In a wide ranging interview Thursday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he comforted his predecessor the day a federal jury reached its historic verdict, saying he would never walk away from former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s friendship.
“After it was over, I picked up that phone behind me and called the governor,” McAuliffe said, gesturing to his main phone near family photos and a flag of the Commonwealth.
“And I said, 'listen, I'm sure this is the worst day of your life. And I doubt many people are calling you. Everybody's with you when you're winning, friends are with you when you're down. And I'd like to come see you tomorrow.'"
McAuliffe said he went to see McDonnell twice, visiting the rectory of a Richmond church where the former governor now lives.
“I don’t walk away from my friends,” McAuliffe added. “He made a horrible mistake. He knows it, He admitted that. But you have to show compassion.”
McAuliffe said he read U.S. District Judge James Spencer’s full decision, and agrees with the two-year sentence.
“You think of what this family has gone through,” McAuliffe said. “And I saw the governor at the prayer breakfast yesterday and he showed me his iPhone with a picture of his new granddaughter. That's what it's all about.”
McAuliffe said it’s time for Virginia to leave the scandal in the past, and set a new course.
A multitude of lawmakers believe the new direction begins with passing stronger ethics legislation, one of the signature themes of the 2015 General Assembly session.
“I want to see a $100 gift ban,” McAuliffe said. “I want to see a real ethics reform commission that has teeth to it, that has the ability to subpoena and sanction violators who violate it. That's important."
Substantial changes to Virginia’s ethics laws could take shape as embattled Del. Joe Morrissey (I-Henrico) remains in the House chamber. Voters re-elected Morrissey to his seat Tuesday, as the delegate remains in the middle of an underage sex scandal.
When asked if lawmakers should remove Morrissey after the delegate’s election, McAuliffe said he will leave the decision to members of the General Assembly.
“Totally, it’s up to the legislature,” McAuliffe said. “I don’t tell the legislature, ever what to do.”
Wednesday’s State of the Commonwealth address steered clear from the drama in the House of Delegates, touting economic success stories during the governor’s first year in office.
“We have $5.58 billion in direct investment, 267 deals,” McAuliffe said. “We have done double what any governor has done in the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia in this timeframe.”
For Richmond in the year ahead, the governor said he anticipates Stone Brewing beginning construction on its new Richmond brewery on the banks of the James River.
McAuliffe also looks forward to work starting on a new rapid transit bus line, connecting the suburbs of Henrico to Downtown along Broad Street.
“I also had the U.S. Secretary of Transportation down here at the Mansion talking about higher speed rail from Northern Virginia, to Richmond on into Hampton Roads,” McAuliffe said.
While Republicans applaud the governor’s efforts to create jobs, top critics remain skeptical of several elements within McAuliffe’s 2015 agenda.
“It didn’t take long for Governor McAuliffe to begin rehashing the past and pushing for the usual pet projects found on every progressive’s wish list,” wrote Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) in an email following the State of the Commonwealth. “Medicaid expansion, gun control, and more government spending with no meaningful cuts.”
Even with a Republican majority in both houses, McAuliffe remained optimistic there will be opportunities to find common ground during the next six weeks of the General Assembly.
“Let’s lead in Virginia,” McAuliffe said. “We’re leaders, not followers.”