Terry McAuliffe’s Record On Race Gets A Second Look In Virginia Governor's Race

The former Virginia governor could be standing in the way of the country’s first Black woman governor. He’s counting on Black voters to help him do it.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe made some decisions that disappointed Black activists and civil libertarians. The Democrat's record is receiving scrutiny as he seeks a second term.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe made some decisions that disappointed Black activists and civil libertarians. The Democrat's record is receiving scrutiny as he seeks a second term.
Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In May 2015, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have restricted how long police departments in Virginia could store data collected from license plate readers.

McAuliffe had plenty of reasons for blocking the bill’s passage. Law enforcement leaders in the state pointed to a few high-profile cases in which license plate information helped them prosecute crimes long after the data was collected. And though McAuliffe wanted a 60-day limit on the storage, the state legislature refused to budge from its insistence that the data storage last just a week.

But the bill’s proponents blamed McAuliffe for indulging police talking points and depriving Virginia of the chance to be a national leader on the issue of mass surveillance.

In retrospect, the bill’s liberal supporters believe that it would have reduced police discrimination against Black Virginians because of how racism leads to selective enforcement of the law. Restricting new forms of surveillance technology, such as facial recognition tools, is now a major focus of Black civil rights activists concerned about police bias.

Claire Gastañaga, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, was especially dismayed by a conversation she said she had with McAuliffe after he vetoed the bill.

“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Claire, you just need to know, I’m always going to side with the police,’” Gastañaga told HuffPost.

The remark is nearly identical to what McAuliffe told the press at the time.

Through a spokesperson, McAuliffe “adamantly” denied ever saying that to Gastañaga. Although their disagreement over surveillance technology occurred in 2015, the two Virginians have been political adversaries ever since McAuliffe publicly attacked Gastañaga for suing to allow neo-Nazis to march in downtown Charlottesville in 2017. (McAuliffe also had reason to take attention from his own handling of the violence in Charlottesville, which was even criticized in an independent report about the rally that the city had commissioned itself.)

Racial justice and criminal justice reform ― including McAuliffe’s record as governor ― are now central issues in the Democratic primary for governor, set for June 8.

In less than a decade, Virginia has gone from a purple state where Republicans dominated the General Assembly and often won the governorship to a blue state where Democrats exercise unified control.

It is also a state where 1 in 5 residents ― and more than 1 in 4 Democratic primary voters ― is Black. Black elected officials and activists and their allies are eager to continue advancing priorities like the expansion of voting rights and workers’ rights, creating a less racially biased and more compassionate criminal justice system, establishing accountability for police killings and deaths in custody, and reforming the state’s jail and prison system.

Former Virginia Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (left), state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax are Black candidates who are seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. McAuliffe's entry into the race frustrated some Black Virginians eager for representation in Virginia's executive mansion.
Former Virginia Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (left), state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax are Black candidates who are seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. McAuliffe's entry into the race frustrated some Black Virginians eager for representation in Virginia's executive mansion.
Getty Images

But Black Virginians diverge on how best to accomplish these goals in the context of a competitive Democratic primary.

McAuliffe, who, like all Virginia chief executives, was limited by law from serving consecutive terms, announced plans to run for a second term after three Black candidates had already announced their bids. If elected, either former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy or state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who jumped in the race months earlier, would be the country’s first Black woman to govern a state and Virginia’s first woman governor of any race. (Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is also Black and running for governor, is mired in controversy over two sexual assault allegations that he denies.)

“The question for a lot of Virginians needs to be: Given the changing nature of where we are, is gubernatorial leadership from Terry McAuliffe going to move us on the pace that we need to? Or will either of the Jennifers be better choices there?” said Christian Dorsey, a Black member of the Arlington County Board, who is undecided in the race.

Yet McAuliffe is widely considered the front-runner and has the most endorsements from Black elected officials in the state by far.

Black Virginians who support McAuliffe praise his historic restoration of the voting rights of 173,000 former felons and a number of other achievements that particularly benefited Black Virginians.

