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Kilgore Parlays Tenacity, Luck
Republican Touts Rural Roots, Statewide Experience

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 2, 2005

When the Kilgores of Gate City invited a few hundred friends and associates to a barbecue at their farm in October, the family business of politics was in full tilt.

The old barn beside a twisting road two miles from town was plastered with huge blue-and-orange election signs for two sons who began following politics while still in Little League.

"Kilgore Governor" promoted Jerry W. Kilgore, who stepped down as attorney general to become the Republican candidate for Virginia governor in Tuesday's election.

"Kilgore Delegate" was for his identical twin, Terry G. Kilgore, seeking reelection to the House of Delegates.

Matriarch Willie Mae Kilgore, the Scott County registrar, greeted guests by the dessert table. Her husband, John, chairman of the county GOP committee, worked the crowd. Youngest son John Jr., head of the local Economic Development Authority, played on stage in the country equivalent of a garage band.

For someone who grew up in a family steeped in politics, Jerry Kilgore sounded almost surprised to be in Tuesday's contest.

"I thought Terry would be the one who'd run for governor," he said.

The Kilgore that ended up running for governor has sometimes come across as an uncomfortable candidate on the campaign trail, halting and scripted like the behind-the-scenes strategist he began as but who suddenly finds himself on the podium. On most television ads, such as the ones on the death penalty that heightened interest in the contest, he speaks only to proclaim that his campaign sponsored them.

To many who attended the barbecue that day, Jerry Kilgore was as unaffected and unassuming as the farm boy they watched grow up baling hay and playing piano in a tiny church named after his great-great-great-grandfather.

Over the years, they had watched the Kilgore twins immerse themselves in politics and wondered which one would run for governor. Some thought it would be the more outgoing Terry, who seemed a natural candidate compared with his more studious and detail-oriented brother. Others were certain it would be Jerry, who wrote confidently in Connie Adkins's high school yearbook, "We'll have our 10-year class reunion in the governor's mansion."

Yet for all his youthful ambitions, Kilgore's candidacy for governor is as much a product of chance as anything else. Until his early thirties, he was content being the behind-the-scenes operative who got his brother elected to public office. He was preparing to settle down to a comfortable life as prosecutor in Gate City when he was asked to join the Cabinet of then-Gov. George Allen (R). The first time he ran for public office was 1997, only at the urging of friends.

Rural Legacy

The only son to move from Gate City has brought opinions formed in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia to his campaign.

Critics say his vision of the world dates from a simpler, more rural age in a state that has grown more diverse and complex. Kilgore suggests that his straightforward stands are a strength.

"People never have to wonder where I'm going to stand on an issue," he said. "I pretty much stick. I'm very predictable. I think people find comfort in that type of leadership. Predictability. I'm predictable."

In this corner of the state, few young people grow up with grand dreams. The Kilgore brothers did. Now 44, they speak by phone two or three times a day. Their lives and careers have been so intertwined that people often speak of them as one.

Kilgores have lived in the Gate City area for generations. The Methodist church they attend has mostly Kilgores sitting in the seven rows of pews. The small town's five-block downtown has one traffic light. Its biggest claim to fame dates from the 18th century, when Daniel Boone headed west through Big Moccasin Gap.

John and Willie Mae Kilgore raised their three sons in a white frame farmhouse on a 70-acre tobacco and cattle farm. John worked as a carpenter and iron welder at an Eastman Kodak Co. plant just over the mountain in Tennessee. His wife was a drugstore clerk who joined the police force in 1974 when the town wanted to hire female officers.

The twins were born in 1961. Terry came first, followed by Jerry 10 minutes later. Terry and Jerry sounded like "good twin names," their father said, and they were given Gene and Walter as middle names after maternal uncles.

The brothers always embraced their identity as twins. "It's always been one of those things in my life, that I've never had a separate identity," Jerry Kilgore said.

Their grandfather never could tell them apart. All through high school, they dressed alike and cut their hair the same. Both were tackles on the high school football team, the Blue Devils; Terry's number was 76 and Jerry's was 77.

They got their first jobs together, working after school in a tobacco warehouse. They roomed together in a dorm while attending Clinch Valley College, now the University of Virginia's College at Wise; took many classes together; and played doubles on the college tennis team. When it came time for law school, they applied to the same six schools and chose William & Mary because "no one would ever call it cutthroat," Jerry said. They shared an apartment there.

