Levar Stoney: Friend and Adviser to McAuliffe with Ambition of His Own 

click to enlarge Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney talks about the restoration of voting rights for felons to a group gathered at the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. Gov. Terry McAuliffe can be seen to the left.

Stephen M. Katz

Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney talks about the restoration of voting rights for felons to a group gathered at the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. Gov. Terry McAuliffe can be seen to the left.

Levar Stoney’s name comes up frequently in state politics. Politicos who want to solve a problem or get Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s attention go to him. He is secretary of the commonwealth and, at 34, the youngest member of the governor’s Cabinet.

Politically ambitious, Stoney speaks at voting-rights events and heads the administration’s effort to return voting rights to people with felony convictions. Like his boss, he enjoys working nonstop, raising the profile of the secretary of the commonwealth’s position. As a former athlete, he loves the competition of politics. He’s considering a run for mayor of Richmond. And in October he was named to the 2015 class of Style’s Top 40 Under 40.

Stoney’s life didn’t start on this trajectory.

He was born to teenagers on Long Island, N.Y., and raised in York County on the Peninsula. His love of politics fueled his climb from student government leader to Cabinet member. His friendship with McAuliffe was formed after they both suffered political defeats, then traveled thousands of miles together in an SUV, taking their “no negativity” philosophy into Virginia’s executive mansion, where few are as close to the governor as Stoney.

“I am a product of kids having kids,” he said. “My mother was 16, my father was 19 when I was born.”

He moved to Virginia around 1988 after an uncle stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton suggested it .

Stoney was raised by his father, Luther Stoney, and grandmother, Mary Stoney, a domestic laborer from South Carolina with an eighth-grade education who had moved to New York for economic opportunity.

Stoney got involved in student government in York County – more specifically, student politics.

He recalls walking into a convenience store with his uncle, seeing a classmate, and not saying hello.

“You’ve got to talk to people, man,” an uncle told him.

Stoney’s political career began in elementary school with a successful campaign for student body vice president. He was elected student body president in middle school, at Tabb High School and at James Madison University.

“I remember the campaigning more than I do anything else,” he said. He used his class pictures to make posters. His slogan in elementary school was “Vote for Stoney, he’s no phony.” In college, T-shirts read “Raise the bar – vote for Levar.”

He aced a big test in an Advanced Placement government class as a high school senior.

“That’s when I knew this is what I need to do with my life,” he said.

Sharon Carter, who taught the class at Tabb, said Stoney’s personality livened the class and she isn’t surprised he’s now a Cabinet secretary.

“I have good memories of him being a student leader,” she said.

Stoney studied public administration and political science in college. During that time, in 2002, he knocked on doors in Prince George’s County, Md., to work for congressional candidate Mark Kennedy Shriver, who lost in a Democratic primary.

One summer, he worked on a Virginia House of Delegates race on the Peninsula for Democrat Philip Forgit, now the executive directorof the Virginia Education Association.

When a TV broadcast Forgit’s losing results at an election-night party, Stoney burst into tears.

“I remember crying like a baby,” he said. “Because you work so hard.”

He told himself he’d never cry publicly again over an election defeat. He did cry when his name was called at his college graduation ceremony, because no one in his family had climbed that high.

Stoney later worked on state Sen. Creigh Deeds’ unsuccessful campaigns for Virginia attorney general in 2005 and governor in 2009.

Republican Bob McDonnell beat Deeds by 323 votes for attorney general (a recount made it 360) and clobbered him in the governor’s race, after Deeds beat McAuliffe and Brian Moran in the Democratic primary.

McDonnell, now waiting to see whether he’ll be ordered to spend two years in prison for public corruption, ran one of the best Republican gubernatorial campaigns Stoney had ever heard of.

“They were able to moderate him to make him more palatable to Northern Virginia,” Stoney said. “And he talked about jobs.”

“If you closed your eyes today and heard audio of Terry McAuliffe, Bob McDonnell, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, they all sound the same,” he said. “They all talk about economic development.”

Deeds laughed when asked for an anecdote about his days on the campaign trail with Stoney, recalling they joked a lot. “Nothing I’m going to repeat,” Deeds said.

Someone pinned up a college photo of Deeds sporting a wild beard Stoney says looked like Leonardo DiCaprio’s in the recent survival movie “The Revenant.”

The picture loomed over Deeds while he called donors. “I’m sure there were some lonely nights,” Stoney kidded the candidate.

Deeds remembered being impressed during the 2005 campaign that someone so popular would spend so much time doting on his grandmother.

“Levar I’ve known for a long time and I really care about the guy,” Deeds said. “When Terry McAuliffe was running for governor, I would see Levar and he was working so hard. He was thinking so hard it was like the top was going to come off his head.”

