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McAuliffe Promises a ‘New Virginia Way’ as Governor

Terry McAuliffe behind podium flanked by Herring and Lucas
Terry McAuliffe announces his run for governor at  Miles Jones Elementary School in Richmond flanked by House Minority Leader Charniele Herring and state Sen. President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth).

Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe promised both a steady hand and bold change as he officially announced his candidacy for governor on Wednesday.

It’s been nearly three years since McAuliffe left the Executive Mansion, where he restored felony voting rights and locked horns with Republicans on Medicaid expansion, gun control, and abortion rights from 2014 to 2018. 

In his announcement at Miles Jones Elementary School, McAuliffe -- a longtime Democratic fundraiser and former chair of the Democratic National Committee -- cast himself as a catalyst for change and the “most progressive governor” in Virginia history. In the face of a pandemic and a reckoning over racial injustice, McAuliffe advocated “big and bold” solutions. 

“The old Richmond approach just doesn't work anymore, folks,” McAuliffe said. “It is time for a new Virginia way. And I know that old way of thinking because I fought against it constantly as governor.”

That rhetoric echoes talking points from two of his biggest rivals for the Democratic nomination: outgoing Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), who’ve argued they would bring a fresher perspective to the job. 

Unlike McAuliffe, who is white, either of the two “Jennifers” would be the first Black woman to become governor in the U.S. if they win the 2021 general election. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is also running. 

McAuliffe stressed the need for greater racial equity, an issue he said was most urgently felt in the state’s education system. The 63 year-old promised a $2 billion per year investment in education that would bring teacher pay up to the national average, expand preschool to at-risk 3 and 4-year-olds, and make sure all students had access to the internet. Funding for the proposal could come from marijuana legalization and new casinos, among other sources, the campaign said in a statement.

“We do not have to limit ourselves to small-ball proposals to fix an education system that was built for the industrial revolution,” McAuliffe said.

 The former governor also vowed to push for a constitutional amendment allowing felons to vote and reform for the state’s sentencing guidelines. 

McAuliffe was flanked throughout the press conference by three of the top Black politicians in the state: Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, state Sen. President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), and House Minority Leader Charniele Herring. Asked whether McAuliffe should step aside to let a Black candidate lead Democrats, it was Lucas who gave the most emphatic response.

“Terry has a track record of being responsive to Black and brown communities,” Lucas said. “This has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with who can best represent Virginia.”

Carroll Foy gave arguably the most forceful response to McAuliffe’s announcement, calling him “emblematic of the status quo that has simply left too many people behind.” Carroll Foy announced on Tuesday that she would resign as delegate so she would not be prohibited from fundraising while the General Assembly is in session.

McClellan, who chaired McAuliffe’s transition team in 2013, said in a statement that she “welcomed Terry McAuliffe to the race” but argued “today’s challenges require a new approach and a fresh vision.”

McAuliffe’s formidable advantages in fundraising and name recognition make him an early front-runner, according to University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth.

“It will be very hard for candidates for governor not named McAuliffe to compete with McAuliffe in a Democratic primary -- in terms of name recognition, in terms of fundraising capacity, in terms of being well-known across the state,” Farnsworth said. 

Two Republicans have formally announced gubernatorial bids: former Speaker of the House Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian). Chase vowed to run as an independent candidate in the general election after Republicans selected a party convention as their nominating method.