Creigh Deeds returns to the Virginia Senate with visible and invisible wounds

The veteran lawmaker sat quietly at his back-row Senate desk Wednesday, eyes lowered, set apart from the usual bonhomie and backslapping that marks the opening day of the Virginia General Assembly. It was Sen. R. Creigh Deeds’s first public appearance since the November afternoon when he was attacked at home by his mentally ill son, who then took his own life.

Deeds came in alone, through a side door, while other Democrats gathered for a meeting a few doors away. When they arrived a half-hour later, the former gubernatorial candidate from Bath County kept his eyes down, fixed on his papers until his colleagues — one after another — bent to express the inexpressible with a quiet word of greeting, a handshake, a clasp of the shoulder.

The jagged crimson scars across his forehead and cheek were visible every time he looked up to say a brief thank-you, before returning to his papers. But they were not lurid, not disfiguring in the way that many had feared.

If seven weeks is time enough for physical wounds to heal, what about emotional injuries that may take far longer to fade?

Deeds, 55, has revealed almost nothing about his recovery since he was released from the hospital two months ago and tweeted: “I am alive so must live. Some wounds won’t heal.”

Few of his friends in the legislature had heard from him since the attack, and he skipped the usual pre-session meetings. His office would say almost nothing about his whereabouts or his plans; his office door remained shut as the surge of returning lawmakers and activists filled the corridors on the session’s first morning.

“I survived,” is how he summarized his ordeal in a brief interview Monday with the Roanoke Times.

But he has made clear that he is emerging from seclusion, ready or not, determined to take on the state mental health system that he accuses of failing his 24-year-old son. A magistrate judge had issued an emergency custody order for Austin Deeds, enabling mental health authorities to hold him for evaluation for as long as six hours. But officials said they were unable to find an open bed for him. He was released and returned to his family’s home, where he stabbed his father and fatally shot himself.

Later, officials from three area hospitals said they had psychiatric beds available but hadn’t been contacted.

In the days before the session, Creigh Deeds introduced two mental health bills: one to lengthen the emergency custody period from six to 24 hours and the other to create a minute-by-minute registry of beds available in public and private psychiatric facilities.

The senator’s face, with the marks it bears, will be the symbol of a reform effort that has already gained bipartisan support in Richmond.

“I just can’t imagine the heartbreak and the heartache that he has experienced,” said Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) on Tuesday, after convening a state task force charged with recommending fixes to the mental health system, particularly to help those in the midst of a crisis. The issue hasn’t commanded this level of attention since 2007, when a mentally ill student named Seung Hui Cho killed 32 people in a rampage at Virginia Tech.

McDonnell, who said he had contacted Deeds after Austin’s burst of violence, has proposed $38 million in new mental health spending, and said Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D) has pledged to seek improvements.

Deeds’s return to the Capitol all but ensures significant action on the issue, according to longtime Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this,” Holsworth said. “He’s a victim, a symbol and an actor in the legislative process, all in one. It makes it almost inconceivable that they could leave without doing something.”

Deeds’s emergence in Richmond recalled for many the surprise appearance of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) on the floor of the U.S. House six months after she was shot in the head during a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson. She and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, have gone on to devote themselves to reducing gun violence.

Remembering the sometimes overwhelming well-wishes — and curiosity — that greeted his wife on her return, Kelly sent Deeds a recent e-mail wishing him good luck with his return to the spotlight. “It’s going to be an emotional time for him,” Kelly said in an interview. “Gabby and I will be thinking of him.”

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) said that he could not recall another senator returning to the legislative fray so quickly after such a public tragedy.

“We’ve had members that have lost family members or had to endure sickness or disease,” Bolling said. “But I think everybody’s heart just breaks over the difficult situation that Creigh has gone through.”

Deeds had asked that his colleagues take no official notice of his return, according to two people familiar with the request who asked not to be identified given the personal nature of the matter. And Deeds’s presence went unremarked as Bolling gaveled the Senate to order for the 60-day session.

“People deal with things in different ways, and I think what he wants to do here is focus on his role as a legislator,” Bolling said. “We need to be very respectful of his wishes for how this is handled.”

Many of Deeds’s colleagues seemed intent on trying to help him move past the first awkward moments. Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) greeted him on the first floor of the Capitol with an upbeat, “Hey, Creigh!”

Sen. Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk), who will be sworn in as lieutenant governor Saturday, stopped by his desk to say, “Welcome back Creigh,” as did Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun), now the state’s attorney general-elect.

“He congratulated me on my election,” Herring said later. “It’s great to have him here.”

Deeds seemed to grow more comfortable as the Senate moved through its opening rituals. He smiled slightly as this year’s crop of blazer-wearing young pages trooped in to be introduced. At one point, he engaged in a prolonged — almost animated — exchange with his seatmate, Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell).

His friends hope work will be therapy for a legislator who in the past thrived on politics and policy. Deeds has run for statewide office twice. He’s also known as a committed partisan at a time when the balance of power in the chamber is hanging on the results of two special elections and every Democratic seat counts. Few expressed any surprise that Deeds chose to travel to Richmond on the second Wednesday in January as he had for 22 previous legislative sessions.

“You never fully recover from something like this, but to the extent that the legislature has a very fast-paced schedule, it may help him,” said House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville), who is one of Deeds’s constituents as well as one of the few friends in recent contact with him. “Plus, he’s very, very committed to doing something about these problems” in the mental health system.

But Toscano also described Deeds as inherently shy, which made his return to the limelight all the more challenging.

“I know he would like to keep his personal life very private,” Toscano said.

On Wednesday night, Deeds’s reemergence ended on a warm note when he made an unexpected appearance at McDonnell’s final State of the Commonwealth address. The senator got hugs from several members when he entered the House chamber, and McDonnell diverted briefly from his prepared remarks to recognize Deeds.

“I just want to say, Welcome back Creigh, we love you,” he said, and the assembled lawmakers briefly rose in applause.

Laura Vozzella and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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