RICHMOND, Va - Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is never shy about being the "pitch man" for what the Commonwealth has to offer, even in his final few days in office. Governor-elect Ralph Northam will take over Saturday, and McAuliffe sat down with CBS 6 to discuss his personal highs and lows in the Virginia's executive mansion.
"Four years before, I said I`m going to make Virginia open and welcoming to everyone; I`m going to build a new economy; and I`ll be able to say on Wednesday night that we did it," McAuliffe said, referencing his final state of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night.
In the conference room outside his work office in the Patrick Henry building, McAuliffe ticked off a list of accomplishments his administration hangs its hat on. McAuliffe said his team has brought more than $20 billion in economic development to the state that has resulted in thousands of jobs, made record investment in K-12 education, and helped reform transportation in parts of the state.
The work McAuliffe said he has found most rewarding was restoring the voting rights of the disenfranchised. His administration has restored voting rights to more than 170,000 Virginians, a number that according to McAuliffe, is a record for any governor in U.S. history.
"The validation for me was on election day in 2016 and 2017...men, woman hadn’t voted in 50 years, literally crying with tears of joy. That’s why you run for governor. To me, that’s why you’re in public service, to help people. They had already paid their debt to society. Why should they be permanently disenfranchised? There is no reason for that," McAuliffe said.
His 2016 executive order restoring the voting rights of 200,000 felons who had served their sentences received sharp criticism, and was eventually struck down the Virginia Supreme Court after Virginia Republicans filed a legal challenge. The court ultimate said McAuliffe had over stepped his authority. His administration has since restored rights on a case by case basis, but has worked to further automate the system.
Critics of McAuliffe have said throughout his time in office McAuliffe has been too heavy handed with executive actions and too liberal with his veto pen. CBS 6 questioned McAuliffe on that criticism.
"My response is I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves. Look at unemployment, look at the jobs created," McAuliffe responded.
Republicans controlled both chambers of the General Assembly during most of McAuliffe's four years in office. The numbers meant neither side could pass through major social legislation. Virginia Republicans would send a bill to Governor's desk that he would then veto. Legislation sponsored by McAuliffe would never make it out of committee.
Reflecting on his relationship with the legislature, McAuliffe said he was proud to block legislation he saw as discriminatory or unnecessary, like efforts to stop state money from going to Planned Parenthood, but the governor said he believe he found common ground with Republicans on other, less high profile, issues.
"I did what’s in the best interest [of Virginia], all I can tell you is let the numbers speak for themselves. Largest investment we’ve ever had, unemployment at a 10 year low, unemployment claims reached a 44 year low. But listen, we had a good working relationship. I had everything I wanted through the legislature on economic development, transportation reform, and education funding," McAuliffe said.
While McAuliffe's public persona is consistently optimistic, he said his darkest day in office came on August 12th, 2017, when violence erupted on the streets of Charlottesville following a white supremacist rally. Heather Heyer was killed when a 21-year man attending the rally plowed his car into a crowd of counter protesters. Two state troopers piloting a helicopter, who McAuliffe knew personally, were killed when their aircraft crashed outside of the city as they went to meet his motorcade.
"Where restorations of rights was my highest, Charlottesville clearly was the lowest," McAulffe said. "I just honestly, these people used to wear hoods to spew the hatred that they spewed. But to see them marching down the street, yelling at people, and the things they said, I just wondered to myself how did we get to a place in this country, where people say these things and act like that? So they are gone, but we need to continue to empower everybody: quality education, quality health care."
Following what's been described as a wave election that saw democrats win the governorship and gain 15 seats in the House of Delegates, narrowing the GOP majority in the chamber to 51-49, rumblings began swirling that McAuliffe would consider a presidential bid in 2020. McAuliffe said his next step is to focus campaigning for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in other states this year, but he did not rule out a run for the White House.
"So I’ll be very active traveling the country. Finish up in ’18 and in ’19, I’ll have some decisions to make at that point, but I am really focused on helping those ’18 candidates," McAuliffe said.
"I didn't hear a 'no' in there," asked CBS 6's Jake Burns.
"In fairness, I think you know my personality really well. I never say no to anything. I don’t take anything off the table. I’d like to be Pope, I’d like to be Tom Brady’s back up quarterback. Probably not likely with the five kids, but you know I never take anything off the table," McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe said he wants to thank the 110,000 state employees who he credits with making Virginia run like it does. He also thanked his wife, Dorothy, and called their time spent in the executive mansion the "greatest privilege."
The 72nd Governor will deliver his final State of the Commonwealth address at 7 p.m. Wednesday night. CBS 6 will stream his remarks on WTVR.com