Race a Key in Fight For Control of House

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, left, joins House candidate Philip J. Kellam (D) at a fundraiser. Kellam has tried to tie Rep. Thelma D. Drake to President Bush.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, left, joins House candidate Philip J. Kellam (D) at a fundraiser. Kellam has tried to tie Rep. Thelma D. Drake to President Bush. (By L. Todd Spencer -- Virginian-pilot)
By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006

VIRGINIA BEACH -- An hour before candidates night, the Rev. William A. Dyson was standing in front of Mount Zion AME Church. He was nervous. "I know the candidates will show up," he said. "I'm just wondering if anyone else will."

It was a historic night for the congregation, so who could blame Dyson for worrying about the turnout. For the first time in its history, one that goes back to the days of slavery, the church was holding a candidates night.

It was fitting, perhaps, that Rep. Thelma D. Drake (R), 56, of Norfolk and Democrat Philip J. Kellam, 50, appeared at the church separately last week because of the nasty, personal tone of the campaign for the 2nd Congressional District.

Both parties view the tight race as one of the contests that could determine whether Democrats take back control of the House of Representatives from Republicans. The southeast Virginia district consists of Virginia Beach, the state's Eastern Shore, and half of Norfolk and Hampton.

In what has been a strong Republican district, the Democrats say they have a chance of unseating Drake, a former real estate agent finishing her first term. A poll released Oct. 26 by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research of Washington shows the race is too close to call, with Drake holding a 2 percentage point lead over Kellam. The Virginia Beach revenue commissioner is the only elected Democrat in the seaside city.

The candidates have jousted over national sex scandals, over whether they can videotape each other's campaign stops and over the rules of their debates. Kellam asked Drake to return campaign contributions from House Republican leaders who he said were "implicated in a cover-up" of the sex scandal involving former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.). Drake, in turn, demanded that Kellam return donations by House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) because Hoyer did not vote to censure Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.) in 1983 after Studds acknowledged having sex with a 17-year-old House page.

The campaign has become so contentious that Dyson and his wife, Marianne, who questioned the candidates, scheduled separate appearances for them. As Election Day nears, Drake and Kellam seem to want to spend less time with each other.

Last week, Kellam pulled out of three scheduled debates. "Even Punxsutawney Phil isn't afraid of his own shadow," said Drake's campaign manager, Tim Murtaugh.

Kellam said the Drake campaign tried to change the rules of the previous debate at the last minute, prompting him to pull out of three of the remaining four debates. He said his time would be better spent with voters instead of with his opponent. "The public has seen four debates, and they are going to see one more." Kellam said, "And, Lord knows, they see enough of us on TV every night with all the ads that are running."

In an interview before she appeared before about 35 people at the church, Drake criticized Kellam's decision on the debates. "I think it is important for the public to hear candidates. Elections are about choices and to hear what our views are to help them make their decision." She denied that she tried to change the rules of a previous debate.

When asked about the tone of the race, she said, "I think we knew it was going to be a very nasty, ugly, distorted race, and that is exactly where it is."

Drake has tried to paint Kellam as a liberal who would raise taxes and is soft on national security. Kellam has tried to make the election as much about President Bush as about Drake, saying she has routinely supported Bush's agenda and his "stay the course" policy in Iraq. The incumbent has a huge advantage in fundraising. Down the stretch of the campaign, she had $712,000 left, and Kellam had $160,000.

Drake was born in Ohio and moved to the Norfolk with her husband, who was in the Navy. A self-made woman, she was divorced and struggling financially when she began a career in real estate, which thrived. Drake served nine years in the Virginia House of Delegates before she was elected to Congress.

Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R) of Chesapeake has said that Drake's life is "a picture of what American success stories are all about."

Kellam grew up, and lives, about two miles from the church. When he entered the hall, he worked the crowd, shaking hands with just about everyone. Kellam's paternal grandfather, Abel Kellam, was the patriarch of one of the most well-known families in Virginia Beach. The grandfather was a county court clerk with 17 children. Just down the street from his home is the former Kellam general store and lumberyard.

"We had horses and chickens, and there weren't any subdivisions really when I was growing up," Kellam said. "We used to ride up and down the old railway right of way that went from here up to Norfolk. It was a great place to grow up."

Part of his popularity among voters in Virginia Beach comes from a 24 percent reduction in the revenue office's staff and his termination of the mandated city vehicle sticker, which meant that vehicle owners no longer had to stand in line for hours to get the sticker.

Kellam said the key to his winning is to take Virginia Beach with a lead big enough to offset Republican strongholds. A win, he said, would be based more on his reputation as revenue commissioner than on his name.

"I think that becomes less important every day, in a sense, because the turnover in the city is about 17 percent a year," he said. He will watch the results for Virginia Beach on Tuesday closely. "Virginia Beach has two-thirds, or almost three-quarters, of the votes cast in the last election. So, as Virginia Beach goes, so goes the election."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company