by Jessica Sabbath
In 2005, a central issue of the Virginia governor’s race was improving roads so workers could get to jobs more easily. In this year’s contest, the candidates are focused on getting jobs for many of those workers.
Democrat Creigh Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell both envision turning the commonwealth into a hotbed of energy research in a state economy that’s thriving in urban and rural areas alike.
But reaching that goal will be no easy task. The winner of next month’s election will face a biennial budget already stripped of billions of dollars, an unimproved transportation system with dwindling revenues and an unemployment rate that has reached double digits in some hard-hit parts of Virginia.
“The election is going to turn on the economy more in this race than in any race for 20 years,” says Stephen Farnsworth, assistant professor of communication at George Mason University. “The electorate is going to be far more interested in pragmatic approaches rather than ideological attacks. Bad economic times can concentrate voters’ minds that way.”
As one of only two gubernatorial contests this year, this election’s political implications will be closely watched around the nation. Pundits will interpret the outcome as a reflection of the influence of President Obama, who won Virginia in November 2008, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who is chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “The controversies that have emerged over the summer regarding health care and the economic difficulties have given Republicans some things to say that are pretty critical of Obama,” says Farnsworth. “And those attacks on Obama are likely to be a Republican strategy for trying to hurt Deeds throughout the fall.”
Deeds and McDonnell have gone head to head before. Their second matchup comes four years after McDonnell edged out Deeds in the attorney general’s race by fewer than 400 votes. McDonnell resigned as attorney general earlier this year to devote his time to campaigning.
Because of the recession, the candidates have focused their campaigns on creating jobs. Both propose business tax credits, a boost in economic development funds, and investments in energy research and education as ways to jump-start the state economy.
But the next governor will be hampered by a biennial budget that has been cut four times by a total of $7 billion. Kaine’s latest revision slashed $1.35 billion from the 2008-10 budget, laying off nearly 600 employees, closing two prisons and cutting spending by public colleges and state agencies. In the state’s last fiscal year, $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money softened potential blows to higher education, Medicaid coverage and public safety.
The candidates contend they’ll overcome budgetary hurdles by streamlining state government and creating economic growth. McDonnell says he would establish a government performance commission to identify waste and duplications in state agencies. “Budgeting is about leadership,” says McDonnell, who points out he trimmed the attorney general office’s budget 14.1 percent as the economy crumbled. “We’ve got to produce more economic activity. We’ve got to create jobs. We’ve got to get entrepreneurs going. And we’ve got to recruit businesses.”
Deeds, a state senator from Bath County whose district includes Charlottesville and Albemarle County, is just as confident. He believes savings can be found through regular audits of state agencies and by requiring zero-based budgeting. Following that approach, agencies would start budgets from scratch each cycle, rather than tweaking their previous numbers. “Even in tough times you’ve got to be thinking about the future,” he says. “I’m confident that over the long haul, if we make smart investments, if we hold spending, have zero-based budgeting, if we get a transportation deal passed that will create economic activity in every part of the state, we’re going to see this story of revenue growth to do the things we need to do.”
The candidates have used high-profile endorsements to tout their business acumen. McDonnell has been endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Business and Sheila Johnson, a Democrat and major donor to Kaine. She is the co-founder of BET (Black Entertainment Television), a partner in several professional sports teams and the owner of a Middleburg resort that is under construction.
For his part, Deeds has created the Business Leaders for Deeds, which includes former AOL executive Ted Leonsis, the majority owner of the Washington Capitals. Deeds also has aligned himself with Sen. Mark R. Warner, a former governor and cell phone industry pioneer who has strong support in the business community.
McDonnell’s approach to business appeals to Mona Albertine, co-owner of Jabberwocky, a children’s books and toy store in Fredericksburg. “I think he understands that you don’t increase taxes on small businesses to create jobs,” says Albertine. “And I think he has good ideas about how to streamline the process of starting a new business and expanding a business.”
