The Eldor auto parts plant in Botetourt County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

On a Tuesday afternoon in March 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe traveled to Botetourt, a county of about 30,000 straddling the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains. Speaking before a crowd of state and local officials that had gathered outside Botetourt Center at Greenfield, McAuliffe reported that Eldor Corp., an Italian auto parts manufacturer, would invest $75 million in its first North American plant at the 480-acre industrial park, right across from the Ballast Point Brewery. “This is a huge announcement for us,” an amped-up McAuliffe boasted. 

And he wasn’t lying. With 350 new jobs, and the prospect of 650 jobs by 2024, his was the biggest jobs announcement in the Roanoke Valley since 2005, when FreightCar America declared it would bring 400 jobs to the region (the latter closed shop in Roanoke in 2019). 

By the time the company began production in Botetourt in September of 2018, Stefano Concezzi, president and CEO for Eldor USA, said it had already hired 150 people.

Eldor is one of McAuliffe’s biggest economic achievements for Southwest Virginia – and it is not the only one. During McAuliffe’s tenure as governor, the commonwealth added more than 200,000 new jobs, including many in Southwest Virginia. Investments in the state’s economy totaled nearly $20 billion, and the unemployment rate dropped from 5.7% when he took office in January 2014, to 3.3% in December 2017, his last full month as governor. 

And McAuliffe reveled in his success, especially in regards to Southwest Virginia.

“I’m very proud. I’ve done a fair amount of job announcements in Southwest Virginia. I’ve been there constantly,” he told Roanoke’s WSLS (Channel 10) just days before his departure from the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond. “I love it. In Southwest Virginia, the hardest-working folks, honest, hardworking. They just want to have their shot at a good-paying job,” McAuliffe said in the interview, adding that he enjoys making a pitch to companies with a workforce ready to go, particularly in Virginia’s rural areas.

Terry McAuliffe at the debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Courtesy of Appalachian School of Law.

Now “The Macker” is back, asking Virginia voters to entrust him with a second term as their governor – a feat that, should he succeed at beating his Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin, only former segregationist Mills Godwin accomplished when he was popularly elected twice, first in 1965 as a Democrat and again as a Republican in 1973. 

Todd Haymore, who has served in McAuliffe’s cabinet both as the Secretary of Commerce and Trade and as Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, said he witnessed a governor who was “almost singularly driven to help spur more investment” across Virginia. “Everything we did during the governor’s term was tied to job creation and increased economic opportunities,” Haymore said in an interview last weekend.  

As a Danville native, Haymore was tasked with focusing heavily on rural Virginia in his work with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and bringing him into projects where he could help the most. “That work led to some tremendous new corporate investments and business expansion victories for Southside and Southwest Virginia,” Haymore said, citing Eldor in Botetourt, Woodgrain Millwork in Marion, PowerSchool in Roanoke, Convergys in Lynchburg, Monogram Foods in Henry County, Merchant House in Bristol, Slickrock Lumber and Springfield Distillery in Halifax County, and Kyocera SGS and Overfinch in Danville.

McAuliffe’s knack for recognizing business opportunities dates back to his childhood in Syracuse, New York. At the young age of 14 he started his first own business sealing the driveways in his neighborhood. 

Less than a decade later, to prove himself as a fearless force in political fundraising, he famously wrestled an 8-foot alligator in Florida in exchange for a $15,000 campaign donation – and lived to tell the tale. By the time he was 23, McAuliffe was the “chief money man” for the Democrats, and in 1988 McAuliffe was tapped finance director for then-Rep. Richard “Dick” Gephardt’s 1988 presidential campaign. 

But it was his close ties to former President Bill Clinton that catapulted McAuliffe toward political stardom. McAuliffe’s money machine raised more than $270 million for the Clintons’ campaigns and other Democratic causes over the years. At the same time, McAuliffe lined his pockets with profits from personal investments, including a shopping center and a home building company in Florida. He also invested $100,000 in Global Crossing Holdings, a telecommunications company that provided computer networking services, and made millions in return. 

