Va. Candidates Court Business Leaders; Sheila Johnson Endorses McDonnell

Sheila Johnson hosts the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Sports Museum of America June 9, 2008 in New York City.
Sheila Johnson hosts the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Sports Museum of America June 9, 2008 in New York City. (Jonathan Fickies - Getty)
By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The candidates for Virginia governor, aggressively courting the state's influential business leaders, made competing announcements Monday aimed at winning the confidence of executives who can both raise money and provide an important vote of confidence at a time of financial uncertainty.

Republican Robert F. McDonnell revealed that one of the most politically active Virginia businesswomen -- Democrat Sheila C. Johnson -- was crossing party lines to endorse his candidacy. Johnson, a co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, chaired Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's (D) inaugural committee. She said she believes the former attorney general is the better choice for spurring economic development.

Meanwhile, Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) rolled out an economic plan designed to show that he will continue a business-friendly approach to governing. The proposal includes tax credits for companies that create jobs and a fund to provide loans to small businesses in depressed rural parts of the state. He was joined in Roanoke by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who has stepped in as Deeds's chief salesman within the business community, particularly among those who backed Warner's bid for governor in 2001.

The announcements underscored the importance of the business constituency in Virginia politics. Many executives migrated from the GOP at Warner's urging. Attracted by a message of pragmatic competence, they helped Democrats create a new majority in the otherwise conservative commonwealth. They stuck with Democrats under Kaine, in part convinced that he was more likely to push for increased state investment in traffic-clogged roads that slow business.

But McDonnell has sensed opportunity to recapture top executives amid the anxious business climate and concern about growing spending by Democrats in Washington. He has hammered Deeds for accepting donations from national unions and wooed business leaders -- such as Johnson -- who have backed Democrats.

"There is an enormous effort to capture the mantle of Mark Warner and secure the support of the business community in Virginia," said Clayton Roberts of the nonpartisan business group Virginia FREE. "Both sides want it, both sides have it to a certain extent. There's a lot of jockeying and maneuvering going on."

Johnson, president and managing partner of the Washington Mystics basketball team and the owner of a luxury inn under construction in Middleburg, has been a fixture in state Democratic politics in recent years. A resident of the Plains, she has given more than $600,000 to Kaine since 2000, making her the governor's second-largest individual donor.

But she said she became convinced after conversations with both candidates that McDonnell's campaign is more focused on improving the economy. She was also impressed by his biography, which includes a turn as an executive at a Fortune 500 company.

"I know them both well, and I just want to say from the very beginning Bob McDonnell has had his pulse on the state of the economy that's facing Virginia right now. He understands that we need jobs, jobs, jobs," Johnson said. "I will always be a Democrat, but as a Democrat, I am really impressed with this Republican candidate."

Johnson's voice could also be influential in the African American community, where Deeds's support has lagged behind that of other Virginia Democrats.

Deeds's greatest asset in convincing business leaders that he would follow the Warner model -- trimming government while investing in core services such as education -- is Warner himself. The senator joined Deeds this month when he announced the creation of a Business Leaders for Deeds group headed by Ted Leonsis, who, like Johnson, holds an ownership stake in the Washington Capitals hockey team and the Mystics. Leonsis, who had previously given McDonnell a $1,500 donation, said that he trusted Deeds to continue Warner's legacy.

Warner has also been approaching his supporters more quietly. Last Friday, he introduced Deeds at a Tysons Corner luncheon attended by 35 top Northern Virginia executives, many of them still undecided in the race.

"It was Mark Warner's intention to look some in the business community in the eye who had supported him in the past and make sure they understood Creigh Deeds," said J. Douglas Koelemay, vice president of community relations for SAIC, who attended the lunch.

Warner said Monday that he and Deeds have also met with business groups in Roanoke and Lynchburg in the past few days and that he has been pleased with the reception. He said Deeds better understands the need to create a new economy built on alternative energy research, buoyed by an improved transportation network.

"People realize . . . that there's still in Richmond an effort among business leaders, community leaders, Democrats and Republicans to actually find common ground on things," Warner said. "Creigh's always been part of those coalitions."

But whether Warner can persuade his supporters to stick with Deeds is an open question. A top Republican who crossed party lines to back Warner in 2001 recently announced she would head a group called Virginians for McDonnell this year. And Kaine's top individual donor, Radford businessman Randal J. Kirk, said Monday that he is undecided.

"I'm thinking about the matter, but at the current moment, I have not found any significant reason to get involved -- I think either of them would be fine," said Kirk, a billionaire who supported former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe over Deeds in the primary.

Deeds spokesman Jared Leopold said the campaign has been picking up support from across the business community, including executives who have supported Republicans. "There will be individual people who come to different conclusions. What we've heard from business folks across the state is they want someone who is committed to coming up with solutions and solving the problems Virginia faces, and Creigh Deeds has that record," Leopold said.

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