Terry McAuliffe’s brother was once an abortion-clinic-protesting conservative activist. Now he’s a Democrat

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
The Ticket

Terry McAuliffe, a Democratic operative embroiled in a tight race to become Virginia's next governor, knows a thing or two about conservatives like his Republican opponent, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

That's in part because his older brother, Joseph McAuliffe, spent two decades as a Republican activist who worked for the evangelical leader Pat Robertson's presidential campaign, helped found a Christian political group in Florida, and was even arrested in the late 1980s while demonstrating at an abortion clinic.

Born into an Irish-Catholic family in the 1950s in Syracuse, N.Y., the McAuliffe brothers, Terry, 56 and Joseph, 62, both grew up to pursue a political career, but on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. Joseph spent the late 1970s and '80s working for conservatives, while Terry skyrocketed through the ranks of the Democratic Party.

Despite Joseph's resume as a right-wing activist, he wasn't always a conservative Republican, and he has since disavowed many of his former views. (More on that later.)

In an interview with Yahoo News, Joseph said that before becoming a Republican, he was a self-described hippie who lived in communes and went to Woodstock. As a young man, Joseph was "very much left of the Democratic Party," he said.

That would all change in the 1970s, when a conversion experience to Christianity took him politically rightward.

One issue in particular delivered the elder McAuliffe brother firmly into the Republican camp: abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade granted women the right to terminate their pregnancies through the first 12 weeks of gestation, a decision that helped ignite a conservative political movement that eventually brought millions of Christians into the Republican Party. Joseph was one of them.

"It really was a bellwether issue that took people like myself," Joseph told Yahoo News. "There were a number of people who were former counterculture types who were even left of left so to speak, but shifted to the right."

A new man, Joseph became a minister and moved to Tampa, Fla., where he helped start a church. In the era of Ronald Reagan, Joseph became deeply involved in Republican politics. He was invited to join then-Vice President George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign in 1987, but took a job as a deputy state campaign manager for Robertson's presidential run.

While Joseph toiled on the campaign trail in 1988 for one of the most conservative candidates in the GOP primary, his younger brother, Terry, was busy fundraising for Dick Gephardt, a top House Democrat and one of the most liberal presidential hopefuls at the time.

After Robertson dropped out of the race, Joseph joined other Robertson campaign workers to create United Christians of Florida, a political action committee that provides issue-based voter guides for Christians in the state. Joseph went on to work for Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network for two years, where, like Terry, he specialized in courting high-dollar donors.

During the Clinton years, however, Joseph became disenchanted with the Republican Party. He began to question the conservative opposition to the welfare state and came to realize that he could no longer reconcile right-wing views on issues like food stamps and health care for the poor with his faith.

"I kind of got burned out on some of my experiences I had gone through with the Republican Party," Joseph told Yahoo News. "I'd find myself sitting in Republican meetings where they would be talking about the problems with welfare and food stamps, and I thought, Jeez, these people really don't know what they're talking about."

When he looks back on his years with Robertson and the Christian Broadcasting Network, Joseph said he had hoped that Robertson, who has a long record of making inflammatory statements about Muslims, gays and the cause of natural disasters, had abandoned hot-button political issues to focus exclusively on ministry.

"I wish and recommended for Pat to take that course," he said.

In the 1990s, Joseph began to dabble in Democratic politics through his brother. During Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, Terry, who served as Clinton's co-chairman, brought Joseph to a fundraiser for the president. Terry gave a short speech to the group about his brother, according to a 2001 Tampa Tribune article, and praised him for his principled commitment to pro-life policies, even though the two disagreed on the issue.

"I was probably the only pro-life person in the room," Joseph would later tell the Tampa Tribune. Clinton, he said, led the room in applause for him after Terry's talk.

Joseph's political shift was complete when, on Nov. 6, 1996, while still a registered Republican, Joseph cast his ballot to send Bill Clinton back to the White House.

Over time, even his staunch opposition to abortion would change. Joseph told Yahoo News this week that while he still would not personally advise a woman to have an abortion, he no longer thinks the government should ban the procedure.

"I describe myself as being very pro-life and very pro-choice. I'm very comfortable being a strong advocate for the unborn and at the same time being a strong advocate of women having a right to make decisions for their own bodies," Joseph told Yahoo News. "I think we need to give individuals the freedom to make that choice."

Abortion, of course, remains a contentious issue to this day, and the debate over its legality has made its way into Terry's campaign for governor. As a candidate in the race for governor, Terry has criticized Cuccinelli, his Republican opponent, for his anti-abortion views. On that issue and others, Terry McAuliffe and Virginia state party members regularly label Cuccinelli an "extremist."

Unlike his younger brother, Joseph declines to use the word to describe those with different views.

"I don't like the word 'extremist' in almost any regard," Joseph told Yahoo News. "Adolf Hitler was an extremist. Joseph Stalin. I try to reserve words like that for people that really—I think this is a sensitive, delicate, personal issue, and I wish there was more civility and humility surrounding the discussion.

"The idea of me getting arrested is not something I'm proud of. There are just some things we just don't know," Joseph said. "To me all religious discussions, all social issues, if you will, should be shrouded in humility and prefaced by words like 'maybe' and 'perhaps.' But we tend to be so dogmatic and so absolutely final about things that we really don't know what we're talking about, including God."

These days, Joseph is far less political than Terry. He still focuses on his ministry while teaching history at the University of South Florida and is the coordinator of the university's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Joseph lives in South Florida with his wife of nearly 40 years, Kay. They have four children, one of whom, Marisa, lives in Washington and works for Hillary Clinton.

"I try not to keep politics as a front-burner issue in my life," Joseph said. "Sometimes politics can get in the way of people."

Still, he's been following his brother's race closely, and it's not always easy given the scrutiny his brother often faces in the media.

Joseph said he winced when he saw the dustup over excerpts from Terry's books that made Terry appear as though he didn't care about his family. In his 2008 memoir, "What a Party!," Terry described the time he went to a Washington Post party while his wife was in labor with their first child. In another section of the book, he wrote about how he stopped to meet with a Democratic donor while on the way home from the hospital with his newborn son.

Terry was just trying to be funny, Joseph said.

"Terry's not the comedian of the family," he told Yahoo News. "I think some of his book was actually a failed attempt at humor that didn't really work. In fact it probably backfired on him."

Later this summer, Joseph plans to travel to Virginia to help his little brother on the campaign trail.

"I think he'll really surprise people at how good he'll be," Joseph said.