From 2001 until 2005, McAuliffe, who lives in McLean, served as the chair of the Democratic National Committee. Under his leadership, the DNC raised $248 million from donors giving $25,000 or less during the 2003-2004 election cycle, according to The Washington Post.

In 2008, he co-chaired Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign and then took it on himself to run for Virginia’s highest public office in a three-way Democratic primary in the following year, where he was defeated by state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County. When he tried again in 2013, he won his party’s nomination and eked out a victory against former state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee and staunch social conservative, by 47.8% to 45.2%.

This time around, McAuliffe, now 64, is running against a much less controversial opponent. Youngkin, 54, is the former CEO of the private-equity firm The Carlyle Group. The Richmond native spent 25 years with the company until he stepped down in September 2020 to launch his gubernatorial bid. He entered the race with a blank slate, giving McAuliffe little to work with. 

“Youngkin’s public record is empty since he’s never been a candidate or officeholder. McAuliffe has to cite controversies at Carlyle – and voters don’t seem to react much,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. The Democrat, in addition to his reputation as a businessman, now has a four-year record to run on, for better or worse. “McAuliffe was reasonably popular in his initial term, and he got a four-year course in the issues and in governing. All of that helps him,” Sabato said. “But he also has a record that Youngkin can and has exploited.”

For example, during the gubernatorial debate on Sept. 28 in Alexandria, Youngkin claimed that McAuliffe would end Virginia’s “right-to-work” status (McAuliffe never took a clear position on it but has supported it when he first ran in 2013) and back President Joe Biden’s “failure of leadership” and “open borders.” In TV ads, he has painted McAuliffe as a supporter of the defund police movement. More recently, Youngkin has launched an ad showing footage of McAuliffe saying several times that he doesn’t want parents determining what schools teach their children. McAuliffe responded with a statement saying that Youngkin’s campaign was “taking my words out of context.”

Since Youngkin won the Republican nomination in May, McAuliffe had tried to tie the Republican to former President Donald Trump, who formally endorsed Youngkin in July, calling him “a highly respected person” and “an incredible success,” while attacking the Democrat as “a failed and unpopular governor,” and “a political hack.” While Youngkin welcomed the endorsement, Trump never campaigned with Youngkin in Virginia, where the ex-president lost to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by a five-percent margin in 2016.

Sabato said McAuliffe’s strategy of connecting Youngkin with Trump seems to be working – at least with Democrats. “The specter of Trump having an ally running Virginia gives Democrats nightmares, and the name of the game is motivating Democratic voters,” he said. “Youngkin has no good answer because he is in fact tied to Trump in various ways, and he can’t alienate the Trump base. At the same time he wants to appear more sane and moderate than Trump.”

And it’s not like Youngkin hasn’t tried to attack McAuliffe on issues directly affecting Virginia voters. But with both candidates clashing over mostly national and culture war issues, many of the more local topics get lost in the nationwide political noise machine, as Virginia’s pivotal off-year gubernatorial race often holds clues for the next congressional elections. 

Case in point, there hasn’t been much widespread chatter over the fact that the economic accomplishments of his first term that McAuliffe frequently boasts on the campaign stump don’t tell the whole story. 

A recent analysis by the Richmond Times-Dispatch shows that of McAuliffe’s 79 economic development deals that have reached their deadlines, only 31 delivered as many jobs as promised or more, while 48 projects didn’t perform as well or quickly as expected. Thirty-two of the latter failed to produce new jobs entirely, and seven additional projects that account for 926 jobs are ongoing after receiving extensions. In total, only 6,000 jobs came from the 14,000 jobs that the deals between the state and private entities promised, the analysis found. 

One such example is the Deschutes Brewery. Just one week after the original Eldor announcement, the Oregon based Brewery chose Roanoke as the site for its East Coast production facility, which McAuliffe called “another high-profile win that shines a spotlight on the commonwealth.” The $85 million investment was to create more than 100 local jobs, and McAuliffe at the time credited Virginia’s “tireless and aggressive bid” for this success. 

The Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the city of Roanoke and the Roanoke Regional Partnership had secured the project for Virginia, but McAuliffe also approved a $3 million grant from the commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund to assist Roanoke with the project. But five years later, the project’s future remains uncertain as Deschutes has yet to break ground on its new production facility, citing an unstable craft beer market. Instead, the brewery opened a tasting room in downtown Roanoke, but it announced this week that it will shut it down because business has not picked up to pre-pandemic levels. 

Deschutes announced this week that it will close its tasting room in Roanoke. The brewery in Roanoke has yet to be built. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

Haymore, McAuliffe’s former cabinet member, said that Deschutes’ decision to delay its planned East Coast brewery facility in Roanoke is something that “occasionally occurs” with economic development projects. “Not all projects happen on their planned timeline or reach full resolution due to a myriad of factors, including economic downturns, competitive positioning, or a global pandemic,” Haymore said, adding that he is hopeful that Deschutes will “continue to invest in Virginia, including building a production facility in the Roanoke area in the future.”

One of the biggest controversies rattling McAuliffe’s administration broke during his final year in office. In 2017, the Chinese company Lindenburg that had received a $1.4 million state grant in exchange for the promise of creating jobs in Appomattox County, became the target of an FBI investigation after it took the money and disappeared. 

According to an investigation by The Roanoke Times, state officials had relied on a bogus company website in vetting the deal that McAuliffe had brokered the deal in 2014. ”You never want one to go bad, but it’s $1 million out of $20 billion. I have the lowest default rate out of any governor in the history of the state,” McAuliffe told Roanoke’s WSLS at the time. 

Haymore said that although Lindenburg was “an unfortunate incident for the commonwealth,” it exposed serious deficiencies in the economic development project vetting process that had been occurring in the Virginia Economic Development Partnership for years under governors of both parties, and Republican- and Democratic-controlled General Assemblies. “Those deficiencies ultimately led the McAuliffe administration to work in a bipartisan manner with the General Assembly to craft major reform legislation that put new safeguards in place to protect taxpayer dollars and transformed VEDP into one of the most highly regarded state economic development organizations in the nation,” Haymore said.

However, state Sen. David Suetterlein, a Republican from Roanoke County, said that McAuliffe faces an uphill battle especially in the Southwest because he has lost much support in the business community. “He talks about how much he was driven by economic development, but what I remember best is when his administration paid $1.9 million to the railroad to move jobs out of Roanoke and to Hampton Roads instead,” Suetterlein said, referring to a state grant issued to Norfolk Southern Corp. in 2016 for moving hundreds of high-paying jobs from Roanoke to a consolidated head office in Norfolk rather than have some those jobs go to Atlanta. “Roanoke Valley taxpayers got to pay up to benefit jobs leaving their area,” he said. 

The greatest problem with McAuliffe, Suetterlein said, “is how driven he is to raise campaign funds for the Democratic Party over anything else.” He cites McAuliffe’s record 120 vetoes – that’s more than his three predecessors combined – as evidence for the Democrat’s partisan approach to the job. “Terry McAuliffe routinely vetoed bipartisan legislation, he wasn’t even interested in trying to amend that legislation or trying to improve it,” Suetterlein said. 

Should he be elected, McAuliffe would also face several pressing issues pertaining to the state’s Southwest and Southside. High up on the list is funding for public education and school construction. Rural schools get most of their funding from the state – more than 60% in Scott County and Buena Vista. At last month’s debate in Northern Virginia, McAuliffe vowed to “invest $2 billion in schools” each year to get every Virginia student online, expand pre-K to 40,000 3 and 4-year old children in need, and get teacher pay above the national average for the first time in Virginia history. How he wants to pay for that, he didn’t say. 

And it remains unclear if McAuliffe and Democrats in the state legislature even share the same priorities when it comes to education. Earlier this year, Democratic lawmakers essentially killed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have guaranteed “equal educational opportunities” for all Virginia students. The legislation was sponsored by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County. 

