When he leaves office in a couple of weeks, he will be able to do so with his head held high.