Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s first and final term ends next year. As chair of the National Governors Association and a former Democratic National Committee head, he is vocal on national politics and policy. McAuliffe talked with Zach C. Cohen at National Journal’s offices about balancing fiscal and social policy, the “corrosive” effect of gerrymandering, and the “fun” he’s had as governor. Transcript edited for length.
As you wrap up, what do you consider to be your biggest legacy over the last four years?
Clearly economic development. Unemployment rate has gone from 5.4 to 3.8, the lowest in nine years. We’re now the No. 1 state in America for cybersecurity. My challenge now is we have so many high-paying jobs that we’re not filling.
I’ve probably been the most progressive governor in Virginia history. I was one of the first statewide in the South to come out for marriage equality. I told the [National Rifle Association] they can go jump off a cliff. I told women I’d be a brick wall to protect their rights. I’ve restored more felon rights than any governor.
You’ve vetoed more legislation than any other Virginia governor. Is there anything you regret not being able to do?
I vetoed 120 bills. I was never overridden once. Seventy-eight percent of my legislation got passed with a very Republican legislature, and to be honest with you, we work very closely together on economic development. I got everything I wanted. A spectacular failure—not for want of trying—has been [not passing] Medicaid expansion.
As chair of the NGA, you’ve talked to other governors about federal health care policy. Do they see their role in this debate differently from other federal debates?
Oh, yeah. You’ve seen such a coalition of Democrat and Republican governors come together. Those 31 expansion states and D.C.—it’s a lot of money for them. And then us non-expansion states—we’re perpetually going to be locked out of this funding going forward.
Would you run for a second term if you could?
Listen, I’m fine with four years. But of course if there was an opportunity to run again, of course you would. I’ve probably had more fun than anyone’s ever entitled to have. I’m sure you’ve seen the Twitter; I was out on the moon bounce the other day, racing kids. I jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet into a Wounded Warrior concert. I’m the first governor to go up in an unmanned drone; I flew it with a laptop. My security team is at the point where [they say], “Well, let him do what he wants. We can’t stop him if we wanted to.” Three-hundred new wineries, 206 craft breweries—I’m trying to do my best to visit them all.
Democrats last month nominated Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam to replace you. What do you anticipate his governorship would look like?
He was my lieutenant governor, [and] God knows I kept getting sued—thank goodness I had Attorney General Mark Herring—but we were a team, the three of us. And these accomplishments are not Terry McAuliffe’s accomplishments. They’re our administration’s accomplishments. That’s what Ralph’s going to run on, a continuation of those policies.
[GOP nominee] Ed [Gillespie] has been a good friend. You’d probably kill him by writing that.
You served at the same time as national party chairs.
Ed and I did a lot of TV together. We come from the same place. Politics isn’t personal. You can disagree; it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. And unfortunately what’s happened in American politics today is everybody takes it so mean-spirited.
What are you going to be doing after your term?
The taxpayers are paying me, so I’m really focused on the next six months. And then I’m really leaning in on the [National Democratic Redistricting Committee]. I view this gerrymandering as so corrosive. These lines are drawn such that nobody will work with each other anymore. And if I had my druthers, I’d have an independent, nonpartisan commission in all 50 states.
You haven’t ruled out running for president in 2020. Do you think there is an appetite for somebody with your record?
I get asked this a lot. I have no idea what I’m doing in the future. I love being governor. It’s the one job—honest—I’ve always wanted.
Take me out of it, because this is not something I’m thinking about: We need a standard-bearer of our party who focuses obsessively on economic development and job growth, and connects that to a socially progressive agenda. But talking about a socially progressive agenda without economic development to me is a meaningless conversation.