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The Best Used Car Salesman in the World

Terry McAuliffe, the greatest salesman the political world has ever seen, faces his biggest challenge. Selling himself.

Terry McAuliffe is a man who will wrestle an alligator for a campaign contribution.

No joke. McAuliffe tussled with an eight-foot, 260-pound alligator to lock down a $15,000 contribution from a Seminole tribe chief for Jimmy Carter’s 1980 reelection campaign. It’s one of the most oft-told anecdotes about McAuliffe, usually as a sort of political sideshow story. But consider: McAuliffe was just 23 years old,  and he had already learned one of the most valuable lessons, if not the most valuable lesson, of his career — You don’t become the best rainmaker in politics without occasionally getting in the mud and wrestling for it.

Carter lost, but McAuliffe broke fundraising records. It was a pattern that would repeat itself over the next three decades as McAuliffe plied his unique trade through the swings of the political and economic pendulums. No matter if the election was won or the business succeeded, McAuliffe always came out on top.

“The greatest fundraiser in the history of the universe,” Al Gore dubbed him in 2000, after McAuliffe raked in a record $26.5 million in three-hours at a gala. (McAuliffe contends to this day that Gore won in Florida.)

“He is unquestionably the best fund-raiser I have ever run into, anytime, anywhere,” Don Fowler, former  chairman of the Democratic National Committee when McAuliffe was head of its fund-raising, told The New York Times. “He could explain a hurricane in positive terms.”

The Macker

Now the greatest salesman the world has ever seen is selling himself, running for governor of Virginia for the second time.

By all accounts, McAuliffe, or the Macker, as he is known, is a man of boundless energy and enthusiasm. He finds sleep distasteful and avoids it as much as possible. His raspy voice dominates cable TV hits. He’s loyal to a fault, hard to dislike, and isn’t shy about throwing back a few drinks in public, unlike so many other political figures these days. Irish through and through, and proud to tell you so.

He started his first company at age 14, repaving driveways. He got an internship with congressman in college, and then jumped into electoral politics as the head of fundraising in Florida for Carter. He wore fake glasses to make himself look older.

Through the ‘80s, McAuliffe perfected the business model that would amass him a considerable fortune: leveraging political favors through business connections, and leveraging business favors through political connections.

He founded a bank that loaned money to influential politicians. When the bank was cited in 1991 for unsound business practices and on the verge of liquidation, he negotiated a merger and became vice chairman of the new entity.

Around the same time, his business partner (and father-in-law) Jack Swann’s savings and loan bank was seized by federal regulators. McAuliffe got an IBEW pension fund to buy up $38 million of the bank’s real estate holdings. He got a 50 percent equity stake for $100.

“The success he’s seen in fundraising, you can see it creeps into his personal life,” one current political fundraiser, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said in a phone interview. “You can see the same thing in how he handles his business. It’s the same kind of scheme.”

On one of his early dates with his future wife, Swann’s daughter Dorothy, he took her up to Cape Cod, but then spent the whole next day golfing with former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.

“I think, for Dorothy, that day was the perfect precursor for what her life with me would be like,” McAuliffe wrote in his memoir. “She was just learning to love the ways of the Irish in Democratic politics. Eventually, she forgave me, but she still teases me about leaving her stuck alone the entire day while I was off having the time of my life.”

McAullife is a man who has the time of his life golfing with Tip O’Neill. The memoir, by the way, is named “What a Party!”

In the ‘90s, McAuliffe cemented his relationship with the Clintons and became their most prolific fundraiser and booster. He raised $275 million for the Clintons’ various causes, elections, and legal defense funds. When the Clintons were in debt in the late ‘90s, McAuliffe personally guaranteed a $1.35 million mortgage on the house they wanted to buy in Chappaqua, New York.

McAuliffe is a man you want on your side, and someone you want as far away as possible if he’s not. He was so good at pulling in money that Senate Republicans agreed to speed through an ambassador appointment for McAuliffe, just to get him out of the country for the 2000 election.

“Tell the son of a bitch I’ll walk him to the airplane,” former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told McAuliffe’s good friend across the aisle, former Mississippi Sen. Haley Barbour.

