Candidate Pursues a Wide Swath of Va.

J. Chapman Petersen, right, confers with communications director Mark Bergman on the campaign motor home that is crisscrossing Virginia.
J. Chapman Petersen, right, confers with communications director Mark Bergman on the campaign motor home that is crisscrossing Virginia. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The tire treads are wearing fast on J. Chapman Petersen's "Statewide Express," a 32-foot motor home that has carried the state delegate on a relentless zigzag across Virginia. Over the past 17 days of his campaign for lieutenant governor, the camper logged 5,000 miles and passed through more towns and cities than its travel-weary passengers can recount.

But "Chap," as most people call the 37-year-old Democrat from Fairfax County, hardly ever seems tired, his staff members say, and strides briskly as he seeks hands to shake on Main Streets across the state. His campaign workers scurry to keep up.

Having a presence in every corner of Virginia is the key to Petersen's strategy for the June 14 Democratic primary. An ambitious -- some Democrats say brash -- two-term delegate, Petersen said he was frustrated with being in the minority in Richmond and now is staking his political future on an all-or-nothing bid for statewide office.

"I'm a candidate that will compete in November," he said. "You can't campaign just to appeal to a very narrow segment of voters."

Democrats say Petersen has shown promise in his budding career, noting his fundraising prowess, his hardworking nature and his sure touch with voters. But more than a few grumbled that Petersen gave up too easily on the House of Delegates. Their numbers are thinning, they said. And Petersen's seat, which he took from an established Republican in 2001, now is up for grabs.

"There's a sense of disappointment that Chap didn't give the General Assembly more of a chance in his career, because I think he could have been a force to be reckoned with," said Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D).

In 2001, Petersen, then a member of the Fairfax City Council, defeated five-term Republican John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. in the 37th District. He became one of the youngest delegates in the legislature and handily beat Rust in a rematch two years later.

In the House, he voted for legislation making the killing of a fetus in an attack on a pregnant woman a separate crime and for a bill requiring a woman to be told that a fetus can feel pain during an abortion. He does not support civil unions for same-sex couples and voted for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Petersen, who described himself as a devoted Christian, said his views are more in line with the majority of Virginians. But his positions often put him at odds with members of his party.

On one hand, said Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), Virginia's first openly gay state lawmaker, "Chap seems to have a real plain-spokenness that does well in connecting with an average voter. And I think that's kind of refreshing."

But Ebbin also noted that he sometime acts to the "frustration of Democrats," a sentiment echoed by other members of the party.

"He's not really a rebel, but I guess the question is whether he is truly independent or at times contrarian," Ebbin said.

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