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Goode Has Often Inspired Political Ire

"There's no getting around that it was a bigoted remark. You can't sugarcoat it," Saslaw said Friday. "Either there is a personal animus, or he's pandering to that kind of prejudice in his district. Either way, he's wrong."

Goode represents a sprawling district that stretches along the foothills, from Charlottesville south to Danville on the border with North Carolina. The district, which takes in all or part of 18 counties, stretches east into the heart of the state's rural tobacco country.

Friends say he is not a racist, as some liberal bloggers have been writing this week.

"The Virgil Goode that I know is not a hateful person. Conservative yes. But hateful, no," said former Democratic delegate Albert Pollard, who worked on Goode's U.S. Senate campaign.

But Pollard predicted that Goode will not be pushed into an apology, either by his political enemies or allies.

"He's not going to back down," Pollard said. "Virgil doesn't know the word contrition."

People who know Goode say his comments stem from an intense concern about immigration and its effect on such places as his economically struggling district. R. Wayne Williams Jr., the mayor of Danville, said Goode's opposition to free trade agreements makes him popular in a district that has been bleeding jobs to overseas plants.

In the 1950s, Dan River Fabrics in Danville employed 14,000 people, Williams said, making it the city's largest employer. Many of those jobs migrated overseas during the 1970s and 1980s. And last year, Danville's economy got another jolt when an Indian chemical company bought Dan River Fabrics and announced it would be moving the jobs of most of its remaining 1,600 employees overseas.

The exodus of jobs, coupled with images of immigrants coming into the United States illegally and finding work, has left many of his residents bitter, Williams said.

"The people around here, they feel like immigration laws are not being enforced and the federal government has ignored the working class of Southside Virginia," Williams said. "Virgil is standing up for everybody here."

Goode, 60, has come a long way since his start in politics at the age of 27. Then a young man just a few years out of law school, he campaigned earnestly on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment, winning a special election to the state Senate as an independent.

In the Senate, his independence was frequently on display. He was an ardent defender of gun rights but also an early and enthusiastic supporter of former governor L. Douglas Wilder, the state's -- and the nation's -- first black chief executive, who became famous for cracking down on the sale of guns in Virginia.

In 1985, it was Goode who nominated Wilder for lieutenant governor at the Democratic Party's political convention.

Goode's speeches on behalf of tobacco are legendary in Richmond, where lobbyists recall his concern that his elderly mother would be denied "the one last pleasure" of smoking a cigarette on her hospital deathbed.

But he wore out his welcome with the state's Democratic Party in the late 1990s with his push for power sharing in the state Senate and his later vote on Clinton. Shortly after winning his congressional seat as a Democrat, he became an independent and finally a member of the GOP.

"It was obvious he didn't really fit in the Democratic Party anymore," said David Brown, the mayor of Charlottesville and a former chairman of the city's Democratic Party.

Last year, a Goode campaign donor was implicated in the bribery scandal involving California congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Goode denied doing anything wrong and easily defeated Democratic challenger Al Weed for a second time in November.

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