Virginia Economy a Major Force in Governor's Race

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009

The economic crisis is never far away as the four candidates for governor campaign across Virginia, and two of them yesterday provided a look at proposals they're offering in response.

The ideas unveiled yesterday include an initiative to lure Hollywood film crews to the state and a plan to create opportunities for small businesses and businesses owned by women and minorities.

The policy rollouts came as the Virginia Employment Commission reported that unemployment rose to its highest level since 1992. The rate hit 7 percent in February, up from 6.4 percent in January, but remained below the national average of 8.9 percent. Some of the local numbers are much worse, with Martinsville experiencing a 20.2 percent jobless rate.

Economic issues are likely to dominate the campaign in the months leading up to the June 9 Democratic primary, and on into the general election. Terry McAuliffe, Brian Moran and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds are locked in a struggle for the Democratic nomination. Meanwhile, Robert F. McDonnell, the sole Republican contender, is preparing for what may be a tight race for the governor's mansion in November.

At George Mason University yesterday, McAuliffe said Virginia's appeal to Hollywood filmmakers could improve the state's economic picture. McAuliffe said he became familiar with the potency of the film industry while serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

During a roundtable discussion with local filmmakers and producers at George Mason, he unveiled a proposal to offer additional tax incentives and other benefits to film crews making movies in Virginia. He said the state has been losing out to such states as North Carolina and Georgia, which offer greater benefits and have seen their film industries flourish.

He pointed to the HBO miniseries "John Adams," about the nation's second president, as an example of a film project that had benefited the state. The miniseries, filmed partly in Williamsburg and at the College of William and Mary, cost Virginia $1.25 million in tax breaks, but it boosted the local economy by $80 million and created 3,500 jobs, he said.

"We literally could create thousands of jobs here," he said. "This is a moneymaker."

During a campaign event in Norfolk, former state delegate Brian Moran unveiled a proposal to help small businesses and businesses owned by women and minorities by expanding access to government contracts.

According to the campaign's figures, less than 2 percent of state spending on contracts went to businesses owned by women and minorities, compared with 17 percent in Maryland and 13 percent in Texas. Moran's view is that improving access to state contracts for those business would help kick-start the economy, said Jesse Ferguson, Moran's spokesman.

"Brian's plan is to restart the slumping economy, and he's going to do it by building from the bottom up," he said.

The third Democrat in the race, Deeds (D-Bath), attended an event heralding increased rail service between the Lynchburg area and points north, which he said will spur economic growth.

At the Kemper Street station in Lynchburg, Deeds joined Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) at a gathering of rail supporters to celebrate a planned increase in freight and passenger service along rail lines connecting the Lynchburg area with Northern Virginia and the District.

A healthy economy depends on improving public transportation, which will ease traffic congestion and benefit the environment, Deeds said. "I think it's the most important thing we can do to create jobs in this commonwealth," he said.

The Republican candidate, former state attorney general Robert F. McDonnell, took a whirlwind trip through diners and cafes from Winchester to the Eastern Shore as part of his campaign kickoff tour this week. At every stop, voters expressed anxiety about mounting job losses across the state and the country, said J. Tucker Martin, McDonnell's spokesman.

"The geography changes, but the topic doesn't," Martin said in a phone interview during a campaign stop at a seafood restaurant in the Eastern Shore town of Melfa. "The topic is always jobs."

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