But instead of landing a posh ambassador position, McAuliffe took over the reins as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2000. It’s a position given to gifted glad-handers and fundraisers. They bring money in and act as crude partisan cudgels. They are unquestionably loyal to the party. In other words, the perfect job for McAuliffe.

McAuliffe lifted the Democratic party out of debt for the first time in its history. It was not without its sacrifices. McAuliffe stopped at a fundraiser driving his wife and their newborn baby back from the hospital.

“I was inside maybe fifteen minutes, said a few nice things about [the host], and hurried back out to the car,” McAuliffe wrote in his memoir. “I felt bad for Dorothy, but it was a million bucks for the Democratic Party and by the time we got home and the kids had their new little brother in their arms, Dorothy was all smiles and we were one big happy family again. Nobody ever said life with me was easy.”

The press dredged up that passage and others when McAuliffe got in the governor’s race, but McAuliffe has never walked back the sentiments in them.  It’s difficult, bordering on impossible, to shame him.

For example, McAuliffe was also a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government — a useless training ground for would-be world-changers. McAuliffe hosted a study group titled The Making of a Candidate: From Running Campaigns to Running on my Own.

It’s easy to imagine McAuliffe running a $100-a-head self-help seminar with the same title, wearing a headset mic and pacing across the stage while schmoes in the audience take notes.

One particularly good Macker moment came in the 2004 presidential election. According to Ralph Nader, McAuliffe approached with a deal. Nader said McAuliffe “basically said that if I stay out of 19 states which are close between Kerry and Bush, he would provide resources to me in the remaining 31 states,”

Now, that probably sounded like a solid deal to McAuliffe, but they didn’t make a documentary about Nader called “An Unreasonable Man” for nothing.

Nader, for all his high morals, waited until McAuliffe was first running for governor of Virginia in in 2009 to tell the story to reporters.

“He threatens, he promises, he cajoles, he jokes, he charms, he intimidates,” Nader continued. “He really is not someone who should be governor and in possession of the public’s trust.”

Nader and his kind will never understand the McAuliffes of the world and vice-versa. McAuliffe is a man addicted to closing the sale, not the product he’s pushing. It wasn’t until he decided to run for governor of Virginia in 2009 that McAuliffe had to sell himself to the public. He took to the task in true McAuliffe fashion, using his fundraising prowess and considerable connections to flood Virginia with a campaign the size of which is usually reserved for presidential contests.

Mark Leibovich — the foremost chronicler of the Beltway elite — captured the Macker at his ebullient best that election season. McAuliffe talked jobs, jobs, jobs to anyone who would listen. He trotted out the Clintons. He barnstormed every corner of the state, kissed babies, and hammed it up at fire stations, parades, and handshake lines until there was no one left to ham for.

McAuliffe got stomped. He lost by 23 points in the primary to a no-name nobody who wasn’t friends with the Clintons and never even once wrestled an alligator. Republican Bob McDonnell won the election.

The Crony

After his loss, McAuliffe decided that what he needed was more business experience, so he jumped back into the corporate sector started an electric car company, which hit the Democratic sweet spot (jobs and environment). The company’s manufacturing plant was quite naturally located in Mississippi, home state of his old friend Haley Barbour. The sordid history of GreenTech Automotive could fill a whole series of articles — and indeed it has — but readers who’ve gotten this far can probably imagine the outline of the story.

Not many people do it like McAuliffe. On the other hand, not many people do it like him for a reason.

“Mr. McAuliffe, the stereotype of you is that you’re an operator, cheerleader more than a legislator or governor,” NBC’s Chuck Todd said during the September gubernatorial debate between McAuliffe and his opponent, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. “That you don’t have the relevant experience to be governor. And that you’re a man in a hurry, who’s willing to use political connections, sometimes in very high places, to take shortcuts. Your response?”

“I think it’s important to have someone in the governor’s office who has those business experiences, understands the ups and downs of businesses, understands that risk is inherent in our economy, and is willing to put everything in to make sure we grow and diversify our economy,” McAuliffe replied.

On its face, this is a politician’s standard non-response, but it does raise an interesting question:  What exactly is McAuliffe referring to when talks about his experience and the “ups and downs of businesses”? He’s certainly not speaking of the trials of a small-business owner with no political connections. He’s been reliably plugged in since the 1980 Carter-Mondale campaign, where he first met Swann.

