Terry Mac's Good Year

Being Governor isn't always a picnic. While the Governor's office is obviously the most high-profile political position in a state, Governors in most states are actually much less powerful than the legislature.

Quick history lesson: Federalists like Alexander Hamilton argued for a strong executive in the national government after seeing how badly a weak executive worked under the our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. The "anti-federalists," including VA patriot Patrick Henry, opposed the new constitution in part because it gave too much power to the President; their experience with executives -- colonial governors and the King who appointed them -- wasn't great. While the anti-feds obviously lost their fight when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, state constitutions reflected their distrust of executive power, and still favor the legislature in most states today.

In Virginia, the Governor's office has an even bigger impediment; we are the only state in the union that bars incumbents from running for a second term. State legislatures don't have a lot of incentive to work with someone who's guaranteed to be gone after only four years. (Of course, a Governor can run again after being out of office, but we haven't seen that since the 1960s. And who wants a has-been in office? Besides California, that is?)

With all this stacked against him, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has one additional problem: a Republican majority in the state legislature. McAullife's Democrats failed to take back the State Senate in last year's elections. Even then, the GOP holds a 66-seat super-majority in the House of Delegates, having controlled the chamber since 2000.

So if you are a Governor of a state with so much against you, how do you govern?  McAuliffe, after some early stumbles, seems to have figured it out. In the last few months, he's demonstrated how to remain relevant by identifying the powers he DOES have and using them shrewdly and publicly. For example:

  • The Governor's recent move to restore voting rights for convicted felons made a big splash, and rightfully so. It was bold, clever, and probably constitutional, no matter what the GOP says. McAuliffe's move might have been helpful to Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign, but it also showed Democrats in all 50 states how to fight back in the ongoing war over voter rights, which the GOP has been dominating for several election cycles.
  • This week, the Governor is heading to Boston and Canada for another round of trade promotion meetings. McAuliffe has made this kind of thing his trademark, wandering the globe from Cuba to India, and even claiming to be the most-traveled Governor in America. It's hard to know how much credit to give to McAuliffe for any deals he might bring back - they're often speculative, or may have happened without his promotional work. (Republicans, naturally, are skeptical.) But his travels enable to the Governor to tell a clear story about what he's been doing -- and, really, the story he always planned on telling even before he won office -- as the guy who brings jobs to the state. (The same story he can tell to a Clinton transition team looking for a Secretary of Commerce or U.S. Trade Representative, by the way.)
  • The Governor may be less powerful than his counterpart at the national level, but McAuliffe has one very important similarity to the President: he can veto legislation that he doesn't like. And McAuliffe has used that power extensively. His 32 vetoes this year was the most in VA in two decades.

It doesn't hurt that McAuliffe has a flair for the dramatic. His felon rights initiative was well-staged and a surprise to his GOP opponents. And, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted, his vetoes this year were very public:

McAuliffe seemed to relish the occasions, vetoing the so-called religious freedom bill during a live radio appearance and striking the abortion bill in front of cameras at the Richmond headquarters of the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood.

The general assumption is that McAuliffe will move to national government if Clinton wins this fall, letting Lt. Governor Ralph Northam get a head start on the top office in an election year. Assuming the makeup of the state legislature remains the same -- maybe not a safe bet with Trump heading the national ticket -- Northam will have to deal with the same limitations his predecessor has. But McAuliffe has already shown him what to do.