These McAuliffe backers also remember a time when Virginia’s status as a blue state was less secure and see him as the surest bet to both retain the party’s hold on the governorship and navigate legislation through the byzantines halls of the state Capitol in Richmond.

“He has delivered before and will deliver again.”

- J.J. Minor, former chairman, Richmond City Democratic Committee

“He has delivered before and will deliver again,” said J.J. Minor, a community activist and former chairman of the Richmond City Democratic Committee. “As a matter of fact, Terry McAuliffe ― I would say, he has some soul in him, in my opinion.”

McAuliffe knows how critical Black support is to his success in the Democratic primary and later in the general election. He announced his campaign in December flanked by senior Black elected officials outside a Richmond elementary school named for the city’s first Black school board chair.

McAuliffe’s “historic actions on criminal justice reform, education, and economic equity, and his bold plans to create a more equitable future have earned him the support of hundreds of leaders from across the Commonwealth, including deep and overwhelming support from more than 100 Black leaders,” McAuliffe campaign manager Chris Bolling said in a statement. “Voters know and trust these respected leaders and Terry’s ground-breaking criminal justice reform record more than a few cherry-picked misleading attacks.”

McAuliffe’s progressive critics, by contrast, see him as a cautious, triangulating Democrat befitting a bygone era. Some Black Virginians are offended by his decision to run and potentially block a Black candidate from the top post at a time when the entire country ― not least the state that was once home to the capital of the Confederacy ― is undergoing a reckoning with its history of anti-Black racism.

“We put [McAuliffe] in there the first time. He got a lot of Black support. So practice what you preach,” said Tilly Blanding, a Fairfax County Democratic activist backing Fairfax. “If he really cared about Black people, he could have just endorsed one of them.”

In the case of McClellan’s candidacy, her barrier-breaking identity as a Black woman is even more glaring, since McClellan, an attorney for Verizon and a seasoned lawmaker, is less distinct from McAuliffe on ideological grounds.

“She would bring a different perspective because of lived experiences,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, a Richmond Democrat and one of two Black state lawmakers backing McClellan. “Those lived experiences that Jenn has have grounded her in a way that not many people have had.”

Backers of Carroll Foy, who has emerged as the progressive favorite in the race, say the June 8 primary is an opportunity to press Democrats’ advantage in the state, transforming it from not just a Democratic bastion but a decidedly liberal and anti-racist one as well.

Like Tom Perriello, the progressive candidate who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination against Ralph Northam in 2017, these progressives ― of all races ― want the chance to replace the “Virginia Way” ― a euphemism for the state’s tradition of clubby, bipartisan and corporate-friendly politics ― with a more populist, multiracial paradigm.

“The Virginia Way was designed to ensure that people with money and power stayed with money and power,” said Kenya Gibson, a Black member of the Richmond school board who is supporting Carroll Foy. “It’s incredible that we have a candidate who has really done the work and embodies, in a very real way, leadership that is truly representing the people.”

Terry McAuliffe greets then-President Barack Obama at a rally for McAuliffe's first gubernatorial bid. Obama's support was critical to McAuliffe's first win.
Terry McAuliffe greets then-President Barack Obama at a rally for McAuliffe's first gubernatorial bid. Obama's support was critical to McAuliffe's first win.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Stumbles On The Road To Richmond

In February 2001, as McAuliffe sought the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, a dust-up with a Black DNC delegate from Alabama briefly threatened his path to power.

During a discussion of his views on racial profiling, McAuliffe reportedly said that he didn’t believe police should profile “colored people,” according to then-Alabama state Rep. Alvin Holmes (D).

McAuliffe said that he remembered saying “people of color,” and if he hadn’t, it’s what he meant to say. But Holmes refused to accept the explanation. He called on McAuliffe to either apologize to the entire DNC membership or withdraw from the race. (McAuliffe proceeded with his bid and won easily.)

The dispute took place in the context of a larger battle for Black influence within the DNC. Maynard Jackson, the first Black man elected mayor of Atlanta, had gotten in the race so that McAuliffe would not romp to victory uncontested. Jackson’s bid reflected the frustrations of some Black members of Congress that McAuliffe and other party officials had not consulted them before making his candidacy a virtual fait accompli.