(Swann is hosting an upcoming McAuliffe fundraiser in Florida. Bill Clinton and former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist will both be attending.)

No, McAuliffe is talking about the swings of fortune at the nexus of politics, big business and venture capitalism—what the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney calls “this corrupt system of political privilege.”

McAuliffe didn’t collect 18,000 names in his rolodex just to let them get dusty.

The McAuliffe way of doing business rubs some folks the wrong way. The Richmond Times-Dispatch declared him “a deeply unserious candidate.”

The Northern Virginia Tech Council PAC chose to endorse Cuccinelli, after sitting down for extensive interviews with both. According to several NTVC PAC board members present, when asked about how he would accomplish his goals as governor, McAuliffe said:  “I’m an Irish Catholic. I like to drink. It is what is. We’ll go have lunch. We’ll go have drinks. We’ll work the phones. We’ll do whatever it takes to get things done.”

And: “I am not going to read every bill when I’m governor. I’m going to hire people to read them for me.”

When the PAC announced it was handing the endorsement to Cuccinelli, the McAuliffe camp responded by launching a behind-the-scenes pressure campaign to get it to reverse the decision. Powerful state legislators called the NVTC to let it know it would be frozen out of the statehouse for such a betrayal.

McAuliffe is a man who didn’t collect 18,000 names in his rolodex just to let them get dusty. Well, it was 18,000 according to McAuliffe back in 2009, when Leibovich interviewed him. Probably more now.

Playing “Six Degrees of Terry McAuliffe” is often disappointing for this reason, since he’s usually no more than two steps removed from anyone you can think of even tangentially involved in politics.

For example, here’s the guest list at a recent McAuliffe fundraiser, according to the Washington Free Beacon’s Lachlan Markay:*

Attendees included former Clinton aides Paul Begala and James Carville; founder of left-wing activist group Media Matters and pro-Clinton Super PAC American Bridge David Brock; Center for American Progress chairman John Podesta; former Florida governor Charlie Crist; and Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton and wife of disgraced former congressman and failed mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner.

The after-party was held at the nearby home of Joe Lockhart, who served as White House press secretary under Bill Clinton.

How about Cal Ripken, Jr.? He’s on the board of ZeniMax Media, a video company that McAuliffe advises.

An African warlord? The same night McAuliffe was feting the Democratic elite, Talking Points Memo broke the story that his campaign had received $120,000 from a company linked to former Liberian president Charles Taylor:

The Liberian International Ship And Corporate Registry donated to McAuliffe twice within the past 12 months. The two campaign contributions were the only ones made by LISCR in Virginia in the past decade.

Though it is based in Virginia, LISCR serves as a regulator of the shipping industry in the African nation of Liberia through a contract given to the company by former Liberian president and convicted war criminal Charles Taylor. In 2001, LISCR was associated with efforts of Taylor’s regime to arm rebels who committed atrocities in neighboring Sierra Leone in defiance of international sanctions.

A LISCR executive told TPM the contributions were given “on the basis of the friendship” between McAuliffe and the company’s chairman.

The latest in the rogues gallery of unsavory characters linked to McAuliffe is Joseph Caramadre. Caramadre was indicted recently for an investment scheme that involved taking out life insurance policies on terminally ill people. Caramadre located terminally ill people by visiting AIDS patients at a hospice, finding relatives of terminally ill people, and placing an ad in a local Catholic newspaper offering $2,000 cash to people with a terminal illness.

Caramadre also donated more than $26,000 to McAuliffe and hosted a fundraiser for the candidate during his 2009 bid for governor. The Associated Press noticed that McAuliffe was an investor in Caramadre’s company, and that there was a “T.M.” referenced in the indictment. However, the McAuliffe camp said the “T.M.” referenced in the indictment is not the Macker.

“The person referenced on page 68 is absolutely not Terry McAuliffe since he was a passive investor and did none of the things referenced: First, he was not interviewed by law enforcement on April 20, 2010; rather, he was in Richmond for a day of meetings,” said a campaign spokesman. “Second, he was never involved in the referral of any annuitants to Mr. Caramadre, ever.”

In quite a rare instance, the AP retracted its story, having apparently found the only shady investment scheme in America that McAuliffe was not actively involved in.

