Tell Me More: Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe

McAuliffe talks about his work to decrease gun violence and introduce criminal justice reform in Virginia

Terry McAuliffe speaking at Tufts

Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.

In this episode, Terry McAuliffe, the seventy-second governor of Virginia and former chairman of the 2000 Democratic National Convention, talks about his work to decrease gun violence and introduce criminal justice reform in Virginia. Also, hear his suggestions on how to get young people re-engaged in politics. McAuliffe spoke at an event co-sponsored by the Tufts political science department and JumboVote, the university’s “get-out-the-vote” initiative.


Recommended Links:

Tufts Now: “Fighting Principles”  

Terry McAuliffe website 

Twitter: @TerryMcAuliffe


HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day. In this episode, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe talks about his experiences in working to decrease gun violence and introducing criminal justice reform in Virginia, and his suggestions about how to get young people re-engaged in politics. And he adds a little something about himself that you may not know. McAuliffe served as the seventy-second governor of Virginia from 2014 to 2018.

He entered national politics at the age of twenty-three as the national finance director for President Carter, and he was elected Democratic National Committee chairman in 2000. He co-chaired President Clinton’s 1996 campaign for reelection and his 1997 Presidential Inauguration. McAuliffe was also chairman of the 2000 Democratic National Convention and chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 Presidential campaign. He came to Tufts to speak as an invited guest of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life—as part of an event co-sponsored by the Political Science Department and Tufts’ “get-out-the-vote” initiative JumboVote. Here, he has a wide-ranging conversation with Alan Solomont, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of Tisch College. Let’s listen in.

ALAN SOLOMONT: OK, Terry, you just spoke to a group of Tufts students about the state of American democracy. How would you describe the state of our American democracy?

TERRY MCAULIFFE: We’re still a strong democracy, but we’re fractured today. I think, unfortunately, after the Kavanaugh hearings and the actions that Trump has taken around the world and his immigration policies and tax policies and trying to destroy the ACA, I think it’s really caused real divisions in our country. I think we got a real opportunity to bring the country back together again. These 2018 elections I think will make a huge difference. I’m very confident we’ll win a boatload of governors and the House of Representatives and a great shot at the Senate, but we can’t continue, Alan, on this path where people are so divided. Donald Trump deliberately creates these culture wars. He deliberately tries to drive people apart to try, and drive his base up. He may think it’s good for him, it’s not and it’s really bad for the country.

SOLOMONT: So how did you successfully pass bipartisan legislation in Virginia to decrease statewide gun violence and how would you approach working across the aisle on a national level?

MCAULIFFE: What I tried to do, it wasn’t a Democratic proposal, it wasn’t a Republican proposal. When I tried to go to my very Republican House of Delegates, I tried to make it a Virginia proposal. What is it that we can do together to make Virginia stronger and I convinced them on economic development, on education, on transportation. But I’m very proud working with them. We passed the first bipartisan gun legislation in twenty-four years.

As you know, Virginia’s home to the National Rifle Association. They are very powerful in our legislature. But I convinced them that we could work together and now Virginia has the most strict, protective order bill in America. In Virginia, under domestic protective order, you have twenty-four hours to hand your gun into authorities. If you do not do it, you will be charged with a class six felony and you are going to jail. And I’m very proud, in the last year since I signed the bill, eleven people have been convicted and secondly, I made sure there’s a state trooper every gun show in Virginia so that they can do a background check. Before this legislation, even if you wanted to do a background check, there was no one there to do it. Now there is a state police officer at every gun show and the toughest protective order. But I made it about strengthening Virginia.

SOLOMONT: So, talk to us a little bit about your work as governor ending the lifetime ban on voting by people with felony convictions and why was achieving that so important to you?

MCAULIFFE: This was a big issue that I ran on and forty states in America, you get your rights to vote back automatically. Virginia and many of the Southern states, their remnants of Jim Crow laws and, in fact, in 1902, a state senator who did this in Virginia said, “I’m doing this to eliminate the darkie from being a political factor in Virginia.”

We know the intent. Forty states, as I say, it’s automatic. I wanted to put Virginia into the twenty-first century. These people have served their time, Alan. So if they get convicted, a jury and judge determine their sentence. They carry out their sentence. Once they’re done, they’re back free in society, they’re paying taxes, they’re back going to our schools, our churches. Why shouldn’t they vote and be a full citizen?

Well, you know the reason. So I wanted to end that practice. I started out making changes. Drug offenses were offenses that you couldn’t get your rights back, I changed that. It used to be a thirteen-page form, I got it down. I finally said, “Enough’s enough. I’m just going to do the right thing and do it for everybody.”

So I did, I signed the order on April 22, 2016 and 206,000 people got the right to vote, became full citizens. Unfortunately, the Republicans sued me twice. I ultimately won, and these people are now full citizens. It’s about treating second chances in life. It’s about treating everybody with dignity and respect. I want Virginia citizens who have served their time and back in society. I want them feeling good about themselves. I want them to be productive members of society. That’s good for the state.

SOLOMONT:  We still have one of the largest prison populations in the world. We incarcerate people at a much higher rate than other countries. What else could be done to reform the criminal justice system?

MCAULIFFE: Yeah, great question and this is something I really leaned in on. When I took office, our criminal justice system was horrible in Virginia, the recidivism rate. Our juvenile recidivism rate was 80 percent within three years. Alan, we were spending $168,000 per juvenile. So I changed all that. I closed down this gigantic maximum security for juveniles, built smaller community-based, family-oriented facilities with educational facilities.