In a bit of insider deal-making, for which McAuliffe had already become known as a Clinton confidant and prodigious fundraiser, he gave Jackson an official post at the DNC in exchange for Jackson’s last-minute withdrawal and endorsement.

“One of the things that my candidacy delivered: that Black voters would never be taken advantage of again,” Jackson told the Memphis-area Tri-State Defender. “Almost every Black Democrat that I have ever met has said that they resent being taken for granted by our party.”

When McAuliffe ran for governor for a second time in 2013, he took pains to ensure that Black voters would not feel overlooked the way Jackson and his allies had.

His campaign targeted 300,000 Black voters with radio and TV ads, and got 350 Black-owned businesses to display placards with McAuliffe’s name alongside Obama’s, Politico reported.

McAuliffe ultimately prevailed against Republican Ken Cuccinelli by a 2.5-percentage-point margin, thanks in no small part to Black Virginians. Black turnout in the state reached the same level as 2012, when Obama was on the ballot.

“If you’re not turning out African American voters, you’re done,” said Ben Tribbett, a Democratic consultant in Virginia, who is neutral in the race. “The key piece, before you start anything else, is you have to have enthusiasm in the Black community.”

Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D), left, campaigns for a state House candidate in 2019. McClellan has represented the Richmond area in the Virginia General Assembly since 2006.
Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D), left, campaigns for a state House candidate in 2019. McClellan has represented the Richmond area in the Virginia General Assembly since 2006.
Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Historic Gains During Divided Government

McAuliffe has plenty of accomplishments he can point to as evidence that he fought for Black civil rights and civil liberties overall. He oversaw these gains, his allies note, even though he lacked the Democratic control of the state legislature that has enabled his successor, Northam, to sign more sweeping bills into law.

Until 2018, Republicans enjoyed a nearly two-thirds majority in the state House of Delegates.

“It’s very easy to look back with rose-colored glasses,” said state Sen. Scott Surovell (D), a trial attorney and criminal justice reformer, who is neutral in the gubernatorial primary. “Terry was very assertive and very aggressive toward the Republicans majorities in the House and the Senate.”

In his first year in office, McAuliffe signed a bill expanding access to psychiatric facilities for Virginians experiencing a mental health emergency.

The following year, McAuliffe issued an executive order “banning the box” in state government hiring, effectively prohibiting the Virginia government from requiring job applicants to disclose arrests. (The order did not affect private-sector or local government hiring practices.)

He also made a point of allocating additional state funding for mental health treatment in the state’s correctional facilities and probation programs, as well as for programs for convicted criminals returning to society.

And after the starvation death of Jamycheal Mitchell, a mentally ill young Black man in a regional jail in 2015, McAuliffe pushed for and signed a May 2017 law strengthening state oversight of local and regional jails.

When it comes to policing, McAuliffe lacked a signature bill or executive order of the kind that Northam signed into law following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd last May.

But McAuliffe was responsive to requests for assistance from local leaders, according to Joe Dillard, an area director for the Hampton Roads NAACP. Dillard, who is also a lobbyist for public transportation authorities, said McAuliffe was instrumental in helping the city of Norfolk secure body cameras for its police force.

“If he tells you he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it,” Dillard said.

“It’s very easy to look back with rose-colored glasses.”

- Virginia state Sen. Scott Surovell (D)

McAuliffe’s greatest civil rights legacy by far, however, is his restoration of voting rights for 173,000 former felons.

Virginia is now one of just two states to bar all ex-felons from voting for the rest of their lives. A host of civil rights and activist groups have long decried the law for depriving people of a second chance to participate in society and for discriminating against the state’s Black population, which makes up a disproportionate share of the state’s felons.

In May 2016, McAuliffe gave voting rights back to more than 200,000 ex-felons with a single executive order. At the time, editorial boards across the state wagged their fingers at McAuliffe, and Republicans successfully challenged the maneuver in the state Supreme Court.