Despite having lived in Virginia for nearly 20 years, it’s impossible to think of him as anything but a product of the Beltway.

“There is no evidence that McAuliffe or the other investors, who include a noted bookie with mob ties and a Catholic priest in charge of financial planning for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, had any knowledge that Caramadre was taking advantage of the patients on their death beds,” NBC 12 reported.

That is not the kind of sentence a gubernatorial candidate likes to see a month out from election day. McAuliffe donated the sum of his investments and Caramadre’s donations to charity.

A stand-up guy

McAuliffe is a man who ought to know better, but that’s never really been his job. Up until he began seeking the governor’s mansion, McAuliffe left the retail politics to the pros.

Biden is Delaware. Mitch McConnell can ask a fellow Kentuckian for directions and not get confused when he’s directed to go down “the road a couple hollers.” But McAuliffe? Despite having lived in Virginia for nearly 20 years, it’s impossible to think of him as anything but a product of the Beltway.

To the average American, his job is esoteric. He travels in elite circles and makes obscene amounts of money through mysterious investments, deal-wrangling, and machinations. It’s no wonder Republicans have turned to the same playbook that Democrats used against Mitt Romney.

“It’s pretty rich to have the guy who rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, sold seats on Air Force One, was an unindicted co-conspirator in a Teamsters election law money laundering case be talking about ethics now,” Cuccinelli said during the debate.

The result is a election where voters know what they don’t like about Cuccinelli, but they don’t quite know what they like about McAuliffe, besides the “D” next to his name.

“Hints of voter dissatisfaction in the race for governor,” the Sep. 24 deck of a Washington Post story declared.

“I really disagree with Cuccinelli’s politics, especially his ­antiabortion stance,” Virginia voter Gina Gabelia told the Post.

As for McAuliffe, “His advertisements make him sound like a stand-up guy, but who knows?” Gabelia said. “He has a good campaign manager.”

Cuccinelli, a hardline conservative, is trailing McAuliffe in the polls. Moderate Virginians blanch at Cuccinelli’s stance on social issues. Meanwhile, a Libertarian candidate is sucking independent votes from him.

As long as McAuliffe maintains a healthy lead, he can sit in a holding pattern without getting serious about his positions. Which is exactly what he’s doing. Here’s what happens when McAuliffe gets pressed on a thorny subject:

THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Mr. McAuliffe, do you think it’s unfair the way Ken Cuccinelli has characterized your position on that issue—that you support taxpayer-funding of abortion up until the moment of birth?MCAULIFFE: It’s a beautiful day out today, huh?

Even McAuliffe’s standard arsenal of stump speech anecdotes are suspect. The Washington Post reported that a story McAuliffe likes to tell about a public college being forced to procure $800 chairs for the government — a great piece of red meat for drumming up populist outrage — is bunk.

“I’m honest as the day is long,” McAuliffe said in response to the accusations. “The worst thing I’ve ever gotten is a speeding ticket.”

Oh, excuse me, that was McAuliffe’s 1997 response to probes by the Department of Labor and the U.S. Attorney’s office into sweetheart deals he received. Did I mention the time McAuliffe sold $8 million worth of stock in a Bermuda-based telecom company before it went bankrupt, while other investors lost a total of $54 billion?

In any case, one gets the impression that none of these things terribly concern McAuliffe. Even when he’s wrong, he will convince you he’s right.

In the waning days of the 2008 Democratic primary, McAuliffe appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, fresh from Puerto Rico with a bottle of rum in his hands. Obama had just effectively locked up the nomination. McAuliffe had been predicting a Hillary win ceaselessly since the contest began (remember: loyal to a fault), and Scarborough and crew were trying to enjoy a good moment of schadenfreude by forcing McAuliffe to concede that she had lost.

“Can we talk about my predictions for one second?” McAuliffe interrupted. “Can I just ask one question? Who called every single race since New Hampshire, batting 1.000?”

“Terry, you did, brother,” Joe Scarborough replied.

“Nostradamus,” McAuliffe said.

Beneath the vacuum salesman routine, McAuliffe is a man who always knows which way the wind is blowing. And that may well be enough to make him the next governor of Virginia.

*Full disclosure: Markay is my co-worker at the Free Beacon and writes excellent articles about crony capitalism.

Follow C.J. Ciaramella on Twitter.

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