They pulled their share of pranks, with Jerry sitting in for Terry in high school English and math class. Terry, in turn, posed as Jerry on a date with Marty Harless, daughter of the minister of Gate City's larger Methodist church. Terry says that when she began inching closer on the car seat, he decided the joke had gone far enough and confessed. She says she knew it was Terry from the beginning. Today, Marty and Jerry Kilgore have two children, Klarke, 12, and Kelsey, 9.

From early on, the brothers also shared a passion for law and politics.

Politics were standard dinner table conversation. Their father was active in local Republican circles and said he never thought of leaving the children at home. From the age of 10, they accompanied him to county meetings. By 15, Jerry was organizing his parents' precinct. By 18, he was a page at the state Republican convention.

When they went to college, the brothers worked as a team to further Terry Kilgore's political ambitions. Terry, laid-back and gregarious, ran for student government president. Jerry, who took math courses and studied electoral maps for fun, managed the campaign and wrote the speeches. He edited the student newspaper and toyed with the idea of becoming a reporter.

Friends describe Jerry as organized and meticulous. Never an outdoorsy type, when he worked two summers as a counselor for Upward Bound, he tutored the youths in math and arranged to be busy when they went on camping trips.

"Jerry is detailed and organized," said Vernon Williams, who grew up with the brothers and is in Terry Kilgore's law firm. "Terry is the outgoing one who likes to be out shaking hands. Jerry would rather be sitting at a desk making sure things run right."

Jerry Kilgore recalls it as an intense period.

"I was very focused and very driven in college," he said. "I had to have good grades to go to law school. It goes back to my grandfather. He's the person that always taught us nothing's ever given to you -- you're going to have to work for it. I always felt if I let up, that I wouldn't get to go to law school."

So he did not drink alcohol, though he says he is a social drinker now. Raised on a tobacco farm, he never smoked. Extracurricular activities included meetings of Young Republicans and Christian Fellowship. When the brothers were in law school, their parents drove to Williamsburg to bring them homemade canned goods that the brothers took turns preparing.

"Jerry Kilgore still has every brain cell he was born with," said John Owen Alderman, a law school classmate whose father was U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia in Roanoke.

Learning the Law

Alderman's father hired Kilgore after he finished law school in 1986. Jerry ended up not far from home in the U.S. attorney's Abingdon office. Terry returned to Gate City to start his law practice.

The area was being flooded with cocaine and marijuana imported by drug cartels from South America and Florida. Kilgore reached out to Tim McAfee, then the commonwealth's attorney, to form a regional task force that targeted the drug traffickers. Local and state investigators put together the cases, and Kilgore brought them before a federal grand jury.

"He and I, over the course of about two years, prosecuted probably 125 to 150 individuals," McAfee said.

In 1992, Kilgore quit the U.S. attorney's office and returned to Gate City to work for his brother, who had been elected commonwealth's attorney.

The Kilgore brothers were the only prosecutors in the office. They tried several murder cases together, sitting at the prosecution table. None involved the death penalty, which Kilgore says he advocates on principle.

"I've always believed the death penalty to be a deterrent," he said. "As secretary of public safety, I had to review all those heinous files. They're horrible. I think, once a jury decides that a crime is so heinous, that a death penalty can and ought to be the appropriate penalty."

Defense attorneys who argued cases against them recall that whichever one gave the opening statement, the other would present the closing. Kilgore said he always suspected that the judges could not tell one from the other.

"Jerry was always tenacious," said George Maddux, a defense attorney who argued several cases against the Kilgore brothers. "He never wanted to concede a point."

The case that most affected Kilgore involved two young children who had witnessed their father beat their mother to death.

"The system failed this woman, time and time again," said Kilgore, who has made domestic abuse programs a centerpiece of every campaign. "The system's got to be improved. . . . It's something I'm very passionate about."

When Kilgore left the U.S. attorney's office, there was speculation that he would run for Congress. But he said the only office he had in mind was Republican chairman of the 9th Congressional District. "I liked organizing," he said.

The job put him in charge of rallying George Allen supporters for his gubernatorial campaign in 1993. Kilgore was planning to stay in Gate City with his young family.

