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Dorothy McAuliffe: A Visit With the First Lady of Virginia

At the center of a political swirl, Dorothy McAuliffe connects her role as a mother with the issue of childhood hunger.



After back-to-back holiday parties at the Executive Mansion and Christmas spent at the family home in McLean, there’s a ski trip to Colorado. And when the first week of 2016 rolls around, Virginia’s first lady Dorothy Swann McAuliffe finds herself in Cuba, beside her equally indefatigable husband of 27 years, Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Enjoying down time on the official trade and cultural mission, they pose for photos inside a pink and white 1956 Chevrolet, a vintage icon of the balmy, decaying isle that remains largely off-limits to Americans.

The following week, she’s back home in Capitol Square, helping the school-age McAuliffes, Sally, 15, and Peter, 13, prep for spring semester. Then her husband delivers his State of the Commonwealth speech Jan. 13, marking the start of another session of the oldest English-speaking legislative body in the New World, which dates from 1619.

As the governor navigates the 60-day session, the focus of which is his proposed $109 billion budget, the energy level in and around the Executive Mansion, ramps up considerably — both politically and socially. Although, really, can the two be separated?

A mere mortal would get whiplash.

To add to the mix, like her predecessors, Dorothy McAuliffe has her own agenda as first lady. Her husband gives her a shout-out in his address, saluting her work with active-duty military families and eliminating childhood hunger.

“It’s hard to believe that already it’s halfway through the administration,” she says, relaxed and affable but with a hint of urgency in mid-December. “We’re going full speed.”


Virginia’s incoming first family makes its way down the Capitol steps Jan. 11, 2014, for the swearing in of Terry McAuliffe as governor. Under an umbrella at lower left, Bill Clinton applauds. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Virginia’s incoming first family makes its way down the Capitol steps Jan. 11, 2014, for the swearing in of Terry McAuliffe as governor. Under an umbrella at lower left, Bill Clinton applauds.

Visiting Virginia’s Executive Mansion is always special. Built in 1813 and wedged tightly against the northeast corner of Capitol Square, it’s the nation’s oldest active governor’s residence, witnessing a rotation of gubernatorial households for more than two centuries.

It has known merriment from overnight stays by such politicos as Winston Churchill and President Gerald Ford. It has welcomed Queen Elizabeth II and been the scene of weddings and reunions both large and intimate.

But there’s been sadness too, as when Gov. Mills Godwin and his wife Katherine returned home alone after their only daughter was killed by lightning. Or when the remains of tennis great Arthur Ashe laid there for public viewing. First lady Helen Trinkle was hospitalized for many months with burns after a Christmas tree caught fire and the house went up in flames in 1925.

The Washington Post has called the first lady “press shy.” And when I request an interview on the topic of life in the mansion, the governor’s press office tells me in no uncertain terms, not so much. Instead, she’ll discuss her child nutrition program. And she’d prefer to meet in her office outside the mansion.

That office is in the state’s Patrick Henry Building, a former State Library and Supreme Court building that was converted for office use in 2007. It houses the governor’s office and his staff and Cabinet members. This is the first time a first lady has kept an office there — although Edie Dalton had an office in the Capitol during Gov. John Dalton’s term in the 1970s.

As requested, I submit a two-page event briefing form to Lindsey Watson, the first lady’s executive assistant. We agree that after photographing the first lady in the mansion, we will move to the Patrick Henry Building for the interview.

In a driving rainstorm on the morning of Dec. 11, a Style photographer and I show up to the front gate of the mansion.

“You’re from Style,” says a state trooper, emerging from a cozy guardhouse and peering out from under rain gear and a broad-brimmed hat. “There’s been a change of plans.” It had been a busy morning with the governor unveiling his biennial budget, and the first lady was waiting in the Patrick Henry Building.

We walk a few yards, pass security screening and enter the great art deco lobby. We take an elevator to an upper floor. Executive assistant Watson emerges and says the first lady is running about a half-hour behind schedule.

We settle into large easy chairs amid the blond, panel-walled atrium while rain thumps onto the skylight five stories above. Days of wet weather have agitated every bit of mold still hiding in the pungent former library building. The receptionist approaches with a candy bowl. I take a Hershey’s Kiss and wander over to a showcase filled with all manner of monogrammed ephemera from Gov. McAuliffe’s 2014 inauguration — photographs, ball caps and lap blankets.

Watson comes for us. I thank the receptionist, who says policy keeps her from revealing her name to media.

Making a tight turn in a narrow hallway and approaching the first lady’s office, I spot Dorothy McAuliffe through the open door, clicking away on her computer. “Let me just finish this,” she says, not looking up.

Seconds later she stands, smiling and welcoming. She wears a rose-hued dress and white sweater. When I mention a mutual friend, she inquires sensitively about his current love life, striking an immediately familiar tone.