Undeterred, McAuliffe moved to restore the ex-felons’ rights by individually re-enfranchising each Virginian rather than relying on a blanket order. The moves were far more dramatic than anything accomplished by his immediate Democratic predecessors, current U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.

Del. Don Scott (D) of Portsmouth, who regained his law license after serving time in prison, connects McAuliffe’s effort to restore voting rights with his support for Scott’s career at a time when Scott believes society saw him as a “pariah.”

Scott, who is Black, remembers McAuliffe endorsing his candidacy for delegate in 2019 and contributing $5,000 to his campaign at a time when other community leaders were wary of his criminal record.

“Who can embrace those people who are considered to be outsiders, who are considered to be untouchables, who other people don’t want to deal with because they think they’re irredeemable?” Scott said. “Terry has done that for me personally and for thousands of other people.”

In some ways, the divide among Black Democrats regarding McAuliffe resembles the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

While younger Black Democrats were more open to progressive contenders like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), older Black Democrats from more conservative regions helped deliver the nomination to Joe Biden. For this older group of voters, relationships and trust built over years of collaboration took precedence over liberal concerns about Biden’s record.

It’s a phenomenon that is frustrating to some younger Black leaders in Virginia.

“You can’t be mad at [McAuliffe] for wanting to run for office,” said De’Andre Barnes, who is Black, a vice mayor of Portsmouth and a supporter of Fairfax’s bid. “The nerve comes from a lot of the Black leadership across the state joining up with McAuliffe instead of somebody who can represent the Black community from a younger standpoint and from an actual experience standpoint.”

Jennifer Carroll Foy, center, cheers on supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment. Carroll Foy is one of two Virginia candidates who hope to be the country's first Black woman governor.
Jennifer Carroll Foy, center, cheers on supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment. Carroll Foy is one of two Virginia candidates who hope to be the country's first Black woman governor.
Jennifer Carroll Foy for Governor/Facebook

Missed Opportunities

McAuliffe’s boosters depict him as a competent executive with the experience and grit to get things done. It’s why state Senate President Louise Lucas (D), the highest-ranking Black official in the state, is supporting McAuliffe.

Asked whether she considered electing Black Virginians to high office was important, Lucas replied, “Representation is important, and I also think a person who can get the job done is more important.”

But when it comes to some of the most high-profile criminal justice and policing fights during his time in office, McAuliffe and his allies argue that he was powerless to do more than he did.

McAuliffe applauded the passage of a bill prohibiting the death penalty that Northam signed into law earlier this month.

But as governor, when opponents of the death penalty pressed McAuliffe to use his executive authority to prevent or defer the three executions that occurred under his watch, he refused their overtures.

Instead, McAuliffe, who has said he is personally opposed to the death penalty, insisted that it was his obligation to enforce the letter of the law on the books in Virginia.

As European drug manufacturers began declining to export compounds to the U.S. that might be used for executions and death penalty opponents stepped up pressure on domestic firms, McAuliffe had to take measures to keep the death penalty in place.

“It’s time for the new guard to take over.”

- Koran Saines, Loudoun County Board of Supervisors

He signed a law allowing pharmacies that compounded lethal injection drugs to conceal their identities in order to avoid scrutiny from death penalty opponents. By contrast, McClellan, then a member of the House of Delegates, voted against the bill in both 2015 and 2016.

“To me, that shows the distinction,” Koran Saines, a Black member of the Loudoun County board of supervisors backing Carroll Foy, said of McAuliffe’s handling of the executions. “McAuliffe ― he did a good job when he was in office, but it’s time for the new guard to take over.”

Even Surovell, a vice chair of the state Senate Democratic caucus who is defensive of McAuliffe’s record, said that McAuliffe’s inaction on executions, as well as his veto of the surveillance law, “disappointed” him.

When it came to controversial police killings, McAuliffe tended to defer to local prosecutors and police departments.

In February 2016, Roanoke police fatally shot Kionte DeSean Spencer, an 18-year-old resident of a group home, whom police said they thought was brandishing a firearm. Spencer, who was actually holding a BB gun, reportedly had his headphones on and did not respond to police requests to drop the weapon.