At our adult prison population, we now offer five college courses, we’re the first state to do this. I get you a driver’s license when you are in our prison population. You get a state ID while you’re there. We have credentialing programs and when I left office my last two years, Virginia had the lowest recidivism rate of any state in the United States of America for two straight years. Giving people a skill and training them with rehabilitation when they walk out, they walk right into a job. That is the most important thing we can do.

SOLOMONT: And by the way here at Tufts, we are bringing higher education to incarcerated men. At MCI-Concord, we’re going to offer them associate-degree credit through Bunker Hill Community College, which hopefully one day, might lead to a Tufts education.

MCAULIFFE: That’s great.

SOLOMONT: With our midterm elections coming up in less than a month now. How important do you think young people will be in the outcome of the midterms?

MCAULIFFE:  You know we always talk about energizing young people, to get them out to vote. I can tell you, this year, it is reality. I want to commend all the young people who did the March for Our Lives. I was at that concert on the mall. Alan, I’ve never seen anything like it. I think after Parkland, a real switch went off with people and they know they can really make a difference and you’ve seen close elections. The 2000 Gore election . . . in Virginia, we had a tie last year out of like 25,000 votes cast. People realize their vote matters.

But I think number one, on the issue of common-sense gun control, our Congress is incapable. After Newtown, Connecticut, when dozens of five- and six-year-olds were murdered, they couldn’t do anything. After Vegas when we couldn’t get rid of bumpstocks when this guy engineered his gun to kill all those individuals in Vegas. After Parkland, I think young people have said “Enough is enough, we are going to do this ourselves.”

So, I think it’s really going to happen. I think women and young people are going to make the difference. I gotta say, I think young people watching the Kavanaugh hearings and to see the way Dr. Ford, a courageous woman, came forward to talk about her sexual assault and the way she was denigrated by those individuals, I think young people, that’s it, they are fired up.

SOLOMONT: They are fired up but they’re still disenchanted. You and I grew up at a time when politics was a noble pursuit. How can we get young people to see politics as a noble pursuit once again?

MCAULIFFE: And that’s a good question and, Alan, after watching . . . the things they were saying and saying I want to be part of this? How did we get this? And so I understand it. But I do think that people have realized, I think Trump has really inspired on the immigration policy. I think young people are outraged today.

I can tell you they’re outraged in Virginia. When I was governor, I vetoed 120 bills shutting down Planned Parenthood clinics and selling machine guns out of gun stores. Young people saw me vetoing that legislation. And they really understood what we needed to do. I think we’ve got to do a better job of communicating peer-to-peer. No one’s going to encourage young people. The most important thing we can do to get young people to engage is another young person talking to them.

And that’s what we really have to do. They’re not getting their information from Twitter or Facebook. They’re talking to their friends and I got to tell you, there are so many women who know someone or have had a sexual assault themselves. They’re all talking, and they are angry about last week. And those young women in college campuses all over the country are having a very serious conversation with their friends and I think that’s really going to motivate people and to see what Lindsey Graham, Senator Graham had said, the disgraceful . . . I won’t even mention this on the radio what he said, it’s disgraceful.

SOLOMONT: So, if students want to reach out to their elected officials, what’s your advice about the best way to do that? Did you hear from students as governor of Virginia?

MCAULIFFE: Well, I really leaned in, Alan. I started a whole civic engagement for young people as governor. I put together a whole commission. So I had them come up and make reports to me so I was really forward leaning on it. I wanted young people engaged in the process. We got polling booths now on our college campuses, voter registration when they come into register for college.

I think it’s very . . . I think it is easy for anyone if they want to get to their governor and I would tell young people, forget Washington. You gotta work your state, you gotta work your governor because at the end of the day, your governor is responsible, with the legislature, for all of the funding for higher ed, as well as K-12. They build all your roads. They administer all the health-care plans. They’re in charge of the job creation workforce development and there wasn’t a time that someone said they didn’t want to come see me, that I didn’t open the doors to come talk to people.

I know people think, oh there’s no way I can go in and see the governor. Yes, you can. Call up, get a group of people and say I want to have an appointment to talk to you about some big issues. But you can. And I agree, I think people think, “Oh no, there’s no way I’m gonna get in.” But you can.

SOLOMONT: So you just told an audience of Tufts students that you’re pretty much an open book. What you see is what you get. Tell us something that we don’t know about Terry McAuliffe.

MCAULIFFE: Oh, I bet looking at me today, you would never figure that I’d run fifteen marathons. True.

SOLOMONT: That is true, that is true and you don’t train for them that much, do you?

MCAULIFFE: Oh, stop it, I’m still fit as a fiddle.

SOLOMONT: Thank you very much, Governor.

MCAULIFFE: I want to thank Tufts and I tell you, I want to thank you, Alan, for what you’re doing with this school. Finally, someone is really seriously taking on this whole issue of the millennial involvement, civic engagement. It’s not just voting, it’s taking it to the next level. I happen to be for national service. I would be for mandatory national service. Everyone ought to spend a year of their lives giving back and I think what you’re doing here at the Tisch School is a real step. To give us the data, to understand what young people are thinking. What gets them engaged and how we can use what you give us, for us to develop a better country, so I want to thank you and the team.

SOLOMONT: But you know, Terry, even though I’m a little older than you, I learned at the feet of the master, so I thank you.

MCAULIFFE:  Thank you.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Be sure to subscribe to listen to more episodes of the podcast, and please take a minute to rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at That’s Tufts—T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, and Dave Nuscher. Web production and editing support provided by Momo Shinzawa and Taylor McNeil. Production support provided by 5 to 9 Media. Special thanks to the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.

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