The sight of a camera in the office makes Watson nervous. “No pictures near the desk,” she says, “It’s too messy.” McAuliffe, shrugging, says she has no problem with it. When the question arises about where to photograph her later in the mansion, Watson suggests either of the rooms flanking the center hall, “the old governor’s office or the ladies’ parlor.” McAuliffe scrunches her nose slightly at the mention of “ladies’ parlor.”

  • Scott Elmquist

We settle down at a medium-sized conference table near a window overlooking Governor’s Street, and I ask where she and the governor first met.

“Oh, that’s in the book,” McAuliffe says, referring to her husband’s 2007 candid autobiography, “What a Party! My Life among Democrats: Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators, and other Wild Animals.”

“We met in Florida when he was working on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign,” she says, at a fundraiser in 1975. “He met my family and endeared himself to my parents. He became a family friend. I was much younger.” She had just turned 16.

McAuliffe graduated in political science from Catholic University and received a law degree from Georgetown University. She practiced banking and securities law for several years, and worked in Washington for a Florida congressman.

A lanky, well-dressed man enters and joins us at the table. “I don’t know the etiquette when the first lady’s midsentence and someone else approaches,” I say, rising to shake his hand.

“I’m afraid I breached etiquette by being late,” says Lincoln Saunders, chief of staff and policy adviser to the first lady.

But his timing is perfect because McAuliffe has started discussing her interest in eliminating childhood hunger and improving access to the state’s locally grown agricultural products. Saunders has a master’s degree in public affairs and food and agricultural policy.

McAuliffe serves as chairwoman of the Commonwealth Council on Bridging the Nutritional Divide, a commission with some 40 members.

“Out of 2 million children in the state,” she says, “200,000 go without enough food every year. Addressing this is important so that every child is able to learn and able to concentrate. Food is a critical part of the educational day. It’s as important as laptops. People can’t be hungry. Hungry children are absent more often. It’s a long day. And often they go home to empty cupboards.”

“What you see you see in school cafeterias reflects the culture at large. Food affects performance,” she says. “Vending machines are on the way out.”

Tied to nutrition is the development of agriculture markets and promoting community efforts that link locally grown food with education, health and economic issues.

In his Jan. 13 State of the Commonwealth address, the governor cites 244 schools that have introduced meals programs because of the leadership of his wife and others. But 310 other schools applied for program, for which funding isn’t currently available. You get the impression that Dorothy McAuliffe won’t rest until every eligible child gets fed.

While McAuliffe discusses nutrition, Watson and Saunders flank her and sit mostly glued to their iPhones, staying connected. Saunders is probably doing real time fact checking. Lindsay announces that there’s time for one more question. I choose to leave it at that.


Dorothy and Terry McAuliffe visit Scott’s Addition in 2014 to announce a grant from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund. Delegate Jennifer McClellan, left, joins them. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Dorothy and Terry McAuliffe visit Scott’s Addition in 2014 to announce a grant from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund. Delegate Jennifer McClellan, left, joins them.

Historically, while first ladies have served their share of tea and cookies, McAuliffe is in a long line of governors’ wives who’ve lent their prestige, time and passion to worthy causes.

Martha Jefferson, the first gubernatorial spouse to reside in Richmond, in rented quarters, also was the first to roll up her sleeves. In 1780, Martha Washington asked her to raise funds to uniform the Continental Army. Jefferson sent a letter to a local newspaper encouraging Virginia women to “join their sisters” in Maryland and Pennsylvania in the effort. Eventually, money for 2,200 linen shirts was raised.

“The most recent first ladies have been activists in positive ways,” says Jeannie Baliles, Virginia’s first lady when Gerald Baliles was governor from 1986 to 1990.

She mentions Roxane Gilmore’s methodical and “needed” restoration of the mansion. Anne Holton, who serves as secretary of education on McAuliffe’s cabinet and is married to former governor and now U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, made programs for older children in foster care her primary focus. Baliles’ interest was in adult literacy and she continues as chairwoman of the Virginia Literacy Foundation.

“My take-away is that whatever you do when you’re there, not to stop when you leave,” Baliles says as way of advice. “So if what you’ve done is working, keep with it.”

“Dorothy is lucky in the regard that she has mixed and mingled with the rich and famous,” Baliles says, referring to the governor’s storied role as fundraiser and chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the couple’s close friendship with such political icons as Bill and Hillary Clinton, who attended his inauguration.

“They are fortunate in what they can accomplish in that regard,” Baliles says. “She’s a good mother and has done a good job promoting nutrition.”


Dorothy McAuliffe talks to Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones last month during an event marking construction progress at Stone Brewing Co. in Fulton Bottom. The governor is at right and Maurice Jones, the state secretary of commerce and trade, is at left. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Dorothy McAuliffe talks to Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones last month during an event marking construction progress at Stone Brewing Co. in Fulton Bottom. The governor is at right and Maurice Jones, the state secretary of commerce and trade, is at left.

