LEWISTON, Maine — Terry McAuliffe once wrestled an 8-foot, nearly 300-pound alligator to raise money for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign.
That was tough stuff. But the gator was nothing compared to Bates College Democrat Doug Kempner, who finally convinced McAuliffe to come to Lewiston and speak at Bates.
“He was tenacious,” McAuliffe said. “Day in and day out, to the point where I told my assistant, ‘This man is driving me crazy.'”
The result: McAuliffe was the keynote speaker as Bates on Friday and Maine College Democrats got their two-day convention under way.
The former chairman of the Democratic National Committee riled a crowd of more than 100 Democrats at the Muskie Archives into a frenzy.
This was not a black-tie affair. Dads in blazers sat at tables with sons wearing logo T-shirts. Many of Maine’s elite were in attendance, but so were college kids and downtown folks looking to get inspired by one of the nation’s top Democrats.
Some were lifelong Democrats. Others were just finding their way.
“This is so encouraging,” Lewiston activist Brenda Akers said. “It’s good that so many people are here listening to him because the TV news doesn’t always tell the truth.”
The truth from McAuliffe’s view is this: Democrats have worked tirelessly for decades to create jobs and reduce debt. Whenever the Republican Party takes over the White House, the opposite is true.
McAuliffe, who worked for the presidential campaigns of Bill and Hillary Clinton, praised President Barack Obama up and down. He saved the automobile industry, McAuliffe said. He bailed out the banks and pushed an overdue health care bill through.
“He saved the economy,” McAuliffe said, “and he got us back to creating jobs.”
And then? Democrats dropped the ball.
In speaking of Democratic losses in the 2010 midterm elections, McAuliffe was almost forlorn. The crowd moaned as they relived the GOP trouncing in 2010.
It’s a mistake, McAuliffe said, that Democrats cannot afford to make again. The American people, in particular the ones who can’t afford expensive colleges, need the Democratic Party more than ever.
“They’re counting on you to fight for them,” he thundered. “It’s time for Democrats to stop whining and stand up and fight for the American people.”
Before his speech got under way, McAuliffe mingled. He had dinner and posed for photos with local politicians. Twice during his speech, he referred to Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert as “the best mayor in America.”
McAuliffe alternated between playful and somber. The future of the party — and of Obama’s presidency — he said, is bright.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” he said. “But I’ll tell every one of you, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Many of the local politicians in the room seemed downright giddy to be rubbing elbows with one of the nation’s most influential Democrats.
While chairman of the DNC, McAuliffe raised more than $535 million, shattering all previous records for funds raised by either party and setting Democrats on a new course.
His memoir, “What A Party!: My Life Among Democrats: Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators and Other Wild Animals,” has hit almost all bestseller lists. McAuliffe took a minute to chide most of the room — all but four of those in attendance — for not reading it.
After a 20-minute speech, McAuliffe ended on a high note, expressing optimism, encouraging hard work, but also advising the students in the room to find work that they enjoy.
“I’ve had fun every day of my life,” he told them. “Do whatever you want to do. Take chances. It’s your life.”