By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 21, 2005
Jerry W. Kilgore's public record in Virginia over the past dozen years is as reassuring to Lori Templeton as it is disturbing to Earl H. McClenney Jr.
The two share a deep religious faith, a passion for community service and a concern for the future of their commonwealth.
But when they look at the Republican candidate for governor, one is attracted and one repelled by the way Kilgore has framed the dangers facing Virginians and the policies he has pursued.
Kilgore was a prosecutor in southwestern Virginia and served near the top of the state's legal system for six of the past 12 years. He says his experience in and commitment to protecting Virginians make him the right choice in the Nov. 8 election.
That's an approach that has proved effective in previous races and has gained the support of people such as Templeton, a friend of Kilgore's who is high on the campaign's list of character references. McClenney, an educator with little personal contact with Kilgore, sees a harshness in the same record and feels alienated.
Templeton, 26, got to know Kilgore back home in Scott County, where Kilgore and his wife, Marty, led Templeton's church youth group. She sees Kilgore as a devout and caring man whose approach and sincerity are beyond reproach. "You can see Jerry's heart through his eyes," Templeton said.
She said that in the hours after her boyfriend attacked her at a Christian festival in the early 1990s -- an attack that followed months of private violence -- the Kilgores helped steady her resolve to leave the abusive relationship. Their choice of scripture that day also helped inspire her to launch a prevention program, she said. "It's because of Marty and Jerry Kilgore and what they said to me: 'Think it not strange the trials that you go through,' " Templeton said.
Kilgore's drive against domestic violence in the years since has been solidly in character, Templeton said.
As attorney general in 2002, Kilgore pushed successfully to eliminate a legal provision that had blocked prosecutions of rape cases involving married people who were living together.
"A lot of politicians will attach their name to something just to look good," Templeton said. "Jerry doesn't do that. . . . He attaches his name to things he actually believes in."
Three hundred and fifty miles across the commonwealth, McClenney, an associate professor at Virginia State University, a historically black college in Petersburg, is skeptical of Kilgore's law-and-order push.
Kilgore points to his work as secretary of public safety in the mid-1990s, when he helped then-Gov. George Allen junk the state's parole system. As attorney general from January 2002 to February of this year, he supported bills to tighten drug laws. He also pushed to expand the list of death penalty crimes to include certain gang-related killings.
Although McClenney supports the death penalty, he said Kilgore's emphasis on that issue and his advocacy of its expansion divert attention from more significant public goals.
McClenney attended a segregated high school in Lawrenceville, Va., southwest of Richmond, where lab equipment went to the white schools and his classmates received hand-me-down band instruments, such as his dented silver clarinet, "after the white kids had banged them up."
He is 64 now and has seen decades of progress -- "I'd rather live here than anywhere else. We've come through our changes," he says -- but he is discouraged by Kilgore's record.
He met Kilgore once in his office to discuss education.
"I cannot read a man's heart. I can only go by what he says," McClenney said. "When you sit down with Jerry, he's a calm kind of guy. I don't understand it. I don't know what to think. But I'm concerned about my daughter and children and grandchildren and the students I teach."
Emphasizing the death penalty is a disturbing diversion from improving schools, roads and mental health services, McClenney said. Moreover, a disproportionate number of those executed in Virginia are black.
From 1977 to 2001, 83 people were executed in Virginia, according to a state report. A little more than 50 percent of them were black. Blacks make up 20 percent of Virginia's population.
"You have to filter it through my filter, of the brutality to black men" in the state's past, McClenney said.
A substantial majority of Virginians strongly support the death penalty, according to polls.
"The fact that Jerry Kilgore has spent his life trying to keep law-abiding citizens safe from violent criminals should appeal to anyone, no matter who they are," Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. "African American parents want their children to go to gang-free schools just like anyone else does."
Murtaugh called it "common sense" for Kilgore to support legislation that would have made it a capital crime when a member of a street gang orders a killing. The measure stalled in the Senate.
Kilgore said his goal with his public policy proposals has been to protect Virginians.
"My emphasis is one of personal safety. Without having public safety, you're not going to have good jobs in your area. Without public safety, you're not going to have good schools. Everything hinges on public safety. If your streets aren't safe, you can debate no other issues the society faces," Kilgore said.
He cites his legislative record as evidence of his effectiveness. Scores of bills he supported as attorney general passed the General Assembly.
Democrats say Kilgore had a penchant for submitting "brochure bills," or proposals that sound tough but make little difference except on the campaign trail. They note Kilgore's support for applying racketeering statutes to Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and other street gangs. Skeptics in the legislature say the state's conspiracy laws would have covered the problem. Murtaugh said the move was requested by, and will help, law enforcement.
Joseph V. Gartlan Jr., a retired Democratic senator from Fairfax County who first sparred with Kilgore in the early 1990s, said Kilgore had an undistinguished record that reflected a political agenda. "Kilgore can't seem to recognize the fact that the attorney general of Virginia is not a criminal prosecutor," Gartlan said. "He was fighting partisan fights. Lawyers are supposed to be rising above the political currents when they are holding enforcement jobs."
But Jim Rich, chairman of a state Republican Party district that covers parts of Northern Virginia, said the portrait of Kilgore as a partisan grandstander is wrong. Instead, Kilgore has demonstrated a modesty and judiciousness that let him rise above even the squabbles within his party, Rich said.
"He's level-headed and is not going to be spooked by something," Rich said. "He looks you in the eye when he's talking to you, not like a lot of these guys, who are looking over your shoulder to see if there's anyone better. I hate that."
Kilgore's statewide profile rose significantly when Allen tapped him to be secretary of public safety when he was 32. Kilgore points to his work in helping pass Allen's popular sentencing overhaul through the Democrat-controlled legislature in 1994 as the best example of his governing style.
Allen proposed the elimination of most parole even before he was the GOP nominee. After that proposal helped elect Allen, Kilgore joined a team of top officials that fanned out across the state on barnstorming tours to keep up the pressure on lawmakers.
"You had to know how to count votes, and you had to know how to keep the public involved," Kilgore said. "The most powerful stories ever were two rape victims. One victim stands up and testifies that she was raped. . . . The very next speaker was his next victim."
Only a handful of holdouts in a special legislative session ended up opposing the changes, which have greatly increased the time served by murderers, rapists and other violent offenders.
Kilgore said his bid to get his domestic violence agenda through the Republican-controlled General Assembly in 2002 also required tenacity -- and personal stories.
The provision prompting the most resistance was the one ridding rape law of the prerequisite that spouses be living apart, Kilgore said. "That was just wrong, I thought. I decided to fight on."
Although Kilgore says he pushes policies based on their substance, he does acknowledge a political dynamic at work. One example is his bid for more women's votes. A Washington Post poll taken Sept. 6-9 showed Kilgore slightly trailing his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, among women. That reflects a long-standing gender gap between the major parties. President Bush faced a comparable shortfall in his reelection bid against Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts last year.
Kilgore, who had a large lead among men in the poll, said the strategy to attract more women's votes is to continue "talking about my work with domestic violence and talking about my work with personal security. Those are two huge issues that move women voters."
His efforts to combat juvenile gangs will also be highlighted in the final days before Nov. 8, he said. "It'll move women voters -- and all voters -- in Virginia."