McAuliffe is also treading a fine line between economic interests of the Southwest and the concerns of the environmentalist wing of his own party over the Mountain Valley Pipeline – the largest natural gas pipeline ever built in Virginia, which is still under construction. When he was governor, McAuliffe openly backed the project, calling it of vital interest to the region’s economy. But he has since stopped talking about it, as his 2021 campaign has embraced green energy as part of its platform. At a rally with Jill Biden in Henrico County last week, the first lady’s speech was briefly interrupted by protesters carrying banners reading “Reject pipelines protect the future.” 

Del. Sam Rasoul, a Democrat from Roanoke, said in an interview on Thursday that McAuliffe’s uncertain position on this issue could potentially cost him some much needed Democratic votes in Southwest Virginia. “There is a small group who are not pleased with our lack as a party to take a definite stance on banning new fossil fuel infrastructure here in Virginia,” Rasoul said. McAuliffe’s campaign did not respond to emails asking if he still supported the pipeline, and other questions. 

There’s also little love lost between McAuliffe and coal mining communities in Appalachia. As governor, McAuliffe repeatedly vetoed Republican attempts to reinstate the coal mine tax credits designed to slow the demise of Virginia’s coal industry. McAuliffe called the tax credits “ineffective,” citing a 2012 JLARC report that concluded coal production declined at the same rate or faster even with the state-issued credits. 

In 2016, state Sens. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, and Ben Chafin, R-Russell, claimed that McAuliffe’s veto was retaliation for their refusal to go along with a “quid pro quo” deal involving a vacancy on the Supreme Court of Virginia. A McAuliffe spokesman at the time denied the accusations. 

In St. Paul, a town in Russell and Wise counties, there is also great fear that McAuliffe will hasten the demise of the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center as part of his push for Virginia to have 100% clean energy by 2035. The plant, which opened in 2012, is operated by Dominion Energy. It can process and convert gob coal and biomass into as much as 610 megawatts of electricity and has a special exemption in the Clean Economy Act to remain open.

“If the hybrid power plant is closed down, approximately 50-100 million tons of waste coal dumped on slopes and directly into streams will never be removed from the watersheds and streams in the coalfields,” said Frank Kilgore, an attorney and conservationist who has been leading a local campaign to keep the plant open. “It is a no-brainer to get rid of this waste in a low emissions power plant than letting it stay in and near creeks and catch fire and pollute the air. Physics and common sense requires getting rid of this century old problem once and for all,” Kilgore said in an email.

Balancing these different interests won’t be easy for McAuliffe, who is facing a wealthy opponent who can reach into his own pocket and help fund his campaign, if needed. Youngkin raised $7 million in September and has received $43 million in contributions – less than McAuliffe, who has brought in $12.6 million in September, taking his total to $45 million.

“Forty-year politician Terry McAuliffe and the Democratic party are running scared, so they’ve done what all politicians do – call in their special interest cronies to dump obscene amounts of money into shadowy organizations in order to protect their entrenched interests,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in an email. “Glenn Youngkin is winning on his message of being an outsider running against politics as usual, so it’s no surprise that desperation has set in for the ruling-class that sees their power slipping away.” 

Despite his monetary advantage, McAuliffe is tied with Youngkin in most polls. A new survey from Monmouth University has both men deadlocked at 46%. And the Democrat is almost certainly going to lose in Southwest and Southside Virginia, which is why he has taken his campaign and television ads to more competitive areas. 

“The area is now so Republican and pro-Trump that the vote is set in concrete, for the most part. McAuliffe could personally deliver a gold bar to each home in Southwest Virginia and it wouldn’t change many votes,” said Sabato, the UVa professor. 

All McAuliffe could realistically hope to accomplish in the region would be to encourage more Democrats to vote, Sabato said. “That isn’t insignificant, but you go hunting where the ducks are, and there just aren’t a whole lot of uncommitted ducks in Southwest Virginia.”

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.