By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009
RICHMOND -- The three Democrats running for Virginia governor have launched aggressive campaigns to woo the state's African American voters -- a constituency that will play a crucial role in the party's first contested gubernatorial primary battle in more than three decades.
Among the first campaign aides hired were consultants touting their ability to reach black audiences. The first ads aired on black radio. R. Creigh Deeds, Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran have been jamming their campaign schedules with appearances in heavily populated black communities -- mostly in Richmond and Hampton Roads.
And each is tailoring a message to resonate with African Americans -- talking up proposals to increase the number of minority-owned businesses, combat childhood obesity. Moran and Deeds have also touted stacks of endorsements from well-known black leaders -- although one major endorsement remains to be captured. All three candidates have made personal visits to the office of L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor.
The reason for all this outreach can be boiled down to numbers.
"What bigger group is there?" asked David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and an expert on national black electoral politics. "You're going to see a lot of effort to attract black voters in the primary. If [a candidate] can catch on, that would give them a big edge."
About 80 percent of African Americans identify themselves as Democrats. Even those who call themselves independents generally vote for Democratic candidates.
Last year, about 30 percent of the nearly 1 million people who turned out for Virginia's historic presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were black, as were about 20 percent of Virginia voters in November's general election.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, said more African Americans might go to the polls this year because they remain energized months after the nation elected its first black president.
"The candidate who is best able to tap into that latent energy is going to be the candidate who gets the African American vote," he said.
None of three candidates is the clear favorite among black voters. But each is crafting elaborate plans to get those voters to the polls June 9.
Black voters interviewed at candidate forums in recent weeks said they are looking for a candidate who will help small businesses flourish, create jobs and increase money for public education.
Carl Eggleston, a longtime Democratic activist from Prince Edward County, traveled to Richmond last week to listen to the candidates answer questions from members of the civil rights group Crusade for Voters. Eggleston said he has known Moran and Deeds for more than a decade but is just getting familiar with McAuliffe, a newcomer to state politics.
"The number one issue is jobs and the economy," he said. "If you can get those to work, you're my candidate."
Deeds, a senator from Bath County, and Moran, a former delegate from Alexandria, have split most of the endorsements from black elected officials across the state.
Craig Bieber, a longtime Democratic political consultant who is not attached to any gubernatorial campaign, said McAuliffe has been largely shut out of the traditional leadership circles in which statewide candidates usually build support among blacks. In February, McAuliffe found resistance when he met with members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who asked about his lack of involvement in state politics.
"It comes down to who can get the most traction with a lot of these grassroots and community activists," Bieber said.
And beyond that, he said, "Can these people who endorsed them deliver their constituents?"
McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he has nearly 100 staff workers and 10 offices across the state to try to make individual contact with potential primary voters. "I'm really trying to build from the bottom up," he said. "If someone wants to endorse me, great, but I'm not pushing people to do it. I'm trying to do a different type of campaign."
All of the candidates have tried to attract Wilder, a charismatic and often flamboyant fixture in Virginia politics for four decades. In a recent interview, Wilder said he told each candidate that they need to worry less about endorsements and talk more about the issues, including the economy, education and health care.
For Deeds, the first of 17 community dinners he scheduled was a fish fry in Richmond's historically black neighborhood of Churchill. Rhett Walker, a political consultant in Virginia who is not involved in the governor's race, predicted that Deeds's rural roots will hamper his ability to connect with voters in urban areas. But Yvonne B. Miller of Norfolk, the first black woman elected to the state Senate, said Deeds could overcome those concerns by touting his legislative record on education and family issues.
McAuliffe recently hosted a luncheon with black ministers and spent a day working in an black barbershop in Richmond. He has nabbed staffers from the office of Rep. Robert C. Scott, the state's only black congressman.
Zarina Fazaldin, a Richmond businesswoman who heard McAuliffe speak at a Democratic event in February, said she was so impressed with his high-energy talk about jobs that she held an event for him in her home, attended by 130 people, and helped host a gathering with business leaders at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.
Moran hired Del. Lionell Spruill Sr., an African American legislator from Chesapeake, to reach out to black communities. Moran has spent two Sundays each month visiting predominantly black churches, and he had Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones and Mary Christian, the first black delegate elected from Hampton Roads in more than a century, record phone messages for him that went out to thousands of potential voters.
Del. Kenneth Cooper Alexander (D-Norfolk), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus and a supporter of Moran's, said the key to receiving African American support will not be big endorsements. The candidates, he said, need their supporters to work one on one to get voters to the polls.
"That's how the race will be won or lost," he said.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.