On the other hand, Willis Logan, owner of The Virginia Shop, which sells Virginia-made products, food and wine in Charlottesville, says he is impressed with Deeds’ plan to offer tax credits for job creation. “That is a very aggressive approach to investing in small business owners,” says Logan. “And it really shows his desire to put Virginia in the hands of small businessmen and -women and help them invest in the state economy.”
Virginia’s aging and congested transportation system has taken a back seat to jobs in this election, but it still lurks as a critical issue. “We are at a real jeopardy at losing the status we have as the best state for business in the country because of transportation,” says Deeds, who says he would tackle transportation in his first year as governor. “Opportunity is choked.”
Remedies for the state’s transportation problems have been elusive. The legislature thought it had achieved a bipartisan solution in 2007, but that plan was quickly torn apart. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that regional transportation authorities created by the plan for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads were unconstitutional.
In addition, the Virginia Department of Transportation has been unable to spend $3 billion in bonds approved under the 2007 plan because of declining revenue from automobile insurance premium taxes that would be used to pay the debt service. “I’m very disappointed that the Kaine administration hasn’t issued those bonds,” says McDonnell. “We’re going to find a way to get those $3 billion in bonds issued, and we’re going to authorize another $1 billion in bonds for the most congested regions of the state — Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.”
Virginia’s transportation system is in worse shape than it was four years ago. Because of declining revenue from taxes on gasoline, insurance premiums and car sales, VDOT has been forced to cut $2 billion from its construction budget, close 18 rest stops and lay off 1,000 employees in the past year. The department is having trouble keeping enough funds for maintenance, let alone future projects deemed critical to relieving traffic congestion.
While Deeds and McDonnell have made transportation key elements of their campaigns, they offer widely different approaches.
Deeds says he will follow the model of former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, a Democrat who got a transportation revenue bill approved during a General Assembly special session in 1986. Baliles created a bipartisan commission to study transportation, which generated wide public support for the plan. “You incorporate the business community into the solution, then the public, and then you incorporate the political class,” Deeds says.
If elected, Deeds plans to call a special session of the General Assembly for September or October 2010. Although he has not developed a specific plan, Deeds has outlined some basic tenets on what it might include. The plan must take a statewide rather than a regional approach. It also should include environmentally friendly initiatives such as high-speed rail, light rail, rapid bus transit and tax credits for employers to allow workers to telecommute. In addition, Deeds has not ruled out tax increases for transportation.
McDonnell, on the other hand, has put forward a detailed $1.5 billion-a-year plan, which he says can be done without raising taxes. Under his plan, money would be raised by implementing tolls, creating public-private partnerships, using budget surpluses, privatizing Alcoholic Beverage Control stores and taking future state tax revenues from offshore drilling and growth at the Port of Virginia.
He would also offer tax credits for telecommuting, increase the speed limit to 70 mph on some rural sections of major interstates and promote high-speed passenger rail. Unlike Deeds, he would include some regional aspects to his plans, with additional money for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Race is heating up
Despite their close race in 2005, the campaigns were fairly quiet this summer until August, when The Washington Post reported on a thesis McDonnell wrote in 1989 as a 34-year-old graduate student at Regent University, the Virginia Beach school founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. In the thesis, McDonnell said that feminists and working women were hurting the American family and the government should favor married couples over “cohabitators, homosexuals and fornicators.”
The thesis captured national attention, and Deeds’ campaign has tried to capitalize on the controversy. McDonnell says many of his views, especially about women in the workplace, have moderated. He contends the thesis won’t have any effect on the race, where he’s held a narrowing lead over Deeds in recent polls. “I think it is just an attempt at a diversion by a guy who’s behind in the polls and who’s struggling to create any enthusiasm to his campaign,” McDonnell says. “What Virginians are concerned about are jobs, the economy, transportation, energy and education, and that’s what I’m going to continue to talk about.”
For his part, McDonnell has tried to tie Deeds to national issues that are unpopular in much of the business community, including a “cap-and-trade” pollution proposal and “card-check” legislation to boost union representation. Deeds has tried to distance himself from these issues, pointing out a governor would have no say in congressional votes. He has said he does not support the cap-and-trade bill as written, or the provision in the card-check legislation that would allow voting by signature cards rather than secret ballot.