Between Deeds’ campaigns, Stoney was political director and then executive director of the state Democratic Party.

In that role he met McAuliffe, someone he eventually would consider more than a mentor.

They met in Denver at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and Stoney recalled declining a job working for McAuliffe on the 2009 primary race and worked for Deeds in the general election.

After that loss, Stoney said, his career was at a low point.

The Democratic Party didn’t want him back, and in 2010 he bypassed the Jefferson-Jackson dinner to host a birthday party for himself at Lulu’s restaurant in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom.

He emailed McAuliffe an invitation.

When Stoney arrived, McAuliffe already was there, working the crowd. Stoney told a McAuliffe aide that whatever they were going to do next, he’d love to help.

The next day, McAuliffe emailed him to say he looked forward to working with him. “We work hard. We play hard,” the future governor wrote.

Stoney said he’ll keep that email for the rest of his life.

“I see it as the starting point of something. Something that ended up being great. A starting point of a relationship as well.”

Stoney worked for McAuliffe’s company, GreenTech Automotive, an electric-car company that came under federal scrutiny. Both extroverted and obsessed with government and politics, they became friends.

“We got along very well because these were two people who were basically rejected,” Stoney said. “And I think we both had something to prove.”

“I thought I knew a lot about politics and relationships until I met Terry McAuliffe.”

When Stoney’s father died in 2011, McAuliffe and his wife, Dorothy, were there for support. Stoney had a room in their McLean home.

“He’s been a mentor. He’s my best friend. And he’s also been a father figure. Now, he would say we’re more like big brother, little brother,” Stoney said. “We drove thousands of miles together, just him and I in a car. The governor and I have gone into coal mines together.”

“For a long stretch of time, we ate at Subway.”

McAuliffe wanted to know firsthand how mines operate. Stoney was wearing sandals when they arrived at one.

“What are you doing?” McAuliffe asked, encouraging the miners to tease Stoney over his footwear.

“I don’t think anybody has ever showed up to go down in a mine with flip-flops on,” McAuliffe said.

Being driven through a snowstorm in Russell County was stressful for McAuliffe, an upstate New York native. He demanded the SUV’s keys from Stoney.

“Get out of the car,” McAuliffe recalled telling him.

Stoney served as deputy campaign manager for McAuliffe’s successful run for governor in 2013. He was responsible for deciding which officials and activists McAuliffe should meet with. Republicans later decried Stoney’s appointment to a Cabinet post as political.

McAuliffe said people go to Stoney to get to him “10 times a day.”

“People know that he spent four years traveling with me through ups and downs in the political world and the business world,” McAuliffe said, describing Stoney as “my closest political adviser.”

Stoney’s job is assisting the governor in making appointments to boards and commissions. About 2,000 have been made, with another 2,000 expected by the time McAuliffe’s term ends.

Wearing trim suits and usually smiling, Stoney likes to walk through the Patrick Henry Building, home to the governor’s offices, making jokes. On the wall of his office hangs a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., and near his desk is a photo of he and McAuliffe in the Capitol after winning the governor’s race. McAuliffe signed it: “Levar – a momentous climb. I could not have done it without you. Just the beginning!”

Stoney said he admires McAuliffe’s passion for helping people.

“I just think that people deserve a voice. You may not agree with me. You deserve a voice.”

Speaking Jan. 18 at an event in Richmond honoring King, Stoney said the administration found a lack of diversity on state boards.

“I said, ‘Governor, I love old white guys with white hair, but what I need are younger people. Young people look like Virginia.’ And he agreed.”

In two years under McAuliffe, voting rights have been restored to more than 16,000 felons. The issue resonates with Stoney because his father had been one.

“My dad made mistakes when he was younger,” Stoney told a crowd, comparing the issue to a poll tax or literacy test. “That is a remnant of the old Jim Crow, and every single day, we as citizens, we as officials, have to right the wrongs.”

Stoney didn’t dodge questions during a recent interview at his office. But he wasn’t eager to talk about a run for mayor, or the capital city’s challenges.

“There is no secret that I have a strong interest in running for mayor of Richmond,” he said. “However, there’s a time and place for that.”

Dietra Trent, deputy secretary of education in Virginia, mentored Stoney in 2004 when he was a governor’s fellow in the office of then-Gov. Mark Warner.

“Whatever he decides he’s going to do, he’s going to be extremely successful at it,” she said.

McAuliffe said Stoney would bring a fresh approach to take a dynamic city to the next level and would be surprised if he didn’t run.

“He’ll never forget his roots,” McAuliffe said, “having come up through very tough circumstances, and he’s made it. And he wants other people to make it.”

This story originally appeared on PilotOnline.com

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