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Terry McAuliffe closes by asserting record of progress — and the threat of Donald Trump

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Former President Barack Obama roused voters in Richmond. Georgia political candidate and organizer Stacey Abrams visited Black churches in Norfolk and rocked with Dave Matthews in Charlottesville.

President Joe Biden made a second Arlington County appearance to rally voters for his longtime friend, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Vice President Kamala Harris made stops in Prince William County and in Hampton Roads.

But in the final days of McAuliffe’s bid for a second, non-consecutive term as Virginia’s governor, his election chances may depend on the nearly 250 Black leaders who gathered with a sense of urgency on Thursday at Trinity Family Life Center, just outside Richmond in Henrico County.

“Guess who’s going to win this election?” asked Henrico Supervisor Tyrone Nelson, a Baptist minister who helped to overcome a Republican stranglehold on county politics almost a decade ago. “We are the leaders who influence people.”

The turnout of Black voters is crucial to McAuliffe’s chances in a virtually deadlocked race with Republican Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity firm executive who Democrats say would thwart progress that they had made on issues crucial to African American communities across the state — voting rights, criminal justice reform and education.

“Progress is on the ballot,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a veteran Black legislator who ran against McAuliffe for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, said at a rally with him on Thursday in Charlottesville.

Looming over the closing days of the campaign is former President Donald Trump. He is staging a tele-rally for Youngkin and other GOP hopefuls the day before the election, even though during the latter part of his campaign the Republican nominee has tried to distance himself from the man who most galvanizes Democratic voters who turned Virginia politically blue in the past four years.

“We cannot afford anyone associated with Donald Trump,” said Jim Holland, chairman of the Board of Supervisors in Chesterfield County, another bellwether in the elections for the top three state offices and the House of Delegates.

Citing his record

McAuliffe is using a flurry of final campaign stops in an effort to tie Youngkin to Trump and showcase his own record in his term as governor from 2014 to 2018, when he tried to shift Virginia’s economy away from relying on federal defense spending toward technology-driven industries that depend on a highly educated work force.

He’s dodged questions about whether he would sign legislation to abolish Virginia’s right-to-work law forbidding compulsory union membership and talked about his successes in economic development as governor. Those include setting the stage for Amazon’s selection of Arlington County for its East Coast headquarters, and transforming the state’s troubled transportation program, including the expansion of the Port of Virginia after his Republican predecessor, Gov. Bob McDonnell, entertained offers to sell it.

McAuliffe also frames his legacy with some of his most prominent failures as governor — his efforts to expand the state’s Medicaid program and a bid for a blanket restoration of felons’ voting and civil rights, both thwarted by the Republican-controlled legislature.

The Virginia Supreme Court blocked him from carrying out a blanket restoration of rights for 206,000 Virginians who had served their time. McAuliffe said they had been disenfranchised by the 1902 state constitution which barred people who had been convicted of many types of crimes from voting. But he individually restored the rights of 173,000 felons, a number that he said grew to 277,000 under Gov. Ralph Northam, his Democratic successor.

Republicans blocked passage of Medicaid for seven years after passage of the Affordable Care Act under Obama, but McAuliffe fought for it every year of his term and Northam won approval in his first year, opening the door for more than 550,000 Virginians who gained access to health care.

“What I love about Governor McAuliffe is that when someone tells him ‘no,’ he says, ‘yes,’ “ said the Rev. Cheryl Ivey Green, executive minister at First Baptist Church of South Richmond.

Environmentalists in the Democratic base denounced McAuliffe’s unflagging support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Dominion Energy abandoned the $8 billion project last year after it hit a regulatory dead end.

McAuliffe has said the worst day of his term came Aug. 12, 2017, the day of the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Activist Heather Heyer died after a car was driven into a crowd of counterprotesters. Two Virginia State Police helicopter pilots, including a former member of the governor’s security detail, died in a crash after monitoring the events from the sky.

This is his third gubernatorial bid. He finished second in a three-way race for the Democratic nomination in 2009 that Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, won convincingly, only to lose in a landslide to McDonnell. In 2013, McAuliffe defeated Republican Ken Cuccinelli by about 56,000 votes, winning by 2.6 points in a three-way race that included Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis.

McAuliffe says he didn’t run for governor to please critics. “I ran for governor to lift people up,” he said in Henrico.

Business and politics

A fast-talking native of Syracuse, New York, McAuliffe has a law degree from Georgetown University, but his heart always has been at the intersection of business and politics.