History would not appear to be on Deeds’ side in this matchup despite his near miss in 2005. Ever since 1977, Virginia has elected a gubernatorial candidate from the party opposite of the president in power. Nonetheless, Democrats have gained momentum in recent years in Virginia, electing two governors and two U.S. senators since 2001. Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to capture Virginia in 40 years.
Whoever wins will be able to rewrite state history — if he gets the economy moving again and fixes transportation.
Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R)
Bolling is running for re-election. He has served in the Virginia Senate and on the Hanover County Board of Supervisors.
Jody Wagner (D)
Wagner was treasurer of the commonwealth under Gov. Mark R. Warner and secretary of finance under Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R)
Cuccinelli has been a state senator since 2002. He is a business attorney at Cuccinelli & Day, a law firm he co-owns in Fairfax County.
Del. Steve Shannon (D)
Shannon has been in the House of Delegates since 2004. He is a former Fairfax County prosecutor and is now special counsel to the law firm Odin, Feldman & Pittleman.
House of Delegates
In the House of Delegates, Republicans have 53 seats and Democrats hold 45. Two independents usually vote with the Republican caucus, so Democrats would need to pick up 10 seats to reach a majority. This year, 52 seats are contested. Here are some key races to watch:
Del. Dave Nutter (R) vs.
Peggy Frank (D)
Frank lost to Nutter in 2007 by just 684 votes. Nutter, who has held the seat since 2002, works in Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development. Frank is assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Pulaski County. As of June 30, Frank had raised about $66,000 while Nutter had raised $87,000.
Del. Danny Marshall (R) vs.
F. Seward Anderson (D)
Marshall has held the seat since 2002 but won two years ago by only 629 votes. He is the past president of Marshall Concrete Products. Anderson was mayor of Danville.
Botetourt/Roanoke County/Roanoke City
William Cleaveland (R) vs.
Gwen Mason (D)
These candidates are facing off because Republican Del. William Fralin is retiring. The district leans Republican. Nonetheless, Mason, a Roanoke city councilwoman, was able to raise money while Cleaveland, a Roanoke County lawyer, faced four other candidates in the Republican primary. Mason had raised almost $86,000 as of June 30 while Cleaveland had raised $54,000.
Del. Shannon Valentine (D) vs.
Scott Garrett (R)
Valentine was elected to the seat in 2006 in a special election to replace Republican Preston Bryant, who joined Kaine’s cabinet. Garrett, a surgeon, is a Lynchburg councilman.
Del. Margi Vanderhye (D) vs. Barbara Comstock (R)
Vanderhye won this seat by three percentage points in 2007 after longtime Republican Del. Vince Callahan retired. The district leans liberal, but Comstock, a conservative Republican, has outraised Vanderhye. She had raised $247,736 as of June, compared with Vanderhye’s $213,576.
Del. David Albo (R) vs.
Greg Werkheiser (D)
This district has been solidly liberal in state and federal elections, but Albo has held the seat since 1994. Werkheiser failed in his previous bid for the seat. He is executive director of the Phoenix Project, a nonprofit organization encouraging entrepreneurship.
Del. Joe Bouchard (D) vs. Christopher Stolle (R)
This year’s election is a rematch from 2007, when Bouchard defeated Stolle by just 131 votes. Both spent decades in the Navy. Bouchard is a former commanding officer of Naval Station Norfolk. Stolle is an obstetrician/gynecologist.
Del. Tom Rust (R) vs.
Stevens Miller (D)
Rust, an engineer, was held the seat since 2002. Before then, he was mayor of Herndon for 19 years. While Rust remains popular, the district has become increasingly liberal. Miller, a member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, owns Data Forensics Lab, a computer forensics company.
James City/Newport News
Del. Phil Hamilton (R) vs.
Robin Abbott (D)
Hamilton has held the seat for years in a Democratic-leaning district. The Republican lawmaker, however, is under fire from Democrats and Republicans alike. He is accused on trying to get a job at an Old Dominion University education center after requesting state funds for it. Abbott, a Newport News resident, is a law partner with Consumer Litigation Associates.
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