By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009
RICHMOND -- During nearly two decades in the Virginia legislature, the work of R. Creigh Deeds carried the stamp of a rural lawmaker, whether that meant creating a board to promote the state's sheep industry, classifying potbellied pigs as companion animals or making it a crime to interfere with a person who is lawfully fishing.
Although his conservative voting record served him well with his Bath County constituents, his votes on several politically charged issues could put him out of step with voters in next month's Democratic primary, which traditionally attracts a more liberal base.
Those votes have included support for a family life program in schools that would define abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage as "moral obligations and not matters of personal opinion or personal choice," a mandate that the words "In God We Trust" be displayed prominently in every school and a bill to increase the penalty for killing a fetus.
Deeds voted to designate English as the official language of Virginia, to make illegal immigrants ineligible for state or local benefits, and against a bill to allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates. He voted to void contracts between members of the same sex that would have provided rights associated with marriage, such as hospital visits, and voted against adding sexual orientation to a list of hate crime categories.
"It's an issue for him," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat who represents Northern Virginia and is not supporting anyone in the primary. "He still has explaining to do in Northern Virginia on his record. No question about it."
Deeds, 51, a senator and lawyer from one of most rural parts of the state, said his voluminous legislative record -- with more than 50,000 votes cast during a decade in the House and nine years in the Senate -- reveals a complex mixture of his beliefs, constituents' views and lots of research.
"I try to become as educated as I can and vote on whatever I think the right thing is," he said. "People are going to disagree. That's the nature of the beast. And if enough of them disagree, then I'm not going to be elected."
There's no question, he said, that his record reflects his firm roots in Bath. In many respects, it also reflects a brand of Virginia Democrat more common before broad demographic changes turned the state into a competitive place for those based in the more liberal Washington suburbs.
Deeds sometimes waivered when voting on different versions of the same bill, but the ones listed here could be the most troublesome for Democratic voters. In many instances, the bills had the support of enough other Democrats, as well as Republicans, that they passed and were signed into law.
"I am moderate. I always have tried to look for a middle way because I think that's where most of the people are . . . in the center," Deeds said. "I try not to be too partisan in my approach to issues. I'm not elected to just represent Democrats. I'm elected to represent people."
Deeds appears to be well aware, though, that positions that could help him in a statewide general election might be detrimental in a primary bid. His campaign has emphasized other aspects of his voting record, such as his hand in creating an emergency alert system for missing children, establishing a fund to help lure businesses to the state, cracking down on methamphetamine production and writing some of the country's most progressive laws on land conservation.
His opponents, former delegate Brian Moran and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, have offered little in the way of scrutiny of his record, but Deeds has been put on the defensive at public events. At a recent forum in Richmond, for instance, he was questioned repeatedly about his willingness to allow Virginians to carry concealed weapons into bars and restaurants.
And Deeds has been quizzed about how, as he began running statewide, first for attorney general and then for governor, he changed his position on some hot-button issues, including same-sex marriage, background checks for gun buyers and a form of late-term abortion that critics call partial-birth abortion.
Four years ago, when Deeds first ran statewide, his A ratings from the National Rifle Association and his proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to hunt and fish cost him a crucial endorsement from the country's first elected black governor, L. Douglas Wilder. Wilder said he was particularly concerned about Deeds's opposition to a ban on buying more than one handgun a month. Even Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell, then a legislator, supported the ban.
But gun issues have also been a basis for Deeds's pitch that he can bridge the gap between competing interests in the state.
Deeds voted repeatedly against closing a loophole that allows some private vendors at gun shows to make sales without background checks. But after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in April 2007, Deeds has told audiences that he has changed his mind.
For two years in a row, he championed amendments to the bill to close the loophole that would weaken the legislation but, he believed, would secure enough votes to get it out of committee. "You have to be pragmatic and realistic when trying to find votes," said Del. James M. Shuler (D-Montgomery), who replaced Deeds in the House.
The bill passed, 8 to 7, in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee but died on the floor.
Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat who represents rural southwest Virginia and is campaigning for Deeds, said he applauds Deeds for being willing to change his mind on issues, especially as he starts to consider representing all Virginians instead of just those in his district. "It's not a betrayal in position," he said. "It's simply a natural evolution."
Deeds, who has a strong abortion rights record with Planned Parenthood, voted for a ban on the controversial form of late-term abortion but later voted against it because he said he worried that the bills were unconstitutional.
Wilder, who has been wooed by all of the gubernatorial candidates but has not said whether he will endorse anyone in the primary, said he was disappointed with Deeds's reversals. "What Creigh is saying now is, 'I've changed my philosophy,' " Wilder said. "Suppose we had elected you before? Would you have changed?"
Deeds cast a series of votes in 2004 and 2005 in favor of putting a state constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage and civil unions on the ballot because he said he believed at the time that the amendment codified Virginia laws banning same-sex marriage.
He said he came to regret his decision and to believe that the language of the amendment was discriminatory and said so publicly before the 2006 balloting, but he never argued against the idea during the legislative debate.
"Each of us is a work in progress. I think most people acknowledge that we change a little every day," he said. "I always reserve the right to be smarter tomorrow than I am today."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.