He started his first business when he was 14 years old to seal driveways against harsh winter weather in upstate New York, but made his mark in banking and finance, raising money for President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary and serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee for four years. He was co-chairman of Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign and chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 White House bid.

His business ventures sometimes have come back to haunt him politically, such as when he allegedly used political connections to obtain special visas to help investors in GreenTech Automotive, a holding company he created after purchasing a failed Hong Kong electric car manufacturer. He stepped down as chairman in late 2012, before his second campaign for governor, and the Mississippi-based company declared bankruptcy in 2018.

As governor, McAuliffe learned to work with Republicans who controlled the General Assembly, though they disliked his swashbuckling style. He had to close two multibillion-dollar projected revenue shortfalls as Virginia overcame the ill-effects of federal budget sequestration, which enabled him to work effectively with Republicans on economic development and work force.

Black voters

He also developed close ties with Black legislators and the communities they represent. Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, recalled watching the former governor walking down North Second Street in Jackson Ward during an annual festival in the historic Black neighborhood in Richmond.

“He could not take a half-step without hugging and pictures,” Bagby said. “It’s not because he’s a handsome man. It’s because of what he’s been able to do with justice reform and voting rights.”

At Trinity, the audience greeted McAuliffe with a standing ovation, which it repeated each time he recited promises for education: $2 billion in funding for public K-12 schools, including raising teacher pay above the national average; universal pre-kindergarten for more than 41,000 at-risk 3- and 4-year-old children; and scholarships to pay tuition, room and board for aspiring teachers in high-demand fields to train at any institution, including historically Black colleges and universities.

Education also has been a political weapon that Youngkin has wielded against McAuliffe. The Republican has courted Black voters by pledging funding in every budget he proposes for five historically Black colleges and universities in Virginia — two of them public, including Virginia State University in Ettrick, and three of them private, including Virginia Union University in Richmond.

“I think our HBCUs are too often overlooked,” Youngkin said at a work force education conference sponsored by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and other business groups earlier this month.

Former Gov. Douglas Wilder, a graduate of Virginia Union who became the nation’s first elected Black governor, called Youngkin’s commitment “historical” in a recent blog post and said the institutions “deserve better” than the support he said they’ve gotten under McAuliffe and Northam.

“As I’ve stated, no Democrat can win a statewide election in Virginia without massive support from the Black community,” he wrote. “However, their needs continue to be ignored by those who purport to represent them.”

Wilder and his former secretary of education, Jim Dyke, wrote a letter to Northam in June asking him to commit $50 million in federal emergency to each of the state’s HBCUs, including the private institutions.

Northam and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly did not allocate money to the institutions from the $4.3 billion it received under the American Rescue Plan Act, but all five have received almost $300 million in direct federal aid from the act and two other emergency packages passed by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Northam and the Democratic assembly also have pumped up state funding for Virginia State and Norfolk State — an additional $7 million each in this year’s budget and more than $15 million between them last year.

“The whole notion of the General Assembly not supporting our Black colleges and universities is totally a lie,” said House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, a Black minister who is the first African American to lead the budget committee. “It’s very misleading and it’s very disappointing.”

Torian also faults Youngkin for campaigning against the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools because he said it’s not part of the curriculum for K-12 in Virginia. “It’s a total lie,” he said.

McAuliffe, on the defensive for saying in a debate with Youngkin, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” has gone on offense, accusing Youngkin of seeking to ban “Beloved,” a novel by Toni Morrison that won the Pulitzer Prize and features graphic accounts of life for Black people under slavery.

(Youngkin released a TV ad featuring a Fairfax County woman who fought to bar Morrison’s novel from classrooms after she said her son reacted negatively to scenes depicting bestiality and gang rape. Youngkin’s ad faulted McAuliffe for vetoing a bill that would have required schools to notify parents of assignments that may involve sexually explicit material.)

“It is a racist dog whistle,” McAuliffe said in three campaign stops on Thursday. “It divides parents against parents, parents against teachers. I’m sick and tired of him using our children as political pawns in his campaign.”

His closing argument rang true to Luther Santiful, 83, a Black civil rights advocate from Edinburg, a town in Shenandoah County, who called Youngkin’s campaign against critical race theory “absolutely ridiculous.”

He said that’s not the only reason Youngkin’s campaign troubles him. “We fought a lot of battles ... and it bothers me at my age that we’re still having to fight about basic issues, like the right to vote,” Santiful said after a rally in Harrisonburg on Thursday. “It’s heart-wrenching and disappointing.”

Editor’s note: This is one of two stories about the closing messages of the major party candidates for governor.

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