The county prosecutor declined to bring charges against the officers, the police department cleared the officers of wrongdoing and the Department of Justice determined that there was insufficient evidence to challenge the local authorities’ decisions.

But Black leaders and civil liberties advocates in southwest Virginia were outraged by the lack of transparency in the case. The complete dash-cam footage of the shooting and the identities of the officers are still not available to the public.

The Roanoke NAACP and the ACLU of Virginia both called on McAuliffe to initiate a state investigation into the shooting rather than rely on the police department’s investigation into itself.

Brenda Hale, president of the Roanoke NAACP, is still frustrated that the governor didn’t do more to try to initiate a state investigation.

“That was very disappointing,” Hale said. “A police department cannot investigate its own self.”

A "Black Lives Matter" banner hangs before a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. McAuliffe backed the removal of Confederate statues in 2017. In 2015, he supported keeping them.
A "Black Lives Matter" banner hangs before a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. McAuliffe backed the removal of Confederate statues in 2017. In 2015, he supported keeping them.
Eze Amos/Getty Images

Technically, the state can only take over such an inquiry in Virginia if local authorities request it. But recent events suggest that police chiefs and prosecutors are responsive when state officials use their bully pulpits to call for state involvement.

On Tuesday, Carroll Foy joined calls by the Virginia Beach NAACP and the ACLU of Virginia for an independent investigation into the police killing of Donovan Lynch, a Black man who was carrying a gun in Virginia Beach. Police said that Lynch was brandishing the gun, but the body camera of the officer who killed him was not on.

Later that day, the Virginia Beach police chief responded by agreeing to the demand and requesting that the state take over investigation of the incident.

Neither McAuliffe nor McClellan has commented on the incident, though McClellan and McAuliffe’s campaigns told HuffPost that they support the state’s investigation.

As a white front-runner with a complicated record, though, McAuliffe must overcome a greater level of distrust than his rivals, particularly within the state’s multiracial progressive community. Alisa Middleton, a Black Lives Matter activist in Stafford who is backing Carroll Foy, called McAuliffe a “police sympathizer.”

The differences in McAuliffe, McClellan and Carroll Foy’s proposed criminal justice reforms are harder to spot.

For example, all three say that they would support a law requiring independent investigations of all police killings.

As a result, politics watchers are devoting more attention to what the three main contenders have done in the past.

“Terry McAuliffe is a trained Clinton Democrat.”

- Ben Tribbett, Democratic strategist

Even with a Republican-controlled legislature, McAuliffe “could have been a more progressive governor for sure,” Tribbett said. “Terry McAuliffe is a trained Clinton Democrat.”

That feature of McAuliffe’s personality cuts both ways: He is a keen reader of political winds and has shifted to the left along with the rest of the Democratic Party.

Some of those shifts occurred during McAuliffe’s own tenure. In June 2015, McAuliffe banned Confederate flag emblems on Virginia license plates but said he opposed taking down statues commemorating the Confederacy on the grounds that they “are all parts of our heritage.”

Two years later, after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, McAuliffe had a change of heart.

“What we’ve seen after Charlottesville and around the country is those statues have very similar significance to what went on when I removed the license plates,” he said in August 2017.

With the presumed benefit of Democratic control in the state legislature, McAuliffe is running on the premise that he would be more progressive in a second term.

He’s even adopted the language of the left, calling for a “new Virginia way” ― notwithstanding his long history with the original old one.

But McAuliffe’s detractors say he cannot run away from his record and worry that he will jettison his progressive views when he is no longer on the primary campaign trail.

Del. Joshua Cole, a Fredericksburg Democrat and the sole Black state lawmaker to endorse Carroll Foy, recalled Northam, an establishment Democrat in McAuliffe’s mold, backing bold ideas as a candidate that he then abandoned when in office.

“I just don’t want to have the same expectation with Terry McAuliffe: making promises now because he’s in a tough primary, then when he actually becomes governor, he forgets about it or brushes it off,” Cole said.

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