Armed With Lessons From Political Mentors, Deeds's Campaign Chief Overcame Odds
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Late one night in the Civil War-era Charlottesville house that served as the headquarters for state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds's upstart campaign for the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor, a debate erupted among his young staffers.
What pop culture analogy best described the relationship between their campaign manager, Joe Abbey, and Mike Henry, the campaign manager for rival Terry McAuliffe? Henry had given Abbey his first job in politics by hiring the then-21-year-old as his assistant during a U.S. Senate race in Florida in 2000, and the two had spent years as mentor and student before finally going head-to-head.
Was there something from "The Karate Kid"? "The Godfather"? Laughing, they came up with the answer: Joe Abbey was Darth Vader, who in "Star Wars" turns against his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and eventually defeats the older man. They printed a picture of Vader from the Internet and tacked it on the wall.
At 30, the floppy-haired, laid-back Abbey is the oldest member of Deeds's tiny 25-person staff. With a nimble, frugal campaign strategy that brought his candidate a stunning come-from-behind victory over the better-funded McAuliffe and the more-established former delegate Brian Moran, Abbey has now vaulted into the ranks of big-name political operatives. The victory is all the more poignant for Abbey because it came over some of his closest friends and political teachers.
It was Henry who suggested that Abbey move to Virginia after the Florida campaign and helped him get his first job -- as a temporary legislative aide to a Democratic delegate from rural Bath County named Creigh Deeds.
Abbey entered an insular world of political strategists. When he managed his first campaign, helping state Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax) win reelection in 2003, headquarters was down the street from the office of Steve Jarding, the veteran strategist who helped Mark Warner become governor in 2001 and this year worked as Moran's chief adviser. McAuliffe senior strategist Mo Elleithee became a friend as well.
"You know each other so well," Abbey said. "You think, 'What's Mike and Mo going to do in this situation? How's Jarding thinking about this stuff?' It made it interesting. But it's no fun going against friends."
Among the lessons Abbey said he learned from Henry: how to motivate a staff and how to delegate. He carries a binder that serves as a bible of the campaign, jampacked with everything from the budget to the daily schedule. That's another trick he learned from Henry, who carries an identical leather version Abbey gave him for his birthday last year.
Odds were stacked against Deeds by the time he hired Abbey for the governor's race in December. Deeds was stalled in third, had limited funds and was the least-known. His funny first name, taken from a Confederate war hero, was regularly mispronounced (it's Cree).
Unlike Moran, who resigned from the General Assembly late last year, Deeds insisted on keeping his Senate seat, limiting his time on the campaign trail and subjecting him to a fundraising moratorium for 45 days this winter.
By necessity and by character, Abbey and Deeds set out to run a campaign on the cheap. They ordered no yard signs, even though it meant practically drowning in their opponent's placards at the big annual dinner of the state Democratic Party in February. They spent nothing on hotels, having Deeds bunk in guest rooms of supporters' homes while his traveling staff divvied up couch and floor space.
They decided to skip the Shad Planking, an annual rite of old-time Virginia politics in which campaigns compete to hang signs and give out goodies emblazoned with their candidate's name to a few hundred activists who gather in the piney groves of rural Wakefield for beer and boney fish. That saved $50,000.