Gov. Ralph Northam has books about African-American history on his reading list. We don’t know what’s on former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s reading list, but it’s probably not F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
McAuliffe, it seems, is contemplating the rarest of second acts: A second term as governor of Virginia.
Since 1830 — when Virginia’s borders extended to the Ohio River — the state has limited its governors to an NCAA-like “one and done” rule. There’s a loophole, though. Technically, the state Constitution says governors can’t serve two terms back-to-back, which means we get a new governor every four years. There’s nothing, though, that says governors can’t sit out four years, then come back for another term. Only two have ever done so, though. Most governors have simply moved on — sometimes to the U.S. Senate (as Claude Swanson, Harry Byrd, Charles Robb and George Allen once did and as Mark Warner and Tim Kaine currently have), or more typically to lucrative private sector employment. Listing “governor of Virginia” is a pretty good resume-enhancer if you’re looking to land a job with a big-name law firm.
Some of you are probably right now fixated on what you think is an error in the previous paragraph. Wait, you say, wasn’t Mills Godwin the only governor to come back to serve a second term?
History time, people: There was another two-term governor who usually doesn’t get cited, because there are at least two asterisks attached to his name. William “Extra Billy” Smith first became governor in 1846, back when Virginia governors were still elected by the General Assembly. That’s the first asterisk. Smith was a lawyer from Culpeper who also ran a line of stagecoaches that won a government contract to carry the U.S. mail from Virginia to Georgia. Smith was quite sharp-eyed at finding loopholes that would allow him to add extra routes, for which he could then be paid extra fees — hence the nickname. Smith’s second go-round as governor came during the Civil War, when Virginia had seceded from the Union. That’s the second asterisk — although to be fair, that election was decided by the popular vote — limited, of course, to white men of means.
If Smith doesn’t count – either because he was only popularly elected once, or because that term was with a Confederate state — then Godwin really does stand alone as a two-term governor. He even did it in two different parties. First elected as a Democrat in 1965, Godwin’s politics didn’t change, but the parties did. In 1973, Linwood Holton’s term as the state’s first Republican governor in the modern era was coming to a close, but the young Republican Party didn’t have an obvious successor. Meanwhile, the liberal populist Henry Howell was at the peak of his popularity. Conservative Democrats were horrified and prevailed on Godwin to come out of retirement, as their best chance to stop Howell. Godwin ran as a Republican. He won, narrowly, averting a Howell governorship and accelerating the realignment of the two parties along their current left/right lines.
The year 1973 was a special case for Virginia Republicans; will 2021 be a special case for Virginia Democrats?
In normal times — remember them? — Democrats in 2021 would see a face-off between Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring. They might still, although things have gotten complicated. Fairfax has been accused of sexual assault by two women. He’s become so toxic that Democrats now refuse to let him buy a table at their annual fund-raiser (although not so toxic that they’ll allow Republicans to hold a legislative hearing into the accusations). Herring has admitted to wearing blackface at the age of 19 to imitate a rapper. Whether stupidity at the age of 19 should be held against someone at the age of 58 (Herring’s current age; by election day 2021 he’ll be 61) is something voters will have to decide. In any case, the political troubles afflicting Fairfax and Herring have been enough to encourage a third candidate to contemplate a run for governor — state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. She ticks off two demographic boxes Democrats like — she’s a woman, and she’s African-African. She also ticks off a third box that Virginia governors typically do — she’s a corporate lawyer, so in good stead with the state’s business community. On paper, McClellan would seem to be a strong candidate in a Democratic primary.
Now, though, comes word of a potential fourth candidate — the aforementioned McAuliffe. Here’s a man who relishes political life and clearly isn’t done with campaigning. He thought about running for president and decided otherwise. Now the website Politico cites “a half-dozen people close to him” who say McAuliffe is now “seriously considering” a comeback as governor. “And Democrats in Richmond are operating as though it’s a done deal.”
Can McAuliffe pull a Godwin? Godwin was handed the Republican nomination in 1973; McAuliffe won’t be handed this one. He’d be a formidable contender, but not an unbeatable one — and that’s just for the nomination. McAuliffe was a good friend of Dominion Energy and an outspoken advocate for natural gas pipelines. Some Democratic activists won’t tolerate that anymore, although will they have any real choice? Herring has sued Mountain Valley Pipeline over environmental violations but has stopped short of all-out opposition; some see that as a cynical attempt to have it both ways. For MVP, the lawsuit may just be part of the cost of doing business. Meanwhile, McClellan’s third-biggest donor is Dominion Energy. The only outright anti-pipeline candidate is Fairfax, which creates an interesting dilemma for some Democrats: Which is worse, an assault on Mother Earth or accusations of sexual assault against two women?
Godwin was a grudging candidate in 1973, who ran only to ward off Howell — seen in apocalyptic terms by the state’s conservative establishment. Godwin’s first term was full of energy and ideas that modernized the state; his second term was dutiful and forgettable. McAuliffe, by contrast, would surely love to be governor a second time. McAuliffe showed no gift for dealing with a Republican-controlled General Assembly. The prospect of working with a Democratic-controlled legislature (should this November’s elections produce one) would surely thrill him.
As for Fitzgerald’s literary warning about second acts? Keep in mind he used that line twice, in two different works and two different ways.