Then Allen called and offered Kilgore a job as secretary of public safety.

"Things changed when he got the call from George Allen," said Terry Kilgore. "He began evolving to a more public type of guy."

On to Richmond

Kilgore came under withering criticism that he was too inexperienced for the job. He was 32 and looked younger. When he arrived at events where he was scheduled to speak, people assumed he was an aide and asked him when the secretary was arriving.

Allen got an early measure of his new Cabinet secretary. The Board of Corrections was balking at accepting a deed offered for free to build a prison on Big Onion Mountain in southwestern Virginia. Board members serve at your pleasure, Kilgore advised him; get rid of them and appoint a board that will do your bidding.

"I have little patience for arguments that are meaningless," Kilgore said when asked what the incident suggests about how he might govern.

Allen credits Kilgore with leading the push to abolish parole in Virginia, fulfilling a campaign promise Allen had made.

Kilgore insists that he was not planning to seek elective office until a candidate he was supporting for attorney general dropped out. Friends advised him that the race was wide open and urged him to run.

Even his wife was surprised when he resigned in late 1996 and took to the campaign trail. But Mark L. Earley won, and Kilgore joined Anderson Marks & Miller, a mid-size law firm in Richmond.

He mostly represented local governments, said C. Thomas Ebel, president of the firm. He became a partner in 2000, but the next year he cashed out his share and waged a successful campaign for attorney general. Among his accomplishments, he lists programs to combat domestic abuse, identity theft and spam. He resigned in February to run for governor.

His campaign presents a firmly anti-tax, law-and-order platform.

He wants to limit real estate tax increases to 5 percent. He proposes curbing domestic abuse by making jail mandatory for violators of protective orders. He says he would expand the use of the death penalty to fight gangs and allow civil suits against gang members. And he supports barring illegal immigrants from state services and giving police broader powers to detain them on immigration violations.

His opponent, Timothy M. Kaine, has accused Kilgore of running a campaign based on negative ads that distort his record. The most controversial are two emotional ads, which a Washington Post poll conducted last week indicated that most Virginians have seen.

They feature relatives of murder victims speaking of their anguish and challenging Kaine's personal opposition to capital punishment. At the end of each, Kilgore's face appears, half in shadow. His voice is heard saying his campaign sponsored the ad. Kaine responded with an ad in which the candidate looks straight into the camera and says, "I'll enforce the death penalty."

Kilgore has a gentle, mellifluous voice. During his 11 years in Richmond, his mountain twang has softened, though it takes a southwestern Virginia native to notice. People who grew up with him say they now detect a marked difference between his accent and his brother's. That has led to speculation that he hired a speech coach. But Kilgore denies it, saying it is the result of having two suburban children and hours of practice before he delivers a speech.

"I am who I am," he said. "I'm not going to change."

He still runs three or four miles a day on the treadmill and is on such a strict diet that for the first time in his adult life he has passed by Dairy Queens without stopping.

Kilgore would be the first governor from southwestern Virginia since A. Linwood Holton, who took office in 1970. Holton is a native of Big Stone Gap and Kaine's father-in-law. But Kilgore says that because Holton moved away to practice law in Roanoke, a better comparison is George C. Peery, a Tazewell County Democrat who took office in 1934.

Some people in Kilgore's home town say they can't quite grasp that someone from southwestern Virginia might become governor. Kilgore -- whose favorite book, "The Great Gatsby," is a paean to optimism -- wants to combat that attitude. Too often, he said, young people from his region are convinced that they have to "settle" for a station in life.

That is why he cared, he added, about a dispute over a large sign at the entrance to town proclaiming Gate City to be the home of Virginia's attorney general, Jerry W. Kilgore. Gate City's Republican mayor ordered it taken down in September, saying that because Kilgore stepped down in February it is no longer accurate. It took two days for anyone to notice and two more days for the sign to go back up after many residents and local council members complained.

"It's not about me," Kilgore said. "Gate City's always going to be home, whether I have a sign or not in that town. But I think the sign was a statement to all the kids at Gate City High School that you can make it. Whatever dream you have, you can dream it. That's important for kids in my part of the state."

Profiles of Democrat Timothy M. Kaine and independent H. Russell Potts Jr. will also appear in The Post.

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