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HOLMBERG: Gov. McAuliffe celebrates felon voting rights, gives a boost to mayoral candidate

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RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe gave a passionate, triumphant speech Thursday evening in Church Hill about his mass restoration of felons' voting rights.

It also sounded like a campaign stop for his close friend and advisor, Levar Stoney, who stepped down from McAuliffe's cabinet (Secretary of the Commonwealth) to campaign to become Richmond's mayor.

"So for me to stand there as the 72nd governor," McAuliffe told the cheering crowd inside the 31st Street Baptist Church, "and erase 114  years of racial injustice, to do the right thing, I will tell you folks, was the greatest day of my governorship."

McAuliffe praised Stoney - a likely favorite in the mayoral race - for his role in helping figure out how to restore the rights of some 200,000 felons with the stroke of the executive pen.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe

Stoney stood and waved to a burst of applause.

Thursday evening's event, attended by 100 or so, was hosted by state Delegate Dolores McQuinn (D-Henrico) to answer questions from those who had questions about restoration.

"I think big. I act big," McAuliffe told the crowd. "I'm trying to make Virginia the greatest state in the entire United States of America. That is my goal. You cannot do it by putting walls up around your state, by denying folks access to the best education, to the best health care, to the best transportation systems."

In his speech, he said that his motivation for the voting restoration was not political - that it was just the right thing to do for justice and morality. (I happen to agree.)

I asked him if he could understand that some might think the 200,000 restorations is political, given that it's a pivotal election year in a pivotal, closely-divided state. Plus, he's a former Democratic National Committee chair and had headed up Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign.

"You're assuming all 200,000 register to vote," McAuliffe responded. "I think that's probably a high number. But that aside, we always have elections in Virginia. And I think people who know how hard I worked last year, if I was to do it for political purposes, I would've done it last year for the General Assembly races when (with) 1,500 votes I would've gotten control of the state Senate. And I would've had a much better argument on Medicaid expansion."

Did he come to stump for Stoney?

Stoney

Levar Stony, Former Secretary of the Commonwealth

"He hasn't asked me to do any of events for him," he said. "I've always said I will do anything he wants me to do. But let's be clear: this is his race . . . Everybody knows were like brothers, we're best friends. But it's his race to run. And I will certainly come out and do anything I can to help him. I'll go door-to-door -anything he wants . . . He's got to make his own message - it's not about me."

But wait, here comes the governor with a big message - 200,000 new voters - and here's the guy who helped him do it.

"Well," McAuliffe said, chuckling. "I hope it does help him."

Clearly, for most of those present, McAuliffe is a heroic figure.

There were some whose rights were restored.

"I'm 32 years old," said Dominique Pervall. "I lost my voting rights at the age of 19. I grew up right here in Church Hill on 32nd Street. I was convicted of possession (of cocaine) with intent. I was just kind of hanging with the wrong crowd at the wrong time, trying to do what I thought was right to fit in."

After a year in jail, he said, he kept his nose clean became an electrician and a youth minister at his church. He's been trying to get his voting rights restored ever since, but had problems because of fines and paperwork, he said.

"It feels like the first time since 2002 - or since 2003 when I was convicted - for the first time I feel free," he said. "I feel like a free man."

It's a powerful political message, and, perhaps, a powerful enough tool to help tip the presidential race in favor of the presumptive democratic candidate and another of the governor's close friends - Hillary Clinton.