By Michael D. Shear And Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers and Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 23, 2006
RICHMOND, Dec. 22 -- Virgil Goode is used to having people mad at him.
His Democratic Party bosses pitched a fit when he challenged Chuck Robb in the 1994 U.S. Senate primary. They steamed in 1996 when he forced his party to share power with Republican lawmakers in the state legislature. And they seethed in 1998 when he voted to impeach President Bill Clinton.
Goode responded with a shrug, and by switching parties, becoming a Republican member of Congress after decades as an independent-minded Democratic state lawmaker and representative of Southside Virginia.
Now, by taking aim at a newly elected Muslim member of Congress from Minnesota, the Democrat-turned-Republican congressman has sparked the ire of immigrant groups and invited unwanted attention from national TV networks and newspapers.
"That's Virgil exactly," said state Del. Allen W. Dudley (R-Franklin), who grew up with Goode and attended Franklin County High School with him in the mid-1960s. "He's very strong in what he believes and doesn't mind speaking what he believes."
What he believes now, according to a letter he wrote to a constituent, is that Muslims should not be elected to Congress. He was responding to a decision by Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) to carry a Koran into his swearing-in ceremony next month.
"If American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran," Goode wrote in the letter dated Dec. 7 and reported this week. "I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary."
Ellison was born in Michigan and converted to Islam.
In a news conference Thursday, Goode said "the letter stands for itself" and added, "I do not apologize, and I do not retract my letter." In an interview on Fox News, he noted that one constituent he talked to "thinks I'm doing the right thing on this."
Goode did not return calls seeking an interview Friday.
His letter and subsequent refusal to apologize have infuriated and energized advocates for immigrants and his political adversaries. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) called on President Bush yesterday to condemn Goode's comments, which were characterized Thursday by the head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations as "ignorant and divisive."
State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), one of Goode's former colleagues and sometime adversary, said Goode should apologize for the letter immediately.
"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.