Fighting for Principles

Terry McAuliffe’s recipe for political success: start young, love your job, and get in people’s—and occasionally alligators’—faces
Terry McAuliffe speaking at Tufts
“I’m a big believer that we as Democrats have to fight harder,” Terry McAuliffe told a Tufts audience. “We need a principled fighter.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
October 10, 2018


Terry McAuliffe’s political career began with a wrestling match with an alligator.

It was 1980, he was twenty-three years old, and had turned down a full ride scholarship to law school to fundraise for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, said McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor, at a Tisch College Distinguished Speaker series talk on October 9.

The chief of the Seminole Tribe said he’d give $15,000 to the Carter campaign if McAuliffe would publicly wrestle an alligator—but said it would be drugged and toothless. Then the TV networks started showing up, along with Time and Newsweek, and the chief changed his mind. McAuliffe had to “do it the real way,” he said.

Which was how McAuliffe found himself watching four people lift an eight-and-a-half-foot alligator with a burlap sack over its head and a rope tied around its mouth out of a pickup truck. The alligator’s name was Jumper, and it wasn’t sedated and had all eighty teeth intact.

“You get up behind him and put your knees behind his two front legs so he can’t move back. His tail is more dangerous than his mouth—it can snap your vertebrae in half,” McAuliffe said. “You grab his mouth, and they cut the rope. And you’ve got to stay on for three minutes.”

Listen to Terry McAuliffe on the Tufts podcast series Tell Me More.

Three minutes later, McAuliffe accepted a $15,000 check on behalf of Jimmy Carter. In the intervening thirty-eight years since then, McAuliffe has gone on to chair the Democratic National Committee, the 2000 Democratic National Convention, President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign, and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign—and serve as governor of Virginia. His philosophy, he said, can be summed up in a description of his first unsuccessful run for governor in 2009: “We had a shot, we got crushed, we got back up, and did it again,” McAuliffe said.

Today McAuliffe is traveling the country and talking politics. He described himself as a “pro-business, fiscally conservative, socially progressive Democrat,” and cautioned his Tufts audience about the influence of money in politics: “There’s too much of it. We’ve got to get away from these six- and seven-thousand-dollar checks,” he said. “I’m concerned about all this dark money coming in with no disclosure—it’s bad for democracy.”

He offered his take on youth engagement. “I think young people are more engaged than I’ve probably ever seen them before,” he said. “I think they’re very fired up after Parkland and after Kavanaugh, and rightfully so.”

“I’m concerned about all this dark money coming in with no disclosure—it’s bad for democracy,” said Terry McAuliffe, here with event moderator Alan Solomont, A70, A08P, dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life. Photo: Alonso Nichols McAuliffe urged Tufts students to vote—“don’t tell me your vote doesn’t count; I lived through 2000, and it was a difference of 537 votes in Florida”—and to participate. “I encourage all of you to get into politics if you really want to change people’s lives,” McAuliffe said.

He recalled his worst moment as governor, when white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville in August 2017. “I told them to get out of my state and my country,” McAuliffe said. “That was a hard day, but we came together as a state and became stronger because of it.”

Asked about 2020, McAuliffe told the audience to focus on the upcoming November election first. “Let’s get through 2018,” he said. But he did predict that ten to twenty Democratic candidates would run for president. One might be former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, he noted. “Most governors are going to run on their records and what they actually got done,” McAuliffe said. “You’ve got to have something that will stake you out as different.”

Asked whether he will run for president, McAuliffe dodged the question. “I don’t foreclose on anything. I’ve got a lot of things I want to do before I go,” he said. But he did say that the country needs “a very socially progressive, pro-business Democrat.”

“I’m a big believer that we as Democrats have to fight harder. We need a principled fighter,” McAuliffe said. “I think we’ll win 2020, but we’d better have a candidate who can take [Trump] on. He’s a bully, he likes to go after people, and we’ve got to get right back in his face.”

Monica Jimenez can be reached at