Leaving McAuliffe’s office, I quickly scan the nondescript room. Hanging on the wall near her corner desk are colorful posters promoting victory gardens from World War II. A large Virginia map hangs on the opposite wall with an American flag in a stand.

Stepping out of the elevator and into the lobby, it’s clear that rain continues to pour.

“Let’s take the tunnel,” says McAuliffe, referring to the underground connector between the Patrick Henry Building and the Executive Mansion, as well as the Capitol and the Virginia Commonwealth University medical complex. When a security officer objects because I don’t have necessary security clearance, McAuliffe protests gently.

Only then I recall that I left my raincoat and umbrella upstairs. Saunders takes me back upstairs, awkward situation averted. Under umbrellas, when he and I pass through the gate into the residential compound minutes later, the state trooper announces that the governor — using his code name — is still at lunch inside.

Approaching the mansion’s front steps, we pass a construction site on the building’s right side where a disability ramp is being added. Dorothy McAuliffe was a chief advocate for the addition because wheelchair-bound guests had been relegated to entering through the basement.

The ramp has caused a flap with some preservationists who say it defaces the mansion’s façade. Former first lady Roxane Gilmore even weighed in with an op-ed piece in The Richmond Times-Dispatch questioning its necessity.

Before I can mention it, Saunders speaks up: “That’s the new wheelchair ramp, it’s a good thing.” Now completed, it is hardly noticeable.

As we enter through the mansion’s double doors a dog barks. Visible at the end of the long center hall in the dining room, a working luncheon is underway. Gov. McAuliffe, sitting at the head of the table, glances toward the front door and flaps his hand at us, as if to say welcome.

“He’s very gregarious,” his wife said earlier. “He loves people.”

There are muffled sounds in the front hallway while a dozen or so people mill around. A familiar face, Tutti Townes, the butler who has served nine governors and their families, passes through. The space has the warm, embracing atmosphere of an understatedly chic New England inn.

I enter the old governor’s office to shed my coat under the gaze of Henry Lee, an 18th-century governor. A portrait of Patrick Henry, the state’s first governor, is opposite. Two members of the small luncheon party, Mark Christie and James Dimitri, both of whom sit on the State Corporation Commission, and acquaintances, come in to retrieve their coats.

“We’re used to activity here,” says Dorothy McAuliffe, appearing with one of the family’s two dogs, Daisy, at her ankles. “She is the real first lady. She loves to sit on the furniture. Finnegan prefers to stay downstairs.” Three chickens are relegated the yard.

She takes me on a brief stroll through the main floor of the house, gas logs ablaze in four fireplaces. In the ballroom a bar has been set up across the north side of the room with a long bar. Highball glasses etched with the state seal and taps for Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery beer are set up for the next evening party.

“Sally is 15, interested in politics and loves to be here for functions and meet and engage people,” McAuliffe says. “Peter prefers to escape to upstairs.” Or outdoors where a portable net has been set up for shooting baskets.

Both “have discovered the tunnels as well as the secret passage that goes up in the Capitol dome,” she says. “Family time often means going to the movies and we try to make family time as consistent as possible. We love it when we can all get together.”

Holiday décor graces every room. There are no flashy poinsettias as in past years. Rather pine cones, fruit and native evergreens evoke an understated, chaste colonial, aesthetic. Seven stockings hang on a mantel. In addition to Sally and Peter’s there are those for the first couple’s three grown children. Dori works in New York and Mary is a graduate student in Middle Eastern studies. Jack graduated last year from Annapolis and is now stationed at Quantico. “We get to see him more often on weekends now,” McAuliffe says.

The governor’s stocking is considerably larger than the others.

Virginia’s first couple pose in a 1956 Chevrolet during a cultural and trade mission to Cuba earlier this month. - TWITTER
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  • Virginia’s first couple pose in a 1956 Chevrolet during a cultural and trade mission to Cuba earlier this month.

The decorative highlight is the ballroom Christmas tree which was cut in Floyd County. “It has some 200 ornaments from localities all over Virginia,” she says. We examine an exquisitely painted glass ornament from Bath County.

But McAuliffe is most anxious to point out paintings the family has had hung on the mansion’s walls. These include a luminous oil portrait by Pierre Daura of an unidentified black custodian at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, now Randolph College, and a large portrait of Richmond civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill by E. Bankson.

“These better reflect the story of all Virginians,” she says.

McAuliffe exudes a relaxed yet in-the-moment intensity while she channels her energy. “When my husband first ran for office in 2009 I knew there were so many things on which I could focus,” she says. “But being a parent, and during the campaign, I quickly became aware that there are so many families that don’t have all that they need.”

While much of her time is filled with official functions, she says these offer opportunities: “We try to learn and gain from each of these. We have front row seats at various occasions, some large, some small. But through them I come to see the challenges that people face.”

“We’re enjoying what we do very much,” she adds, before heading off to her next appointment. “We are living by the motto, ‘Make the most of every day.’” S

Editor's note: In the print version of the story, we misspelled the first reference to Lincoln Saunders.

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