Newly Elected Officials Learn the Ropes from Veterans McAuliffe and Davis

By Buzz McClain

From left, Terry McAuliffe, Mark J. Rozell, and Tom Davis (Photos: Buzz McClain/Schar School of Policy and Government)

The finale to a day-long seminar on Thursday for newly elected regional officials brought two powerhouse Virginia politicians to the stage—former Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) and former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R). The veterans, both professors at the Schar School of Policy and Government, which also hosted the inaugural forum, delivered a potent message to the incoming class about the importance of staying true to campaign promises.

The 90-minute discussion at George Mason University’s Arlington campus was moderated by Schar School dean Mark J. Rozell and capped the first annual “Schar School Elected Leaders Regional Policy Seminar.” More than 30 newly elected state legislators, mayors, chairmen, and other policy decision-makers from Northern Virginia spent the day listening to informational presentations delivered by key officials at regional housing, transportation, energy, climate, and economic authorities.

There were overarching take-aways to the post-dinner discussion between McAuliffe and Davis, an important one being to remain true to the message that won the election.

“Getting elected is an entirely different skill from governing,” said Davis.

“When I became governor, we created a website that listed every promise I made when I was running, and you all should do that, too,” said McAuliffe. “And each time I kept a promise, we checked it off…You ran on something and that’s why people voted for you, and don’t forget that.”

Terry McAuliffe, a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Schar School, makes a point to a newly elected official.Davis, who is rector of George Mason, warned about bowing to the pressures of partisanship, a divisive issue that eventually compelled him to abandon elective politics. McAuliffe agreed. “The country has become too partisan, it’s broken,” he said. “And I can tell you, voters hate that.”

They also cautioned the audience as to the pitfalls of becoming mired in social issues that generally are not among the duties local politicians are expected to address. “Stay away from the social stuff, particularly at the local level,” said Davis, who began his career in 1979 as a supervisor in Fairfax County.

When asked by an audience member about the issue of redistricting and gerrymandering, McAuliffe said it was “the biggest threat to democracy. You have politicians picking voters instead of voters picking politicians, and that’s very dangerous, and it shouldn’t be that way,” he said.

The solution, said Davis, “is to let an independent body draw the [district] lines. That will keep the incumbents on their toes.”

As for freshman politicians dealing with a perceived—and real, according to McAuliffe—“pecking order” among senior leadership, the former governor didn’t hesitate.

“Swing for the fences,” he said.

“But,” added Davis, “know what you are talking about if you want to be credible.”